Article: Dreams

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Jains’ interest in dreams is connected with their general interest in the field of omens and predictions. Dreams have such importance in the Jain literary, pictorial and religious traditions because the concept is closely connected with those they respect most – the Jinas.

The most famous dreams in Jain belief are those experienced by the woman pregnant with the new Jina. These auspicious dreams are a key feature of the Kalpa-sūtra, a significant text for Śvetāmbara Jains. They also play an important role in celebrations of the annual festival of Paryuṣaṇ, in which the Kalpa-sūtra has a central position.

Depictions of these auspicious dreams are common in various artistic media. Representations of the dreams form striking decorative elements of many Jain temples while Śvetāmbara Jains create ornate manuscript covers and invitation scrolls featuring the dreams. The symbols of these dreams have become auspicious emblems for Śvetāmbaras and are often used as artistic motifs in their own right.

Dream analysis and interpretation

This manuscript painting shows learned men interpreting the dreams of the woman carrying a baby who will grow up to become a Jina. In Jain tradition, dreams often herald the birth of the great individuals whose stories are told in Jain Universal History.

Interpreting dreams
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Interpreting dreams is forbidden to the average monk. Nevertheless, as they could not remain ignorant of any type of knowledge, leading Jain religious teachers have contributed to this area of knowledge in two areas. These are by including passages about dreams in Jain scriptures, commentaries and narrative writings and by copying or quoting non-Jain works dealing with dreams.

Firstly, the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures contain some elements dealing with dreams.

For example, in the Vyākhyāprajñapti, the fifth book of the canon, XVI.6 contains an important passage on the nature of dreams, in which:

  • dreaming is associated with neither sleep nor being awake, but a state in between the two
  • dreams are classified according to the time of night they are experienced, with those at the end of the night believed to be very spiritually beneficial.

In another instance, in the Sthānānga-sūtra, X.3 discusses ten dreams in some detail, namely:

Secondly, some early teachers of the Jain tradition are credited with deep knowledge of dreams. A well-known example is Kālaka in the Kalpa-sūtra. Other examples see monks:

  • writing about dreams in larger works on the interpretation of omens, such as the Angavijjā in Prakrit and the Bhadrabāhusaṃhitā in Sanskrit
  • composing various short treatises on dreams – such as Svapna-pradīpa and Svapna-saptati
  • frequently including teachings about dreams in their narrative works or in commentaries on the scriptures
  • copying and thus guaranteeing the circulation of non-Jain treatises dealing with the subject, such as Jagaddeva’s 12th-century Svapna-cintāmaṇi, or quoting from it in their own works.

Most of the works devoted to dream analysis are still awaiting publication, possibly because dream interpretation is not usually permitted. When passing on teachings about dreams, mendicants may follow the Āyurvedic analysis in considering that dreams are linked to the individual’s unique biology and the proportions of the elements that make up his body. For instance, in the Tarangavaī, an early Jain novel in Prakrit, the heroine’s father explains the dreams she had the night before and gives examples of shapes that are bad or good dreams.

Jain narrative works provide several examples of dreams and interpretation in practice, like in the Tarangavaī. The dreamer does not usually interpret his dream himself, with a specialist or person close to him interpreting it for him instead. Therefore the dream needs to be communicated. Such narrative scenes, however, are found everywhere in Indian literature, Jain or not.

Function of dreams in religious contexts

This manuscript painting of an elephant shows an important animal in Jain myth. The elephant is the emblem – lāñchana – of Ajita, the second Jina, and appears in parables, stories and auspicious dreams in Jain myths

Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Dreams play an important part in stories of the origin of certain religious images and usually follow the same pattern. Firstly, a devotee has a dream during the night in which a god or a Jina talks to him, telling that an image is buried or hidden somewhere and he has to bring it to light. The following day the devotee unearths the image as instructed. In the last stage a new temple is created on the site of the find.

This motif is frequently found in the semi-historical semi-legendary works of medieval Jain literature known as prabandhas. It also features in the Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa written by the monk Jinaprabha-sūri in the 14th century, which is an account of many Jain sacred places. Modern reports in booklets that discuss a local Jina image continue this tradition.

The Prince Śreyāṃsa story is well known in the Jain tradition. He was the first person in the world to be able to give proper alms to the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, who had been fasting for a full year. The Jina’s visit to his house was announced to him through a dream, although he could not understand the meaning of the dream by himself.

These are only a few examples which show how dreams are connected to the faith and how Jains think of their role.

An instance of dreams announcing a disaster is that of the eight dreams of Puṇyapāla, a contemporary of Mahāvīra. The dreams feature:

  1. an elephant
  2. a monkey
  3. a fig tree
  4. a crow
  5. a lion
  6. a lotus
  7. a seed
  8. a jug.

Some of these items are not negative in themselves, and are among those predicting the birth of a future Jina. In this context, however, Mahāvīra explains them as predicting the progressive disappearance of people who live a pious life and know the scriptures.

Dreams and Jain Universal History

This manuscript painting illustrates Devānandā having the auspicious dreams experienced by the mother of a baby who will grow up to be a Jina. According to the Śvetāmbara sect, she has 14 dreams. The discs of the sun and moon are just above her left hand,

Devānandā's 14 dreams
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

In the Jain tradition dreams have come to occupy a special place because they are connected with the births of the Jinas and the other types of illustrious people that form Jain Universal History or mythology. These are ‘universal monarchs’ or cakravartins, Baladevas and Vāsudevas. The mothers of children who will belong to one of these groups see a certain number of dreams. Or, as some of the sources write, these dreams 'enter their mouths'.

According to the Kalpa-sūtra, a source which has become the standard at least for the Śvetāmbaras, the treatises distinguish between 42 dreams of a common type and 30 great dreams (Jacobi 1895: 246). Only the great dreams are relevant here and the connection is summarised in the table.

Details of the great dreams in the Kalpa-sūtra

Number of dreams

What it foretells

14 dreams

birth of a future Jina or universal monarch

7 of the 14 dreams

birth of a future Vāsudeva

4 of the 14 dreams

birth of a future Baladeva

1 of the 14 dreams

birth of a future māṇḍalika

The lists of dreams foreshadowing the birth of a Jina or universal monarch differ slightly between the principal Jain sects of the Śvetāmbaras and the Digambaras. For both sects, these are fixed lists in a well-established sequence.

Dreams announcing the birth of a Jina or a universal monarch

Śvetāmbara tradition

Digambara tradition

total number: 14

total number: 16

1. white elephant

1. Airāvata, the elephant of Indra

2. bull

2. the best of bulls

3. lion

3. lion

4. goddess Śrī being sprinkled with water by elephants

4. goddess Śrī

5. pair of garlands

5. pair of garlands

6. moon

6. moon

7. sun

7. sun

8. flag

8. pair of full vases with lotuses

9. full jug

9. pair of fishes

10. lotus pond

10. celestial lake

11. ocean

11. rough ocean

12. celestial palace

12. golden lion-footed throne

13. heap of jewels

13. celestial palace

14. smokeless fire

14. palace of the king of snakes

15. heap of jewels

16. smokeless fire

The dreams featuring animals, objects and a goddess are associated with the notions of power, brightness, victory, wealth, good fortune and luck. They are clearly linked to the ideals of kingship. These dreams represent positive symbols in Indian culture generally so some have parallels in other Indian religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism (see Coomaraswamy 2003 [1935]).

Here is an example of how experts interpreted the meaning of each of the 14 Śvetāmbara dreams for Marudevī, the mother of the future first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. The authoritative 12th-century Jain monk Hemacandra wrote:

  1. [Judging] From the sight of the bull in your dream – a son will be [born] to you, able to lift up the chariot of dharma sunk in the mud of delusion.
  2. [Judging] From the sight of the elephant, your son will be the greatest of the great, and the sole abode of power.
  3. [Judging] From the sight of the lion, your son will be a lion among men, resolute, always fearless, a hero with unflinching valor.
  4. [Judging] From the fact that Śrī was seen, [it] is indicated that your son, the best of men, will be the Lord of the Śrī [Glory] of the sovereignty of the three worlds.
  5. [Judging] From the sight of a wreath in a dream, the sight of your son will be auspicious, his rule worn on the head like a wreath by all the world.
  6. That a full moon was seen in your sleep means that your son will be the creator of the light of the world by destroying the darkness of delusion.
  7. That you saw a sun means that your son will be the creator of the light of the world by destroying the darkness of delusion.
  8. That you saw a great banner in a dream, that means that your son will be a dharma-banner, the founder of a great line.
  9. That you saw a pitcher full of water means that your son will be a vessel filled with all the supernatural powers.
  10. That you saw a lotus pond means that your son will take away the pain of those who have fallen into the desert of saṃsāra.
  11. That your Ladyship saw an ocean means that your son will be inaccessible and accessible.
  12. That you saw a heavenly palace, a marvel to the earth[,] means that your son will be worshipped even by Vaimānika gods
  13. That you saw a heap of jewels with flashing light means that your son will be a heap of jewels of all the virtues.
  14. That you saw flaming fire enter your mouth means that your son will absorb the dignity of other dignitaries

Johnson, pages 102–103, 1931

This list is not a complete one of the dreams that a future Jina’s mother might have.

The Āvaśyaka-niryukti is an early verse-commentary in Prakrit, which comments on the names of each of the 24 Jinas. It explains some of these names by referring to a specific dream, not in the list, that the mother had during her pregnancy. This can be understood as a way of emphasising the importance of the pregnancy and pre-birth period as times rich in promise.

For women pregnant with Baladevas, the list of their great dreams varies in the two main Jain traditions.

Dreams announcing the birth of a Baladeva

Śvetāmbara tradition

Digambara tradition

number of dreams: 4

number of dreams: 4

1. elephant with four tusks

1. moon

2. bull

2. elephant

3. moon

3. ocean

4. pond with lotuses

4. sun

The list of auspicious dreams which the mothers of the Vāsudevas experience also differs according to sect.

Dreams announcing the birth of a Vāsudeva

Śvetāmbara tradition

Digambara tradition

number of dreams: 7

number of dreams: 7

1. young lion

1. sun

2. Śrī sprinkled with water by elephants

2. moon

3. sun

3. Śrī

4. full pitcher

4. celestial palace

5. ocean

5. fire

6. heap of jewels

6. banner

7. smokeless fire

7. disc made of jewels

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark


Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.