Article: Eight auspicious symbols

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Variations and general uses

The Śvetāmbara list is known from at least two Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures.

The Aupapātika-sūtra, the first Upānga, is the standard reference. When King Kūṇika heard that Mahāvīra, the first Jina, was about to preach, he left his palace in great pomp to reach the place of the universal gathering:

While he was mounted on his superb elephant here are the eight auspicious things that were present before him in the following sequence [which forms the standard list]

In the Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti, the list has the same number of objects but some of the items are different. Here, the eight auspicious symbols of “Umbrella, banner, pot, fly whisk, mirror, seat, fan, and vessel proceeded before the Lord” (quoted in Jain-Fischer 1978: 11).

These two passages show that the auspicious signs present themselves in specific circumstances to persons of rank. These may be either conventional kings or Jinas, who are spiritual kings.

Early representations

The oldest depictions of the eight auspicious symbols are found on the votive tablets of Mathurā, dating back to the second to third centuries CE. The full jug, a pair of fish, the śrīvatsa, the svastika and the powder box can be recognised.

But there are also other symbols that do not belong to the classical lists, like the 'three jewels' – tri-ratna. This indicates some variation before the lists took the standard form known today.

Symbols in the Jain temple

A lay man makes auspicious symbols in uncooked rice in a temple in Mumbai. Creating auspicious symbols such as the svastika or auṃ mantra is one of the rituals of Jain prayer, which revolves around making offerings and singing or chanting hymns.

Creating auspicious symbols
Image by ૐ Didi ૐ – Dey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The eight auspicious symbols are a central part of Jain religious life. They are a commonplace sight in many temples in the form of bas-reliefs or sculptures on temple walls. They can be seen most frequently on the door lintel or window frames of wooden domestic shrines.

In Digambara temples the eight auspicious symbols are often found as freestanding metal objects.

It is common to see Jain devotees sitting cross-legged in front of low wooden tables, producing elaborate pictures of some of the auspicious symbols with rice grains.

Creating svastikas and nandyāvartas is particularly widespread because both shapes are linked to the more general concepts of karma and rebirth. Sometimes the eight symbols are incised in the tables.

The worshippers place rice-grains over them and gently wipe them with the edge of the palm so that the grains fill the recesses to reveal the white design of the aṣṭamangala

Jain-Fischer page 11, 1978

The offering-stands, which are made of wood or metal, often have the eight auspicious symbols carved or set in relief. In the Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākāpuruṣa-caritra, the 12th-century writer Hemacandra describes how: 'Below the arches were the eight auspicious signs, svastika, etc., just like those on offering-stands'. (Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra I.3.432, Johnson 1931: 190.)

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