Article: Eight auspicious symbols

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The term 'eight auspicious symbols' refers to a set of eight shapes or objects highly respected by the Jains and which they use in various religious contexts. The word commonly used to refer to it is the Sanskrit compound aṣṭa-mangala. The word mangala designates anything that brings good luck or well-being in any way, whether an object or a phrase.

The two main Jain sects list slightly different objects as the eight auspicious symbols. For both groups, especially the Śvetāmbaras, these symbols appear in all kinds of artistic media and are widespread in temples, worship and in general life.

Different lists of the eight auspicious symbols

Two svastikas are below the three jewels of Jainism. The crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā and the line above it the liberated soul. Auspicious symbols made of rice grains and other substances are common in temples

Svastikas and other auspicious symbols in the temple
Image by Cactusbones - Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

As often happens, the list of the symbols is different for the two main Jain sects of the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

Sectarian lists of the eight auspicious symbols

Śvetāmbara

Digambara

1

Svastika

Gilded vase – bhṛngāra

2

Śrīvatsa

Fly whisk – cāmara

3

Nandyāvarta

Banner – dhvaja

4

Powder box or flask – vardhamānaka

Fan – vyajana

5

Throne – bhadrāsana

Umbrella or canopy – chatra

6

Full water-jug – kalaśa

Seat of honour – supratiṣṭha

7

Pair of fish – matsyayugma

Full water-jug – kalaśa

8

Mirror – darpaṇa

Mirror – darpaṇa

Why these objects?

The eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – are often seen as freestanding metal objects in temples of the Digambara sect. Here, the symbols are lined up in the temple at Panjapattu in Tamil Nadu.

Auspicious symbols in a Digambara temple
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

These things are auspicious for different reasons. The meaning of some of these symbols is apparent in wider Indian culture, while the significance of others is less clear.

Some of them – like the throne, the fly-whisk, the banner and the umbrella – are well known as royal insignia.

Others are connected to prosperity, abundance or fertility, for example the full jug or pitcher and the flask of powder. The word used for the latter means 'increasing'.

The mirror may represent the idea of purity and light.

The meaning of the pair of fish is not that clear. A Śvetāmbara author from the 14th century, Vardhamāna-sūri, interpreted the auspicious symbols. He said that the fish may represent the god of Love, on whose banner they are shown, who has been defeated by the Jina and has come to worship him. Vardhamāna-sūri’s approach tried to connect the auspicious symbols with the Jinas and Jainism, although they can be seen as general signs of good luck in the Indian context.

First three Śvetāmbara symbols

The first three items in the Śvetāmbara list feature among the emblems of some of the Jinas among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

First three Śvetāmbara auspicious symbols and Jina emblems

Symbol

Digambara Jina emblem

Śvetāmbara Jina emblem

svastika

Śītala – tenth Jina

Supārśva – seventh Jina

nandyāvarta

Supārśva – seventh Jina

Ara – 18th Jina

śrīvatsa

Śītala – tenth Jina

Svastika

An ancient lucky sign, the svastika is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala. A Jain svastika frequently has several dots laid out through and above it, with a crescent atop, often with a dot over it.

Jain svastika
Image by Malaia / Stannered © public domain

The svastika – known as the swastika in the West – is a cross with each of its four arms bent at a right angle and turned in a clockwise direction. The word itself connotes ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’. Svasti is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘well-being’. It is is often used as an exclamation, meaning, “May it be well!”

An ancient symbol found in civilisations dating back thousands of years, the svastika is often used to mark persons or things. It denotes good luck in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It is still widely used today in India, despite its sinister reputation, particularly in the West, after its close association with the Nazis.

In the Jain list of auspicious symbols, the svastika always comes first. The four arms of the svastika are considered to represent the four possible states of existencegati – in the world of rebirth, namely:

  • heavenly being or deity
  • hell-being
  • animal
  • human being.

It is also interpreted as referring to the four parts of the Jain community – caturvidha-saṇgha, which are:

Nandyāvarta

The nandyāvarta is a shape like a labyrinth or a larger form of svastika. The term itself implies something positive, for nandī means 'joy, prosperity'. This diagram has nine branches, which are said to symbolise the nine treasures of a universal monarch.

Śrīvatsa

One of the eight auspicious symbols, the śrīvatsa is frequently found on the chest in images of Jinas.

Endless knot or śrīvatsa
Image by Rick J Pelleg © public domain

The śrīvatsa is a diamond-shaped mark found on the chest of the Jinas. It can often be seen on sculptures or pictures of the Jinas.

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.)

Symbols in Śvetāmbara art and life

This painting from a manuscript page depicts the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. Illustrations of the symbols are often found in manuscripts, temples, art and daily life because they are believed to bring good luck.

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

The Śvetāmbaras have developed the theme of the auspicious symbols into a religious and decorative motif.

The symbols appear both on the pages of manuscripts and on manuscript covers. They also feature in the invitation letters Jain communities in India send to leaders of mendicants, which invite them to spend the next rainy season with the laity. Śvetāmbara ascetics frequently have the symbols embroidered on the cloth they use to protect their monastic equipment.

Manuscript pages

A mangala in the form of words must appear at the start of a Jain text, whether it is a stanza or a sacred formula. Similarly, the eight auspicious symbols are a visual beginning. The symbols can be shown alone or in succession or may accompany the depiction of one of the religious teachers, especially Mahāvīra or his chief disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama.

Placing them at the opening of a text emphasises the connection of the auspicious symbols with passing on religious teachings.

Manuscript covers

This embroidered 19th-century manuscript cover illustrates the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. These symbols are used in many religious ceremonies and are common in temples, art and daily life.

Eight auspicious symbols
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Together with the 14 dreams, the eight auspicious symbols have proven one of the favourite Śvetāmbara themes on manuscript covers – called pāṭhuṃ in Gujarati – since the 18th century.

The Ethnographic Museum in Antwerp in Belgium – now part of the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) – has a good selection of such covers. They are made of either cardboard covered with cloth or painted wood. They demonstrate characteristics of the pictorial style of the regions where they were made.

Paintings in invitation scrolls

Invitation scrolls or vijñapti-patras are formal letters inviting a leading monk and his followers, from a certain monastic group, to spend the next rainy season in a certain place. A community of lay Jains sends these letters, the local merchants often sending these on behalf of the wider group.

These invitations take the form of long scrolls with text and paintings. The text consists of poetical description and praises of mendicants and the Jinas. Generally, the opening paintings are the eight auspicious symbols and the 14 auspicious dreams.

An example of an invitation scroll is in the Jain collection at the British Library.

These invitation letters are found in Rajasthan and Gujarat from the 17th century onwards. They are a speciality of the Śvetāmbara Kharatara-gaccha and Tapā-gaccha communities.

Embroideries of the symbols

The cloth of this bookstand is embroidered with colourful examples of the auspicious symbol of the svastika.

Monastic bookstand with embroidered svastikas
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Śvetāmbara monks and nuns wrap the handle of their brooms or small book-standsthāpanācārya – in pieces of cotton or woollen cloth. One or all of the auspicious symbols are often embroidered on them.

Images

  • Svastikas and other auspicious symbols in the temple Two svastikas are placed below three circles symbolising the three jewels of Jainism. The crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā and the line above it the liberated soul. Auspicious symbols made of rice grains and other substances are common in temples.. Image by Cactusbones - Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0
  • Auspicious symbols in a Digambara temple The eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – are often seen as freestanding metal objects in temples of the Digambara sect. Here, the symbols are lined up in the temple at Panjapattu in Tamil Nadu.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Jain svastika An ancient lucky sign, the svastika is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala. A Jain svastika frequently has several dots laid out through and above it, with a crescent atop, often with a dot over it. The svastika's four arms probably symbolise the four conditions of existence – gati – while the four dots in between may represent the fourfold community. The three dots above symbolise the 'three jewels' of the Jain faith while the crescent represents the siddha-śilā, with a liberated soul inside.. Image by Malaia / Stannered © public domain
  • Endless knot or śrīvatsa One of the eight auspicious symbols, the śrīvatsa is frequently found on the chest in images of Jinas.. Image by Rick J Pelleg © public domain
  • Creating auspicious symbols 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.. Image by ૐ Didi ૐ – Dey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Eight auspicious symbols This painting from a manuscript page depicts the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. The biggest symbol here is the sixth, the full water jug – kalaśa. The highly decorated jug has two divine eyes either side, leaves drooping from the top and a scarf or garland draped round it. Illustrations of the eight symbols are often found in manuscripts, because they are believed to bring good luck. These symbols are used in many religious ceremonies and are common in temples, art and daily life.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Eight auspicious symbols This embroidered 19th-century manuscript cover illustrates the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. These symbols are used in many religious ceremonies and are common in temples, art and daily life.. Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
  • Monastic bookstand with embroidered svastikas The cloth of this bookstand is embroidered with colourful examples of the auspicious symbol of the svastika.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Further Reading

Jaina Temple Architecture in India: The Development of a Distinct Language in Space and Ritual
Julia A. B. Hegewald
Monographien zur Indischen Archäologie, Kunst und Philologie series; volume 19
Stiftung Ernst Waldschmidt, G+H Verlag; Berlin, Germany; 2009

Full details

Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad's Oriental series; volume 1
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1931

Full details

Jaina Iconography
Jyotindra Jain
and Eberhard Fischer
Iconography of Religions – Indian Religions series; volume 13: 12 and 13
Institute of Religious Iconography, State University of Groningen; E. J. Brill; Leiden, Netherlands; 1978

Full details

'The Kalpa Sûtra of Bhadrabâhu'
Bhadrabāhu
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes
Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft series; series editor Otto Loth; volume VII: 1
F. A. Brockhaus; Leipzig, Saxony, Germany; 1879

Full details

A Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of Miniature Paintings of the Jaina Kalpasūtra as executed in the Early Western Indian Style
W. Norman Brown
Freer Gallery of Art – Oriental Studies series; volume 2
The Lord Baltimore Press / Smithsonian Institution; Washington DC, USA; 1934

Full details

Studies in Jaina Art
Umakant Premanand Shah
Abhinav Publications; Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1955

Full details

Treasures of Jaina Bhandāras
Umakant Premanand Shah
L. D. series; volume 69
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1978

Full details

Jaina-Rūpa-Maṇḍana
Umakant Premanand Shah
Abhinav Publications; New Delhi, India; 1987

Full details

Steps to Liberation: 2500 Years of Jain Art and Religion
Jan van Alphen
Etnografisch Museum Antwerpen; Antwerp, Belgium; 2000

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Glossary

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Buddhism

The religion founded by Buddha, often called the 'Middle Way' between the self-indulgence of worldly life and the self-mortification of a very ascetic way of life. Buddhism has similarities to Jain belief but some significant differences. For example, Buddhists hold that the world around us is a short-lived illusion and do not believe in individual, everlasting souls.

Cakravartin

Sanskrit for 'universal monarch'. There are 12 in the continent of Bharata in each progressive and regressive half-cyle of time. They have 9 treasures and 14 jewels they can use to conquer their enemies and become 'universal monarchs'. The cakravartin form one of the five groups of '63 illustrious men' in Jain mythology.

Carũrī

Usually written as 'chowrie' in English, the Hindi carũrī is a fly-whisk or fan. It is probably descended from the Sanskrit term cāmara, which means a 'yak-tail fan'. Like the cāmara, the chowrie is used to fan royalty or priests and thus signifies high status in Indian art.

Common Era

The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Disciple

An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.

Gaccha

Literally a Sanskrit word for 'tree', gaccha is used by Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak Jains to describe the largest groups of their mendicant lineages. It is often translated as 'monastic group', 'monastic order' or 'monastic tradition'. These groups are formed when some mendicants split from their gaccha because of disagreements over ascetic practices.

Gujarāt

The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.

Gujarati

The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.

Hinduism

The majority faith in India, often called Sanātana Dharma or Eternal Law. With no single named founder, Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and a range of different beliefs. Most Hindu traditions revere the Veda literature but there is no single system of salvation or belief, although many Hindus believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Large Hindu communities exist in southern Asia, with smaller groups across the world.

Indrabhūti Gautama

Chief disciple of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. From a brahmin family, he was the first of Mahāvīra's 11 chief disciples. He became enlightened on the day Mahāvīra was liberated. He achieved liberation himself 12 years later.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Mahāvīra

The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.

Maṅgala

A Sanskrit word for anything that brings good luck or well-being in any way. It can be an object or a phrase.

Mantra

A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Preach

To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Rainy season

The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.

Rajasthan

The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.

Ratna-traya

The ‘three jewels’ that form the fundamentals of Jainism, without which spiritual progress is impossible. They are:

  • right faith – samyak-darśana
  • right knowledge – samyak-jñāna
  • right conduct – samyak-cāritra.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Samavasaraṇa

Literally, Sanskrit for 'universal gathering'. A holy assembly led by a Jina where he preaches to all – human beings, animals and deities alike – after he has become omniscient. In this universal gathering, natural enemies are at peace.

Sanskrit

A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.

Shrine

A small structure holding an image or relics, which may be within a temple or building designed for worship. A shrine may be a portable object. Worshippers pray and make offerings at a shrine, which is often considered sacred because of associations with a deity or event in the life of a holy person.

Śrāvaka

'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.

Śrīvatsa

The endless knot that is frequently found in the middle of ta Jina's chest in works of art. One of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara Jains, the śrīvatsa is also the emblem of Śītalanātha or Lord Śītala for members of this sect. Digambara Jains believe that the emblem ithe tenth Jina is the śrīvatsa or wishing tree.

Sthāpanācārya

A small wooden object like a tripod on which a manuscript or book can be placed. It was originally understood as a substitute for the teacher's presence. It has four sticks on to which five cowrie shells wrapped in cloth are placed. The shells symbolise the Five Supreme Beings. Its appearance in art symbolises teaching or a preceptor.

Svastika

An auspicious symbol. Its four branches represent the four types of destiny or gati – heavenly beings, hell-beings, animals and human beings. It can also symbolise the four parts of Jain society – monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

Vijñapti-patra

A highly decorated formal letter inviting a leading monk of a certain monastic group to spend the next rainy season in a certain place. Sent by lay people, the vijñapti-patra is a speciality of the Śvetāmbara Kharatara-gaccha and Tapā-gaccha communities.

Votive

An object offered for religious purposes to a representation of a holy figure or in a sacred place.

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