Article: Holy symbols

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Like all religions, the Jain faith has holy symbols that remind believers of certain principles and traditions and help create a sense of identity based on shared beliefs and practices. Some symbols are also considered auspicious, bringing good fortune and warding off bad luck. Many of these are characteristic of wider Indian culture and are therefore also found in other religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Each of the 24 Jinas has a particular emblem, used as a badge of identity along with a colour. Other traditional Jain sacred symbols include the svastika and the siddhacakra or navapada. Some of these are grouped together as the eight auspicious symbolsaṣṭa-mangala. More recent symbols of Jainism are the Jain flag and the contemporary Jain emblem.

The importance of dreams in wider Indian culture is reflected in Jain stories and legends in which dreams play a key role. Dreams in which events or items appear are often thought to predict the future or reveal hidden facts. Stories that involve dreaming of a lost image of a Jina are often associated with sacred places, which are also pilgrimage sites.

Not all holy symbols are visual or material. Mantras are holy syllables, words, or phrases that are repeated many times, either aloud or silently. Used to focus concentration in meditation, these religious formulas are considered holy and possessed of great spiritual power. This is why mantras are found so often written, painted, carved, embroidered and so on.

The principal Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras differ in their lists of both the eight auspicious symbols and of the emblems of the Jinas. There are also variations in the auspicious dreams in their different versions of certain key tales, such as the dreams seen by a woman pregnant with a Jina-to-be.

The auspicious symbols and practices are frequently found in the Jain religion. Symbols may be worshipped themselves or used in religious rites. Commonly used to decorate temples, ritual objects, clothing and other valued items, they feature in art of all kinds. To Jains the image of a holy symbol takes on some of the spiritual power of the symbol itself and is thus not merely a pretty picture.

Eight auspicious symbols

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

The aṣṭa-mangala or 'eight auspicious symbols' is a collection of the most auspicious and most commonly used holy symbols in Jainism. The Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras have different lists but share the overall themes. These relate primarily either to royalty and status or to wealth, abundance or fertility.

Some symbols, such as the canopy or fly-whisk, are shorthand for royalty or high status in Indian art in general. These underline that the Jina or other holy figure is a spiritual prince, as worthy of honour as a worldly prince.

Eight auspicious symbols

Śvetāmbara list

Digambara list

1

svastika

gilded vase – bhṛngāra

2

śrīvatsa

fly-whisk – cāmara

3

nandyāvarta

banner – dhvaja

4

powder box or flask – vardhamānaka

fan – vyājana

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

Symbols of affluence and fertility, such as the full jug or pitcher, represent the notion of growth and development. These ideas are important in Jainism because Jains must travel their paths of spiritual progress alone, each one responsible only for his or her own soul. By moving through the cycle of rebirth over hundreds and thousands of lifetimes, a soul grows gradually purer, uncluttered by karma, and can eventually attain final emancipation.

Svastika, nandyāvarta and 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

 Some of the eight auspicious symbols are also the badges of a few of the Jinas. As symbols first found in Indian civilisations going back thousands of years, these ancient icons have been widespread throughout wider Indian culture for a very long time. These symbols are thus significant in their own right and are found throughout Jain art and manuscripts as well as in temples, mendicant lodgings and so on.

The svastika or swastika is a cross with each of its four arms bent at a right angle and turned in a clockwise direction. Derived from a Sanskrit word meaning 'well-being' – svasti – the word itself connotes 'good' and 'beneficial'. Considered highly lucky, the svastika sign has two main interpretations in Jainism. In the first, the svastika's four arms correspond to the four possible states of existencegati – in the world of rebirth. In the second, the arms represent the fourfold Jain community – caturvidha-sangha. The table provides details of these two readings.

Jain interpretations of the svastika

Four gatis

Fourfold community

heavenly being

monks

infernal being

nuns

animal

lay men

human being

women

The svastika is frequently depicted with three dots above, topped by a horizontal crescent above the dots. The three dots stand for the three jewels of Jainism, which are the path to liberation. The crescent represents the siddha-śilā, where liberated souls live in eternal bliss, and which Jains hope to reach eventually.

A shape like a larger, more complex version of a svastika or a labyrinth, the nandyāvarta hassimilar associations to the svastika. The Sanskrit term nandī means 'joy, prosperity'.

The śrīvatsa is a diamond-shaped mark on the chest of the Jinas. It is often visible on sculptures or pictures of the Jinas.

Siddhacakra or navapada

This manuscript painting of a Svetāmbara siddhacakra shows the five highest beings in Jain belief, depicted in different colours. The petals in between contain Sanskrit mantras praising the 'four fundamentals'. It is a visual summary of key Jain doctrines

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

The siddhacakra or navapada is the most popular yantra in Jainism. The Sanskrit word siddhacakra means 'circle of perfection' and is the Śvetāmbara term. The sect of the Digambaras calls the same symbol navapada.

As its name suggests, the siddhacakra has nine parts and looks like a flower with eight petals. The nine components represent the Five Entities and the Three Jewels of:

The last element symbolises a characteristic that is often dubbed the fourth jewel – 'right austerity'. Devout Jains must follow the examples of the Five Holy Entities and strive to practise the last four qualities. Thus all nine elements are vital to attaining liberation.

It is closely associated with the Namaskāra-mantra, which pays homage to the Five Entities. A Prakrit formula, it can be recited at any time.

The siddhacakra is found in many temples and is an important part of many rituals. It plays a central role in rites performed during the festival of Āyambil Oḷī and the associated fast.

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