Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Ideal mendicant

The account of the monk Kālaka's life is an appropriate fit with the themes and narrative of the Kalpa-sūtra. He is an exemplary mendicant because he:

  • uses powers gained through meditation and advanced spirituality to defeat evil
  • inspires new believers
  • successfully passes tests posed by a god
  • sees through a divine disguise
  • is very knowledgeable in the Jain scriptures and teachings
  • passes to the next life by ritually fasting to death.

His outstanding qualities are another reason this tale frequently accompanies manuscripts and editions of the scripture.

There are many versions of the Kālaka story but they share the main plot. The tale always begins with Kālaka first hearing the message of the Jinas. Returning from a horse ride, Prince Kālaka hears a sweet, deep sound. He finds that this is the voice of the monk Guṇākara. Listening to his teachings, Kālaka is converted and then initiated into religious life. He later succeeds his teacher as leader of a group of ascetics, as an ācārya.

Kālaka and the Śakas

This manuscript painting depicts Kālaka and the king of the Śaka, the Sāhi. Kālaka wears the white robe of a Śvetāmbara monk while the Sāhi is the large crowned figure. The Śakas' non-Indian nature is underlined by their clothes, faces and beards

Kālaka and the Śāka king
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

One day Kālaka travels to Ujjayinī. A group of nuns arrives, including Kālaka’s sister, Sarasvatī. Gardabhilla, the wicked king of Ujjayinī, abducts and violates her, forcing her into his harem.

Kālaka realises that Gardabhilla gets his supernatural powers from a magical animal, a ‘she‑ass’.

Kālaka asks the Śakas to help him rescue his sister by conquering Ujjayinī. Śakas are foreigners with non-Indian features in paintings. Nearby a potter is firing bricks in a kiln. Since they have no supplies, Kālaka sprinkles a pinch of magic powder on the burning bricks. This transforms them into gold, which he gives to his allies to buy what they need.

There is a battle between the Śakas and Gardabhilla’s army. Kālaka orders the Śakas to neutralise the magic power of the she-ass by shooting arrows into her mouth so she cannot bray. When they do so, Gardabhilla loses his magical powers.

The Śakas enter Ujjayinī and take Gardabhilla prisoner. They lead him to Kālaka, who advises him to confess, repent and compensate for his awful behaviour by practising austerities, like the ascetics. But Gardabhilla cannot do so because of excessive karma. He is driven out of the country and reduced to wandering.

The Śakas rule peacefully, devoted to the teachings of the Jinas and founding the Śaka dynasty. Kālaka’s sister becomes a nun again.

Other episodes

The rest of the tale also demonstrates Kālaka's model qualities as a monk. He preaches and converts his listeners to Jainism, inspiring some to become mendicants. Though very learned, he remains modest, seeing the truth of situations where others try to trick him. He then completes his life as a mendicant by fasting to death

Kālaka's story continues in the city of Broach, where the king and heir-apparent are Balamitra and Bhānumitra. They are Kālaka’s nephews. Their sister has a son named Balabhānu. 

Kālaka comes to Broach and preaches. Enthralled, Balabhānu is initiated as a monk. The entire population of the city converts to Jainism and gives alms to the monks.

Then Kālaka decides to go to the city of Pratiṣṭhāna in Mahārāṣṭra, where the ruler is King Śālivāhana. This is where he changes the day of Saṃvatsarī to the fourth day of Paryuṣaṇ.

Kālaka goes on wandering, but his disciples become disobedient and no longer observe rules. Once he goes to Sāgaracandra-sūri, his disciple’s disciple, who is no better and does not recognise that Kālaka is no simple monk. He misbehaves and disputes with the elder monk. Then he finally admits his mistake and asks forgiveness.

Śakra, the lord of the gods, decides to test the knowledge and penetration of the teacher Kālaka. The god takes on the form of a brahmin and asks Kālaka to give a lecture on nigodas, extremely minute invisible beings which are the tiniest form of life. Kālaka passes the test and recognises that his challenger is none other than Śakra.

Knowing that the end of his life is drawing near, Kālaka gives up all food and fasts until death comes.

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