Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Illustrations in the Kalpa-sūtra

Though all pictures in manuscripts of the Kalpa-sūtra are next to the passage of text they illustrate, as per convention, the three parts of the Kalpa-sūtra are not treated equally in the pictorial tradition. The majority of paintings in a given manuscript focuses on the ‘Lives of the Jinas’, which offers a wide range of episodes to illustrate. The ‘String of Elders’ and the ‘Right Monastic Conduct’ sections, on the other hand, appear less inspiring to artists. As a result, they are either not illustrated at all or have a comparatively small number of paintings.

The paintings show that the term ‘Kalpa-sūtra’ is not merely a text but is better thought of as a dynamic notion that actively engages artistic and religious energies. 

Paintings can be grouped into those depicting an episode that is:

  • described in the adjacent original Prakrit text
  • not in the facing original Prakrit text.

The subjects of the second group are drawn from the stories of the life of a Jina or an elder. These are found in other texts, namely the commentaries of the Kalpa-sūtra or other well-known legendary works devoted to these Jinas or these elders. These are used despite the fact that copies of the Kalpa-sūtra do not include a commentary.

Therefore the paintings that illustrate the Kalpa-sūtra are broader in scope than might be supposed, since they use the given text as a starting point and go beyond its literal content.

Repetition as a structuring pattern

This manuscript art shows Mahāvīra in Puṣpottara heaven before his birth as a human who will become a Jina. All Jinas are born as celestial gods before their final lives as humans. Jinas are always human as only they can reach omniscience and liberation

Mahāvīra in the Puṣpottara heaven
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Repetition is heavily used in the Kalpa-sūtra in both text and illustration.

The outline of the first part of the Kalpa-sūtra given above closely follows the Prakrit text, clearly demonstrating how each biography follows the same pattern. In many passages about individual Jinas the structure is the same. An example of identical structure is information about a Jina’s community. Only details differ, such as the various numbers and names. This is a fundamental pattern in Jain narrative literature. However, some passages that are almost identical in the life stories of Mahāvīra and Ṛṣabha show signs of being shortened.

The repetition in the text is also found in its illustrations, with the same picture often appearing in different places. The common episodes in Jinas’ lives that often share an identical depiction in the manuscripts include:

  • the heavenly birth of the Jina-to-be
  • the 14 auspicious dreams of the pregnant mother of the Jina-to-be
  • each Jina plucking out his hair in handfuls when he renounces the world. 

Before his last incarnation as a human being destined to become a Jina, the Jina-to-be is born as a god in one of the many heavens of the Upper World. Any difference in the pictures of the various heavenly births is found in the colour the body is painted. For example, gold is used for  Mahāvīra and green for Pārśva. Each Jina has a colour associated with him in art. 

The symbolic gesture of keśa-loca in the initiation ceremony may be depicted once in the manuscript, for only some of the Jinas or for all of them. 

Thus, the paintings of the Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts are partly stereotyped. In mediocre manuscripts, they can become monotonous.

Creative inspirations

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)

The tendency to copy paintings and reuse them at different points in the same manuscript is counterbalanced in various ways. Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts contain two types of illustrations. The first type is made up of those that show exactly what the text describes. The second kind of painting is a non-literal picture. Drawing on sources other than the Kalpa-sūtra proper, these pictures indicate wider knowledge about the episodes in the text. These illustrations may use passages in the Kalpa-sūtra text as an inspiration or bring into play information in other texts.

Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts often have paintings that depict literally the words in the adjacent sentences. Examples of this are the words:

  • ‘the first dream of an elephant’ alongside a painting of an elephant
  • ‘Triśalā is sad because she thinks the embryo she is carrying has died’ by a picture of Triśalā looking sad
  • ‘Triśalā is happy because the embryo has moved again’ near an image of a joyful queen.

However, in most Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts there are also many examples of paintings that do not illustrate the literal words of the text. For artists, the Kalpa-sūtra is not only the Prakrit text but also the commentaries and other works on the lives of the Jinas or early Jain teachers. These writings have much more material suitable for illustration and artists draw freely on them. 

There are two main types of non-literal illustrations. The first is when a sentence in the facing text provides a starting point. An example can be given using the following quotation:

For more than twelve years the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; with equanimity he bore, underwent and suffered all kinds of pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men, or animals

This results in a picture of specific events illustrating the idea in the text, that is, the ‘attacks’ or ‘tests’ – upasargas – Mahāvīra goes through. Among them is the episode of the shepherd who tries to hurt Mahāvīra’s ears by putting spikes in them, or others where various devilish creatures try to attack him in various ways. 

Another example is the paintings of incidents in the unsettled life of the early religious teacher Sthūlabhadra. None of them is described in the Kalpa-sūtra itself, but Sthūlabhadra’s name occurs in the ‘String of Elders’. This is reason enough to include pictures of his adventures, which, again, are well known from other textual sources and belong to the common Jain heritage.

Therefore, although there is a textual basis to such illustrations, it is outside the Prakrit text of the Kalpa-sūtra proper. However, this makes no difference to the artists.

The second type of non-literal picture is when the text does not provide any obvious inspiration for the illustration. 

Examples include the paintings depicting episodes from Mahāvīra’s childhood, such as:

  • going to school on the back of an elephant or horse
  • playing with other children and showing how he can neutralise bad tricks or attacks.

Therefore Kalpa-sūtra manuscripts contain a variety of paintings. Some depict literally episodes in the text proper while others illustrate events taken from related literature. 

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