Article: Story of Śālibhadra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

One of the most important Jain tales, the Story of Śālibhadra has enjoyed wide circulation among Śvetāmbara Jains in Gujarat and Rajasthan. It has been passed down through the centuries in the main languages Śvetāmbaras have used, namely Prakrit, Sanskrit and Gujarati. It is a good representative of religious teaching in narrative form – dharma-kathā. Its significance comes from the restaging of the key concept of giving alms to monksdāna – which is one of the fundamental duties and daily activities of Jain followers. Like almost all Jain stories, it illustrates the working of karma and rebirth and shows how the main protagonists ultimately become Jain monks before, in the end, attaining final liberation. The mendicants in this tale also illustrate the practice of fasting unto death, for which Jain monks have become famous.

Early versions of the tale tend to revolve around certain episodes that emphasise individual religious topics, such as offering alms or fasting to death. Fully developed versions of the story are very eventful and popular.

One of the highlights of JAINpedia, the manuscript digitised on the website is the Gujarati version composed by the Śvetāmbara poet Matisāra in the 17th century. In verse and based on musical modes, Matisāra's account is well known and copies are reasonably common. This manuscript, executed in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, has some noteworthy features. It is clearly dated and gives the name of the painter who has skilfully illustrated numerous episodes of the story, which can thus be easily followed in both the texts and images.

Rich visuals feature in many versions of the story, with several illustrated manuscripts surviving, all created in Śvetāmbara circles. The artistic tradition surrounding this tale is very varied in style, free of conventions seen in other Jain art and frequently demonstrating sectarian associations.

The history of Śālibhadra is a favourite of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsins, who reject temples and the worship of images, neither of which are mentioned in the story. However, the JAINpedia manuscript can be identified as having been produced by Mūrti-pūjaka or image-worshipping Jains. In addition, its colophon underlines one of the main characteristics of painted manuscripts of this tale. This is that the story of Śālibhadra is often performed, with music, among Jains of the diaspora in particular.

Story outline

The tale of Śālibhadra tells of a very wealthy young man who abandons all his possessions and comforts to turn to monastic life, marked by hardships. Turning one's back on a worldly fortune is highly meritorious among Jains, who have coined the phrase ‘rich like Shalibhadra’ to describe someone who is extremely affluent.

The main theme of the work is the giving of alms to mendicants, which is one of the duties of lay Jains and brings meritpuṇya. The laity's donating to ascetics helps bind together the four parts of the Jain community and is thus an important act both spiritually and practically. In Jain treatises on lay conduct, such as the 14th-century Śrāddhavidhi by Ratnaśekhara-sūri, Śālibhadra is mentioned as the exemplary figure with regard to offering food to mendicants. In the tale's two episodes featuring alms-giving, the emphasis is not so much on the thing given as on the spontaneity of the act of giving and the feeling of deep joy it produces.

Known in several versions, the story offers differences in details. Here is an outline of the main stages.

Initial alms-giving to a monk

This cover from a contemporary comic book shows young Sangama donating his milk-rice to a Śvetāmbara Jain monk. The monk wears the traditional monastic robe, carries the monastic staff – daṇḍa – and makes the gesture of dharmalābha – 'obtaining dharma'.

Sangama offers alms
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © Shree Diwakar Prakashan

Dhanyā, a poor widow, does her best to bring up her son, Sangama. The child works as a shepherd while his mother sells milk. On a festival day, he notices that rice made with sugar and milk – a treat – is being prepared at others’ houses and asks his mother if he can have some milk-rice too. She cannot provide any, but neighbouring women come to her rescue.

When the boy is about to eat, a Jain monk happens to come to the house, begging alms to break a month’s fast. Sangama sees this as an unexpected opportunity and offers the whole dish to him with joy and devotion.

When his mother comes back and sees the dish empty, she serves him more food. Sangama dies the same night.

Rebirth as Śālibhadra

Sangama's rebirth as Śālibhadra is illustrated in an 18th-century manuscript of the 'Dhanna-Śālibhadra-carita'. Sangama's virtuous behaviour leads him to be reborn as Śālibhadra, son of the wealthy merchant Gobhadra and his wife Bhadrā.

Sangama's next birth
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Rājagr̥ha is the capital city of King Śreṇika, who rules with his son and minister Abhayakumāra. The rich merchant Gobhadra and his wife Bhadrā also live there. Sangama is reborn as their son, Śālibhadra. His name comes from the dream his mother has while pregnant, in which she saw a field of ripe rice – śāli.

In due course, this beautiful young boy is married to 32 wives. Gobhadra decides to turn to ascetic life, later on fasts to death and then is reborn as a god. As a god, he continuously helps his son by showering him with immense wealth.

One day, merchants come to the king’s palace, offering him exquisite shawls for a high price. He refuses so they go to Śālibhadra’s house, where his mother buys them and gives them to her daughters-in-law. When the king happens to hear this, he sends an envoy to Bhadrā’s house to buy the shawls, but learns that they are no longer available. He is amazed at what the wealth of Śālibhadra must be, greater than his own.

Highly intrigued, the king calls the boy to his palace, but the mother comes instead, saying that her son never leaves the house, and invites the king to visit them. He accepts and is received with great pomp.

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