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 monks – dāna – 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.
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 merit – puṇya. 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.
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.
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.
Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.
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.
Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
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.
Giving, specifically alms-giving to mendicants.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its smallest. It is so dark it is almost invisible.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history.
A single sheet of paper or parchment with a front and a back side. Manuscripts and books are written or printed on both sides of sheets of paper. A manuscript page is one side of a sheet of paper, parchment or other material. The recto page is the top side of a sheet of paper and the verso is the underside.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
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.
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan in India.
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.
Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century.
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.
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.
The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858, a period noted for its wealth, overall religious tolerance, and cultural and intellectual achievements, particularly in art and architecture. Originally Muslims who swept down from Central Asia, the Mughals' best-known ruler is probably Akbar the Great (1556–1605).
Modern Indo-aryan language term from the Sanskrit ‘mukhavastrikā'. The small rectangular piece of cloth permanently fixed over the mouth by some mendicant orders. This is to avoid being violent accidentally, either by inhaling tiny creatures or killing them by breathing over them unexpectedly.
This is not the same as the mouth-cover used on some occasions by other mendicants and by laypeople when they perform certain rites.
Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.
Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.
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:
Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.
Literally 'colour' or 'hue' in Sanskrit, rāga has come to mean 'beauty', 'harmony' and 'melody'. Consisting of five or more musical notes from which a melody is created, the rāga is one of the melodic modes of Indian classical music. Traditionally, rāgas express the moods of different times of day or seasons to help create an emotional response in the listeners.
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
The language spoken in Rajasthan, in north-western India, and surrounding states. It is also spoken in some parts of neighbouring Pakistan. Also the adjective describing people, things or places in or associated with the state of Rajasthan.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
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.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
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.
Someone who copies manuscripts for a living. Scribes are common in societies where literacy is rare. In the past, however, scribes could not always read and write fluently.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.
Breaking a religious or moral principle, especially if this is done deliberately. Sinners commit sins or may sin by not doing something they are supposed to do.
The Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘hall-dwellers’ is used for a Śvetāmbara movement that opposes the worship of images and the building of temples. The term Sthānaka-vāsī, whose origin remains unclear, came into widespread use in the early 20th century. The movement's roots can be traced to the 15th-century reform movement initiated by Loṅkā Śāh, from which the founders of the Sthānaka-vāsī traditions separated in the 17th century. Sthānaka-vāsīns practise mental worship through meditation. The lay members venerate living ascetics, who are recognisable from the mouth-cloth – muhpattī – they wear constantly.
'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.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
Often abbreviated, Vikrama-saṃvat is the calendar associated with Emperor Vikramāditya. It begins in about 56 BCE so the equivalent date in the Common Era can be calculated by subtracting 57 or 56. Based on Hindu traditions, it is a lunar calendar often used in contemporary India.