Article: Story of Śālibhadra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Development of the tale

The Story of Śālibhadra has been extremely popular for centuries among Śvetāmbaras and there are many variations of the tale. The story has changed focus and developed over time. Some versions revolve around one particular character, while separate tales elaborating the life of Dhanya have also arisen. Individual episodes in the outline above have often been treated as separate tales and may occur in collections of stories to illustrate certain Jain beliefs. With the passage of time, however, the whole story summarised above has become more common. Both famous monks, who were leading intellectual authorities in their time, and anonymous writers have reworked the tale over almost two thousand years. There are scores of versions, in prose and verse, taking a variety of literary forms.

The Story of Śālibhadra is often known as the Dhanya-Śālibhadra Story, because Dhanya is a key figure and the destinies of both characters are linked together in the later stages of the story. There are also accounts of Dhanya's life before he marries Śālibhadra’s sister and thereby becomes his brother-in-law. One example is the Dhanya-vilāsa by Kalyāṇa kavi, composed in 1624 CE (Bender 1992: 7).

Versions stressing a single concept

This painting from an 18th-century manuscript telling the story of Śālibhadra shows a monk being given milk-rice. After Sangama's poor widowed mother makes the milk-rice he has requested, the boy happily donates the delicacy to a monk seeking alms.

Giving milk-rice to a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Early versions of the stories are found in works that are peripheral to the canonical scriptures. These are not eventful or sentimental as they tend to become later and do not contain all the episodes outlined above. Instead they focus on a single key concept. This may be offering alms, fasting to death or renunciation of material wealth.

The Āvaśyaka commentaries include the paradigmatic episode of the poor boy who is about to eat a delicious dish but offers it to a Jain monk instead. Here the character is named Kr̥tapuṇya – the name Śālibhadra does not occur in this context. The incident is meant to illustrate the concept of alms-giving – dāna – and is reused in many stories, which may feature characters of different names.

In some cases the story is meant to illustrate the concept of fasting unto death, and is then restricted to the final part. This happens in the Maraṇa-samāhi. This text is one of the Prakīrṇakas, a category of texts specialising in this topic. In this work Dhanya and Śālibhadra are highly praised as two monks who perfectly observed this practice on Mount Vaibhāra.

In another didactic text, the Uvaesamālā, Śālibhadra is singled out because, even though he is immensely rich, he has no more desire for worldly wealth. He realises that being a lord or powerful person does not mean being a king in the material sense.

Story in different contexts

In this detail of a manuscript painting, King Śreṇika is on his way to Śālibhadra's house. His wealth and power are stressed by his colourful howdah and richly caparisoned elephant, while his status is symbolised by the parasol and servant who fans him.

Śreṇika rides on his elephant
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The story in its full form is found either as an independent tale or in collections.

When these story collections are thematically arranged, the Śālibhadra tale occurs in the sections devoted to giving alms to monks – dāna. This is because giving alms is the fundamental principle it is meant to demonstrate, as in the Mūlaśuddhi-prakaraṇa or Ākhyānaka-maṇi-kośa. This concept is so closely associated with this story that one of the versions mentioned below is also known under the title Wishing Tree of Alms-GivingDāna-kalpa-druma – which means the 'best story about giving alms'.

Another context where the story may be included is the telling of Mahāvīra’s life. One instance is the 12th-century monk Hemacandra's biography of Mahāvīra. It is inserted here because:

  • Rājagṛha, one of the most important places in the geography of Mahāvīra’s life, is the city where the story takes place
  • King Śreṇika, a contemporary of Mahāvīra, is a figure in the story
  • of Mahāvīra’s presence in the later phase of the story, when Dhanya and Śālibhadra are presented as monks who wander with him.
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