Article: Jain epics

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

Like most religions and ideologies, Jainism was influenced by, and helped shape, the broader environment in which it rose and prospered. Jains have the reputation of being the treasurers of South Asian narrative material. This is partly because Jain poets and writers adapted verse epics and folk tales from across the subcontinent to create versions featuring Jain figures and reflecting their own beliefs. These then often became important in passing on elements of Jain culture and religious doctrine. Significant examples of this process are the Sanskrit epics the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. Jain retellings of the tales have become parts of the Jain cultural heritage and identity.

Sanskrit epics

Legends, myths and stories have played an important role in Indian culture throughout history. Composed and sung by bards at local courts, songs about legendary kings and heroes were very popular. Some centuries before the Common Era narrative cycles of hymns were combined to form what would become known as the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa.

According to most scholars, the oldest kernels of both these epics were not particularly religious, but later redactions and additions transformed the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa into important scriptures of Hinduism. One reason is that they introduced two important deities:

  • Kṛṣṇa in the Mahābhārata
  • Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa.

Mahābhārata

Blue-skinned Kṛṣṇa advises the Pāṇḍava brothers in this illustration of a scene in the Mahabharata, believed to be the longest poem in the world. Jain versions of the poem underline values such as non-violence and are part of Jain Universal History.

Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas
Image by Gift of Doris and Ed Wiener, Brooklyn Museum © No known copyright restrictions

With its title meaning ‘the great [war] of the descendants of Bharata’, the Mahābhārata revolves around a legendary battle between two camps within the same family, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Sons of gods, the Pāṇḍavas are five brothers who share one wife, Draupadī. The brothers are supported by their many allies, including the deity Kṛṣṇa, in the brutal war against their cousins. They defeat the 100 Kauravas in a horrific 18-day battle.

Aside from the story of the war, the epic is highly encyclopaedic. It claims to contain all the knowledge in the world, including many legends and stories as well as philosophical treatises. To the main epic an appendix was later added, called the HarivaṃśapurāṇaAncient Book about the Dynasty of Hari [=Kṛṣṇa]. This is the first full biography of Kṛṣṇa and is sometimes considered an autonomous work.

With 100,000 verses, the Mahābhārata is thought to be the longest poem in the world. It is traditionally ascribed to Vyāsa. As the grandfather of both the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, he is also the narrator and a character in the story. The text as it stands now came into being over several centuries, between 400 BCE and 400 CE.

Rāmāyaṇa

Translated as the Journey of Rāma, the Rāmāyaṇa recounts the story of Rāma, a prince of Ayodhyā.

Through the intrigues of his stepmother, Rāma is banished to the forest. His beloved wife Sītā decides to accompany him into exile. In the forest Sītā is kidnapped by the demon king Rāvaṇa. He rules the Rākṣasa demons, who inhabit the island of Laṅkā. Together with his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa, Rāma enlists the help of the Vānaras, the monkey people, to rescue Sītā and kill Rāvaṇa. The Vānaras are led by King Sugrīva and his charismatic minister Hanumān. After being reunited with Sītā, Rāma returns to Ayodhyā, where he ascends to the throne.

According to tradition the epic of about 24,000 verses was composed by the legendary seer Vālmīki. This Sanskrit epic waxed into its current form between the sixth century BCE and the second century CE. From an early date other tellings of the Rāma story were composed, such as an abbreviated version found in the Mahābhārata or a Buddhist version in the Dasaratha Jātaka.

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