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.
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 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 Harivaṃśapurāṇa – Ancient 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.
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.
The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.
The regressive or descending half-cycle in the Jain conception of time. With the second half, the progressive one, avasarpiṇī forms a complete cycle of time.
One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal History, Baladevas are the older half-brothers of the Vāsudevas, sharing the same fathers. They are both demi-Cakravartins or half Universal Rulers. In the part of the universe where humans live, nine Baladevas are born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time. Baladevas are devout Jains who, after renouncing the world to become monks, are usually liberated but may be reborn as gods in one of the heavens. Baladevas are also known as Balabhadras.
One of the Lands of Action or Karma-bhūmi in the first continent, Jambū-dvīpa, in the Middle World where humans live. Bharata is also the name of the eldest son of the first Jina, Ṛṣabha, who succeeded his father as king.
A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:
Both sects are practised in India.
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.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
The majority faith in India, often called Sanātana Dharma or Eternal Law. With no single named founder, Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and a range of different beliefs. Most Hindu traditions revere the Veda literature but there is no single system of salvation or belief, although many Hindus believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Large Hindu communities exist in southern Asia, with smaller groups across the world.
The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:
Chief disciple of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. From a brahmin family, he was the first of Mahāvīra's 11 chief disciples. He became enlightened on the day Mahāvīra was liberated. He achieved liberation himself 12 years later.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
One of the best-known avatars of the deity Viṣṇu the preserver, Kṛṣṇa is one of the principal Hindu gods. Since his name means ' dark blue', 'dark' or 'black' in Sanskrit, he is usually depicted with blue or black skin. Often shown as a boy or young man playing a flute, Kṛṣṇa is a hero of the Indian epic, Mahābhārata, and protagonist of the Bhagavad Gītā. Jains believe he is the cousin of Lord Nemi, the 22nd Jina.
One of the major works of Indian literature, this epic poem revolves around a legendary battle between two camps within the same family, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Fusing Jain values into the story, Jain versions of the Mahābhārata also include biographies of the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi and his cousin Kṛṣṇa, who is identified with the Hindu god. The Jain Mahābhāratas cast the leading figure of Kṛṣṇa and other characters in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
The 22nd Jina of the present age, also called Ariṣṭanemi. His symbolic colour is blue or black and his emblem the conch. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
The Jains hold that Nemi is the cousin of the Hindu god Kṛṣna. The tale of his renunciation and jilting of his fiancée Princess Rājīmati are famous among the Jains.
The five Pāṇḍava brothers are the heroes of the Hindu epic poem, the Mahābhārata, and its Jain versions. The Jain Mahābhārata is quite different from the Hindu version, demonstrating Jain virtues and religious beliefs.
One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal History. In the part of the universe where humans live, nine Prati-vāsudevas are born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time. Each one personifies the forces of evil and battles his mortal enemy, one of the Vāsudevas. After the Vāsudevas kill them, the Prati-vāsudevas are reborn in hell. Prati-vāsudevas are also known as Prati-nārāyaṇa and Prati-śatru.
An avatar of Viṣṇu, the preserver or protector who is one of the three major Hindu gods. Rāma is a prince of Ayodhyā and is often shown with blue skin, holding a bow and arrow. The epic poem Rāmāyaṇa recounts his adventures as he searches for his wife Sītā, who has been kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Blending Jain values into the story, the Jain Rāmāyaṇas cast him and other figures in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
One of the fundamental works of Indian literature, the Rāmāyaṇa is an epic poem recounting the adventures of Prince Rāma as he searches for his wife Sītā, who has been kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Blending Jain values into the story, the Jain Rāmāyaṇas present him and other figures in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
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 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.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
A Western academic term used for the largely medieval texts that hold the Jain legendary history of the world. Recounting the life stories of the '63 Great or Illustrious Men', the writings are intended to provide role-models for later Jains. The main texts of Jain Universal History are the:
One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal History, Vāsudevas are the younger half-brothers of the Baladevas, sharing the same fathers. They are both demi-Cakravartins or half Universal Rulers. In the part of the universe where humans live, nine Vāsudevas are born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time. Each one battles his mortal enemy, one of the Prati-vāsudevas. For breaking the principle of non-violence, the Vāsudevas are reborn as hell-beings – nārakis. Some may then become Jinas in their next lives. Vāsudevas are also known as Nārāyaṇa.