Article: Jain epics

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa in Jainism

The 22nd Jina Nemi with his cousin Kr̥ṣṇa. To Jains Kr̥ṣṇa is Prince Nemi's cousin, who appears in his life story. He is the ninth and final Vāsudeva of this time period and thus a a śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man'. To Hindus Kr̥ṣṇa is the avatar of Viṣṇu.

Nemi and Kr̥ṣṇa
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Even though the stories in these two great epics of Indian culture are certainly the most well-known and authoritative versions, many other tellings have been composed over the past 25 centuries. Poets from different social, ideological, geographical and cultural backgrounds have brought their own concerns and experiences to the tales. Jainism too incorporated these legends into its own world view and, from the first centuries of the Common Era onwards, poets began creating Rāmāyaṇas and Mahābhāratas from a Jain perspective.

The Jain Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa underline some key ideas of Jain doctrine in their concern for non-violence and karma and the desirability of renouncing the world to become Jain ascetics. A good example is the story of Neminātha or Lord Nemi, the cousin of the Jain Kṛṣṇa, who is so repulsed by the violent death of the animals that will provide food for his wedding feast that he becomes a monk.

Paralleling the high status of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa among Hindus, Jains accord honoured places to these narratives and their main characters, integrating them into Jain Universal History. The heroes and their principal enemies are categorised as śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’.

According to Jain Universal History, each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time, nine Baladevas and their nine half-brothers – the Vāsudevas – battle their mortal enemies, the Prati-vāsudevas. The main characters in the Jain epics are assigned specific roles in the Jain trios, which comprise a Baladeva, a Vāsudeva and a Prati-vāsudeva.

'Great men' of the Jain epics

Epic

Character

Role as 'great man'

Rāmāyaṇa

Rāma

eighth Baladeva

his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa

eighth Vāsudeva

his enemy Rāvaṇa

eighth Prati-vāsudeva

Mahābhārata

Kṛṣṇa

ninth and final Vāsudeva

his older brother Balarāma

ninth and final Baladeva

his enemy Jarāsaṃdha

ninth and final Prati-vāsudeva

References in Jain literature

In the Śvetāmbara canonical texts references are made to the categories of śalākā-puruṣas, but there is no trace of an actual Jain telling of the Rāmāyaṇa in this corpus. The god Kṛṣṇa, on the other hand, is mentioned several times in the canonical texts and episodes of his life are narrated in a number of places. However, his complete biography is absent from the canon, along with those of the other characters of the Mahābhārata.

The biographies of the 63 great men typically form the subject of Jain Purāṇic literature, which arose during the first centuries of the Common Era. The Purāṇic context places the stories of the śalākā-puruṣas in the mouth of Mahāvīra or his first disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama. This grants them very high authority and status.

Famous Jain Rāmāyaṇas

Title

Author

Details

Paüma-cariyam – Acts of Padma

Vimala-sūri

written in Māhārāṣṭrī Prākrit, before the fifth century

Padma-purāṇa – Purāṇa of Padma

Raviṣeṇa

written in Sanskrit in 678

Paüma-cariu – Acts of Padma

Svayaṃbhū-deva

written in Apabhraṃśa in the 9th to 10th century

Jain retellings of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are numerous but some have been particularly influential. The tales are also often found in other Jain repositories of stories, such as the kathākośas – ‘treasures of stories’.

Famous Jain Mahābhāratas

Title

Author

Details

Harivaṃśa-purāṇa

Jinasena Punnāṭa

783

Riṭṭhaṇemi-cariu Biography of Nemi

Svayambhū-deva

written in Apabhraṃśa in the 9th to 10th century

Pāṇḍava-caritaActs of the Pāṇḍavas

Devaprabha-sūri

1214

Pāṇḍava-purāṇaPurāṇa of the Pāṇḍavas

Śubhacandra

1552

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