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.

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

Images

  • Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas 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.. Image by Gift of Doris and Ed Wiener, Brooklyn Museum © No known copyright restrictions
  • Nemi and Kr̥ṣṇa This manuscript painting depicts the 22nd Jina Neminatha or Lord Nemi with his cousin Kr̥ṣṇa. To Jains Kr̥ṣṇa is Prince Nemi's cousin, who appears in his life story. Also called Vāsudeva, he is the ninth and final Vāsudeva of this time period and thus a śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man'. To Hindus Kr̥ṣṇa is the avatar of the supreme god Viṣṇu.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Further Reading

The Sanskrit Epics
J. L. Brockington
Handbuch der Orientalistik, Indien series; volume 12
Brill; Leiden, Netherlands and Boston, Massachusetts, USA; 1998

Full details

Rām-kathā: (utpatti aur vikās)
K. Bulke
Hindī Pariṣad Prakāśana; Prayāg, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1950

Full details

‘An Overview of the Jaina Purāṇas’
John E. Cort
Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts
edited by Wendy Doniger
State University of New York Press; New York, USA; 1993

Full details

‘A Purāṇic Counter Tradition’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts
edited by Wendy Doniger
State University of New York Press; New York, USA; 1993

Full details

Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Paula Richman
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

Full details

Glossary

Ahiṃsā

The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.

Avasarpiṇī

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.

Baladeva

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.

Bharata

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.

Buddhist

A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.

Common Era

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.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Disciple

An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.

Hindu

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.

Hinduism

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.

Hymn

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:

  • solo or in groups
  • as a form of meditation
  • as a rite offered as part of worship.

Indrabhūti Gautama

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.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Kṛṣṇa

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.

Mahābhārata

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.

Nemi

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.

Pāṇḍava

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.

Prati-vāsudeva

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.

Rāma

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.

Rāmāyaṇa

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.

Renunciation

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.

Śalākā-puruṣa

'Great man' – also known as a mahā-puruṣa – whose story is told in Jain Universal History. Born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time, there are five types of 'great men':

  • 24 Jinas
  • 12 Cakravartins
  • 9 Baladevas
  • 9 Vāsudevas
  • 9 Prati-vāsudevas.

Sanskrit

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.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Universal History

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:

  • Śvetāmbara monk Hemacandra's Triṣaṣti-śalākā-puruṣa-caritraLife Stories of 63 Great Men
  • Mahā-purāṇaGreat Ancient Tale – of the Digambara writers Jinasena and Guṇabhadra.

Vāsudeva

One of the five types of 'great men' – śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – in Jain Universal HistoryVāsudevas 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.

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