Contributed by Eva De Clercq
The legends, stories and characters of the Mahābhārata, the Sanskrit epic attributed to the seer Vyāsa, became so popular throughout and beyond South Asia that Jains developed their own accounts. Jain poets composed distinctly Jain versions, situating the events of the Mahābhārata within Jain Universal History.
However, what are considered the Jain Mahābhāratas are not limited to the story of the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, who are the main figures in the Hindu Mahābhārata. Jain versions of the Mahābhāratas also include:
In these ways, the Jain Mahābhāratas reinforce Jain beliefs and strengthen a sense of particularly Jain culture, though elements are shared with wider Indian society.
Though now a key part of the Hindu canon, the early forms of the Mahābhārata did not especially promote Hindu values or beliefs. One of the principal differences between the Jain and Hindu versions of the tale is the classification of certain characters and the perspective this gives the stories. This is one of the main features that make the Jain Mahābhāratas distinctly Jain even though there are many versions. These characters form part of Jain Universal History, a large body of texts that contains much of the mythology of Jain culture. The characters and narrative are also expanded in the Jain versions.
Jains consider some of the characters of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa to be mahā-puruṣas or śalākā-puruṣas – ‘great men’. In the Jain telling of the Rāmāyaṇa the protagonists are the mahā-puruṣas. However, the heroes in the Jain Mahābhārata, the Pāṇḍavas, are not classed as Jain great men. None of the Pāṇḍavas or Kauravas – their great enemies – is considered to be a great man.
Instead, the focus in the Jain Mahābhāratas is more on Kṛṣṇa, his brother Balarāma and their enemy Jarāsaṃdha. These characters are secondary to the main narrative of Vyāsa’s Hindu Mahābhārata.
Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas
Image by Gift of Doris and Ed Wiener, Brooklyn Museum © No known copyright restrictions
The primary characters and narrative are expanded in the Jain Mahābhārata. In the Jain Mahābhāratas these four distinct topics have generally become intertwined:
There is a shift in focus from the Pāṇḍavas to Kṛṣṇa in the Jain Mahābhāratas which is most likely due to the rise and development of Kṛṣṇa as a Hindu divinity. This development made Kṛṣṇa a more important character in Hinduism and thus in the Mahābhārata story too. This general tendency affected the Jain Mahābhārata.
The figure of Kṛṣṇa is first introduced in the Hindu Mahābhārata, which started life around 400 BCE. The events of the Jain Mahābhārata take place at the time of the 22nd Jina, Nemi. Since he is a cousin of Kṛṣṇa, Nemi’s story is also generally included in the Jain Mahābhāratas.
Prince Kṛṣṇa, born to Devakī and Prince Vasudeva in Mathurā, is prophesied to cause the death of his uncle, Kaṃsa. Therefore, immediately after his birth, Vasudeva and Kṛṣṇa’s elder half-brother Baladeva take him to a colony of herdsmen. There he grows up safely hidden from his uncle, who is intent on killing him.
After many years and adventures, he returns to Mathurā, kills Kaṃsa in a wrestling match and is reunited with his parents. Though the prophecy is fulfilled, there is no emphasis on this in the tale. This course of events is the same as in the Hindu version of Kṛṣṇa’s biography.
Soon thereafter Mathurā comes under attack from a neighbouring king, Jarāsaṃdha. Kṛṣṇa and his subjects flee to the west, towards the ocean, where they live in the new city of Dvāravatī, constructed by the gods. There Kṛṣṇa marries several queens and has many sons.
In due time, King Jarāsaṃdha wages war on Kṛṣṇa again. Six months later, the two monarchs agree to meet for a decisive battle, both gathering a vast number of allies. Kṛṣṇa kills Jarāsaṃdha in a duel.
Eventually, Dvāravatī is burned by a vengeful god, and only Kṛṣṇa and Baladeva escape. On their way south, Kṛṣṇa is killed by a hunter who mistakes him for a deer.
Apabhraṃśa is an umbrella term for the dialects that were the forerunners of modern Indian languages. Taken from the Sanskrit term apabhraṃśa, which literally means 'corrupt' or 'non-grammatical language', Apabhraṃśa was used to write a large number of Jain texts. Though Apabhraṃśa developed over the 6th to 13th centuries, literary works date back to the 8th century.
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.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
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.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
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.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
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.
To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:
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.
Literally, Sanskrit for 'universal gathering'. A holy assembly led by a Jina where he preaches to all – human beings, animals and deities alike – after he has become omniscient. In this universal gathering, natural enemies are at peace.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
Term for either everyday or material life, not the spiritual, or for a social or political system that concentrates on the material world, rejecting spiritual or religious influence. A secularist believes that religion has no place in fields such as education and politics.
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:
The vehicle of a Hindu god or goddess. Usually an animal, the vāhana fulfils one or more roles and may:
The vāhana may also have its own divine powers or be worshipped in its own right.
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.