Article: Jain Mahābhāratas

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:

  • the biography of Kṛṣṇa, whom the Jains consider to be the ninth Vāsudeva of the current era
  • the biography of the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi
  • a version of another popular South Asian narrative cycle, known as the Bṛhatkathā.

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.

Jain Universal History

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.

In Jain Universal History:

  • Kṛṣṇa is the ninth Vāsudeva
  • his half-brother Balarāma or Baladeva is the ninth Baladeva
  • their enemy Jarāsaṃdha is the ninth Prati-vāsudeva.

These three types of great men are fated to fight each other in each half-cycle of time. The Prati-vāsudeva battles his mortal enemy the Vāsudeva, who is supported by his half-brother, the Baladeva.

Four topics

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

The primary characters and narrative are expanded in the Jain Mahābhārata. In the Jain Mahābhāratas these four distinct topics have generally become intertwined:

  • the life story of Kṛṣṇa
  • the life of Neminātha or Lord Nemi
  • the story of the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas
  • the narrative cycle of the Bṛhat-kathā.

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.

Kṛṣṇa’s biography

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)

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.

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