Article: Jain Mahābhāratas

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

Literary forms

This manuscript painting shows Mahāvīra and the 'universal gathering' – samavasaraṇa. This Sanskrit term describes the assembly of human beings, animals and gods to whom the omniscient Jina preaches and the building designed to spread his words worldwide

Mahāvīra preaching to his universal gathering
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

As part of Jain Universal History, the Jain Mahābhārata is typically told in a Jain Purāṇa, introduced by a narrative setting of Mahāvīra’s samavasaraṇa attended by King Śreṇika. Some episodes from the Jain Mahābhārata are present in the Śvetāmbara canonical texts, suggesting an early date for their assimilation into Universal History.

The first complete Jain Mahābhārata is the Harivaṃśa-purāṇaPurāṇa of the Dynasty of Hari – which Jinasena Punnāṭa finished in 783. Its title clearly echoes the appendix of the Mahābhārata with the same name. In the Jain context it refers to the dynasty to which the main characters belong, the cousins:

  • Kṛṣṇa
  • Baladeva or Balarāma
  • the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi.

A second title under which the Jain Mahābhāratas also often come is Biography of Nemi. An example is the Riṭṭhaṇemi-cariu by Svayambhū-deva, composed in the 9th to 10th century. Even though this title may give the impression of focusing on the life of Nemi, this is not the case. In fact, this Apabhraṃśa epic is the first Jain Mahābhārata proper. This is because the great majority of the composition deals with the story of the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, and the great battle between them, dwarfing the other three topics. The choice of the name Biography of Nemi for this and other compositions is considered to be due to the relative higher status of Nemi, as a Jina, compared with Kṛṣṇa or the Pāṇḍavas. It does not indicate a particular emphasis in the composition.

From the 13th century onwards, a third title came to be used for the same narrative material. This is the Pāṇḍava-purāṇa or Pāṇḍava-carita. These versions tend to focus on the conflict between the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, but still include the other three topics.

Famous Jain Mahābhāratas

Title

Author

Detail

Harivaṃśa-purāṇa

Jinasena Punnāṭa

783

Riṭṭhaṇemi-cariuBiography 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

The 5th-century Vasudeva-hiṇḍi by Saṅghadāsa appears to be unique in its concentration on the Bṛhat-kathā material. It reduces the other three topics to subsidiary episodes to the main narrative of Vasudeva and his adventures.

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