Article: Jain Rāmāyaṇas

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

For centuries poets have produced a vast number of versions of the popular Sanskrit epic called the Rāmāyaṇa. Jains too created their own tellings of the story that support Jain ideology. The protagonists Rāma, his brother Lakṣmaṇa and their enemy Rāvaṇa were incorporated into Jain Universal History. This casts the former two as the eighth Baladeva and Vāsudeva, and the demon king as the Prati-vāsudeva who is their great foe.

Poets composed distinctively Jain versions of the Rāmāyaṇa in various languages. These include the classical literary languages of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhraṃśa as well as vernaculars such as Kannada, Gujarati and Hindi. There are some differences between individual versions, though most Jain Rāmāyaṇas share the common outlook of the Jain Universal History.

The Jain adaption of the Rāmāyaṇa shows some distinctive features. These differences from other tellings demonstrate how Jain ideas have been blended into the poem.

Jain Universal History

The repository of Jain myth and legend often called Jain Universal History offers a distinctive Jain perspective on the Rāmāyaṇa. Now an important Hindu scripture, the Rāmāyaṇa was not strongly identified with Hindu beliefs in the early stages of its composition. As figures in Jain Universal History, the key characters in the Jain Rāmāyaṇa differ from their Hindu counterparts.

The Jain protagonists of the Rāma story are considered to be three śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’ – of the current avasarpiṇī.

'Great men' of the Rāmāyaṇa


Role as 'great man'


eighth Baladeva

his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa

eighth Vāsudeva

their enemy Rāvaṇa, King of Laṅkā

eighth Prati-vāsudeva

These three figures lived at the time of the 20th Jina, though in the story there is no contact between the Rāmāyaṇa characters and Munisuvratanātha or Lord Munisuvrata.

Story of Rāma

In an episode from the epic poem 'Rāmāyaṇa', Sītā gives Hanumān her ring to pass on to her husband, Rāma. One of the major epics of Indian culture, the 'Rāmāyaṇa' recounts Rāma's search for his kidnapped wife Sītā, who has been abducted by Rāvaṇa.

Hanumān and Sītā
Image by Soham Banerjee © CC BY 2.0

Even though there are differences in the diverse Jain versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, all of them tell the following story.

There once was a king named Daśaratha, who has three wives. He fathers four sons:

  • Rāma
  • Lakṣmaṇa
  • Bharata
  • Śatrughna.

Rāma marries a princess named Sītā. One day, the lovely Sītā is abducted by Rāvaṇa, the king of the island of Laṅkā. Rāma goes in search of his wife, together with his younger half-brother Lakṣmaṇa.

During their search, they encounter Sugrīva, a ruler who has been ousted from his kingdom. Rāma helps Sugrīva to regain his position, in return for Sugrīva’s help in finding Sītā. When Rāma has defeated Sugrīva’s adversary on his behalf, Sugrīva sends his associate Hanumān to Laṅkā for news of Sītā.

Rāvaṇa is rebuked for his behavior by his brother Vibhīṣaṇa. In due course Vibhīṣaṇa defects and joins Rāma’s forces. With the support of Sugrīva and his armies, Rāma declares war on Rāvaṇa. In the end Lakṣmaṇa kills Rāvaṇa. Eventually, Rāma, Sīta and Lakṣmaṇa return home.

Distinctive features of Jain Rāmāyaṇas

The synopsis of the Jain Rāmāyaṇa is largely the same as the story of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. However, there are three important differences from the version attributed to Vālmīki, which has become a major Hindu text. Stressing moral issues and choices that affect the workings of karma, the principal characters and narratives of the various Jain Rāmāyaṇas generally uphold Jain values and doctrine.

An important difference is that in Vālmīki’s version Rāma, not Lakṣmaṇa, kills Rāvaṇa. Because the Jains categorise Rāvaṇa as a Prati-vāsudeva, he must ultimately be killed by a Vāsudeva, who is Lakṣmaṇa. This explains a key difference from Vālmīki’s version.

Another significant difference between the Hindu text and the Jain compositions lies in the characterisation of Sugrīva and Rāvaṇa. In Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, and most other Rāma tellings, Sugrīva is described as a vānara – a monkey – and leader of a monkey kingdom. These vānaras look outwardly like monkeys and possess many characteristics of monkeys, but also have many human traits, such as the ability to speak. The Jain authors consider Sugrīva, Hanumān and their fellows to be vānaras, but interpret the term differently. According to them the Vānaras are a race of humans, named vānaras after their emblem, a monkey.

Vālmīki’s Rāvaṇa is a Rākṣasa, a particular kind of demon. He is king of the Rākṣasas, who live in Laṅkā. In parallel with the concept of the Vānaras, the Jain authors interpret these Rākṣasas not as demons, but as humans. They state they are named Rākṣasas because they are descendants of a King Rakṣas.

These Jain Vānara and Rākṣasa races are branches of the larger Vidyā-dhara dynasty. The members of the Vidyā-dhara dynasty all possess one or more vidyās – genies. These give them various kinds of superhuman powers, including the power to fly.

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