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.
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.
Role as 'great man'
his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa
their enemy Rāvaṇa, King of Laṅkā
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
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.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
A plant noted for its beautiful flowers, which has symbolic significance in many cultures. In Indian culture, the lotus is a water lily signifying spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. Lotuses frequently feature in artwork of Jinas, deities, Buddha and other holy figures.
A dialect of the Prākrit language used in some Jain writings.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
The 20th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is black and his emblem the tortoise. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
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:
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.