Article: Jain Universal History

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

Western scholars use the term ‘Universal History’ for the narrated history of people in the different known parts of the world and the interconnections among them. In Jain studies, the term refers to the body of work consisting of the biographies of the śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’. In particular, Jain Universal History deals with the lives of the Jinas, the Cakravartins and the nine groups of Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas.

The texts that recount these biographies are generally called purāṇas – 'ancient [scriptures]' – or caritras – 'deeds'. The Jain Purāṇas tell the complete mytho-legendary history of the world for the current time period from a distinct Jain perspective, up to the last historical Jina, Mahāvīra, and his famous early disciples.

The symmetry and repetitiveness that characterises Jain cosmology can be found here too. For example, although these narratives are limited to the present time period, they are representative of the history of other time periods as well, namely the past and future. The lives of many of the great men also show marked similarities, featuring, for instance, prophetic dreams and the interventions of gods and supernatural elements.

Periods of time

In the part of the universe where human beings live, time moves in cycles. Each cycle has 12 parts of different length, moving through half-cycles where things gradually get worse – avasarpiṇi – and then gradually get better – utsarpiṇi. Then the cycle be

Cycle of time
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain

According to traditional Jain cosmology, the regions where humans live are categorised as karma-bhūmi – ‘land of action’. They are subject to a regular sequence of alternating time periods, called:

  • utsarpiṇī – ‘ascending phase’
  • avasarpiṇī – ‘descending phase’.

Two of these phases make up one cycle of time. The phases alternate between improving and worsening conditions of life. When human existence is at its climax of development in terms of spirituality, morality, lifespan, stature, knowledge and pleasure, a new avasarpiṇī begins. Conditions gradually begin to deteriorate, until they reach a nadir. Then a new utsarpiṇī starts, in which the conditions gradually improve until a new climax is reached. Each phase is composed of six eras of different lengths.

'Great men'

In practice, what is called Jain Universal History consists of the biographies of specific categories and numbers of heroes and other characters, who are thought to recur in every half-cycle of time. These characters are śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’.

The most frequently used list of 'great men' has 63 characters for every time phase, comprising:

  • 24 Jinas
  • 12 Cakravartins
  • 9 Baladevas
  • 9 Vāsudevas
  • 9 Prati-vāsudevas.

Other lists exclude the Prati-vāsudevas or include other categories, such as the:

  • 9 Nāradas
  • 11 Rudras
  • 24 Kāmadevas
  • 7, 14 or 16 Kulakaras
  • 24 mothers and fathers of the Jinas.

These biographies generally include accounts of several previous existences of each of these mahā-puruṣas and their principal antagonists. These effectively explain what happens to them in their lives as mahā-puruṣas and integrate their stories into the broader frame of Jain karmic theory.


A manuscript painting depicts the omniscient first Jina among symbols of high status. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha set up social institutions such as marriage and agriculture.

Omniscient Ṛṣabha
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The greatest of the mahā-puruṣas are the Tīrthaṃkaras – ‘ford-makers’ – who are also frequently referred to as Jinas – ‘conquerors’. Their life stories in Jain Universal History are often very similar.

The first of the 24 Jinas of the present half-cycle of time is Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, who lived during the suṣamā-duṣamā period. All the others were born in the following period, the duṣamā-suṣamā period, which is the era before the present one.

The Jinas of this avasarpiṇī phase of time all hail from royal families. In one of their earlier existences, their souls bound a specific type of karman, called the tīrthaṃkara-nāma-karman. This forecasts that one becomes a Jina in a future birth.

In ritual and art, the main events in the life of a Jina are reduced to five episodes, the so-called pañca-kalyāṇakas – ‘five auspicious episodes’ of:

Each of these episodes is accompanied by miraculous elements, such as rains of gems or the attendance of gods and goddesses.

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