Article: Jain Universal History

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

Literary forms

A painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra shows Queen Triśalā and her newborn son. He will grow up to become Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. This is a conventional way of illustrating the birth of a baby who will become a Jina

Mahāvīra and his mother Triśalā
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

According to tradition, the subject matter of Jain Universal History was narrated in the Pūrvas, a part of the Jain canon which has been lost since the fourth century BCE. Other parts of the Śvetāmbara canon, which is not accepted by the Digambaras in its entirety, contain some information about the lives of the śalākā-puruṣas, especially some Jinas.

The literary genre associated exclusively with Jain Universal History is that of the Jain Purāṇa. This forms a ‘counter tradition’ to the rising popularity of Hindu Puranic religion. Śvetāmbaras often call these compositions caritra – ‘deeds’. The oldest available purāṇa or caritra is the Paümacariya by Vimala-sūri, written in Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit. It focuses on the lives of the eighth:

  • BaladevaRāma
  • Vāsudeva – Lakṣmaṇa
  • Prati-vāsudeva – Rāvaṇa.

In effect, it is a Jain version of the popular Rāmāyaṇa tale. Aside from the story of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Paümacariya also includes the biographies of the first two Jinas, and the first, second and ninth Cakravartins.

The most popular characters from Jain Universal History, as far as literary adaptations are concerned, appear to be those included in compositions generally called Nemi-caritras or Harivaṃśa-purāṇas. These all focus on the lives of the ninth Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva, who are called Balarāma, Kṛṣṇa and Jarāsandha. They also deal with the life of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, who is Kṛṣṇa’s young cousin.

The first complete literary composition of Jain Universal History, often referred to as a mahā-purāṇa – ‘great purāṇa’ – was composed by Śīlāṅka in 868 to 869. This is his Caüppaṇṇa-mahāpurisa-cariyaDeeds of the 54 Great Men. Śīlāṅka does not count the nine Prati-vāsudevas among the śalākā-puruṣas, hence the lower number of 54 instead of 63. Historically, more influential is the Mahā-purāṇa by Jinasena and Guṇabhadra written in the ninth century and the Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra by Hemacandra, dating from the 12th century.

Finally, one of the books in the Śvetāmbara canon, the Kalpa-sūtra, provides the earliest life stories of the most prominent Jinas, namely:

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