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The Tirthankaras in Jainism enjoy the highest position in both the Svetambara as well as the Digambara sects. Each one of the twenty four Tirthankaras have their own glory and importance as cult figures and are revered not only by the Jaina followers in the country but the world over. The first as well as the last few of them are considered to be historical figures. They are adored in the from of sculptures and other means of the plastic art from the time immemorial. The archaeological evidence stands testimony to their adoration in shrines and temples which had been built by the contemporary rulers or even the members of the merchant guilds in the ancient past. These vestiges of the ancient period stand witness to the excellence, the Indian sculptural art had achieved in the remote past. Not only in the temples, but the images of the Tirthankaras were found carved in the mountain caves like Rajagir and other sites in the entire length and breadth of the country, besides miniatures in the Kalpasutras.
The literary evidence in Jaina pantheon also did not lag behind in expressing the glory of these Tirthankaras. In fact there is huge collection of the ancient Jaina hand written manuscripts lodged in several of the Jaina temples and the Libraries like those at Arrah, Varanasi and other places. An attempt has been made to highlight the glory of the Tirthankaras, quite briefly on the basis of these records, which is likely to attract the people at large.
Shantilal Nagar, a graduate of the Punjab University served in the curatorial capacity in the central Asian Antiquities Museum, New Delhi the Archaeological Museum, Nalanda, and Archaeological Section of the Indian Museum, Calcutta for a number of year. He has to his credit the scientific documentation of over fifty thousand antiquities, in these museums, representing the rich cultural heritage of the country and comprising of sculptures, bronzes, terracttas, beads, seals and sealing, ancient Indian numismatics, wood work, miniatures and paintings, textiles and Pearce collection of gems, ranging from the earliest times to the late medieval period, he was awarded, in 1987, a fellowship, for his monograph on the Temples of Himachal Pradesh, by the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. He has authored more than 60 books on, Indian Art literature and culture.
Jainism is one of the oldest religion of the country and its presence has been traced by the scholars in the Vedic literature as well as the Harappan antiquarian remains but nothing remains established in both the cases for want of conclusive evidence in this regard. The spiritual heads of Jainism are called Jina or Tirthankara who followed some set principles and the system of religious philosophical and ethical teachings and derives its name from Sanskrit word Jina which stands for conquerer. This title is bestowed on such mortals who had conquered the world of passion and emerged out of it as a spiritual victor. The followers of the faith are known as Jainas or the followers of Jina.
Jainism belongs to Sramana current of the Indian Culture, which in origin was not Vedic but was expounded by lord Mahavira, the last among the Tirthankaras, over two thousand five hundred years back. Jainism evolved into a complete system of philosophy over the centuries, with evolved into a complete system of philosophy over the centuries, with branches of onthology, epistemology, and ethics as well as the religious mythology and a long range of rituals. It has developed variously, which is reflected into its two main sects and several other sub-sects. The main sects are deities and minor deities, besides, monastic order, religious leaders, sacred books, rituals, festivals and fairs.
Mahavira was the twenty-fourth Tirthankara of Jainism who was born in Magadha in 599 B. C. and was a bit older contemporary of the Buddha. Like the Buddha he preached a religion which was of Sramana tradition. Both the Jainism and Buddhism believed in ahimsa and were reformist in nature. Both of them sprang up as a re-action or in protest against the ritualistic faith of Brahmanism which had turned into a complex polytheistic beliefs, centring around elaborate rites conducted through the Brahmana priests. Both Buddhism and Jainism did not believe in the efficacy of sacrifice as form of worship and also disowned the authority of the Brahmanical scriptures including the Vedic literature as well as the Dharmasastras. They Visnu, Siva and others. In fact the approach of the Buddhist and Jains was atheistic in nature and did not believe in the supreme soul or the distinction of caste and creed.
Actually, Jainism is highly original, containing very ancient ideology. The two religions viz.-the Buddhism and the Jainism, though are similar in this approach, but both of them developed their ideologies on different patterns. Both of them had a large number of followers but Jainism confined its activities within and country whereas Buddhism spread its wings beyond the Indian frontiers. However, the closely-knit organization of Jainism and its hold over its adherents continued to be quite strong throughout the ages. It has therefore been able to withstand the rival forces quite successfully while Buddhism could not face the rival forces and disappeared from the land of its origin.
In every cosmic cycle twenty four Tirthankaras are born during the downward course of pendulum and twenty four during its upwards movement. Mahavira was the last Tirthankara of the Avasarpini era in the current cosmic cycle. According to Jainism, there is enough of literary evidence to support the idea that there were twenty three Tirthankaras preceding Mahavira, while Parsvanatha - the twenty third Tirthankara was a historical figure, who lived and taught in Varanasi in the ninth century B. C. in fact the antiquity of the Jaina religion cab be traced to twenty second Tirthankara Neminatha who resided in Girnar region in Saurastra and was contemporary of Krsna and Balarama. (In fact some sculptures have been found and relate to the medieval times and portray Krsna and Balarama over the sculptures of Neminatha). But subsequent to those times the history of Jainism is surrounded in mystery and is mainly based on legends and myths. A peep into the interval of time between the twenty-fourth and twenty third besides the twenty third and twenty second Tirthankara would reveal that the period was extended to two or three centuries, and in case this period is taken as an indicative of the time span that separated each Tirthankara from the one who preceded him, then the date of the first Tirthankara can be traced back to the seventh or eighth millennium B. C. which may coincide with the genesis of the Indian Civilization or to some extent even the Harappan Culture. In fact the Jainism considers Rsabha as the founder of the Indian Civilization, who established the institution of kingship, created a social pattern of society and taught the various arts and crafts to his subjects. He is also supposed to have initiated the science of numericals and the art of writing. The legends connected with the life of Rsabha reveal, that he, after ruling for many years felt detached with the worldly existence and sought spiritual peace. He therefore renounced the royal pleasures and became a wandering, homeless monk engaging himself in austerities. He ultimately achieved the supreme knowledge and created the religious order with four segments - monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen; and made his followers to observer a code of conduct.
It may be pointed out here that the Srimad Bhagavata Purana of the Hindus, adores Rsabhanatha in more then one way and even declares him as an incarnation of Visnu. It is also testified in the said Purana that Rsabha created a new religious order based on total detachment and tranquillisation of the sense organs and mental processes. This description of Rsabha's religion as brought out in the Srimadbhagavata Purana, conforms to the Jaina beliefs. According to the Jaina faith, each Tirthankara reanimates the imperishable Jain tradition and whenever the religious order established by one Tirthankara fades out, it is rejuvenated by another. The Jaina texts reveal that the parents of Mahavira followed the Jain doctrine propagated by the twenty-third Tirthankara - Parsvanatha. Mahavira was also brought up as an adherent of the same faith. After the death of Mahavira, seven ganadharas propagated his teachings. The teachings of the faith were orally carried to the believers and for the next few centuries the same system continued wherein the preceptor handed down his knowledge orally to his disciple. The deficiency of the oral transmission of the religious knowledge or the philosophical dogmas were well realized a few centuries before the Christian era. In the fourth century B. C. a disastrous famine ravaged the land of Magadha. The then prevailing conditions of the society forced a large number of monks to migrate to other regions. Out of the monks who decided to stay on, many of them died of starvation and with them the knowledge of the mahavira's teachings, possessed by them with great efforts, was irretrievably lost. The situation became much worse when the Jaina community realized that the malnutrition had seriously impaired the retentive powers of the surviving monks and that the Jaina cannon was facing the danger of extinction. In order to somehow salvage their religious teachings from total oblivion, the Jainas convened a council of Monks of Pataliputra and under the leadership of the monk Sthulabhadra, the disordered Jain cannon introduced systematic codification.
After sometime when the group of monks who had migrated to other regions returned to their home-land, they were surprised at the laxity in the attitude of their brethren. The Magadhan monks had started the use of costumes and this, for the recently returned monks, was the gross violation of the fifth tenet of non-possession. The use of costumes was in no way acceptable to them. The recension of the Jaina canon compiled at Pataliputra too was equally unacceptable to them who found several deficiencies and inaccuracies in the same. These and several other points of contention resulted in sharp difference of opinions between the two factions leaving no room for compromise. This resulted into the split of the community into two sects. Such of them who were more conservative and staunch advocates of nudity among the monks, were known as Digambaras (the sky clad) and those who preferred to use the costumes, were grouped as Svetambaras (clad in white garments). The two traditions were drawn as parallel lines retaining their separate identities.
The Digambara traditions maintain that Acharya Bhadrabahu, a learned monk representing five of pontiffs descending from Mahavira, could foretell from certain prognostic signs that a calamity was imminent in Magadha and he decided to migrate to the south. A large number of followers followed him. Thereafter Acarya Bhadrabhahu, his royal disciple Candragupta Maurya and other twelve thousand followers arrived at a place known as Sravanabelgola in Karnataka. At that points of time Bhadrabahu realizing that his end was fast approaching, decided to stay there. He desired his followers to proceed further without him. Only Candragupta Maurya stayed on with him to take care of his mentor. Bhadrabahu died at Sravanabel-gola while performing severe austerities prescribed for the vow of Sallekhana. The Digambara tradition says that when the followers of Bhadrabahu returned to Magadha after twelve years in the sough, they found tremendous changes in the Jaina cannon as well as in the conduct of monks in Magadha. These differences were irreconcilable and the group from the south not only disowned the cannon compiled at Pataliputra but also proclaimed themselves that true Jains or the Mulasangha. The differences resulted in the sharp division in the community. Certain other Digambara sources, however, do not place the great schism in Pataliputra but at Ujjain. They also indicate that the final separation between the two sects occurred in Vallabhi-in the sixth century A. D. when the monks wearing a loincloth were required by local kings to become fully clothed in white garments.
The Svetambara tradition reveals many departures from the version propagated by the Digambara Sect. They claim that Acharya Bhadrabahu did not go to the south but was in Nepal at the time of famine in Magadha. They also believe that the schism between Svetambaras and the Digambaras took place in A. D. 82, when Sivakotti of Rathavirapura established an order of the naked monks and members of this order became the first sky clad monks.
In fact the Digambaras and the Svetambaras sects stem from the same source but differ in their approach in the philosophical and metaphysical matters. An important aspect of the Jaina traditions is the literature that was produced by Svetambaras from the earliest time to the late medieval period. Like the Vedic people who preserved the Vedas by oral tradition when the teacher passed on his Vedic knowledge to his disciples, and though the oral tradition in a formal sense with the Vedic people and was quite popular with them, but this tradition was not restricted to them alone, Almost a millennium later in the sixth century B. C. the scope of the oral tradition expanded to include the theological doctrines and canonical literature of the two heterodox religions systems - Jainism and Buddhism. Nor was the tradition confined to the religions, within its large frame work, it encompassed expressions of a literary nature such as narrative, prose, romantic poetry and drama. It also covered treatises on grammar, and other subjects. In fact the oral system was the very basic to the Indian way of the country and the contribution of priests, philosophers, as well as of the poets, who gave it an intricate and varied character, was indeed enormous.
The supremacy of the oral tradition continued until about the fourth century B. C. References to writing begin to appear in the early layers of Pali Buddhist canon of fifth century B. C. These allusions comprise description of metrical employed for writing, such as leaves, wood, metal sheets and even stone. Sections of the Buddhist canon also mention writing as the distinguished aspect of learning and contain suggestions that Buddhist aims should occupy themselves with this activity. Still there is no indication of the fact that the sacred literature should be read and copied. The oral tradition had continued with astonishing retentive abilities in the minds of the people and because of their capacity to memorise volumes of, literature, they experienced no need to revolutionise prevalent practices and customs.
The Jaina tradition mentions about the repeated attempts made by the individuals as well as collective, towards preserving the canonical and exegetical teachings. Still they do not possess any written text dating between the fourth century B. C. when the council at Pataliputra was convened and the sixth century A. D. when the second Council at Vallabhi was held. Actually a few extant Jaina manuscripts are there ulterior to the tenth century A. D. this is a bit surprising since reference to written material occur in Jaina religious texts composed around sixth century A. D.
Historically speaking, according to the Jaina religious order, in the first few centuries after the death of Mahavira. The monks led an itinerant life preaching and propagating the faith. Thereafter from the second century A. D. to the eighth century A. D. Jainism received substantial patronage from the kinds, queens, and ministers of states. These generous endowments enabled the community to build grand temples and monastic establishments. Quite frequently the land grants accompanied these donations and in due course of time the Jaina clergy found itself burdened with management of properties and religions establishments. By about the eighth century A. D. a position of Bhattaraka was created for the management of the Monestaries and a senior member of the order was appointed for the purpose. These Bhattarakas were and even now are, in some places, the heads of the Jaina religious establishments.
In due course of time the auspicious act of commissioning manuscripts of religious texts became frequent among the Jainas. The usual custom was to proffer the sacred texts to religious personages as to gift them to the temple libraries. Sometimes a devotee would order numerous copies of a particular text for the purpose of distribution at different centers. Sometimes these manuscripts were illustrated with paintings. In the manuscripts like kalpasutra, Kalkacaryakatha and others, the life stories of the Jinas were highlighted, besides other religious topics. In this connection it would be of interest to peep into the monastic life of the Jaina monks, who at the time of entry had to take five vows like Ahimsa, truthfulness Asteya, Brahmacarya and Aparigraha, which were based on the Acarangasutra. These five vows when compared to the right precepts of the Buddhist show a striking resemblence suggesting that one borrowed them from the other. But the reason of the close resemblence between the two is due to their being adopted from the vows of non-voilence (ahimsa) prohibiting killing in any form of all living beings, including the plant life. It aimed at restraining the monks from using even harsh words or speaking such truth, which might Jaina traditions. According to the second vow the monk was always to speak the truth and to disassociate himself from the world of falsehood. He was also expected to use moderate and restrained language. Though the vow of truthfulness was taken, but the truth liable to harm one was to be avoided. The vow of Asteya prohibited the monk from taking possession of anything which did not belong to him. According to the fourth vow Brahmacarya, all sexual pleasures were to be given up both physically and mentally. The of five senses.
The Jaina monks remained all along wandering from place to place, avoiding visits to certain places, like the places of musical performances, and merrymaking, parks, gardens, playgrounds and the like. The places disturbed by riots, quarrels and revolutions were to be avoided for the reasons of personal security. Generally they stayed at a place for a maximum period of one month. It was however, during the rainy season that they stayed for more than-say four months. Usually after staying at a place for four months, one was to leave the place of varsavara, provided the roads were safe, otherwise he was to stay there upto the end of the month of Margasirsa.
The Jaina monk begged alms from a house holder where he halted for sometime. The lodging for him should not be in a crowded place like assembly halls, temples and garden houses. His stay in the family quarters was prohibited and he stayed in such a lodging which was suitable for the life of a Jaina mendicant and staying there did not in any way interfere with the vows of his ascetic life. For sleeping, he had to beg for a couch of the prescribed quality. In case several monks stayed in one and the same room, the beds were not to spread closely but at such intervals that no monks could touch the body of others.
The Jaina monks stood for extreme austere life and were permitted to possess objects of humble nature like robes, shoes, staff, and umbrella essential for the life of a Bhiksu. The ideal ideal before them was to posses as little as possible.
The Jaina monks shave their heads like the Buddhist Bhiksus or Brahmana Samnyasins, but in respect of dress unlike the latter tow, a Jaina monk remains completely naked. Those who do not follow this, use white robes. In the Buddhist order, the robes were donated by donors to the Sangha, which were distributed by Sangha to the needy Bhiksus, but in the Jaina order every monk begged his set of robes from the householder individually. Mahavira however, permitted the Bhiksus to put on either the upper or the lower garment or both, exception being in the case of weak or diseased monks. In winter he could possess even four pieces of clothes. However some could possess four pieces of cloth, two or three cubits each and two of two or four cubits). The Jain monks did not use coloured clothes and were also prohibited from using washed, perfumed or costly fabrics. These were changes have naturally been incorporated in the original wherever they were found necessary with the passage of time and keeping in view the political, social and other conditions. As for example, the Jaina monks and nuns who now confine their activities to the monasteries, are no more required to begging and they receive all their requirements from the monastic establishments.
An important aspect of early Jaina faith is the adoration of the symbols. The origin of the number of the symbols and the conception behind them is shrouded in mystery. The real age of the introduction of such symbols like Svastika or Nandyavarta or the pair of fish (mina-yugla) etc. is unknown. Even the shape of the original Nandyavarta symbol is not known. In the course of time, the shapes and the forms of symbols like Srivatsa on the chest of Jina images have also undergone change; Borrowings or adoptions and assimilation of symbols of rival sects and foreigners as well as from the old canon symbols of ancient India resulted in finer differences of conceptions behind symbolism. Still however literary evidences of all such sects and people explaining symbolism need detailed consideration before interpreting the true significance of each one of the symbols. But these symbols like wheel, conchant lions, umbrellas, Gandharvas and the musicians were freely used in the making of the Jaina sculptures. It can, however, be stated with confidence, that the Jaina symbols of various types had already gained currency before the introduction of the Jina images.
In fact the Jina images as cult objects became popular a little after Mahavira, though attempts to paint them on canvass and fashion them in wood, or the portraits of Mahavira in earlier times cannot be ruled out. In fact the tradition of the worship of the Jivantaswami images as evidenced from Avasyaka-curni is not wholly unreliable and is very likely true. Both Uddayana of Roruka (in Sauvira) and Pradyota of Ujjain (both contemporary of Mahavira) worshipped wooden portraits of Mahavira. In case Hemachandra is to be believed, the copper plate grant given by (Uddayana) to the first copy of the original sculpture of Mahavira (deposited by Pradyota at Roruka, while carrying off the original from Roruka) came out along with the original statue when Kumarapala's special officer, who dug it out from the site of the buried city of Roruka (in Sauvira). The fact that an early text of Vasudevahindi refers to the rathayatra festival of Jivantasvami image at Ujjain shows that the tradition of worship of this type of Mahavira's images (standing in meditation with ornaments on his person) had already gained currency in the age of the Mauryan ruler Samprati and at least was popular in the age when Vasudevahindi was composed. However, it is fairly certain that by the time of Samprati, the grandson of Asoka, the Jina image, as cult object, and not as a portrait, had already been introduced in Jaina worship. The highly polished torso and part of legs of a nude male figure in Kayotsarga posture discovered from Lohanipur near Pataliputra conclusively proves this.
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