Mahāvīra Icon and Indian Archeology

Author:  Image of B. UpadhyayB. Upadhyay
Published: 02.11.2011

Mahāvīra Icon and Indian Archeology

The later half of the 6th century B.C. seems to be fertile in giving rise to new religious movements in India. Probably all of them were non-Brāhman existing at the time of Buddha. It may be suggested that revolts against the Brahman doctrines date from a remote age than the time of Buddha. The reformer of Jaina church, Vardhamāna, Mahāvīra preached in a spirit against the sanctity of the Vedic lore. Indian archeology did not confirm any thing earlier but with the advent of the Mauryas we are able to trace step by step the evolution of architecture and of the formative art in India. We must associate with Fergusson that the noblest and most perfect examples of Indian art are the works of the emperor Aśoka.

A most important exponent of Maurya court ideology in sculpture are the crowning lion figures which were conditioned within a foreign art tradition, but what is described a Lohanipur image of Jaina Tīrthaṅkara belongs to the time of evolution of Indian art tradition determined in the centuries before Christ. The examination of Lohanipur image shows that Indian folk tradition was in a permanent material hardly conscious of the third dimension and was fully of rounded form. The round volume and flat surface keeps Tīrthaṅkara icon at par with yakṣa figures of North India but not in the mass.

In the present state of our knowledge, it becomes difficult to ascertain the proper name of the Lohanipur image in absence of any cognizable symbol but the Jaina canon Ācāga-sūtra clearly states that during the first thirteen months all sort of living beings crowd on the body of Mahāvīra who after this period laid aside every kind of garment and went about as a naked ascetic. This is a clear indication that Digambara sect had organized into a permanent branch of Jainism in the remote period of Indian history. Most probably the socio-economic thought influenced the Indian art tradition which appeared in the form of Lohanipur image. It would be worthwhile to suggest that Indian folk artists prepared the icon of Mahāvīra in a crude form without caring for the artistic norm which was followed in the later Mahāvīra images.

Lohanipur icon is a clear proof that in about 300 B.C. the division of Jaina church into Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras had already begun. The archaeological evidences are positive on this point that the Jainas were gradually losing their position in the kingdom of Magadha and they had begun their migration to the western side of India. Mathurā became the strong hold of Jainas who firmly established in that locality from the middle of second century B.C. The numerous inscriptions excavated in this city deciphered by Bühler tell us about Jaina community who was wide spread in that area. The pious devotees dedicated shrines to Mahāvīra due to their zeal in the worship of the Arhat. The Mathurā votive tablet inscription (EP. Ind. Vol. II P. 199) gives a picture of the consecration of the tablet by Amohini. The records begins with the prayer नम अरहतो वर्धमानस the word अरहत is used for Mahāvīra Vardhamāna - the 24th Tīrthankar. An Arhat is described as सर्वज्ञो जितरागादिदोषस्त्रैलोक्यपूजितः Thus it is apparent that in Mathurā area Mahāvīra icons were established for worship during the first century A.D.

In the Amohini tablet we find the image of Mahāvīra in meditative attitude dhyāna-mudrā and round the icon all eight auspicious symbols have been engraved. A study of archaeological sources reveals that the history of Jaina art during the centuries (from 300 B.C. to 100 B.C.) was enveloped in total dark. Mathurā inscriptions before Amohini tablet mention a number of branches and families of Jaina community. Even the Jaina work Kālakācārya-katkānaka tells about some events which are supposed to have taken place in Ujjain during the first half of 1st century B.C. Jainism is atheistic and it never compromised with theism in desiring a pantheon like Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna, from earliest time to the present day.

From the beginning of the Christian era Mathurā produced a large number of Jaina icons mostly digambara in form. The excavations of Kaṅkālī Ṭilā has brought to light numerous Mahāvīra images as if it was a emporium of northern India. The icons are in kāyotsarga posture, huge and massive like yakṣa figures. Archaeologists are of opinion that it was due to the influence of Mālwā tradition that Vardhamāna images are of voluminous size. Due to the established Jaina tradition the artists prepared the naked icons of Mahāvīra during Kuṣāṇa period. It is a strange phenomenon that the epigraphs after 78 A.D. and from the time of later Kuṣāṇa kings, afford sufficient proof that the Śvetāmbara community was not only established but had subdivided into smaller sects (Cambridge History, Vol. I, p. 167). The inscriptional and artistic evidences do not express harmony in the two sects of Jaina community rather a divergent attitude during 1st century A.D. (Kuṣāṇa age).

The condition in South India during early century of Christian era was very promising and Karnataka and Mysore were the strong holds of Digambara Jainas. This sect has firm footing in Tamil country and worship of Mahāvīra was performed with great pomp and lamp, garland and perfumed ejects were offered to the deity (Mahāvīra). The literary evidences support the contention that South Indian rulers viz. the Gaṅgas and the Kadambas patronised the Digambara sect. Archeology does not help to an appreciable extent regarding the Devayātrā organized in South India for carrying Mahāvīra image in procession. The socio-religious thoughts are also an indication of the popularity of the sects and during the Gupta period we find Digambara and Śvetāmbara branches of Jaina church had important contributions to the growth of Jaina literature. Side by side the Jaina artists introduced new features in Jain iconography and images were installed at the places associated with the life of the Tīrthaṅkara. The governing idea of an icon was to remind the devotees the condition through which Tīrthaṅkara passed to attain Kaivalya and that encouraged them to follow the ideal path in life.

From the beginning of the 4th century A.D. Jaina iconography assumed new characteristics and icons prepared with salient features. It has been pointed out that major Mahāvīra icons from Mathurā are naked and drapery did not originate as early as Kuṣāṇa period. After the advent of the Guptas the naked feature did not develop in Jaina iconography along with the appearance of Śrīvatsa. This shows that

  1. Nudity gradually replaced by lower garment;
  2. Śrīvatsa were the main characteristics of Mahāvīra images during the Gupta age.

In North India Digambara community had a strong footing and records support this surmise. An inscription from Paharpur mentions the donation to the Jaina vihāra for the worship of Digambara Mahāvīra icon. (Ep. Ind. Vol. XX P. 105). A similar case is recorded in a contemporary document from Uttar Pradesh where five excellent Pañcendrān images, namely five naked Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras, were sculptured on the column i.e. icons of Ādinātha, Śāntinātha, Neminātha, Pārśvanātha and Mahāvīra.

पुण्यस्कधं स चक्क्रे जगदिदमखिलं संसरद्वीक्ष्य भीतः

श्रेयोर्त्थ भूतभूत्यै पथि नियमवतामर्हतामादिकर्तृन्।

पञ्चेद्रान् स्यापयित्वा धरणिधरमयान्सन्निखातस्ततोऽयम्।

(Kahanma stone pillar Inscription of Skandagupta)

Thus the archeology of the Gupta period lay emphasis on the Digambara form of Mahāvīra icons. We have two different classes of Mahāvīra images viz. (i) standing Kāyotsarga (2) sitting Āsana which are profusely excavated. Kuṣāṇa period is famous for massive icons of the Buddha and Mahāvīra, all in standing posture. In case of Jaina icons naked image of Mahāvīra is more prominent from Kaṅkālī Ṭilā. It is to be remembered that no symbol is seen on the pedestal of Mahāvīra and other Tīrthaṅkara icons. The pedestal inscriptions were the main source of information.

During later Kuṣāṇa and Gupta period we have the appearance of cognizable symbols on the pedestal of the icons. Vardhamāna Mahāvīra has lion as symbol and the icon of 24th Tīrthaṅkara were prepared in a very artistic manner. The Archeologists opine that wheel and two deers on either side of the pedestal were copied from Buddha image of Sārnāth. Mahāvīra in sitting posture is represented in meditative attitude dhyāna-mudrā with tiara and other accessory figures of flying deities. It is much advanced on Kuṣāṇa tradition which abounds in naked Mahāvīra images from Mathurā area.

The philosophical thoughts and bhakti movements in the Gupta period are entirely responsible for the artistic development of Indian art during early medieval period. Jaina community could not keep themselves aloof and artistic traditions influenced the Mahāvīra iconography. The devotees could not worship and offer articles (garland, lamp etc.) to a deity in kāyotsarga posture. Therefore from the Gupta period onwards we have more āsīna (sitting) images of Mahāvīra. The archeological exploration of Ellora caves has brought to light many distinguished images of Mahāvīra carved in the caves No. 30, 31 and 32. These caves were excavated by Digambara sect of Jaina church.

The most important feature of Mahāvīra icon prepared during early medieval period is that they are absolutely serene and everything associated with them is calculated to arouse in the spectator's mind nothing but moral virtues and spiritual purity. Such is the condition of all Mahāvīra icons known from mid India or from the South. Ellora caves already mentioned have unique Mahāvīra images. In all the caves (No. 30, 31 and 32) Mahāvīra is represented

  1. seated on a lion throne,
  2. his legs are in padmāsana and
  3. the arms always in dhyāna-mudrā.

These features are associated with tiara over the head whether the images placed inside the shrine or carved on the door of the tiny Jaina temple in cave no. 30. In Indra Sabhā and Jagannātha caves Mahāvīra icon is found in the midst of 24 Tīrthaṅkaras in the similar posture. In northern India artists were not behind the scheduled. In Magadha school of Indian art metal icons of Mahāvīra were casted along with plastic image. The moulds contained all the main characteristics of Jain iconography. Large number of Bronze icons have been discovered from Chausa, Dist. Shahabad, Bihar. They are in naked form and kāyotsarga posture. Man Bhumi (Bihar Pradesh) bronze icon of Mahāvīra has śrīvatsa and casted in Nalanda. Medieval period has yielded numerous bronze images all prepared in mould. Nalanda was the nucleus of metallic icons and probably metal was obtained from the district of Hazaribagh (Bihar).

Art critics have agreed that the system of moulding of Mahāvīra metal images was very much similar through out northern India. It is a matter of serious consideration that the 1st and 23rd Tīrthaṅkaras also attracted the attention of the Jaina artists because Ādinātha and Pārśvanātha images were casted along with Mahāvīra. In this case the artists were not working on a hypothetical basis, but most probably the historical personalities drew the attention and their images occupied the prominent place in Jaina iconography. However, Vardhamāna Mahāvīra icons appear to be surmountable during the centuries of the Christian era.

It is strange to notice that various cult icons of medieval period express the feeling of rivalry and jealousy. In the Tantric Buddhism some images emphasize the sectarian ill-feeling during the period under review. Attempt at reconciliation and reapproachment between the rival creeds were being made even from a very early period. Many intellectuals among the followers of different cults knew that the respective God was a different aspect of one absolute God, but the following of the greatness of God of a particular sect helped the mentality of rivalry among the sectarians. This feeling was expressed by preparing the image of a particular sect in the attitude of humiliating the icon of other creed.

Archeologists have noticed a Mahāvīra icon hang flat and being trampled by the Vajrayāna deity (This syncretic icon is preserved in Nalanda Museum). Similar cases have been reported with regards to the Hindu deities. Buddhist divinities have been shown more superior to the deities of other cults. In the opinion of Dr. B. Bhattacharya, these conceptions of syncretism were for future happiness of monk or the worshippers of Vajrayāna. This attitude of aggressive hostile feeling against Jaina cult was never retaliated and Jaina art has a repulsion towards such heinous activities. This idea is also echoed from the study of other literary and historical works. We very much agree with the statement of Dr. J. Charpentier that Jaina canons do not tell anything about the Buddhist, but the latter frequently mention discussions and controversies between Buddha and disciples of Mahāvīra. In these accounts Buddha of course, always has the last word and is said to have inflicted considerable loss on Jaina community.

The survey of the Mahāvīra images, clearly shows that there was no pantheon in Jaina religion. The icons can be classified into pre-Kuṣāṇa and post-Kuṣāṇa periods on the basis of artistic features. It expresses the social idea of an individual and institutions. Jainism is truely a national religion. The idea was imbibed by Jaina artists and all Mahāvīra images carry the noble sentiment to stimulate the highest idea for obtaining mokṣa. All icons are artistic and are conditioned by the time and circumstances. Unlike Tantrayāna Jaina artists always kept the idea of Kevalin in mind as sole divinity of Jaina Art.


Mahāvīra and His Teachings

Compiled by PK

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Arhat
  2. Aśoka
  3. Bhakti
  4. Bihar
  5. Body
  6. Brahman
  7. Bronze
  8. Buddha
  9. Buddhism
  10. Digambara
  11. Digambaras
  12. Ellora
  13. Ellora Caves
  14. Indra
  15. JAINA
  16. Jaina
  17. Jaina Art
  18. Jaina Canon
  19. Jaina Temple
  20. Jainism
  21. Kaivalya
  22. Karnataka
  23. Kevalin
  24. Kāyotsarga
  25. Kāyotsarga Posture
  26. Magadha
  27. Mahāvīra
  28. Mahāvīra and His Teachings
  29. Mokṣa
  30. Mysore
  31. Nalanda
  32. Neminātha
  33. PK
  34. Padmāsana
  35. Pradesh
  36. Pārśvanātha
  37. Sabhā
  38. Tamil
  39. Tīrthaṅkara
  40. Tīrthaṅkaras
  41. Ujjain
  42. Uttar Pradesh
  43. Vardhamāna
  44. Vedic
  45. Yakṣa
  46. Āsana
  47. Śrīvatsa
  48. Śvetāmbara
  49. Śvetāmbaras
  50. Śāntinātha
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