Tirthankaras Were Revolutionaries

Posted: 09.11.2004
Updated on: 02.07.2015

The luminous message of the Jain Sramana tradition is instructive, inspiring and relevant. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it recently, Jainism is perhaps the oldest religion of the world. Its uniqueness lies in its philosophy and ethics of non-violence (ahimsa), as the fundamental faith of humanity in its striving for peace. That message come through the core concepts of Jain philosophy and ethics, and through Jain art and culture.

Jainism and Buddhism both belong to the Sramana tradition, a tradition that is intimately intertwine with the Vedic and the Upanishadic tradition. There was a profound dialogue of ideas and philosophies between the two traditions that freely inter-mingled with each other and blossomed as flowers of the same soil. Both of them belong equally to the ancient Indic Aryan society, though there were many points of departure and convergence between them in the creative process of osmosis and assimilation.

The Sramana tradition did not fully accept the absolute authority of the Vedas, although there is a great deal in common between the Vedic Brahmana traditions and the Jain Sramana traditions. They together were a part of the larger Indian discourse, often sharing the same concepts, precepts and vocabulary. The Jains and the Buddhists did challenge many of the prevailing practices and the underlying assumptions of the Vedic Brahmana tradition within the mainstream of the Indian discourse, and they had an immense influence on the course of India's composite social evolution. R.P. Ranade and S.K. Belvalkar have pointed out in their History of Indian Philosophy that Jain asceticism greatly influenced the philosophical speculation of the Upanishadic period. The philosophy of turning away from worldly live (nivrtti); the total abstinence by body, mind and speech (trigupti); reclusive renunciation (pravrajya or sanyas); the state of homelessness (anagaratva); and the idea of casting of one's body by prolonged fasting (salekhana)led to an emphasis on penance as the means of liberation from the bondage of karma and rebirth.

The Jains are followers of the Jinas or Tirthankaras, who are the pathfinders, ford-makers and the worthiest exemplars. They are the conquerors of the Self (Arihantas), whohave in the evolutionary apotheosis attained the transcendental state of body, mind and soul (kaivalya), in which an individual is completely emancipated and is endowed with cosmic consciousness.

Unlike Buddhism, which traces its origin solely to Lord Buddha, the Jain Sramana tradition is represented in its legendary glory by 24 Jinas or Tirthandaras, the first of whom was Rshabha or Adinath and the last of them Vardhamana Mahavir. They are acclaimed as the great pathfinders and their teachings have been the living legacy of Jainism. Western historians and many of the Indian historians of not accept the historicity and the precise chronology of the first 22 Jain Tirthankaras, mainly because of lack of archaeological evidence. Also, the time span assigned to them in the Jain tradition was beyond reasonable belief. Until Herman Jacobi established the date and the historical authenticity of the twenty-third Tirthankara, Lord Parsvanath, many historians lacking in deeper scholarship of Jain literature and tradition found it convenient to describe him as a mere mythological figure.

The Jain, however, subscribe as a matter of faith to the firmly entrenched tradition of 24 Tirthankaras as historical personages. There is an abundance of literature in the Jain tradition relating to each of the 24 Tirthankaras and the vivid details of their parentage, birth, marriage and children, their kingdoms and the significant events in their lives, including renunciation, kaivalya and nirvana. Each Tirthankara has a distinct name, colour, symbol or emblem (lanchana), by which he is identified.

Rshabha was the first of the Tirthankaras. His name occurs or is implied in certain hymns of the Rgveda. An eminent scholar, Dr. Sagarmal Jain suggests a meaningful rendering of the metaphorical Rshabha: "Vrsabha (Rshabhadeva) bound by the three yogas of manas, vacana and kaya, announced that the Supreme Lord resides in the mortals; its four-fold form of infinite knowledge, infinite philosophy, infinite happiness and infinite strength (virya), are the horns. Samyak knowledge, philosophy and character of steadfastness are the three foundations or legs. The Supreme Lord's two heads are knowledge-based and philosophy-based. Its seven hands represent intelligence, desire and the five sensory perceptions."

The Vedas undoubtedly constitute the oldest literature of humankind. If some of the Vedic hymns are construed as references to Tirthankara Rshabha and to the enunciates in the Sramana order (Vatarasana-munis also described as Kesin), the Vedic and pre-Vedic antiquity of Rshabha and the Sramana tradition is beyond any doubt.

Bharat, the elder son of Rshabha, was a sovereign ruler after whom the land around and eastwards of the river Indus came to be known as Bharatvarsha or Bharat. The Constitution of India refers to India that it Bharat; perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to our country as Bharat that is India. King Bharat's younger brother, Bahubali was the great apostle of renunciation. His colossal sculptural image, one of the tallest in the world, has a majestic presence in Shravana Belgola in Karnataka.

Rshabha dates back to a pre-historic period. Legend associates his name with the Ikshvaku dynasty of Ayodhya as its primordial ancestor. In all Probability, he lived before or contemporaneously with the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Mittani and Sumer civilisations. As noted by Pandit Sukhlal Sanghvi, during an excavation in 1949 in Cyprus a bronze statue of Rsabhdev was found from around the second millennium, ca.1250 BC. Recent marine archeology in the Bay of Cambay threw up underwater discoveries of submerged civilisations that existed before almost all other known ancient civilisations. The Bhagawat Purana describes Rshabha as and incarnation of Vishnu. A seal from Mohen-jo-daro is often referred to as the seal of Rsabha as well as that of Pashupati Siva. Rsabha's abode of penance is Mount Kailash, the fabled abode of Lord Siva.

As a ruler, Rshabha encapsulated his vision of civil society in three rhyming words: asi (sword or civil defence); masi (ink, representing writing or language and script) and krishi (agriculture, animal husbandry or the means to settled social life). To these he added commerce (vanijya), the arts (kala) and architecture (shilpa). He established the institution of marriage as well as villages, government, laws and penology. He taught 72 art forms and imparted the knowledge of scripts and numerals. In a sense, that was the beginning of human civilisation.

After Rshabha, the founding father of the tradition and the twenty other Tirthankaras, Aristanemi, Parsva and Vardhamana Mahavir carried forward, refined and consolidated the Jain doctrine. Aristanemi, the twenty-second Tirthankara belonged to the Andhak-Vrisni clan of the Yadavas. He was a younger cousin of Lord Krishna. His father, Samudravijiya and Lord Krishna's father Vasudeva were brothers. Their families moved from Mathura toDwarka under the threat of annihilation by a retaliatory attack of Jarasandha. Aristanemi grew upto be strong and handsome prince. While on his way to get married to the beautiful princess Rajul (or Rajimati), Aristanemi heard the plaintive wailing of animals about to be slaughtered for the banquet in celebration his wedding. He renounced the world, became a monk and attained kaivalya. His bride-to-be also became a nun. The temples at Girnar commemorate the compassion and renunciation of Tirthankara Aristanemi..........

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Courtesy: Jain Spirit, Issue - 13, December 2002

The above essay is extracted from Dr. L. M. Singhvi beautiful picture book 'Jain temples in India and Around the World', published by Himalayan Books, 2002