Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 2.1 ► Traditional History of The Origin of Jainism and The First Tirthankara

Published: 14.11.2015

Jainism, like every religious and cultural system, has a traditional account of its origins. In Jain belief the sermons of an omniscient tirthankara were delivered in a divine language, which were rendered by the chief disciples into scriptures and preserved over many centuries, at first as memorised by the ascetics and only later as texts. This vast sacred literature, of the primary canon and subsidiary texts, contains accounts of the origins of Jainism, lives and teachings of the tirthankaras, cosmology and the cycles of time.

The Jains believe that their religion is eternal and non-revealed, that knowledge is realised through the awareness of the true self, typified by the experiences of the tirthankaras and their chief disciples, known as the heads of ascetic lineage (ganadharas). They existed in a cosmic cycle of time, which is described using the image of the single rotation of a wheel (see figure 4 4). We are living in the fifth phase of the descending cycle, which is 21,000 years long, so far, more than 2,500 years have passed in this phase. According to Jain tradition, Risabhdeva was destined to be the first tirthankara in the present descending cosmic cycle.

Due to the lack of generally available English translations of many traditional Jain texts, we outline here some of the mythological material relating to the cosmic cycle. The first phase of the current cosmic cycle (susamaa-susamaa) was a period of great pleasure, of the utmost happiness for people; their lives were without strife or want; all their needs and desires were abundantly satisfied by ten miraculous wish-fulfilling trees. In this period men and women exhibited great love towards each other and spent all their time together in a faithful relationship akin to marriage; both were destined to die simultaneously and, at the very moment of death, to give birth to twins, a boy and a girl. These twins, in turn, lived as husband and wife until it was time for them to die when they gave birth to another set of twins.

The second cosmic phase (susamaa), was also one of pleasure, of happiness, although not of utter bliss. In the third phase (susamaa-dusamaa) happiness became tinged with unhappiness and, as this phase drew to close, the power of the wish-fulfilling trees diminished.

The Age of Fourteen Patriarchs (Kulakaras)

The texts go on to tell how at suitable intervals in the descending era fourteen Patriarchs were born, who played a significant role in assisting people to cope with the declining condition of the world and explained the many changes that would follow as the cosmic cycle continued on its downward course.

The first startling change was that the sun and the moon became visible in the sky, until that time the brilliance of the radiant wish-fulfilling trees had obscured the light of all celestial bodies, but now, as the intensity of the former dimmed, the latter shone forth. The appearance of the sun and the moon aroused fear and suspicion in the minds of the people and it became the task of the first Patriarch to calm their apprehension by describing how these celestial bodies had become visible. As the light from the radiant wish-fulfilling trees faded further, twinkling stars manifested themselves in the skies. The second Patriarch described the nature of this phenomenon, discussing the different stars, the constellations, and the movements of the planets, and the causes of solar and lunar eclipses. He also prepared men and women for forthcoming changes such as the rising and setting of the sun, which would lead to a separation between day and night on earth.

In the time of the third Patriarch, the texts recount that people were astounded to see animals such as lions and tigers, which had hitherto been harmless, turn into fierce predatory beasts. The third Patriarch told them not to expect the animals to be docile any longer, and he warned them to avoid all animals, which possessed fangs, claws or long horns, with the exception of domesticated cows and buffaloes. For the protection of the people, the fourth Patriarch instructed them in the use of weapons and other means of legitimate self-protection.

As the descending era advanced, the power of the wish-fulfilling trees declined still further until even basic necessities, such as food, became scarce, which caused serious dissent among the people. The fifth Patriarch therefore assigned the wish fulfilling trees to specified territories and encouraged everyone to share whatever resources were available, but some individuals made sly incursions into the areas of others, which resulted in bitter and violent quarrels. The sixth Patriarch was compelled by this situation to demarcate territorial boundaries by means of hedges. The seventh Patriarch taught people how to ride upon animals such as horses and elephants. As described earlier, the traditional texts inform us how in the initial phases of the cosmic cycle, parents had no occasion to see their offspring, because they died the instant their children were born. This began to change during the rule of the eighth Patriarch, as at that time parents began to catch fleeting glimpses of their children. Thereafter, the advent of each further Patriarch coincided with a lengthening of the time which parents and children could spend together. At first this was only for a few minutes, then a few hours, then a few days until, finally, the term of family life extended over many years.

The texts continue with stories from Patriarchal times: an account of how familiar geographical features, such as hills and streams, were formed, and how the twelfth Patriarch taught people the skills necessary to deal with these changes, such as building boats and cutting steps into the slopes of hills. The thirteenth Patriarch introduced a major social change: exogamy (out-marriage), henceforth individuals could choose marriage partners from other social groups or clan; formerly, brothers and sisters had cohabited, a practice well documented among ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The Rigveda acknowledges this form of cohabitation, and has a reference to Yama's rejecting the amorous advances of his sister Yami (quoted in Kalghatgi 1988: p.14).

The fourteenth and final Patriarch was Nabhiraja, who is also known as Manu, and this text links Jain tradition to other Hindu mythology. In Hindu mythology, there are fourteen manus who correspond in some ways to the fourteen Patriarchs of the Jains; for example, in the Shrimad Bhagavata, the most celebrated of the eighteen Hindu texts known as the puraanas, Nabhiraja is claimed as the great-grandson of the first manu, Svayambhuva (Kalghatgi 1988: p.14). By the time of the fourteenth Patriarch, people had learned to work, the world had deteriorated and became a place where it was necessary to work in order to survive, and new challenges arose for the Patriarch to resolve.

Risabhdeva-the first tirthankara

The Kalpa Sutra (ascribed to Bhadrabahu: 3rd century BCE), describes the biographies of the first, twenty-second, twenty-third and twenty-fourth tirthankaras, and mentions in brief second to twenty-first tirthankaras.

According to Jain traditional accounts, Risabhdeva lived at the end of the third cosmic phase. He is also known as Adinatha (the 'First Lord'). He was said to be the son of the fourteenth Patriarch Nabhiraja and his wife Marudevi; his family took the name Ikswaku, because, according to the ninth century CE Jain scholar Jinasena, Risabhdeva was the first to teach people how to extract the juice of sugar cane (in Sanskrit, ikshu) (Kalghatgi 1988: p.18). The age in which Risabhdeva lived is described in the texts as a transitional period when old traditions were fading and new values were yet to assert themselves. People lived, as it were, in mid-stride with one foot still in the past and the other ready to step into the new social environment yet to be consolidated. The earlier nomadic way of life had ended, but family and social stability were yet to become established. The population was slowly increasing, yet natural resources and social structures appeared to be inadequate, As a consequence, human greed arose, and with it a tendency for criminality. It was therefore necessary to draw up codes of conduct for the betterment of society and in order to facilitate the establishment of a stable social order, the fourteenth Patriarch, Nabhiraja, organised people into a social policy. His son Risabhdeva became the first king and exercised political authority, establishing the capital of his kingdom at Vinitanagara (modern Ayodhya) and producing the first laws for the governance of his people. Although historians are, not surprisingly, sceptical about the traditional accounts of the lives of the twenty-four tirthankaras, it may well be that Risabhdeva was an actual prehistoric figure around whose real life much legend has gathered over time. Other civilisations look back to their founding ancestors, often embellishing their biographies with legend: the early Emperors of China or the Patriarchs of the Bible are but two examples of this, and historians will perhaps never completely succeed in separating myth from historical fact.

Jain tradition says that the most important task facing Risabhdeva was to provide food, shelter and protection for his subjects; he taught his people agriculture, further military skills, as well as introducing the skill of making earthenware pottery and fire for cooking. Education was not neglected and he taught the seventy-two traditional arts for men and the sixty-four for women. Jinasena also notes the six main arts and sciences of Risabhdeva's time:

  1. the use of weapons (asi)
  2. writing (masi),
  3. agriculture (krusi),
  4. education (vidya),
  5. trade and commerce (vanijya), and
  6. art and architecture (silpa) (Kalghatgi 1988: p.19).

Risabhdeva's sons and daughters received instruction in economics, social science, dancing, singing, painting and mathematics. During his reign animals were first domesticated: cows, horses and elephants. His daughter Brahmi was taught the alphabet and literature, and so the early script, the precursor of the devanaagari system (in today's Hindi and other north Indian languages) called braahmi. Risabhdeva is therefore seen as the pioneer of education and the arts of civilisation, and he taught that the status of women was equal to that of men.

Risabhdeva was the first to divide the people into three classes (varna): warrior (ksatriya), merchant (vaisya) and manual worker (sudra), based purely on the division of labour, not on birth, which contrasts with the situation in the later Indian caste system. The aim of caste divisions was to utilise the capabilities of different people in an efficient manner in order to bring about economic prosperity, and Risabhdeva himself taught the use of weapons and the art of warfare and may thus be considered a ksatriya. He travelled far and wide in his kingdom and encouraged the vaisyas build up trading links, he argued that all people should do their duty wholeheartedly and serve the people in the capacities best suited to them. The triple division of society did not in any way suggest the superiority or otherwise of one class in relation to the others; all were equal in the eyes of law and society. In the time of Risabhdeva's son, Bharat, a fourth class was introduced, that of intellectuals (Brahman), and this additional distinction was introduced not because the Brahmans were superior by birth but because it was found necessary that some of Bharat's subjects who had intellectual ability should specialise in learning and teaching. Thus the teachers, and those engaged in meditation and the search for knowledge, were to be considered brahmans, and the three varnas of Risabhdeva's time became four under Bharat, but the system remained, however, purely functional and unrelated to an individual's birth.

Thus King Risabhdeva brought social and economic benefits to his people and to their welfare. He is credited with being the first king of ancient times, and is depicted as an inspired guide to his subjects, ruling with justice and charity, with malice to none and showing compassion to all. By the standards of the ancient world, his was seen as an enlightened age.

Risabhdeva ruled for a long period with justice and equanimity, but his heart was not content only with worldly matters. His efforts for the betterment of society reflected a hunger and thirst after spiritual rather than temporal matters. While he desired good for his people and strove to develop his kingdom for the prosperity of all, he yearned within himself to look beyond and seek, with a detached mind, the goal of spiritual perfection. One story tells how on a spring day his court was filled with courtiers and subjects, watching the dance of an ethereal dancer named Nilanjana (Kalghatgi 1988 pp 21). The dance was exquisite and the audience was entranced, Risabhdeva was engrossed, however in the middle of the dance Nilanjana collapsed and, according to the story, her body disappeared. But Indra, lord of the celestials, instantly introduced a 'replica' of Nilanjana and the dance continued apparently without interruption. The audience knew nothing of the collapse of Nilanjana and the introduction of the substitute. However, with his clairvoyant knowledge, Risabhdeva saw through the substitution and, in doing so, became intensely aware of the transience of the world. His mind turned to contemplation of the meaninglessness of this world and its activities. He began to long for the realisation of the spirit, which is more permanent than involvement in worldly affairs. He decided to renounce the world. He handed over most of his kingdom to his eldest son Bharat and distributed the remaining parts to his other sons. He gave to his son Bahubali the kingdom of Poudanapura. Risabhdeva left Ayodhya and, in a garden called SiddhartaUdyana on the outskirts of the city, sitting beneath an asoka tree, he discarded his clothes and ornaments, plucked out his hair, and became a ascetic on the eighth day of the dark half (when the moon was waning) of the month of Caitra.

The incident of Nilanjana may have a mythological content but it has great psychological significance, as such occasions express the inner yearning for renunciation provoking the non-attached to action. With sufficient intuitive insight a person distinguishes the real from the appearance. For thousands of years people have seen objects fall to the ground, but it was Newton who saw in that simple fact the law of gravity. It was the everyday occurrence of seeing an old man, a sick man and a dead body that led the Buddha to embark upon his quest for the meaning of life. Similarly, Risabhdeva's enlightenment arose from his own reflection upon a mundane enough scene, a dance.

Risabhdeva spent one year in the practice of asceticism and meditation. People offered him gifts appropriate for a king, but he declined them. He did not seek food from others and he fasted for almost thirteen months. (Jain ascetics accept appropriate food only when it is offered). During this time some four thousand people had joined him as disciples, but they eventually found it too much of a strain to live such a severely ascetic life. Gradually they departed to set up their own 'schools' with an emphasis on the middle way between indulgence and austerity.

After thirteen months, on an auspicious morning on the third day of the bright half (when the moon is waxing) of the month of Vaisak, Risabhdeva entered the city of Gajapura (modern Hastinapura). The ruler of the city, King Sreyansa approached the ascetic with great respect and offered him some sugar-cane juice and on this occasion, as the food was appropriate for an ascetic, Risabhdeva accepted the gift offered. According to tradition, this was the first sustenance he had taken since becoming an ascetic. To-day, many Jains follow Risabhdeva's example and fast (on alternate days) for a year; they break their fast at Hastinapura on the auspicious day known as the 'Immortal Third' (aksaya tritiya). This austerity is called the yearlong penance (varsi tapa).

For a long period after this Risabhdeva practised penance and meditation, and during his wanderings he visited many places. One day, it is said, he was sitting under a banyan tree, lost in meditation; it was the eleventh day of the dark half of the month of Phalguna. In the early hours of the morning he reached the highest state of transcendental meditation and was absorbed in the realisation of the self; he became free of all obscuring karma and reached the state of perfect knowledge, omniscience. He was one who had conquered all passions and became a Jina, an arihant, an enlightened one and a tirthankara. In a sermon he is recorded to have said: 'The aim of life is not indulgence in pleasure but self-restraint and sacrifice for the sake of others. Life is not for attachment but is for detachment for the sake of self-realisation. Do not fall prey to instincts and impulses but make efforts towards the realisation of the self (Kalghatgi 1988: p.23).'

Tirthankara Risabhdeva preached the five major vows to the ascetics and the twelve minor vows to the laity. Having listened to his sermons, Bharat, with his brothers and his sister Sundari, accepted the rules of conduct for the laity expounded by Risabhdeva. He is reputed to have established the fourfold structure of Jain society, which is recognised today, a society of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Risabhdeva travelled widely, preaching the message of non-violence and non-attachment to possessions, which have remained basic principles of the Jain religion; he explained Jain philosophy, cosmology, karma theory and other basic tenets. His sermons emphasised the practical path for self-realisation and permanent happiness.

In its efforts to reach spiritual heights, Jainism does not ignore the secular life, as the cardinal view of the Jain is to give due weight to the spiritual without ignoring secular values. Jainism is quite aware that, to borrow an analogy from Christian scriptures, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. A story told about Risabhdeva's son Bharat that might serve to illustrate this point.

Bharat ruled his kingdom with justice and an exemplary regard for the highest values in life, his people were happy, his capital city, Ayodhya, was prosperous. An interesting aside to the story is the fact that the country, which Bharat ruled, modern India, stretching from the Himalayas to the southern seas is today called Bharat by its inhabitants after its erstwhile ruler. One day King Bharat received three pieces of news: the first was the news of Risabhdeva's enlightenment, the second was the news that his son was born, and the third was of an amazing event in the royal armoury. A miraculous weapon, a sharp edged discus (a weapon known as a cakra, widely used in ancient India) had suddenly appeared in the armoury. Bharat interpreted the significance of these events quite differently: Risabhdeva's enlightenment he saw as belonging to the world of religion (dharma): the birth of his son he saw as a worldly matter, belonging to the realm of desire (kama); and the event in the armoury was a matter belonging to the realm of political authority (artha). Accordingly, Bharat paid his respects to Risabhdeva, left his newborn son and went out on a military campaign of conquest armed with the miraculous cakra.

Bharat interpreted the appearance of the cakra to mean that he should set out to conquer the (known) world, to become the first World Emperor (cakravarti). He campaigned successfully to the east and the rulers there accepted his authority, likewise he conquered the south, west and north. On his triumphant return to Ayodhya, the miraculous cakra would not enter the city. The wisest of his advisers said to the king: 'O king, this sign means that you have yet further conquests to make. Your brothers have not yet paid homage to you. Your brother Bahubali should come to pay homage.' The king sent messengers to summon his brothers to pay homage, but his brothers were upset at this summons and with the exception of Bahubali, they went to Risabhdeva and offered to renounce the world and become ascetics. Bahubali is said to have been strong, handsome and upright of character. He said to Bharat's emissary: 'O noble one, you have brought a message from the king, Bharat. If your cakravarti had sent for me as brother to brother I would gladly have gone to meet him. But your cakravarti is an ambitious man and ambition knows no bounds. He wants me to surrender to him. Go and tell your master that I would rather meet him on the battlefield; ask him to be prepared for the fight. The two armies met outside Poudanapura. To avoid the huge loss of life, which would inevitably, result from a pitched battle, advisers on both sides suggested a single combat between the two kings. The duel began and during a bout of unarmed wrestling, Bahubali lifted his brother clear off his feet and was about to throw him, when it dawned on him how disrespectful it was to treat an elder brother in such a way, just to become an emperor into the bargain. He therefore let him down gently to the ground. The traditional account says that Bharat found this act humiliating and, contrary to the rules of a fair duel flung the cakra at his brother, but instead of striking Bahubali, which would have been fatal, the cakra circled around him harmlessly (the cakra never harms a family member) and then returned to Bharat. This had a profound effect upon both men. Bharat felt ashamed of his cowardly act of anger. Bahubali realised the futility and emptiness of all that had happened. He announced to his brother that he was giving up his former life to become an ascetic.

Accordingly, he left his kingdom and went into the forest to perform penance, to live an ascetic life and to meditate. He meditated in a standing position. A massive statue at Sravanbelgola in southern India, one of the most famous places of Jain pilgrimage, depicts Bahubali deep in meditation, heedless of the creepers growing over his limbs. For a year he practised austerities, but failed to gain enlightenment. His pride in his spiritual practices and envy of his brothers who had earlier achieved enlightenment were an impediment to his own progress. Eventually, with the help of his sisters Brahmi and Sundari, he was able to attain self-realisation and enlightenment (trisasthi salaakaa purusa 1989: 1:184).

For the Jains, the story of the struggle between Bharat and Bahubali is significant. For example, the story exemplifies the Jain attitude of 'relative pluralism' (anekaantavaada), the principle of seeing things from all possible points of view. Bahubali won the duel in one sense, but when he considered what had taken place he was overcome by a sense of the futility of his actions.

As for Risabhdeva, he lived for many more years, moving from place to place preaching the tenets of Jainism. There are many legendary accounts of his life. When the third phase of the descending cycle of time was three years and eight months from its conclusion, Risabhdeva and ten thousand disciples went to the Astapada Mountain where on the thirteenth day (or fourteenth, according to some) of the dark half of the month of Maagha, he attained final liberation.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. ASI
  2. Aksaya
  3. Anger
  4. Arihant
  5. Artha
  6. Asi
  7. Ayodhya
  8. Bahubali
  9. Bharat and Bahubali
  10. Body
  11. Brahman
  12. Buddha
  13. Cakra
  14. Cakravarti
  15. Contemplation
  16. Cycle of Time
  17. Dharma
  18. Environment
  19. Equanimity
  20. Fear
  21. Ganadharas
  22. Greed
  23. Hastinapura
  24. Indra
  25. Jain Philosophy
  26. Jainism
  27. Jina
  28. Jinasena
  29. Kalpa
  30. Kalpa Sutra
  31. Kama
  32. Karma
  33. Ksatriya
  34. Manu
  35. Meditation
  36. Newton
  37. Non-violence
  38. Omniscient
  39. Pride
  40. Purusa
  41. Sanskrit
  42. Science
  43. Sutra
  44. Tapa
  45. The Pioneer
  46. Tirthankara
  47. Tirthankaras
  48. Vaisya
  49. Varna
  50. Varnas
  51. Vidya
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