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Jainism 1 – The Tweny-four ‘Buddhas’ of Jainism by Eloise Hart

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(Article 1) The Twenty-four ‘Buddhas’ of Jainism


Article 1 of 3; Go to:

Jainism 2 – A Lamp of the True Light by Eloise Hart;

Jainism 3 – The Logic of Jain Mystical Doctrines, by Eloise Hart


– Eloise Hart1

The barefoot beggar-monk who wanders through India sweeping the dust from his path lest unintentionally he crush by his step some beetle or seed may very well be a cultivated and highly intelligent individual. A follower perhaps of the ancient religion of Jainism whose members, in business, government, university and on hospital staff, find in their teachings such logical and encouraging expositions of the spiritual purpose for all life that they, like millions before them, literally and deliberately abandon comforts of family and home, and undertake severest austerities in order to reach, while still human, the “world of the gods.”

Once it would have seemed incredible that anyone voluntarily could give up his all – wealth, status and normal pleasures – for “nothing.” Now we’re coming to understand that the all they abandon is nothing. The nothing is all. It is vivid, joyous, transcendent living. Nor is the decision impulsive. Since childhood through business and marriage his life has been oriented to the ideal of human perfectibility laid out some 2,500 years ago by Mahāvīra, the last of the twenty-four tīrthaṅkaras, or “buddhas,” of Jainism.

Who was Mahāvīra and the tīrthaṅkaras he followed? Northern Buddhists refer to “Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession” who, H. P. Blavatsky explains, are identical with the Jain tīrthaṅkaras. These buddhas, tīrthaṅkaras, are the divine teachers and monarchs of every mythology. They were “once living men, great adepts and Saints, in whom the ‘Sons of Wisdom’ had incarnated, and who were, therefore, so to speak, minor Avatāras of the Celestial Beings – eleven only belong to the Atlantean race, and 24 to the Fifth race, from its beginnings.”

– H.P. Blavastky: The Secret Doctrine, II. 423.

The title “Buddhas of Confession” designates those “awakened ones” who profess or place their trust in certain religious principles, as in the Buddhist “Confession of Faith”: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the light of his teachings; I take refuge in the company of the Holy Ones. With the Jains it is the tīrthaṅkaras, their teachings, and the company of Noble Ones who are “an island . . . of safe refuge” day and night.

– Ācāraṅga Sūtra, I, 6, 3 3

“Confession” is not used in the Christian sense of forgiveness of sin. Jains consistently reject the idea of a personal god who creates and destroys, forgives and damns. The nearest they come to this idea is when, upon reflection over the events of the day, a disciple discovers that he may have unintentionally hurt or inconvenienced someone, he to himself admits, confesses, to such an act and immediately attempts to assuage any ill feelings his act may have caused – in that other, or within his own psychological nature. If a young mendicant confesses to his guru some “sin” or personal hangup, he does not seek forgiveness, but insight, and strength to rid his soul “of the thorns . . . of deceit, misapplied austerities, and wrong belief, which obstruct the way to final liberation and cause an endless migration of the soul.”

– Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, xxix, 5

As said, Mahāvīra was the 24th tīrthaṅkara. The term, the mystical counterpart of the Buddhist tathāgata, means a “ford-finder, ford-builder, ford-crosser.” As such, it applies to those heroic human souls who have gone ahead on the spiritual evolutionary pathway, have crossed the river of births and deaths and, reaching the other shore – nirvana – have returned to show those left behind the way to salvation. In Eastern philosophy, “salvation” is the attainment of perfected humanhood or god-consciousness, and thus release from all connection and attachment to this particular world. It is also the attainment of omniscience, an awareness so universal that the former this-world personal awareness is as blindness.

Twenty-four tīrthaṅkaras return – as “spotless suns” to “bring light into the whole world of living beings” – during each cosmic year, or kalpa, of “two thousand million oceans of years.” Diagrammatically the Jains describe a cosmic year as one turning of a twelve-spoked wheel, each spoke representing an age. Thus, there are six ages on a descending arc when spiritual darkness and general deterioration prevail; and six on an ascending arc, when knowledge, civilization and happiness increase. The Kalpa Sūtra and other Jain texts give such detailed descriptions of the lives, teachings and characteristic appearances of these heroic men that their likenesses have been personified in countless colossal statues throughout India.

The first tīrthaṅkara of the present cosmic age was Rishabhadeva [Ṛṣabha, also known as Ādinātha – the first and original Lord] son of the 14th or last of the Manus – those mythological semi-divine progenitors and rulers of mankind. He like the Olympian Prometheus, brought knowledge, the fire of the gods, to early man.

During his reign he taught, for the benefit of the people, the seventy-two sciences, of which writing is the first, arithmetic the most important, and the knowledge of omens the last, the sixty-four accomplishments of women, the hundred arts, and the three occupations of men.

– Kalpa Sūtra, p. 211

With this knowledge, thoroughly explained in their writings, men could “cut the umbilical cord” and become independent and self-reliant. And although it may seem to be forgotten during cycles of darkness, this wisdom will be re-collected, for the Jains believe that that which is stored within the soul of the race, like the lessons learned in infancy, will not be lost, but will develop later and flourish in peak periods of civilization.

Rishabhadeva according to the sūtras was a man of great beauty and size who lived 8,400,000 years – first as a prince, king and householder, then “houseless” in a state inferior to perfection and finally as a perfected one, having reached nirvana and returned to teach – “when his . . . karma was exhausted.” His greatness and longevity, like that of succeeding tirthankaras (though given for the latter in decreasing proportions), corresponds to the longevity of the giants and titans of Biblical and other allegories.

His teachings and those of his successors left a remarkable impress on the thought life of India. The Ṛg Veda (c. 15th-14th century BC), for instance, could well refer to the Jains when it mentions an Order of “Silent Ones,” who wear the wind as a girdle, and who, filled with the power of their silence, rise in the air to fly in the paths of the gods. And who protected both the useless, cruelty of animal sacrifice and the ineffective intonations of religious ritual. Even then Jain pundits rejected, as they do still, the authority of the Vedas, claiming that they were not only written by rākṣasas (demons), but that the holy teachings of the brahmans were originally taken from their secret doctrines. Then, too, the Jains refused to discriminate against caste or sex. In fact, some of the tirthankaras served as equals with their wives, while the 19th, Malli, was a princess.

“Since the time that the Arhat Ariṣṭanemi died, . . . eighty-four thousand years have elapsed,” says the Kalpa Sūtra (183) of the 22nd tīrthaṅkara. However, later scholars place him during the historic Mahābhārata wars and contemporary with Krishna (d. 3102 BC), whose ‘biography’ has striking similarities to Ariṣṭanemi’s, as Buddha’s does to Mahāvīra’s. Parśva, “the people’s favorite,” preceded Mahāvīra by only 250 years. The figures descriptive of his size, length of life, and number of followers are by our reckoning quite normal. Born at Varanasi (Benares), he lived 100 years and established a community of – note the proportions – 16,000 monks and 38,000 nuns; 164,000 male and 327,000 female votaries; several thousand sages of whom 1,000 men and 2,000 women are said to have reached perfection. His following, which included Mahāvīra’s parents, is still numerous.

Mahāvīra himself was born 650 years before Christ at the beginning of an era of decline that will continue 40,000 years. (The Wonder That Was India, A. Basham, p. 290. Authorities vary on the length of his life, some give it as 599-527 B.C., others believe he lived 93 years – see Kalpa Sūtra 148.) He came to counteract the forces of deterioration and to bring some measure of light to sustain mankind which, during this period will, according to Jain ancient tradition, decrease to the size of pygmies and live, only for 20 years, in caves of spiritual darkness. His life, given in the Ācāraṅga and Kalpa Sūtras, follows the pattern of his predecessors. These sutras relate how “the venerable ascetic Mahāvīra” at a propitious moment, left the world of the gods and “took the form of an embryo in the womb of Devānanda,” wife of the brahman Ṛṣabhadatta; and how the mother beheld in a dream the fourteen auspicious visions that foretell the birth of a Great One.

However, on the 83rd day of her pregnancy, Indra (Śakra in some versions), king of the gods, intervened. While she lay sleeping, he took the embryo from her womb and placed it in the womb of Triśala, wife of Siddhārtha the kṣatriya; meanwhile transferring the foetus that was to have been Triśala’s child back into the womb of Devānanda.

Could it be that this amazing operation – related also in the Purāṇic story of Krishna’s birth – subtly suggests that while Mahāvīra was a “great soul” as his name implies and of the highest or priestly caste, as a tīrthaṅkara it was necessary for him to be born a kṣatriya, the caste of the warrior, of those dedicated to service and discipline? Jainism is primarily a religion of “conquerors,” deriving its name from ji, jina. Not, however, as those dauntless in war, but like Arjuna and the heroes of many religious allegories, the Jains oppose with steadfast will the insidious inner foes – cruelty, ignorance, selfishness – which would subject the unwary to lifetimes of pain. In this spirit they welcome to their Order recruits from every class, who will henceforth, trained by self-discipline, join them as preservers of Law, guardians and protectors of the rights of great and small – just as in Galilee the Good Shepherd is the preserver and protector of his flock.

Though a man should conquer thousands and thousands of valiant (foes), greater will be his victory if he conquers nobody but himself. . . .

Better it is that I should subdue my Self by self-control and penance, than be subdued by others. . . .

Thus I became the protector of myself and of others besides, of an living beings, whether they move or not.

Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, ix, 34; i, 16; xx, 35

Mahāvīra was born amid rejoicing and salutations from gods, goddesses, demons and men. He grew up as a wonder-child, precocious and attended by miracles. He was educated as a prince, married the lovely Yaśodā, and became in time a father and later a grandfather. After thirty years as a householder, his parents having died and his daughter married, he asked and was given release from responsibility by his brother and by community authorities. Thus freed, he gave his wealth to the poor, renounced the world and became a houseless wanderer.

For twelve years he disciplined himself by inflexible rules of purity, self-control, study and contemplation. Then, one day while sitting in deep meditation under a Sal tree near an old temple, he attained enlightenment:

the complete and full, the unobstructed, unimpeded, infinite and supreme, best knowledge and intuition, called Kevala. . . . he knew all conditions of the world, of gods, men, and demons; whence they come, where they go, whether they are born as men or animals, or become gods or hell-beings; their food, drink, doings, desires, open and secret deeds, their conversation and gossip, and the thoughts of their minds; he saw and knew all conditions in the whole world of all living beings.

Ācāraṅga Sūtra, ii, 15,25-6

Thus Mahāvīra became an arhat, a jina, having conquered his karma, overcame danger and reached omniscience. But he did more. He returned. First he instructed the gods, and then, during thirty years’ wandering throughout India, he taught the Way of renunciation, noninjury and final liberation to all. And his following grew into a large community.

His most famous pupil, H. P. Blavatsky suggests2, was Gautama Buddha (c. 563-483 BC). It is possible that they walked together, the young prince of Kapilavastu and the last of the great tīrthaṅkaras, discussing problems of life and the cause of suffering, disease and death. All the while Gautama’s thoughts matured, and a harmony arose between their ideas which has withstood the years.

Both Jainism and Buddhism originally sought to restore clarity to India’s spiritual tradition. Both were revolts against ritual, sacrifice and superstition, whether prescribed by the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the “false” gods of Hindu priests, or by a Supreme Creator who dispenses good and evil, heaven and hell at his whim. And both propagated similar philosophical doctrines, though with differences in terms and emphasis. Buddha’s Middle Way and Noble Eightfold Path of steady, commonsense development are so appealing that his teachings have spread to every land. Mahāvīra, though enunciating the same high ethics, placed such stress on renunciation and strict discipline that his influence was considerably limited and his membership confined within India. Even today, with two-fifths of his present two million or so followers living in or around Bombay, only a small portion of the ancient Jain doctrines has reached the West.

Eventually the deeper teachings of both religions became obscured. Legends, ceremonial rites, interpretations and misinterpretations have added confusion. Translations into languages lacking subtleties, by translators biased or shortsighted, have failed to convey the metaphysical meanings of the original teachings. Inevitably splits occurred. Not long after Mahāvīra’s death questions of interpretation arose over rituals, dividing the Jains into the Śvetambaras, “white-clad,” and the Digambaras, “sky- or space-clad.” Later schisms came about over monastic procedure, but never has there been division over doctrines.

During Mahāvīra’s lifetime his teachings were carried unwritten from heart to heart and preserved in living memory. They, like the hymns of his predecessors, were considered too sacred to be corrupted by symbol or cipher. No Jain scriptures are extant from the days of Mahāvīra himself, though an extensive literature is said to have existed in his days. Depending on the sect to which they belong, many believe that the Ācāraṅga Sūtra contains the teachings originally given by Lord Mahāvīra, but there is no actual proof of that. Some 1000 years after Mahāvīra’s passing his death, the most comprehensive scripture of Jainism containing Jain cosmology, philosophy and ethics, named Tattvārtha Sūtra, was composed by Umāsvātī (or Umāsvāmī), recognized by all sects, though the great schism between Digambara (sky-clad) and Śvetāmbara took place several several centuries earlier3. Also the monks succumbed to demands for books of the rapidly increasing membership: both for study and in order to systematize and perpetuate the canonical texts before they were irretrievably lost or distorted.4 Thus began the compilation and elucidation of Jain tradition which researchers ever since have found to be a veritable treasure trove. Remarkably scholarly, these voluminous writings, as no others, consolidate India’s vast and continuous philosophical and cultural heritage. Not only do they incorporate teachings from the remote, prehistoric succession of tīrthaṅkaras, but they also detail the lives and customs of kings, sages and average villagers, and discuss scientifically and in parable both Jain and “heretical” views on the nature of life, matter, cosmos and man.

This rich treasury was produced in monasteries which, during the first centuries AD, were centers not only of occultism but of learning generally. As such they encouraged the copying, exposition, and translation into popular dialects of rare old manuscripts, both secular and sacred. Thus were inspired a galaxy of illustrious poets, writers, commentators, philosophers, scientists and logicians, who were welcomed in the royal courts of the Gaṅgas, Calukyas, Rāṣṭrakūtas and others.

Literary vocations have always been attractive to the Jains whose strong moral convictions limited them from many occupational pursuits. Agriculture has always accepted as a profession as it sanctioned by Ṛṣabha, the first tīrthaṅkara, and in South India many Jains are agriculturists, but they do most of the work by hand in the nature-friendliest way. but they who find it abhorrent to kill or cause to be killed, or allow to be killed, even the life of a plant, who subsist on grain, fruit and vegetables which contain no eggs, seeds, sprouts or source of life, could never engage in farming, in manufacturing or selling farm equipment, nor in armaments or intoxicants. Instead they become merchants, lawyers, bankers, educators and doctors – and usually influential and successful. Their charities are proverbial, providing financial assistance to the poor, the widowed, the victims of disaster. Their hospitals are exemplary, and so are their innumerable refuges for ill, aged and neglected animals and insects. All of which quietly but consistently perpetuates their age-old protest against cruelty, whether for sport, profit or sacrifice, whether by derogatory thought or by actually overworking, underfeeding or injuring man, beast or smallest life.

They have also fostered and engaged in the arts. Characteristic grace and delicacy are as obvious in their earliest cave-temples, of Orissa [in the east of India], Junagadh [in Gujarat in the west of India] including the breathtaking magnificence of the mountaintop temple of Deva Kota on Girnar mountain near Junagadh, – “Abode of the Gods” – or in the jeweled and marbled splendors of those at Kolkata, Jaipur, Mumbai and Rajasthan. And all are richly engraved with symbols which enfold deep meaning in simplest form. The Jain cross, for example, emblazoned on the head of the great Serpent of Time, or centered over the heart of their tīrthaṅkaras, and on so many of their other carvings, are as ancient as, and possibly antedate, the tau and the svastika of prehistoric Egypt, Chaldea, Europe and America. This cross is wonderfully suggestive in that its four outstretched arms – representing the four conditions of matter, the four stages of life, or the four degrees of awareness – become a svastika when they bend to form the Circle of Eternity, when the soul, equipoised at the center, attains perfection.

Equally suggestive in pose and conception are the many spectacular colossi of the tīrthaṅkaras. Some of their earliest works, like their votive plaques depicting the cross-legged naked figure of a tīrthaṅkara in meditation, are reminiscent of, and some (The Wonder That Was India, p. 367) believe inspired, the original statues of Buddha. This is particularly noticeable in the red sandstone Mathura sculpture of the arhat Parśva [or Parśvanātha], produced in the first or second century A.D. The simplicity of his position, seated cross-legged and protected by the expanded hood of a serpent, conveys the same feeling of patience and peace as do the statues of Buddha. And yet it differs. The eyes, so alert and intense, take in with their gaze, the world.

Next article: Jainism 2 – A Lamp of the True Light by Eloise Hart

  1. From Sunrise magazine, December 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press – slightly edited by DTh. []
  2. This is not generally accepted, and though the Gautama to become the Buddha may have been of about the same age as Gotama, the main disciple of Mahāvīra, Jains nor Buddhists regard him as the same person. There seems so far no reference in literature to support the identity of both young people – Ed. []
  3. The precise date of composition is not known, but the ripened knowledge contained in it points to a much older origin. – Ed. []
  4. The twelve aṅgas who are existing today and recognized by the Śvetāmbara Jains are seen as distortions by the Digambara Jains. []