The Twenty-four "Buddhas" of Jainism

By Eloise Hart

The barefoot beggar 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 Mahavira, the last of the twenty-four tirthankaras, or "buddhas," of Jainism.

Who was Mahavira and the tirthankaras he followed? Northern Buddhists refer to "Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession" who, H. P. Blavatsky explains, are identical with the Jain tirthankaras. These buddhas, tirthankaras, 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 Avatars of the Celestial Beings — eleven only belong to the Atlantean race, and 24 to the Fifth race, from its beginnings." (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 tirthankaras, their teachings, and the company of Noble Ones who are "an island . . . of safe refuge" day and night. (Akaranga Sutra, 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." (Uttaradhyayana, xxix, 5)

As said, Mahavira was the 24th tirthankara. The term, the mystical counterpart of the Buddhist tathagata, 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 tirthankaras 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 Sutra 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 tirthankara of the present cosmic age was Rishabhadeva, 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 Sutra, 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 sutras 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 Rig 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 rakshasas (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 Arishtanemi died, . . . eighty-four thousand years have elapsed," says the Kalpa Sutra (183) of the 22nd tirthankara. However, later scholars place him during the historic Mahabharata wars and contemporary with Krishna (d. 3102 BC), whose 'biography' has striking similarities to Arishtanemi's, as Buddha's does to Mahavira's. Parsva, "the people's favorite," preceded Mahavira 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 Mahavira's parents, is still numerous.

Mahavira 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 Sutra 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 Akaranga and Kalpa Sutras, follows the pattern of his predecessors. These sutras relate how "the venerable ascetic Mahavira" at a propitious moment, left the world of the gods and "took the form of an embryo in the womb of Devananda," wife of the brahman Rishabhadatta; 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 (Sakra 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 Trisala, wife of Siddhartha the kshatriya; meanwhile transferring the foetus that was to have been Trisala's child back into the womb of Devananda.

Could it be that this amazing operation — related also in the Puranic story of Krishna's birth — subtly suggests that while Mahavira was a " great soul" as his name implies and of the highest or priestly caste, as a tirthankara it was necessary for him to be born a kshatriya, 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.
Uttaradhyayana Sutra, ix, 34; i, 16; xx, 35

Mahavira 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 Yasoda, 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. — Akaranga Sutra, ii, 15,25-6

Thus Mahavira 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 suggests, 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 tirthankaras, 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. Mahavira, 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 Mahavira's death questions of interpretation arose over rituals, dividing the Jains into the Svetambaras, "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 Mahavira'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. Not until 1,000 years after his death, in the 5th century AD, did the monks succumb to demands of the rapidly increasing membership for books: both for study and in order to systematize and perpetuate the canonical texts before they were irretrievably lost or distorted. 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 tirthankaras, 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 Gangas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas and others.

Literary vocations have always been attractive to the Jains whose strong moral convictions limited them from many occupational pursuits. Agriculture of course was taboo. 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, Junagadh and elsewhere, as in the breathtaking magnificence of the mountaintop temple of Deva Kota, "Abode of the Gods," or in the jeweled and marbled splendors of those at Calcutta, Jaipur, Bombay 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 tirthankaras, and on so many of their other carvings, are as ancient as, and possibly antedate, the tau and the swastika 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 swastika 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 tirthankaras. Some of their earliest works, like their votive plaques depicting the cross-legged naked figure of a tirthankara 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 Parsva, 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.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)


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