Jainism Before Mahivira


Jainism Before Mahivira

The history of Jainism before Mahivira and P�r�van�tha is shrouded in considerable obscurity. Material which can reconstruct it is scanty, dubious and capable of different interpretations. Scholars have, therefore, come to widely divergent conclusions. The Jainas themselves believe that their religion is eternal and that before Mahivira (C.600 B.C.), there lived twentythree T�rtha�karas who appeared at certain intervals to propagate true religion for the salvation of the world. Some scholars1 hold that there are traces of the existence of �rama�a culture even in pre-Vedic times. H. JACOBI2 has proved both from the Buddhist and the Jaina records that P�r�van�tha, the immediate predecessor of Mahivira, who is said to have flourished some 250 years before him, is an historical personality.

According to the tradition preserved in the scriptures, Jaina religion is eternal, and it has been revealed again and again in every cyclic period of the world by innumerable T�rtha�karas. The whole span of time is divided into two equal cycles, Utsarpi�� (ascending) K�la and Avasarpi��  (descending) K�la. Each Utsarpi�� and Avasarpi�� K�la is subdivided into six parts. The six divisions of Avasarpi�� are known as Su�am� – Su�am� (Happy-Happy), Su�am�  (Happy), Su�am� – Du�am� (Happy-Unhappy), Du�am�-Su�am� (Unhappy-Happy), Du�am� (Unhappy) and Du�am�-Du�am� (Unhappy-Unhappy). The six divisions of Utsarpi�� are Du�am�-Du�am� (Unhappy-Unhappy), Du�am� (Unhappy), Du�am�-Su�am� (Unhappy-Happy), Su�am�-Du�am� (Happy-Unhappy), Su�am� (Happy) and Su�am�-Su�am� (Happy-Happy). The Utsarpi��, therefore, marks a period of gradual evolution and the Avasarpi�� that of gradual devolution or decline in human innocence and happiness, bodily strength and stature, span of life, and the length of the age itself, the First age being the longest and the Sixth the shortest. Conditions in the First, Second and Third ages of Avasarpi�� are those of Bhogabh�mi�happy and contented, enjoyment based, entirely dependent on nature, without any law or society�while life in the other three ages is described as being that of a Karmabh�mi, since it is based on and revolves round individual as well as collective effort. The fourth age of either cycle is supposed to be the best from the point of view of human civilization and culture, and it is this age that produces a number of T�rtha�karas and other great personages. We are now living in the Fifth age of the Avasarpi�� (descending half-circle) of the current cycle of time, which commenced a few years (3 years and 31/2 months) after Mahivira’s nirv�na (527 B.C.) and is of 21000 years duration.”3

Twentyfour T�rtha�karas appeared at certain intervals and preached the true religion for the salvation of the world. Their names are : (1) ��abha, (2) Ajita, (3) Sa�bhava, (4) Abhinandana, (5) Sumati, (6) Padmaprabha, (7) Sup�r�va, (8) Candraprabha, (9) Suvidhi or Pu�hpadanta, (10) ��tala, (11) �rey���a, (12) V�sap�jya, (13) Vimala, (14) Ananta, (15) Dharma, (16) ��nti, (17) Kunthu, (18) Ara, (19) Malli, (20) Munisuvrata, (21) Nami, (22) Nemi, (23) P�r�va, and (24) Vardham�na or Mahivira.

All the T�rtha�karas were K�atr�yas; Munisuvrata and Nami belonged to Hariva��a, and the remaining twentytwo to the Ik�av�ku race. Malli, according to the �vet�mbaras, was a woman, but this the Digambaras deny, for according to them no female can attain liberation.


According to the Jaina tradition, Ï¿½ï¿½abha, who belonged to the Ik�v�ku family of Ayodhy�, was the founder of Jainism. His parents were N�bh�r�ja and Marudev�. His son’s name was Bharata after whom India is said to be named. He was the first T�rtha�kara who was born in an age when people, primitive and illiterate, did not know any art. He is said to have taught the arts of agriculture, cooking, writing, pottery, painting and sculpture for the first time. It was during his time that the institution of marriage, the ceremony of cremating the dead, building of the mounds and the festivals in honour of Indra and the N�gas came into existence. We may, thus, look upon him as a great pioneer in the history of human progress.

It is often said that there is a reference to T�rtha�kara ��abha in the Vedic literature. Some Vedic preceptors paid reverence to T�rtha�kara ��abha, and regarded him as the Mah�deva. In the �gveda,4 and the Taittir�ya ï¿½ra�yaka,5 V�tara�anas have been mentioned, and in the same context an excellent tribute has been paid to Ke��.6 This Ke�� alludes to ��abha because in Jaina literature, there is a tradition that T�rtha�kara ��abha was called Ke��. Even on the ancient images of T�rtha�kara ��abha, locks of hair are noticed. In the �gveda,7 Ke�� has been mentioned along with V��abha. From this it is argued that V��abha lived before the Vedic times and was the first fountain-head of ï¿½rama�a culture. It is from the context of the �gveda that T�rtha�kara ��abha has been depicted as one who sponsored V�tara�ana �rama�as in the Bh�gavata Pur��a8 of the eighth century A.D. From about the fourth or third century B.C., it seems that ��abha became popular as the first T�rtha�kara, and the founder of Jainism.


Besides ��abhadeva, Ari�tanemi or Nemin�tha has also been mentioned as the T�rtha�kara of the Jainas. He is said to be the twenty-second T�rtha�kara. He was the son of a king named Samudravijaya of �aur�pura, a big town on the bank of the Yamun�. His mother’s name was ï¿½iv�dev�. He was named Ari�tanemi because his mother saw in a dream a Nemi, the outer rim of a wheel, which consisted of Ri��a stones flying up to the sky. Giran�ra or Raivataka hill is considered to be his Nirv��a place.

Nemin�tha is connected with the legend of Sri K���a as his relative. According to the Tri�a��i�al�k�puru�acarita, he was a cousin of Lord K���a who negotiated his marriage with R�jamat�, daughter of Ugrasena, ruler of Dv�rik�, but Nemin�tha, taking compassion on the animals which were to be slaughtered in connection with the marriage feast, left the marriage procession suddenly and renounced the world. He then left Dv�rik� and proceeded to a garden called Sahasramarvana on the mount Raivataka, where he practised asceticism and attained salvation. According to the Kalpas�tra, he lived up to the age of 1,000 years.

The Ch�ndogya Upani�ad9 refers to K���a, son of Devak�, as a disciple of Ghora A�girasa who instructed him about Tapas (austerity), D�na (charity), ï¿½rjava (simplicity or piety), Ahi�s� (non-injury) and Satyav�cana (truthfulness) � virtues which are extolled by K���a in the G�t�. As Jaina tradition makes V�s�deva-K���a a contemporary of T�rtha�kara Ari��anemi who preceded P�r�van�tha, some scholars identify Ghora ��girasa with Nemin�tha. Nemin�tha is also known to have instructed �r�k���a.

The age when V�sudeva-K���a flourished cannot be determined with certainty. The Ch�ndogya Upani�ad (the sixth or seventh century B.C.) refers to Vasudeva K���a. The Mah�bh�rata war, in which K���a is known to have participated, was, according to H.C. RAY CHAUDHURI, fought either in the 14th century B.C. or in the 9th century B.C.10


It has been pointed out by some scholars that Jainism is a pre-Vedic religion. G.C. PANDEY11 has tried to show that the anti-ritualistic tendency, within the Vedic fold, is itself due to the impact of an asceticism which antedates the Ved�s. Jainism represents a continuation of this pre-Vedic stream. Some of the relics,12 recovered from the excavations at Mohenjo-d�ro and Harapp�, are related to ï¿½rama�a or Jaina tradition. The nude images in K�yotsarga i.e., the standing posture lost in meditation, closely resemble the Jaina images of the Ku���a period. K�yotsarga is generally supposed to belong to the Jaina tradition. There are some idols even in Padm�sana pose. A few others, found at Mohenjo-d�ro, have hoods of serpents. They probably belonged to pre-Vedic N�ga tribe. The image of the seventh T�rtha�kara, Sup�r�va, has a canopy of serpent-hoods.

Even after the destruction of the Indus civilization, the straggling culture of the ï¿½rama�as, most probably going back to pre-Vedic and pre-Aryan times, continued even during the Vedic period as is indicated by some such terms as V�tara�ana, Muni, Yati, �rama�a, Ke��, Vr�tya, Arhan and �i�nadeva. The Ke�� S�kta of the ï¿½gveda delineates the strange figure of the Muni who is described as long-haired, clad in dirty, tawny-coloured garments, walking in the air, drinking poison, delirious with Mauneya and inspired. There can hardly be any doubt that the Muni was to the �gvedic Culture an alien figure. The Taittiriya��ra�yaka13 speaks of �rama�as who were called V�tra�an��. They led a celibate life and teach Br�hma�as the way beyond sin.

The word ï¿½rama�a occurs in the Upani�ads,14 although the Mu��akopani�ad has various references to the shaven-headed ascetics who revile the Vedas. All the passages of Vedic literature,15 taken together, suggest that the Yat�s were the people who had incurred the hostility of Indra, the patron of the �ryas, and whose bodies were, therefore, thrown to the wolves.

The Pa�cavi��a Br�hma�a16 describes some peculiarities of the Vr�tyas. They did not study the Vedas; they did not observe the rules regulating the Br�hmanical order of life. They called an expression difficult to pronounce when it was not difficult to pronounce at all and spoke the tongue of the consecrated though they themselves were not consecrated. This proves that they had some Pr�k�tik form of speech. The Pr�k�ta language is especially the language of the canonical works of the Jainas. K.P. JAYASWAL17 states that they had traditions of the Jainas current among them.

In the ï¿½gveda,18 Arhan has been used for a ï¿½rama�a leader : �Oh Arha�, you fed compassion for this useless world.� The mention of �i�nadevas (naked gods) in the ï¿½gveda19 is also noteworthy.


  1. JACOBI20and others have proved on the authority of both the Jaina and the Buddhist records that P�r�va was an historical personage. Their arguments are as follows :�
  2. In the Buddhist scriptures, there is a reference to the four vows(C�tury�ma Dharma)of P�r�va in contra-distinction to the five vows of Mahivira. The Buddhists could not have used the term C�tury�ma Dharma for the Nirgranthas unless they had heard it from the followers of P�r�va. This proves the correctness of the Jaina tradition that the followers of P�r�va, in fact, existed at the time of Mah�vira.
  3. The Nirgranthas were an important sect at the time of the rise of Buddhism, as may be inferred from the fact that they are frequently mentioned in thePi�akasas opponents of Buddha and his disciples. This is further supported by another fact. Ma�khali Go��la, a contemporary of Buddha and Mahivira, divided mankind into six classes, and of these, the third class contained the Nirgranthas.Go��la, probably, would not have ranked them as a separate class of mankind if they had recently come into existence. He must  have regarded them as members of a very important and at the same time an old sect.
  4. The Majjhima Nik�ya records a dispute between Buddha and Sakd�l, the son of a Nirgrantha. Sakd�l was not himself a Nirgrantha. Now, when a famous controversialist, whose father was a Nirgrantha, was a contemporary of Buddha, the Nirgrantha sect could scarcely have been founded during Buddha’s life-time.
  5. The existence of P�r�va’s Order in Mahivira’s time is proved by the reported disputes between the followers of P�r�va and those of Mah�vira. The followers of P�r�va, who did not fully recognize Mahivira as their spiritual guide, existed during Mahivira’s life-time. A sort of compromise has been effected between the two sections of the Jaina Sa�gha.

These arguments clearly show that P�r�van�tha was a real historical figure. Very few facts of his life are, however, known. The Kalpas�tra informs us that P�r�va was the son of king A�vasena of V�r��as� (Banaras) and queen V�m�, belonging to the Ik�v�k� race of the K�atriyas.

Many legends have gathered round P�r�va. Throughout his life, he was connected with ï¿½snakes� in one way or the other. In his childhood, for instance, while he lay by the side of his mother, a serpent was seen crawling about. When he grew up, he saved a serpent from the grave danger it was in. He also saved a poor terrified snake which had taken shelter in a log of wood to which a Br�hma�a ascetic, Kama�ha, had set fire. After its death, the snake became God Dhara�endra who spread a serpent’s hood over P�r�va.

According to Svetambaras, P�r�va was married to Prabh�vat�, the daughter of Prasenajit the king of Ku�asthala. But according to Digambaras, P�r�va was unmarried. He must have been a man of genial nature, as he is always given the epithet Puri��d�n�ya,21 ‘beloved of men’. He lived for thirty years in great splendour and happiness as a householder, and then, forsaking all his wealth, became an ascetic. After 84 days of intense meditation, he attained the perfect knowledge of a T�rtha�kara, and from that time, he lived for about seventy years in the state of most exalted perfection and sainthood. At last, he attained Nirv��a22 (liberation) in 777 B.C. on the summit of Mount Sammeda�ikhara, now named P�r�van�tha hill after him.

A man of practical nature, P�r�va was remarkable for his organizing capacity. He organized the Sa�gha (Organization) efficiently for the propagation of Jainism. He had eight Ga�as and eight Ga�adharas, namely, Subha and �ryagho�a, Va�i��ha and Brahmac�rin, Saumya and �ridhara, V�rabhadra and Ya�as. He had an excellent community of 16,000 ï¿½rama�as with �ryadatta at their head; 38,000 nuns with Pu�pac�l� at their head; 1,64,000 lay votaries with Sunand� at their head;23 350 sages who knew the four P�rvas; 1,400 sages who were possessed of the Avadhi knowledge; 1,000 male and 2,000 female disciples who had reached perfection; 750 sages, each gifted with mighty intellect; 600 professors and 1,200 sages in their last birth.24 Here the Digambara texts differ. According to them, there were ten Ga�as and ten Ga�adharas among whom Svayambh� was the chief disciple. They also differ in giving the number of nuns, laymen and female lay votaries which, acording to them, was twentysix thousand, one lac and three lacs respectively. He is said to have visited many cities for the dissemination of Jainism, the most important of which are Ahichatra, Amalakapp�, ��vatthi, Kampillapura, S�geya, R�yagiha, and Kosamb�.

According to the Jaina tradition, the sacred literature descending from the time of P�r�va was known as Puvvas (P�rvas). These ‘Earlier’ compositions were called Puvvas (P�rvas) evidently because they existed prior to the A�gas. They are said to have formed a common basis of Jaina & �jivika canon. It is from these P�rvas that Go��la Ma�khaliputta, the leader of the �jivikas drew inspiration. It is said that �jivika canon, consisting of eight Mah�nimittas and two M�rgas, was atleast partially based upon theseP�rvas.25

The fourteen P�rvas were recognized as constituting a twelfth A�ga called D���iv�da. The knowledge of the fourteen P�rvas remained up to Sth�labhadra, the eighth patriarch after Mahivira. For some time, only ten P�rvas were known and then the remaining P�rvas were gradually lost. Dr. H.L. JAIN thinks that in the ï¿½a�kha���gama of Pu�padanta and Bh�tabali, we have not only an important canonical book of the Digambaras but also a later representation of the D���iv�da which contained some portion of the original fourteen P�rvas.26

The Jain� S�tras and the early Buddhist texts enlighten us about the doctrines and followers of P�r�va. The religious order founded by him was reputed for a high and rigid standard of conduct. He made four moral precepts binding upon his followers, precepts which were later enforced by Mahivira and Buddha upon their followers. His rules were not confined only to these four precepts but they embraced many other rules laid down for the practical guidance of the fraternity and laity. All the fundamental rules of the Niga��ha community were due to P�r�va and his followers. B.M. BARUA27 points out that P�r�va, the philosophic predecessor of Mahivira, had rules of conduct which demanded a philosophic justification in order that they might not appear arbitrary or be confused with social conventions.

The Uttar�dhyayana S�tra f�rnishes a dialogue which sheds abundant light on this obscure point. The interlocutors are the two leading representatives of the Niga��ha Order of the time. Ke��, a follower of P�r�va’s rule, asks Gautama, who was one of the chief disciples of Mahivira: “When the four precepts promulgated by the great sage P�r�va are equally binding upon the two orders, what is the cause of difference between us?” “Wisdom” replies Gautama, “recoginzes the truth of the law and the ascertainment of true things. The earlier saints were simple but slow of understanding, the last saints, prevaricating and slow of understanding, those between the two, simple and wise; hence there are two forms of the Law. The first could only with difficulty understand the precepts of the Law, and the last could only with difficulty observe them, but those between them easily understood and observed them,”28

About the teachings of P�r�va, it must be admitted, we have no exact knowledge. His religion was, however, meant for one and all without any distinction of caste or creed. He allowed women to enter his Order. He laid stress on the doctrine of Ahi�s�. According to him, strict asceticism was the only way to attain salvation. Fundamentally, the doctrines of P�r�va and Mahivira were the same. P�r�va preached four vows instead of five. According to H. JACOBI, the Order of P�r�va seems to have undergone some changes in the period between the Nirv�na of P�r�va and the advent of Mahivira.

P�r�va enjoined on his followers four great vows : (1) Abstinence from killing living beings; (2) Avoidance of falsehood; (3) Avoidance of theft, and (4) Freedom from possessions. H. JACOBI29 has clearly perceived that a doctrine attributed to Mahivira in the Buddhist S�ma��aphala Sutta properly belonged to his predecessor, P�r�va, insofar as the expression C�tury�ma Sa�varais concerned. The doctrine is that, according to Mahivira, the way to self-possession, self-command, and imperturbability consists of ‘a four-fold self-restraint’, such as restraint in regard to all things, restraint in regard to all evil, and restraints imposed for the purification of sin and feeling a sense of ease on that account.30

The Jaina writers tell us that Nagnajit, king of Gandh�ra, Nami, king of Videha, Durmukha, King of Pa�c�la, Bh�ma, king of Vidarbha, and Karaka��u, king of Kali�ga adopted the faith of the Jainas.31 As P�r�va (877-777 B.C.) was probably the first historical Jina, these rulers, (if they really became converts to his doctrines), have to be placed between 842 B.C. and 600 B.C.. They are known to have ruled over their respective kingdoms before the sixth century B.C.

P�r�va had a large number of followers around Magadha even in the days of Mahivira. Mahivira’s parents, who belonged to the J��tr�-Kshatriyas, were worshippers of P�r�va.32 Following the teachings of P�r�va, they peacefully died practising slow starvation Sallekhan�. The Uttar�dhyayana S�tra33 relates a meeting between Ke�� and Gautama as representatives of the two Jaina Orders, the old and the new. The Bhagavat� S�tra34 refers to a dispute between K�l�savesiyaputta, a follower of P�r�va, and a disciple of Mahivira. The N�y�ddhammakah�o35 says that K�li, an old maiden joined P�r�va’s order and was entrusted to Pupphac�l�, the head of the nuns.The two sisters of Uppal� joined the order of P�r�va, but being unable to lead the rigid life of the order, they became Br�hmin Parivr�jik�s (female wanderers). Municanda, a follower of P�r�va, lived in a potter’s shop in Kum�r�ya-Sannive�a in the company of his disciples. Vijay� and Pagabbh�, two female disciples of P�r�va, served Mahivira and Go��la in K�viya-Sannive�a.36 The Bhagavat� S�tra37 refers to G��geya, a follower of P�r�va in V��iyag�ma. He gave up the four vows of P�r�va and adopted the five Mah�vratas of Mahivira. TheN�y�dhammakah�o38 mentions Pu��ariya who accepted the four vows of P�r�va. The followers of P�r�va moved in the company of five hundred monks into the city of Tu�giya.39 A number of laywomen joined P�r�va’s Order.40 TheR�yapase�aiyas�ya41 refers to a follower of P�r�va named Ke�� who visited Seyaviy� where a discussion between him and Paes� took place regarding the identity of the soul and body. A follower of P�r�va named Udaka met Gautama, the first Ga�adhara of Mahivira. Gautama was successful in winning over Udaka to his side.42 From the dialogue between Udaka and Gautama, it appears that the followers of P�r�va and the disciples of Mahivira were respectively known as the Niga��ha Kum�raputtas and the Niga��ha N�thaputtas.

References :

  1.     H. ZIMMER : Philosophies of India, pp. 217-227;

J.G.R. FORLONG : Short Studies in the Science of Comparative Religions, pp. 243-244;

PSOB        : p. 260;

TULSI      : Pre-Vedic Existence of ï¿½rama�a Tradition.

  1.     SBE, XLV, pp. xx-xxiii.
  2.     JYOTI PRASAD JAIN : Religion and Culture of the Jainas.
  3.     RV, X, 11.139.2-3.
  4.     Taitt. Ar, 2.7.1, p. 137.
  5.     RV, X, 11, 136-1.
  6.     Ibid., X, 9, 102-6.
  7.  Bh�gavata, V, 3, 20.
  8.     Ch�nd, III, 17, 6
  9.     PHAL, pp. 31-36.
  10.     PSOB, pp. 317, 258
  11.     Moh. Ind, plate xii, Figs. 13, 14, 15, 19, 22.
  12.     Taitt. ï¿½r, I. pp. 87, 137-8.
  13.     B�. Up. 4. 3. 22.
  14.     Taitt. Sam, VI, 2, 75; K��haka Sa�hit�, VIII, 5; Ait. Br. 35. 2; Kau Up, III. 1; AV, II, 53, T���ya Mah�-Br�hma�a, VIII, 1-4.
  15.     Pa�ca. Br, XVII, 4, 1-9.
  16.     JBORS, XIV, p. 26.
  17.     RV, II, 33, 10.
  18.     Ibid., VII, 21, 5; x, 99, 3.
  19.     SBE, XLV, pp. xx-xxiii.
  20.     Kalpa, 149, 155.
  21.     Kalpa, 168-169.
  22.     Ibid., 160-164.
  23.     Ibid., 166.
  24.     B.M. BARUA interprets the word Puvva in the text not in the specialised Jaina sense, but merely as “past traditions”. (See JDL, II, p. 41). His view is perhaps strengthened by the fact that the eightfold Mah��imitta of the �jivikas bears no resemblance to the titles of the fourteen lost Purvas of the Jaina tradition.
  25.     Sama, 147 fol. 128. Utp�da-p�rva, �gr�ya��ya-p�rva, Viry�nuv�da-p�rva, Astinasti-prav�da-p�rva, J��na-prav�da-p�rva, Satya-prav�da-p�rva, �tmaprav�da-p�rva, Karma-prav�da-p�rva, Praty�-khy�nan�madheya-p�rva, Vidy�nuv�da-p�rva, Kaly��an�madheya-p�rva, Pr���v�ya-p�rva, Kriy�vi��la-p�rva, and Lokabindus�ra-p�rva.
  26.     BHPIP, p. 380.
  27.     SBE, XLV, pp. 122-123.
  28.     SBE, XLV, pp. xix-xxii.
  29.     Dia, II, pp. 74-75.
  30.     SBE, XLV. p. 87.
  31.     ï¿½c�, II, 15-16.
  32.     Uttar�, 23, pp. 119-129.
  33.     Bhag, I, 76.
  34.     N�y�, II. i; p. 222 ff.
  35.     ï¿½va, c�, p. 291.
  36.     Bhag, IX. 32
  37.     N�y�, 19, p. 218.
  38.     Bhag, 2-5.
  39.     N�y�, II, 10.
  40.     R�ya, 147 ff.
  41.     S�tra, II 7.