Jainism Before Mahivira


Jainism Before Mahavira

The history of Jainism before Mahävïra and Pärávanätha 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 Mahävïra (C.600 B.C.), there lived twentythree Tïrthaõkaras 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 Áramaîa culture even in pre-Vedic times. H. JACOBI2 has proved both from the Buddhist and the Jaina records that Pärávanätha, the immediate predecessor of Mahävïra, 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 Tïrthaõkaras. The whole span of time is divided into two equal cycles, Utsarpiîï (ascending) Käla and Avasarpiîï  (descending) Käla. Each Utsarpiîï and Avasarpiîï Käla is subdivided into six parts. The six divisions of Avasarpiîï are known as Suÿamä – Suÿamä (Happy-Happy), Suÿamä  (Happy), Suÿamä – Duÿamä (Happy-Unhappy), Duÿamä-Suÿamä (Unhappy-Happy), Duÿamä (Unhappy) and Duÿamä-Duÿamä (Unhappy-Unhappy). The six divisions of Utsarpiîï are Duÿamä-Duÿamä (Unhappy-Unhappy), Duÿamä (Unhappy), Duÿamä-Suÿamä (Unhappy-Happy), Suÿamä-Duÿamä (Happy-Unhappy), Suÿamä (Happy) and Suÿamä-Suÿamä (Happy-Happy). The Utsarpiîï, therefore, marks a period of gradual evolution and the Avasarpiîï 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 Avasarpiîï are those of Bhogabhümi–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 Karmabhümi, 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 Tïrthaõkaras and other great personages. We are now living in the Fifth age of the Avasarpiîï (descending half-circle) of the current cycle of time, which commenced a few years (3 years and 31/2 months) after Mahävïra’s nirväna (527 B.C.) and is of 21000 years duration.”3

Twentyfour Tïrthaõkaras appeared at certain intervals and preached the true religion for the salvation of the world. Their names are : (1) Ôÿabha, (2) Ajita, (3) Saãbhava, (4) Abhinandana, (5) Sumati, (6) Padmaprabha, (7) Supäráva, (8) Candraprabha, (9) Suvidhi or Puÿhpadanta, (10) Áïtala, (11) Áreyäãáa, (12) Väsapüjya, (13) Vimala, (14) Ananta, (15) Dharma, (16) Áänti, (17) Kunthu, (18) Ara, (19) Malli, (20) Munisuvrata, (21) Nami, (22) Nemi, (23) Päráva, and (24) Vardhamäna or Mahävïra.

All the Tïrthaõkaras were Kÿatrïyas; Munisuvrata and Nami belonged to Harivaãáa, and the remaining twentytwo to the Ikÿaväku race. Malli, according to the Ávetämbaras, was a woman, but this the Digambaras deny, for according to them no female can attain liberation.


According to the Jaina tradition, Ôÿabha, who belonged to the Ikÿväku family of Ayodhyä, was the founder of Jainism. His parents were Näbhïräja and Marudevï. His son’s name was Bharata after whom India is said to be named. He was the first Tïrthaõkara 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 Nägas 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 Tïrthaõkara Ôÿabha in the Vedic literature. Some Vedic preceptors paid reverence to Tïrthaõkara Ôÿabha, and regarded him as the Mahädeva. In the Ôgveda,4 and the Taittirïya Äraîyaka,5 Vätaraáanas have been mentioned, and in the same context an excellent tribute has been paid to Keáï.6 This Keáï alludes to Ôÿabha because in Jaina literature, there is a tradition that Tïrthaõkara Ôÿabha was called Keáï. Even on the ancient images of Tïrthaõkara Ôÿabha, locks of hair are noticed. In the Ôgveda,7 Keáï has been mentioned along with Vôÿabha. From this it is argued that Vôÿabha lived before the Vedic times and was the first fountain-head of Áramaîa culture. It is from the context of the Ôgveda that Tïrthaõkara Ôÿabha has been depicted as one who sponsored Vätaraáana Áramaîas in the Bhägavata Puräîa8 of the eighth century A.D. From about the fourth or third century B.C., it seems that Ôÿabha became popular as the first Tïrthaõkara, and the founder of Jainism.


Besides Ôÿabhadeva, Ariÿtanemi or Neminätha has also been mentioned as the Tïrthaõkara of the Jainas. He is said to be the twenty-second Tïrthaõkara. He was the son of a king named Samudravijaya of Áaurïpura, a big town on the bank of the Yamunä. His mother’s name was Áivädevï. He was named Ariÿtanemi because his mother saw in a dream a Nemi, the outer rim of a wheel, which consisted of Riÿûa stones flying up to the sky. Giranära or Raivataka hill is considered to be his Nirväîa place.

Neminätha is connected with the legend of Sri Kôÿîa as his relative. According to the Triÿaáûiáaläkäpuruÿacarita, he was a cousin of Lord Kôÿîa who negotiated his marriage with Räjamatï, daughter of Ugrasena, ruler of Dvärikä, but Neminätha, 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 Dvärikä and proceeded to a garden called Sahasramarvana on the mount Raivataka, where he practised asceticism and attained salvation. According to the Kalpasütra, he lived up to the age of 1,000 years.

The Chändogya Upaniÿad9 refers to Kôÿîa, son of Devakï, as a disciple of Ghora Aõgirasa who instructed him about Tapas (austerity), Däna (charity), Ärjava (simplicity or piety), Ahiãsä (non-injury) and Satyaväcana (truthfulness) – virtues which are extolled by Kôÿîa in the Gïtä. As Jaina tradition makes Väsüdeva-Kôÿîa a contemporary of Tïrthaõkara Ariÿûanemi who preceded Pärávanätha, some scholars identify Ghora Äõgirasa with Neminätha. Neminätha is also known to have instructed Árïkôÿîa.

The age when Väsudeva-Kôÿîa flourished cannot be determined with certainty. The Chändogya Upaniÿad (the sixth or seventh century B.C.) refers to Vasudeva Kôÿîa. The Mahäbhärata war, in which Kôÿîa 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 Vedäs. Jainism represents a continuation of this pre-Vedic stream. Some of the relics,12 recovered from the excavations at Mohenjo-däro and Harappä, are related to Áramaîa or Jaina tradition. The nude images in Käyotsarga i.e., the standing posture lost in meditation, closely resemble the Jaina images of the Kuÿäîa period. Käyotsarga is generally supposed to belong to the Jaina tradition. There are some idols even in Padmäsana pose. A few others, found at Mohenjo-däro, have hoods of serpents. They probably belonged to pre-Vedic Näga tribe. The image of the seventh Tïrthaõkara, Supäráva, has a canopy of serpent-hoods.

Even after the destruction of the Indus civilization, the straggling culture of the Áramaîas, 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 Vätaraáana, Muni, Yati, Áramaîa, Keáï, Vrätya, Arhan and Áiánadeva. The Keáï Sükta of the Ôgveda 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 Ôgvedic Culture an alien figure. The Taittiriya–Äraîyaka13 speaks of Áramaîas who were called Vätraáanäê. They led a celibate life and teach Brähmaîas the way beyond sin.

The word Áramaîa occurs in the Upaniÿads,14 although the Muîâakopaniÿad has various references to the shaven-headed ascetics who revile the Vedas. All the passages of Vedic literature,15 taken together, suggest that the Yatïs were the people who had incurred the hostility of Indra, the patron of the Äryas, and whose bodies were, therefore, thrown to the wolves.

The Pañcaviãáa Brähmaîa16 describes some peculiarities of the Vrätyas. They did not study the Vedas; they did not observe the rules regulating the Brähmanical 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 Präkôtik form of speech. The Präkôta 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 Ôgveda,18 Arhan has been used for a Áramaîa leader : ‘Oh Arhaî, you fed compassion for this useless world.’ The mention of Áiánadevas (naked gods) in the Ôgveda19 is also noteworthy.


  1. JACOBI20and others have proved on the authority of both the Jaina and the Buddhist records that Päráva was an historical personage. Their arguments are as follows :–
  2. In the Buddhist scriptures, there is a reference to the four vows(Cäturyäma Dharma)of Päráva in contra-distinction to the five vows of Mahävïra. The Buddhists could not have used the term Cäturyäma Dharma for the Nirgranthas unless they had heard it from the followers of Päráva. This proves the correctness of the Jaina tradition that the followers of Päráva, in fact, existed at the time of Mahävira.
  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 thePiûakasas opponents of Buddha and his disciples. This is further supported by another fact. Maõkhali Goáäla, a contemporary of Buddha and Mahävïra, divided mankind into six classes, and of these, the third class contained the Nirgranthas. Goáäla, 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 Nikäya records a dispute between Buddha and Sakdäl, the son of a Nirgrantha. Sakdäl 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 Päráva’s Order in Mahävïra’s time is proved by the reported disputes between the followers of Päráva and those of Mahävira. The followers of Päráva, who did not fully recognize Mahävïra as their spiritual guide, existed during Mahävïra’s life-time. A sort of compromise has been effected between the two sections of the Jaina Saãgha.

These arguments clearly show that Pärávanätha was a real historical figure. Very few facts of his life are, however, known. The Kalpasütra informs us that Päráva was the son of king Aávasena of Väräîasï (Banaras) and queen Vämä, belonging to the Ikÿväkü race of the Kÿatriyas.

Many legends have gathered round Päráva. Throughout his life, he was connected with ‘snakes’ 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 Brähmaîa ascetic, Kamaûha, had set fire. After its death, the snake became God Dharaîendra who spread a serpent’s hood over Päráva.

According to Svetambaras, Päráva was married to Prabhävatï, the daughter of Prasenajit the king of Kuáasthala. But according to Digambaras, Päráva was unmarried. He must have been a man of genial nature, as he is always given the epithet Puriÿädänïya,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 Tïrthaõkara, and from that time, he lived for about seventy years in the state of most exalted perfection and sainthood. At last, he attained Nirväîa22 (liberation) in 777 B.C. on the summit of Mount Sammedaáikhara, now named Pärávanätha hill after him.

A man of practical nature, Päráva was remarkable for his organizing capacity. He organized the Saãgha (Organization) efficiently for the propagation of Jainism. He had eight Gaîas and eight Gaîadharas, namely, Subha and Äryaghoÿa, Vaáiÿûha and Brahmacärin, Saumya and Áridhara, Vïrabhadra and Yaáas. He had an excellent community of 16,000 Áramaîas with Äryadatta at their head; 38,000 nuns with Puÿpacülä at their head; 1,64,000 lay votaries with Sunandä at their head;23 350 sages who knew the four Pürvas; 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 Gaîas and ten Gaîadharas among whom Svayambhü 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, Amalakappä, Áävatthi, Kampillapura, Sägeya, Räyagiha, and Kosambï.

According to the Jaina tradition, the sacred literature descending from the time of Päráva was known as Puvvas (Pürvas). These ‘Earlier’ compositions were called Puvvas (Pürvas) evidently because they existed prior to the Aõgas. They are said to have formed a common basis of Jaina & Äjivika canon. It is from these Pürvas that Goáäla Maõkhaliputta, the leader of the Äjivikas drew inspiration. It is said that Äjivika canon, consisting of eight Mahänimittas and two Märgas, was atleast partially based upon these Pürvas.25

The fourteen Pürvas were recognized as constituting a twelfth Aõga called Dôÿûiväda. The knowledge of the fourteen Pürvas remained up to Sthülabhadra, the eighth patriarch after Mahävïra. For some time, only ten Pürvas were known and then the remaining Pürvas were gradually lost. Dr. H.L. JAIN thinks that in the Ÿaûkhaîâägama of Puÿpadanta and Bhütabali, we have not only an important canonical book of the Digambaras but also a later representation of the Dôÿûiväda which contained some portion of the original fourteen Pürvas.26

The Jainä Sütras and the early Buddhist texts enlighten us about the doctrines and followers of Päráva. 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 Mahävïra 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 Nigaîûha community were due to Päráva and his followers. B.M. BARUA27 points out that Päráva, the philosophic predecessor of Mahävïra, had rules of conduct which demanded a philosophic justification in order that they might not appear arbitrary or be confused with social conventions.

The Uttarädhyayana Sütra fürnishes a dialogue which sheds abundant light on this obscure point. The interlocutors are the two leading representatives of the Nigaîûha Order of the time. Keáï, a follower of Päráva’s rule, asks Gautama, who was one of the chief disciples of Mahävïra: “When the four precepts promulgated by the great sage Päráva 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 Päráva, 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 Ahiãsä. According to him, strict asceticism was the only way to attain salvation. Fundamentally, the doctrines of Päráva and Mahävïra were the same. Päráva preached four vows instead of five. According to H. JACOBI, the Order of Päráva seems to have undergone some changes in the period between the Nirväna of Päráva and the advent of Mahävïra.

Päráva 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 Mahävïra in the Buddhist Sämaññaphala Sutta properly belonged to his predecessor, Päráva, insofar as the expression Cäturyäma Saãvara is concerned. The doctrine is that, according to Mahävïra, 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 Gandhära, Nami, king of Videha, Durmukha, King of Pañcäla, Bhïma, king of Vidarbha, and Karakaîâu, king of Kaliõga adopted the faith of the Jainas.31 As Päráva (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.

Päráva had a large number of followers around Magadha even in the days of Mahävïra. Mahävïra’s parents, who belonged to the Jñätrï-Kshatriyas, were worshippers of Päráva.32 Following the teachings of Päráva, they peacefully died practising slow starvation Sallekhanä. The Uttarädhyayana Sütra33 relates a meeting between Keáï and Gautama as representatives of the two Jaina Orders, the old and the new. The Bhagavatï Sütra34 refers to a dispute between Käläsavesiyaputta, a follower of Päráva, and a disciple of Mahävïra. The Näyäddhammakahäo35 says that Käli, an old maiden joined Päráva’s order and was entrusted to Pupphacülä, the head of the nuns.The two sisters of Uppalä joined the order of Päráva, but being unable to lead the rigid life of the order, they became Brähmin Parivräjikäs (female wanderers). Municanda, a follower of Päráva, lived in a potter’s shop in Kumäräya-Sanniveÿa in the company of his disciples. Vijayä and Pagabbhä, two female disciples of Päráva, served Mahävïra and Goáäla in Küviya-Sanniveÿa.36 The Bhagavatï Sütra37 refers to Gäõgeya, a follower of Päráva in Väîiyagäma. He gave up the four vows of Päráva and adopted the five Mahävratas of Mahävïra. The Näyädhammakahäo38 mentions Puîâariya who accepted the four vows of Päráva. The followers of Päráva moved in the company of five hundred monks into the city of Tuõgiya.39 A number of laywomen joined Päráva’s Order.40 The Räyapaseîaiyasüya41 refers to a follower of Päráva named Keáï who visited Seyaviyä where a discussion between him and Paesï took place regarding the identity of the soul and body. A follower of Päráva named Udaka met Gautama, the first Gaîadhara of Mahävïra. Gautama was successful in winning over Udaka to his side.42 From the dialogue between Udaka and Gautama, it appears that the followers of Päráva and the disciples of Mahävïra were respectively known as the Nigaîûha Kumäraputtas and the Nigaîûha Näthaputtas.

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 Áramaîa 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.  Bhägavata, V, 3, 20.
  8.     Chänd, 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. Är, I. pp. 87, 137-8.
  13.     Bô. Up. 4. 3. 22.
  14.     Taitt. Sam, VI, 2, 75; Käûhaka Saãhitä, VIII, 5; Ait. Br. 35. 2; Kau Up, III. 1; AV, II, 53, Täîâya Mahä-Brähmaîa, VIII, 1-4.
  15.     Pañca. 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 Mahäîimitta of the Äjivikas bears no resemblance to the titles of the fourteen lost Purvas of the Jaina tradition.
  25.     Sama, 147 fol. 128. Utpäda-pürva, Ägräyaîïya-pürva, Viryänuväda-pürva, Astinasti-praväda-pürva, Jñäna-praväda-pürva, Satya-praväda-pürva, Ätmapraväda-pürva, Karma-praväda-pürva, Pratyä-khyänanämadheya-pürva, Vidyänuväda-pürva, Kalyäîanämadheya-pürva, Präîäväya-pürva, Kriyäviáäla-pürva, and Lokabindusära-pürva.
  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.     Äcä, II, 15-16.
  32.     Uttarä, 23, pp. 119-129.
  33.     Bhag, I, 76.
  34.     Näyä, II. i; p. 222 ff.
  35.     Äva, cü, p. 291.
  36.     Bhag, IX. 32
  37.     Näyä, 19, p. 218.
  38.     Bhag, 2-5.
  39.     Näyä, II, 10.
  40.     Räya, 147 ff.
  41.     Sütra, II 7.