Jainism is the least well known of India’s traditional religions even though it has an ancestry that antedates Buddhism and rivals Hinduism in its claim to be India’s oldest continuously practiced faith. Its modern historical founder is Mahavira, a near contemporary of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Yet Mahavira is claimed as but the most recent of twenty-four tirthankaras, literally “ford-crossers” whose pure and indestructible souls (jiva) have journeyed from the realm of the phenomenal world (samsara) to a place of spiritual liberation (moksha), free of perpetual reincarnation. The Jain faith is based on the worship of these twenty-four liberated souls, venerated as the jinas, those perfected beings who have achieved victory over samsara and who serve as role models to guide the faithful on the proper path to liberation.
In devotional practice, Jainism mirrored more closely the rites and rituals of Hinduism than did Buddhism, though it remained wedded to the shared vision of a faith premised on moksha. The conceptual basis for the jina’s image is the pan-Indian ideal of the yogic ascetic (1992.131). This image informs many religious icons in early Indian art, and respect for the wandering meditative mendicant is the oldest stream running through religious practice in the subcontinent. This ancient practice, celebrated in the Vedas, equates the acquisition of superior knowledge ([spiritual] “wisdom”) with the pursuit of advanced forms of meditation, austerities, and a withdrawal from the material comforts of the life of a householder. Those who attain such a state are respected and revered.
For the Jains, meditation in a seated yogic posture was the predominant form assumed by the jinas. A secondary and uniquely Jain form, and undoubtedly also of great antiquity, is the standing posture of “body abandonment” (kayotsarga), in which the mendicant stands erect with his arms pendant but unsupported by the body. This physically exacting pose is the most extreme expression of Jainism’s central premise, the concept of ahimsa, “nonviolence” to all living creatures. To maintain complete immobility was to ensure no harm to any creature, however small.
The pantheon of deities worshipped in Jainism consists of a hierarchy descending from the twenty-four perfected beings to a galaxy of secondary gods and goddesses, the most important of whom is Indra (Shakra) in whose heaven the jinas reside, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning. The nature-spirit deities, the yakshas (male) and yakshis (female), who peopled the early landscape of the subcontinent before the coming of the new religions, serve as protective presences and guardians. Most prominent among these are Dharanendra, the nagaraja who protects Jina Parshvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, and Ambika, the embodiment of maternity and fecundity. A vast cast of knowledge goddesses, vidyadevis, oversee the enactment of ritual, and an array of celestial musicians (gandharvas) and dancers (apsaras) celebrate the jinas in their heavens.
This cast is somewhat limited when compared to mainstream Hinduism and has generated a similarly constricted repertoire of imagery, sculpted, painted, and woven. Within these conceptual constraints, however, Jain religious imagery tracks the mainstream stylistic and technical innovations of Indian art.
Jainism had an established place in the art of early India from the beginnings of the appearance of figurative religious imagery. At the outset of Jain image making, it may be assumed that male Jain mendicants renounced all material encumbrances, including clothing. From its origins in Bihar, eastern India, Jainism spread along the Gangetic basin and became an important presence at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, the southern capital of the Kushans. Certainly the numerous sandstone sculptures of jinas from the early centuries A.D. found in this region are, without exception, naked. The total absence of garments distinguishes the jinas from the otherwise similar images of Buddhas, as does the prevalent use in this formative period of the shrivatsa symbol on the chest, a lakshana (auspicious mark) denoting the jina’s status as a mahapurusha (“great man”). Similarly, the famous bronze Jina Rishabhantha of the third century A.D., from the Chausa hoard, Patna, is among the earliest known Jain bronzes and represents the jina standing naked in the kayotsarga posture of immobility, the predominant theme in early Jain metal imagery.
The oldest Jain image in the Museum’s collection also happens to be the earliest known representation of the subject in Jain art, that of Bahubali, a perfected being (siddha) who attained jina-like status in the Jain canon while never being claimed as a tirthankara (1987.142.339). This diminutive icon—only 11 centimeters high—is part of a tradition that inspired the largest rock-cut icon in the subcontinent, the 18-meter Bahubali at Shravana Belgola, in Karnataka, which is ritually lustrated in the Mahamastakabhisheka festival, celebrated on a twelve-year cycle, most recently in 2006.
The Deccan was the stronghold of the Digambara (“sky-clad,” i.e., naked) sect of Jainism, and further south, in Tamil country, Jainism prospered, attracting patronage from Pandyan and other rulers throughout the first millennium. Most images from that region depict jinas as fully committed renunciants, the “sky-clad.” A tirthankara standing in body-abandonment meditation typifies the style of the late first millennium (1995.423). The figure is austere in its plainness, completely lacking in “adornment” (alamkara), a virtue in Hindu sculpture but seen by Digambara Jains as counter to the vows of renunciation so core to advanced practitioners. The slightly attenuated arms are an allusion to the protracted observance of body-abandonment penance. The short hair curls are an anomaly, as they mimic the Buddhist convention (of the curls left after cutting off the hair with a sword) rather than the required Jain practice of plucking out one’s own hair. The extended earlobes share a common ancestry, denoting a personage who once wore heavy jewelry, implying that all jinas were of high birth. Images of tirthankaras standing in body-abandonment are among the most understated and beautiful of the period, and so successfully embody the essence of the doctrine of renunciation of the material world.
Jainism had progressively spread from its birthplace in Bihar westward to its future heartland in Gujarat and Rajasthan. One of the clearest demonstrations of the success of this transplanting of Jainism from eastern to western India is demonstrated by the so-called Akota hoard of Jain bronzes. Spanning from the late fifth to the tenth century, this large cache of sixty-eight copper-alloy images was secreted away for safety and lost from memory until its chance discovery prior to 1951 at the ancient city Ankottaka (present-day Akota) in Gujarat. This hoard provided the earliest coherent group of Jain icons of this period, chronicling the rise of Jainism in western India. The enthroned jina, probably Neminatha (2008.279), is clearly related to this “Akota school” and may be accepted as belonging to the same cultural milieu and style group.