In the Jain conception, the world has neither beginning in time nor any end. The world and the Jain Church exist eternally. The Jains liken time to a wheel with twelve spokes. The Wheel is going round and round since time began and will go on doing so for all time. At any moment half the wheel is descending. The descending half of the wheel is called Avasarpini, and the ascending half is called Utsarpini. We are living in the Avasarpini half or the descending half of the Time Wheel when the human life and manners are becoming worse year by year. Each of these halves is divided in to Aras (spokes) or Ages. The Aras in the Avasarpini are the following:
Name of the Age Duration
1. Susama Susama Four crore crore Sagaropama year
2. Susama Three crore crore Sagaropama years
3. Susama Dusama Two crore crore Sagaropama years
4. Dusama susama One crore crore Sagaropama years
less 42,000 ordinary years
5. Dusama 21,000 ordinary years
6. Dusama Dusama 21,000 ordinary years.
Sagaropama or "comparable to ocean" is a number too large to express in words.
The same Ages occur in the Utsarpini period but in the reverse order.
In the first Age, in the Susama susama Age, man lived Three palyas or palyopamas a long period not to be expressed in a definite number of years (one crore-crone palyas make one "comparable to ocean years). The Nirvana of Rishabha the first Tirthankara occurred 3 years and 8 1/2 months before the end of the third Age. The other 23 Tirthankara were born in the fourth age. Mahavira the last of the Tirthankara died 3 years and 8 1/2 months before the beginning of the fifth age which began in 527 BC We are thus living in the fifth, that is, the Dusama Age.
The mythical history of Jainism starts from a period near about the end of the third Age, i.e., the Susama Dusama Age. In this period the first of the sixty-three supermen of the Jain mythology, Rishabhanatha, appeared. The other sixty-two supermen appeared in the fourth, i.e., Dusama-susama Age. The Svetambaras call these supermen Shalakapursha, while the Digambaras call them Lakshana-purusha.1 Mahavira was the last of the sixty-three supermen.
Both the Svetambaras and the Digambaras have written a number of works giving the lives2 of these sixty-three persons. One of the most famous of these works is the Trishashti- shalakapurusha- charitra by Hemachandra. Generally speaking, there is not much difference in the versions of the lives given by the two sects. In fact the notable differences occur in the case of the two Tirthankara Malli and Mahavira only. In all other cases the two sects are in agreement about the mythology of their religion.
The sixty-three supermen were the following:
Shvetambara names Digambara names
Thirhankaras Tirthankara 24
Cakravartins Cakravartins 12
Baladevas Baladevas 09
Vasudevas Nrayanas 09
Prativasudevas Pratinarayanas 09
In addition to these sixty-three supermen there were some kulagaras or legislators. They all arrived in the third Age. The first Tirthankara Rishabha was also the last of the kulagaras. The kulagaras were the persons who first introduced punishment in the world. These, however, consisted in not more than admonition, warning and reprimands hakkara, makkara and dhikkara.3 A kulagara was something like Manu, the legislator of the Hindus.
Among the Baladevas and Vasudevas, the most interesting are Balaram and Krishna (Kanha in Prakrit). They appeared at the time of Nemi, the 22nd Tirthankara. In fact Krishna was Nemi's cousin, We get here the Jain version of the Mahabharat The Story of the Kauravas and Pandavas and the descendants of Krishna and Balaram is described. The Kauravas and Pandavas are converted to the Jain religions. Finally the Pandavas also become ascetics and like Nemi, attain Nirvana.4 One interesting point is that the main battle here is not the one described in the Hindu Mahabharat. Krishna, the Vasudeva, fights a battle with Jarasandha, the Prativasudeva, and kills him. This is the main battle in the Jain version. In this battle between Krishna and Jarasandha, the Pandavas take the side of Jarasandha. In fact, the main story in this Jain version is the life of Krishna, and this is nearly the same here as given in the Bhagavati Purana of the Hindus. Even otherwise the Krishna is the only Vasudeva who plays some part in the Jain canonical works- Antakriddasah and Jnatadharma Katha.
The Jain version of the Ramyan is given in Padmacaritras or Padma - Puranas. Padma is actually the Jain name of Ram and his story in the Jain version differs in many particulars from that of Valmiki.
Hemachandra in this Trishashti-shalakapurusha- charitra gives the legend of Ram in detail. According to him, Dasharath, king of Saketa had four queens: Aparajita, Sumitra, Suprabha ad Kaikeyi. These four queens had four sons. Aparajita's son was Padma, and he became known by the same name of Ram also. Sumitra's son was Narayana: he became to be known by another name, Lakshmana. Kaikeyi's son was Bharata and Suprabha's son was Shatrughna.
Sita was the daughter of Janak. She had a twin brother Bhamandala who was kidnapped while still an infant. Once Janak was attacked by barbarians. Ram was sent to help Janak, and he easily repulsed the enemies. Janak was delighted and wanted Ram to marry his daughter Sita.
Dasharath had married Kaikeyi in a svayanvara festival where she had selected him as her husband out of the many kings who had attended the festival. The other kings who were rejected attacked Dasharath. In the battle that ensued, Kaikeyi had acted as the charioteer of Dasharath. She did her job so skillfully that Dasharath had promised her any boon that she desired. She had said that she would ask for her boon on a suitable occasion.
When Dasharath became old he wanted to abdicate and become a beggar. When Kaikeyi heard this she demanded her boon, and this was that her son Bharata should take over the kingdom as Dasharath's successor. Ram readily agreed to this proposal but said that if he stayed on in the capital, Bharata would not accept the throne. He therefore thought that he should leave the capital and live in the forest. Sita and Lakshmana accompanied him. The rest of the legend is more or less the same as in Valmiki's Ramyan There is, however, an important difference. It is Lakshmana and not Ram who actually kills Ravana. In the Jain system therefore it is Lakshman who is Vasudeva, Ram is Baladev, and Ravana is Prativasudeva.
There is another and perhaps an older version of the Jain Ramyan. This version is given in the 14th Chapter of Sanghadasa'a Vasudevahindi and also in the Uttarapurana of Gunabhadracarya. This version is not popular and is in fact not known to the Svetambaras at all. The story in brief is as follows: Dasharath was a king of Varanasi. Ram was his son by his queen Subala, and Lakshman by Kaikeyi. Sita was born to Mandodari, wife of Ravana, but since there was a prophecy that she would be the cause of her father's death, Ravana had sent her through a servant to be buried alive in Mithila. She was accidentally discovered by the king Janak when was plowing the field, and brought up as his daughter. When Sita grew up, Janak performed a yajna where Ram and lakshman were invited. Janak was impressed by Ram's personality and he gave his daughter Sita to him in marriage. Ravana had not been invited to this yajna, and when he heard that Sita was a beautiful girl, he decided to abduct her. There is no mention in this version of the Ramyan of the exile of Ram. Ravana in fact abducts Sita from Citrakuta near Varanasi. Ram recovers her by killing Ravana in Lanka. Therefore Ram and Lakshman come home and rule over their kingdom.
All the Chakravartins have more or less similar careers. Their lives are spent in obtaining the fourteen imperial crown treasures or jewels. After long reigns, they perform the act of purging known as apurva-karma obtain kevala knowledge and enter Nirvana. The first of the Chakravartins was Bharata, son of the first Tirthankara Rishabha.
Rishabha's name occurs in the Hindu Visnu-purana and Bhagavat Purana also. It is stated there that the emperor Rishabha handed over his empire to his son Bharata and went to the forest where he practiced severe penance and died. He was nude at the time of his death. (This suggests that the Purana story might have come originally from the Jain sources) From the time Rishabha gave away his empire to his son Bharatta, they started calling this country Bharata- Varsa. Formerly this country was called Himavarsa. Name of no other Tirthankara is mentioned in the Hindu religious literature.
The detailed lives of the twenty four Tirthankara were given in the various Caritras and Puranas written in the later part of the first millennium AD the earlier books such as the Kelp Sutra of the Svetambaras give little details about most of them. In fact the Kalpa Sutra gives some particulars only about the lives of Parshva, Arishtanemi and Rishabha in a stereotyped manner. It gives the life of Mahavira in some detail, and so far as the other twenty Tirthankara were concerned, mentions only the periods when they appeared.
There is some uniformity in the lives of the Tirthankaras. All of them were born of Kshatriya mothers and lived princely lives before they renounced the world, and nearly all of them attained Nirvana in the Sammeta mountain (Parasnatha) in Bihar. There were only four exceptions in regard to the place of Nirvana. The place of Nirvana of the following four Tirthankaras were as below:
1. Rishabha in Kailasa
12. Vasupujja in Champa
22. Arishtanemi on the Girnar Hills
24. Mahavira in Pava
The twenty-third Tirthankara Parshvanatha is said to have died 250 years before Mahavira, while Parshva's predecessor Arishtanemi is said to have died 84,000 years before Mahavira's Nirvana. Naminatha died 5,00,000 years before Arishtanemi and Munisuvrata 1,00,000 year before Naminatha. The intervals go on lengthening until they reach astronomical periods.
It thus goes without saying that all the Tirthankaras, except Parshva and Mahavira are mythical figures. We thus need not discuss their lives given in the various Puranas and Charitras. It will, however, be clear from what has been stated above that the Jains have a philosophy of history (i.e. the theory of the wheel of time) and this is distinct from the philosophy of history of any other people. Also the Jains throughout the last fifteen hundred years or so, have taken great delight in writings about the history of their Church up to Mahavira. In fact the Digambaras have practically ignored the history of their church after Mahavira. Except for some pattavalis, which gives the names of their successive Patriarchs, the Digambaras section of the Church has no other history after Mahavira. For Jain sources of the history of the Church after Mahavira we have therefore to depend on the Svetambaras works only.
1. Schurbing, The Doctrine of Jains p. 23.
2. The Digambaras call these lives Purana whereas Svetambaras call them Charitras.
3. Schubring op. cit. p.20
4. Winternitz, A History of India Literature Vol. II, p.495
5. A reference to the Chakravartins possessing 14 is found in the Hindu Vishnu Purana also. Of these 14 Jewels, 7 are inanimate, viz. Cakra (wheel), rath (chariot), khanga (sword), charm (shield), dhvaja (flag), nidhi (treasury), and 7 are animate, viz. wife, priest, commander of the army, charioteers foot soldiers, troops mounted on horses, and troops mounted on elephants. Other books give other lists.
6. Bk.2. ch.1
7. The term "Aristameni", which occurs sometimes in the Vedic literature, for instance, in Rigveda X. 178.1, is not the name of any person.