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Paintings > Hindu > Tirthankara Parshvanatha Enshrining Cosmic Ring
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Tirthankara Parshvanatha Enshrining Cosmic Ring

Tirthankara Parshvanatha Enshrining Cosmic Ring

Tirthankara Parshvanatha Enshrining Cosmic Ring

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Tirthankara Parshvanatha Enshrining Cosmic Ring

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This rectangular miniature, measuring 34x19 cm, rendered on a thin sheet of paper revealing texture of the cloth on which it has been pasted, represents an unusual theme which blends several myths, a manifold imagery and various traditions. The central deity, as also the central theme of the painting, is the twenty-third Jain Tirthankara Parshvanatha enshrining 'mandala' – the cosmic ring, and the serpent king – in all probabilities Vasuki, and his queen worshipping him. Like Mahavira, Parshvanatha is also a historical figure born in 773 B. C., almost two hundred years before Mahavira. In Jain cosmology, Parshvanatha, amongst all the twenty-four Tirthankaras, has been more often seen as presiding over the cosmic ring – being considered its axis. The first Jain Tirthankara Adinatha or Rishabha Deva, and the last Mahavira, are other Tirthankaras who have also been represented as the presiding deities of the cosmos. The cosmos has been visualised as the golden ring – 'hiranya-vratta' of the Jain cosmology, a concept corresponding to the 'hiranya-garbha' – the cosmic egg theory of the Rig-Veda.

Parshvanatha has been represented in 'padmasana' posture – both palms and feet, with auspicious lotus marks on them, placed upward, exactly as has been prescribed in Jain canonical literature. He has blue-black complexion – the colour of the cosmos. The seven-hooded serpent Shesh – umbrella-like unfurling its hoods over the deity, represented elements of the earth and the ocean and has hence a similar body colour. Parshvanatha has been represented as wearing a gem-studded crown and other ornaments. He has as rich a nimbus behind, a gold-throne to seat, and a rich canopy above. These are the elements the artist has used for defining his status as the lord of the cosmos.

Vasuki and his consort – lower halves of whose figures comprise snake, and upper halves, human, are in attendance – blowing flywhisks. When Parshvanatha propounded his religion, Nagas and Yakshas were quite popular and influential deities of various local tribes worshipped far and wide. Nagas in particular seem to comprise a dynastic clan ruling in different parts of the subcontinent and were held in exceptional reverence by their subjects. In the Mahabharata, a number of Naga rulers are alluded to as participating in the Great War. Hence, it is quite likely that instead of attempting at eliminating their worship or mitigating their influence, Parshvanatha or his devotees sought to bring them into his order as subordinate divinities with privileged positions as here. Several myths and legends – in Jainism, Buddhism, and Vaishnavism, relate to the conversion of Nagas to such religions, or of Nagas playing significant role in them. Even in as recent a sect as Sikhism the cult of Nagas – serpents, subordinating themselves to the principal deity of the sect, has continued. In one of the 'Janam-Sakhis' – tales from the life of Guru Nanak, a multi-hooded huge snake has been depicted as unfurling its hoods on Guru Nanak when it found him resting under a tree during an itinerary and the sun mounting on him.

As quainter is the rest of the imagery. On the extreme right of the central figure is the shrine of Shri Gautam Swami. Gautam, a Brahmin, was the chief of the eleven 'ganas' – 'ganadhara', the principal interpreters, of Mahavira. When after Enlightenment Mahavira was in 'Samavasarana', he sermonised in a language, which his devotees assembled there, could not decipher. Then Gautam interpreted his message. Gautam is, thus, a part of Mahavira-related imagery – not Parshvanatha's. On extreme left is another shrine with the feet of Shri Gurudeva Ji enshrining. Jainism did not have the tradition of 'gurus', though it had 'acharyas' – scholarly interpreters of Jain dogma, and from around the 9th-10th centuries such 'acharyas' were elevated to the divine status and sometimes worshipped as subordinate divinities. However, the tradition of worshipping feet as the symbol of a divinity is a Vaishnava cult sometimes adopted – as here, in Jainism too.

According to the Jain thought, in every eon twenty-four 'jivas' – transmigrating selves, have been seen as elevating to the position of 'Tirthankaras' who are the supreme divinities. By now, the polydeity cult of the Brahmanism had gained immense popularity. Hence, Jainism, too, widened its pantheon to include several subordinate deities – many with an iconography corresponding to their Hindu counterparts, Amba and Saraswati being the main. Amba has been visualised in the painting as the eight-armed cock-riding female deity towards upper right, and Saraswati as the four-armed swan-riding female deity towards lower left. In various subsequent myths, different Hindu gods were included – something that almost all other sects did, as serving 'Tirthankaras'.

Different Indras and their consorts Indranis are conceived as the main performers in all 'puja-vidhanas' – the 'yajna'-type rituals performed making coursed offerings to the deity – not the fire-god as in 'yajna'. According to the Jain tradition, the number of such Indras is seven, each one ruling one of the seven heavens. Indra is basically a Vaishnavite deity. Towards the bottom on the right, Vishnu in his Boar incarnation riding the multi-trunked white elephant of Indra is proceeding towards the central deity. The image is, thus, a blend of Vishnu and Indra. Towards upper left is Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, riding the Great Serpent, an essential aspect of Vaishnava iconography. In a large number of myths, Shiva is seen as attending on Parshvanatha. Here, however, the artist has represented two forms of Shiva fully identical except with different body colours – one being white and the other blue, representing light and darkness. Parshvanatha presided over the cosmos, which the light and darkness defined and Shiva's two forms represented. Parshvanatha thus pervaded the cosmos, its aspects of light and darkness, and all other forms that represented it.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.


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