Nov 26, 2007

Visual Culture in Jaina Kalpasutra

By Amrit Gangar

The Kalpasutra is held in great honour especially by the Svetambara
sect of Jainism. A work in Prakrit, its composition is originally
attributed to the celebrated author Bhadrabahu (BC 433 to 357).

The Kalpasutra shows the early stage of the development of Jainism,
the succession of pontiffs and the rules for Jaina monks during the
four months of monsoon or chaturmasa when the monks are not on the
move. The text records the five auspicious events — the descent from
heaven, birth, initiation, obtaining of omniscience, and death — and
many legends of the last three Pathfinders or Tirthankaras:
Aristanemi, Parsvanatha, and Mahavira, and those of Rishabhanatha,
the first of the 24 Tirthan-karas. The arrangement of Bhadrabahu's
book moves back in time.

The tradition of 24 Tirthankaras became established among the Jainas
around the first or second century AD though its older roots are not
denied. As an illuminated manuscript, the Kalpasutra, representative
of Jaina visual culture, contains some masterpieces of Jaina
miniature paintings. The western Indian Jaina miniatures have left a
significant mark in subsequent Indian painting.

An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten book that is embellished
with brilliant inks and dyes — largely silver and gold. During the
middle ages, many such manuscripts were created in the monasteries in
different parts of the world. Illuminated manuscripts came in many
forms and certain characteristics of these forms were essentially
global. The brilliance of gold symbolises transcendental light. The
calligraphy in some illuminated manuscripts of the Qur'an, for
example, consists entirely of gold.

European scholars have compared the Kalpasutra's hagiographic
manuscript with the Christian Book of Hours. According to A Dieter,
the two manuscripts resemble in division of sections: "The Book of
Hours devotes sections to the important events in the Virgin Mary's
life and the calendar of saints, similarly, the Kalpasutras of the
15th and 16th centuries had a Jinacarita that illustrated the
auspicious events in the lives of important Jaina figures. As each of
the Christian saints is illustrated with their own symbols, the
pictures of the Jains are accompanied by illustrations of their
specific symbols".

Among many other details, the Kalpasutra gives a list of 42 rainy
seasons spent by Mahavira since he renounced the life of a
householder. He stayed the first chaturmasa in Asthikagrama, three in
Champa and Pristichampa, 12 in Vaisali and Vanijyagrama, 14 in
Rajagraha and Nalanda, six in Mithila, two in Bhadrika, one in
Alabhika, one in Panitabhumi, one in Sra-vasti and the last one in
the town of Papa in king Hastipala's chamber.

The Kalpasutra is significant for its narration of geographical
locations most of which have been identified to be in the modern
state of Bihar and some parts of Bengal and UP. A major portion is
devo-ted to the biography of Mahavira and includes details of his
birth, lineage, parentage, childhood, marriage and journey to
asceticism and finally, his death. Before his birth, Mahavira's
mother is said to have seen a number of dreams. The Kalpa- sutra
describes 14 dreams.

This important Jaina canonical text is the oldest available on the
life of the Tirthankaras. Once a year during the auspicious Paryusana
festival, a Kalpasutra manuscript is taken out in procession and read
by the monks before the laity. Great merit is attributed to hearing
the Kalpasutra.

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