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TĪRTHAKARAS . According to the Jains, one of the oldest religious communities in India, the Tīrthakaras (called titthagaras in the Jain canon) are the prophets who periodically teach the world the truth of the imperishable Jain tradition; the term is almost equivalent to jina ("victor") or arhant ("saint"). The term tīrtha()-kara refers literally to one who "builds the ford" that leads across the ocean of rebirths and suffering, and thus builds or renews the Jain fourfold community of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen.

Twenty-four Tīrthakaras are said to appear at given periods in selected regions. As they are capable of ultimate spiritual perfection they are thus regarded as having more than a human status. Together with the cakravartins (universal sovereigns) and other such heroes, they form the class of the venerated sixty-three personages of the Jain "universal history." They are called mahāpuruas ("great men") by the Digambaras and śalākāpuruas ("men with the staff") by the Śvetāmbaras.

Members of the Lineage

Tīrthakaras are born only in the "middle world" (Madhyadeśa), and there only in the very few karmabhūmis (regions where one reaps the fruit of one's actions) of the central continent (Jambūdvīpa): in the southern land of Bhārata (i.e., India), in the northern land of Airāvata, and in half of the central land of Videha. Except in Videha, where conditions differ, they are said to live exclusively during the third and fourth of the six stages of the avasarpiīs and utsarpiīs, that is, the descending and ascending halves of the endless temporal cycle, thus at times of mixed happiness and misery.

In Bhārata, the teacher of the present era is Vardhamāna Mahāvīra, the twenty-fourth and last of the series of Tīrthakaras in our avasarpiī half cycle. According to tradition, he was born seventy-five years and eight and one-half months before the end of the fourth period, in which he lived for seventy-two years. Three years after his nirvāa, allegedly in 523 bce, the present period began, characterized by misery.

The first Tīrthakara was abha, who is said to have been born toward the end of the third period and to have died three and one-half years before its completion. His life span extended over millions of so-called Pūrva years. In the fourth period, after abha and before Mahāvīra, the law was preached by twenty-two Tīrthakaras : Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Supārśva, Candraprabha, Suvidhi (Pupadanta), Śītala, Śreyāsa, Vāsupūjya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Śānti, Kunthu, Ara, Malli, Munisuvrata, Nami, (Aria)nemi, and Pārśva.

Tradition also gives the lists of their contemporaries in Airāvata, as well as of past and future Tīrthakaras of Bhārata. In Videha, the prevailing conditions of happiness mixed with misery are always akin to those of this, the third period in an avasarpiī half cycle, so that a Tīrthakara can be preaching there at any time.

The Career of a TĪrthakara

No soul will become the soul of a Tīrthakara unless it has gone through a considerable number of rebirths and has finally practiced exceptional virtues resulting in a special karman. The soul is urged by gods to "fall" from its divine mansion and be reborn to practise and propagate the true law. Tīrthakaras are usually considered to become incarnate only through male figures; the Śvetāmbaras nevertheless consider the nineteenth, Malli, to be a female, although the Digambaras deny this point.

The career of a Tīrthakara conforms to a well-structured pattern, and traditional descriptions of the Tīrthakaras provide very few or no distinctive individual characteristics. The biography of a Tīrthakara is stereotyped, listing in an almost formulaic sequence the following information: (1) some details of his former existence, (2) the five kalyāas, or religiously significant moments of his life (i.e., conception, birth, renunciation, attainment of omniscience, nirvāa ), (3) the names of his parents, (4) the number of his followers, (5) the duration of his life, (6) the color of his body (most are golden, but the twentieth and twenty-second are black, the eighth and ninth are white, the sixth and twelfth are red, the twenty-third and another [the nineteenth, according to the Śvetāmbaras, the seventh, according to the Digambaras] are blue-green), (7) his height, (8) his guardian divinities, and (9) the length of time elapsed since his predecessor's nirvāa. All are born to princely families, and, with two exceptions, are related to the Ikvāku dynasty. The conception of a Tīrthakara is announced to his mother by a standardized succession of auspicious dreams (fourteen according to the Śvetāmbaras, sixteen according to the Digambaras).


Like their biographies, the images of the Tīrthakaras are all fundamentally similar. The figures are represented in meditation, either seated cross-legged or standing in a kāyotsarga pose (representing a particular type of Jain austerity), with arms stretched slightly apart from the body. Although the canon for the Tīrthakara images appears to have been well fixed by the beginning of the common era, there have been some developments through the course of time. After the fifth century, Śvetāmbara icons are characterized by a dhoti (a wrapped garment of draping layers of cloth) and various ornaments; Digambara icons remain naked. Moreover, a series of characteristic marks (cihnas ) are added to the pedestals in order to distinguish the individual Tīrthakaras : abha's symbol is the bull; Nemi's, the conch shell; Pārśva's, the snake; Mahāvīra's, the lion. Representations of abha, Pārśva, and Mahāvīra are particularly numerous; Pārśva is easily recognized by the snake hoods over his head.

The comparative monotony of the Tīrthakara images is somewhat striking. These icons, however, are not meant to be picturesque but to suggest omniscient awareness and absolute detachment, serenity.

Mythic Importance

Despite such uniformity, several Tīrthakaras emerge as prominent figures. On the whole, the general trend of the present avasarpiī implies a notable decline from a golden age and is marked by the considerable shortening of life span, prosperity, and happiness. Thus the legends concerning abha, the "first lord" of this cycle, are of special significance because in them he is shown in a pioneering role.

abha is said to have set the groundwork for civilization: first as a sovereign, when he organized kingdoms and societies, instituted legislation, taught agriculture, fire, cooking, arts and crafts, writing, and arithmetic, and later, when he renounced the world and became the first mendicant, thus shaping the religious life of the present avasarpiī. These two spheres of influence were further served by two of abha's sons: Bhārata is renowned in Indian tradition as the first cakravartin of Bhārata. Bāhubali became a forebearing ascetic and as such has long been revered by the Digambaras, especially in the South, where several impressive monoliths representing this hero were erected. One of the best known is a colossal fifty-seven-foot image towering at the top of one of the hills overlooking Śravaa Begoa, about one hundred miles northwest of Bangalore.

The twenty-second Tīrthakara (Aria)nemi, is allegedly related to Ka and the Yādavas. He is extremely popular, especially in Gujarat, where on the sacred Girnar Hills he practiced austerities and eventually understood the ultimate truth, thus achieving enlightenment; after many years he reached final emancipation, nirvāa, on the same mountain. His revulsion at the sight of the animals awaiting slaughter for his wedding ceremonies as well as his subsequent refusal to marry his betrothed, Rājīmatī, are highly significant and are the subject of many narratives, songs, and paintings that illustrate the greatness of the doctrine of ahisā, or noninjury.

Pārśva, the twenty-third Tīrthakara, has been regarded by most scholars as possibly being a historical figure. He is said to have lived for a hundred years, some two hundred and fifty years before Mahāvīra, and to have been born in Banaras and ended his life in Bihar on Mount Sameta, which is now also known as Pārasnāth in his honor. He is alleged to have established the "law of four restraints" (caturyāma-dharma ), which is generally, though not unanimously, considered to be the forerunner of the five "great vows" (mahāvratas ) followed by Mahāvīra's disciples. Pārśva is associated with serpents and consequently the object of much veneration.

Cultic Life

Immediately after death, the Tīrthakaras become siddhas ("perfected" souls), and thus became completely inaccessible. But the example they set should be meditated upon, and it is extolled daily when the Jains recite the Caturviśatistava (Praise of the twenty-four [Tīrtha-karas ]); the images of the Tīrthakaras should serve only as meditative supports. Archaeological evidence indicates that this method of worshiping the Tīrthakaras, known as deva-pūjā, goes back to the first few centuries bce.

Many lay believers, however, cannot refrain from appealing to superhuman benevolence. They direct their worship and supplications for assistance to the pairs of guardian deities who serve the Tīrthakaras. Among the most popular are the snake god Dharaendra and his consort Padmāvatī, both of whom flank Pārśva. The Jain teachers, however, have always insisted on the inferior position of these deities and have succeeded in preventing them from usurping the supremacy of the Tīrthakaras.

TĪrthakaras and Indian Religious Experience

In Jainism it is clear that the recurrent presence of Tīrthakaras, who periodically appear in the human realms in order to preach and show the true law, have a function similar to that of the seven (later twenty-five) Buddhas in Buddhism, and also to that of the Hindu avatāras of Viu. On the other hand, by promoting civilization, the first Tīrthakara, abha, recalls the role played by Pthu in the epics, by Mahāsammata in Buddhism, and by Prometheus in the Greek and Roman traditions. Thus from many perspectives Jainism offers a coherent system that links the evolutions of time, cosmos, humankind, and the Jain church.

See Also

Ahisā; Cosmology, articles on Hindu Cosmology, Jain Cosmology; Jainism; Mahāvīra.


The standard books on Jainism provide general information on the Tīrthakaras. A comparatively detailed treatment will be found in Helmuth von Glasenapp's Der Jainusmus: Eine indische Erlösungsreligion (Berlin, 1925; reprint, Hildesheim, 1964; English translation by S.B. Shrotri: Jainism. An Indian Religion of Salvation, Delhi 1998). Padmanabh S. Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purification. (Berkeley, Los Angeles London 1979). A substantial although short account is provided by Josef Deleu's "Die Mythologie des Jinismus," in H. W. Haussig's Wörterbuch der Mythologie (Stuttgart, 1976), pp. 207284, esp. pp. 270273. Various aspects of the Tīrthakaras concept, worship, representationare considered in several papers of Approaches to Jaina Studies: Philosophy, Logic, Ritual and Symbols, edited by N.K. Wagle and Olle Qvarnström (Toronto, 1999).

Sculptures of Tīrthakaras are among the most ancient Indian religious images, dating from first to second century ce. Since the eleventh century, illustrated manuscripts (first palm-leaves, later paper manuscripts) represent figures of Jinas and/or depict important moments of their lives. Brightly coloured Jain miniatures (especially in "Western Indian Style"), as well as statues and bas-reliefs are reproduced in Pratapaditya Pal et al., The Peaceful Liberators : Jain Art from India (Los Angeles, 1994); Kurt Titze, Jainism: A Pictorial Guide to the Religion of Non-Violence (Delhi, 1998); Jan Van Alphen, Steps to Liberation: 2500 Years of Jain Art and Religion (Antwerp, 2000). Also see the monograph by José Pereira, Monolithic Jinas: The Iconography of the Jain Temples of Ellora (Delhi, 1977).

For the iconography of the Tīrthakaras, see Brindavan Chandra Bhattacharya's The Jaina Iconography, 2d rev. ed. (Delhi, 1974), and Klaus Bruhn's The Jina-Images of Deogarh (Leiden, 1969). The lives of Mahāvīra and the other Jinas are the subject of the Jiacariya, edited and translated by Hermann Jacobi in The Kalpasûtra of Bhadrabâhu (Leipzig, 1879), and of the Jaina Sûtras, vol. 1 (London, 1884; reprint, Delhi, 1964). See also Triaiśalākāpuruacaritra, or The Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons by Hemacandra, 6 vols., translated by Helen M. Johnson (Baroda, 19311962). On abha and civilization, see Adelheid Mette's Indische Kulturstiftungsberichte und ihr Verhältnis zur Zeitaltersage (Mainz, 1973).

Colette Caillat (1987 and 2005)