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The Story of Mahavira: Kalpasutra Manuscript

At the age of thirty, a Kshatriya Prince from Bihar renounced the comforts of his palace to seek spiritual awakening. By the age of 72, he attained ‘nirvana’ and came to be known as Lord Mahavira. Jainism believes him to be the 24th Tirthankara (spiritual teacher). Lord Mahavira’s teachings are centred around the concept of ‘Ahimsa’ or non-violence.

The Kalpasutra Manuscript

The Kalpasutra is the book of rituals, sacred to Jains. The Kalpasutra has 3 parts:

  1. Biographical stories about the 24 spiritual teachers / tirthankaras
  2. The Life of Lord Mahavira
  3. Rules and Laws for ascetics (specifically for the rainy season when they are not wandering, and settled temporarily amidst people).

The Kalpasutra is attributed to Bhadrabahu who is said to have composed it 150 years after Lord Mahavira attained Nirvana.

Painted Manuscripts

The Kings of the Chalukya Dynasty (Solankis) were followers of the Jain faith, and commissioned many temples in the region they ruled : Gujarat, and parts of Rajasthan. With time, painted imagery became associated with religious worship and the rising prosperity of merchants allowed for more art-commissions in the region.

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According to the Kalpasutra, before Mahavira’s final rebirth, when he was after many lifetimes ready to achieve enlightenment, he took the form of an embryo in the womb of Devananda, a brahmin woman. Sakra, or Indra, the king of the gods, believed that it was not fitting for a future great spiritual leader to be born to a woman of the brahmin caste and that he should be born instead into a royal family of warrior caste. Accordingly the commander of Indra’s army, Harinegamesin, who is depicted with a goat’s head (or sometimes an antelope’s), removed the embryo and transplanted it into the womb of a woman of the warrior caste (ksatriya) called Trisala. (Image & Text Source: V&A)

Kutch-Embroidered Cover for the Kalpasutra

This silk-thread embroidered cover depicts images of 14 dreams witnessed by the Queen Trishala (mother of Mahavira), during her pregnancy.

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In this embroidered piece, each dream of the Queen Trishala is denoted by a symbol. Here’s what they mean:

Elephant, a Bull, and a Lion

In the first dream, Queen Trishala saw an Elephant. This meant, she would give birth to a child with a strong character. The four tusks signified that he would guide the spiritual chariot with its four components: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. In her second dream she saw a Bull, indicating that her child would be religious and would help cultivate the strong values. The Lion meant that her child would be as powerful and strong. The characteristics of being fearless, almighty, and capable of ruling the world would be shared by her child.

The Goddess Lakshmi

In her fourth dream, the Queen saw Goddess Lakshmi – indicating wealth and prosperity.

Garlands

In the fifth dream, the Queen Trishala saw beautiful Garlands descending from the sky. This dream indicated that the fragrance of her child’s work will spread throughout the universe, and he would be respected by all.

A Full Moon & a Sun

A moon in the dream of the Queen was meant to indicate the soothing impact of her child in the world. The child would bring peace to the world and lessen the suffering of people. Similarly, a sun in her seventh dream indicated the light of knowledge that would shun the darkness of superstitious beliefs.

A Flag on a Golden Stick & a Golden Vase with water

In her eighth and ninth dreams, the Queen Trishala saw a Flag on a Golden stick and a Golden Vase. These indicated the birth of a compassionate being, who would be held supreme and will be the flag bearer of kindness.

A Lake full of Lotuses & the Ocean

The tenth and eleventh dream of the Queen suggested serenity, infinite perception and knowledge, and freedom from worldly matters – the cycle of birth and death.

Celestial Vimana (Plane) & Jewels

The twelfth and thirteenth dream indicated abundant blessings, honour and respect from heaven and earth.

Fire

The fourteenth dream Queen Trishala had was of a smokeless Fire. This indicated a new order – destruction of blind faith and purification of the mind. It was also an indication of salvation that her child would attain.

The King Siddhartha had these 14 auspicious dreams interpreted. The learned men foretold the birth of a great spiritual leader. While the King and Queen named their son ‘Vardhaman’, he soon came to be known as the Lord Mahavira.

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Forsaking his princely position, Mahavira renounced the world and performed the ceremony of plucking out his hair to become a monk. This detail of the painting depicts Mahavira giving away his devadushya to the Brahmin Soma | Image and Text: CSMVS Mumbai

The Prince renounced worldly life and and plucked a hair as he started his journey of renunciation. This practice is still followed by Jain monks and nuns today.

If you head to the Sanskriti Museum, don’t forget to catch a glimpse of this Kalpasutra cover.

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