The Jina Parsvanatha Sculpture: A Study in Symbolism

Josheen Oberoi briefly explores the signs and meanings embedded in ancient Indian Jina sculptures

New York: Jainism, one of the oldest faiths in India, is defined by its commitment to non-violence and a self-directed effort to attain enlightenment. The ‘Supreme Beings’ who achieve this state of liberation and assist others in the process are called Jinas (victors) or Tirthankaras. There are said to have been twenty four Jinas in Jainism, the last of whom, Vardhamana Mahavira, is possibly the most widely known among non practitioners of Jainism.

However, when it comes to the arts and representation in Jainism there is a rich history of sculptures of many of the Jinas, replete with symbolism relating to their positions, accompanying objects, and their meaning.

Jina Parsvanatha
Object: Sculpture
Place of origin: Garsoppa, India (probably, made)
Date: 12th century (made)
Materials and Techniques: Black shale
Museum number: 931(IS)
Image courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum

Two similar sculptures from different time periods are wonderful examples of Jina Parsvanathas and their symbolism. This beautiful 12th century sculpture (on the left) from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London represents the twenty third Jina Parsvanatha, who is revered as a great teacher and is one of four Jinas most often portrayed in Jain art. A similar sculpture in the ongoing Indian Antiquities auction conducted by Collectibles Antiques India and powered by Saffronart is from the 11th century, created during the rule of the Hoysala Dynasty. It is a distinctive work from a time period rarely seen in private hands; most works from this Dynasty are in museums or preserved at heritage sites.

Parsvanatha lived in the 8th century BC. He was the son of King Ashvasena and Queen Vamanadevi of Varanasi who renounced the world at the age of thirty to become an ascetic. He attained absolute knowledge and became the twenty-third Tirthankara or Jina in Jainism and is associated with the color blue and a seven hooded serpent.

The Jina fact file on the Victoria & Albert Museum website allows us as viewers to read the sculpture as well. Jinas are always shown in either a padmasana (seated) or kayotsarga (standing) position. The two Jina Parsvanathas in discussion here are standing; the immobility and discipline required is considered a form of severe penance and asceticism.

Jina Parsvanatha
Greenish Schist
11th Century
Hoysala Dynasty
Height: 51 in (129.5 cm)
Image courtesy: Saffronart Indian Antiquities Auction (Nov 28-29, 2012), Lot 3

The three tiered umbrella at the top of the sculpture is a symbol of the Jina’s spiritual sovereignty, while the seven headed snake, Dharanendra, protects the Jina with his coils and a canopy over his head. Jinas, like those in these two sculptures, are the only Jain figures shown unclothed as a sign of their absolute enlightenment and rejection of all materialism. They are often flanked by guardian spirits called yakshas and yakshis, positioned in these sculptures by the feet of the Jina.

The strength of the physical body and the powerful features in the sculpture above is distinctive of the Hoysala Dynasty, which oversaw great developments in architecture and classically modeled sculptures during its rule.

You can hear some interesting ideas about the importance of the seven hooded serpent and the significance of the standing position in context of the Jina Parsvanatha in the collection of the V&A Museum here.