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February 12, 2023

First published February 11, 2023

 in The Times of India

The Forgotten Women Who Helped Shape Jainism

Jainism follows the path revealed by 24 sages known as Tirthankara, who appear in every era of the human age. In the Shwetambar school of Jainism, popular in western India, Parsvanatha and Mahavira, the 23rd and 24th Tirthankaras were married before they became monks. But in Digambara tradition, popular in Gangetic plains and South India, neither was married.

Both traditions agree that on his wedding day, Neminath, the 22nd Tirthankara, refused to marry, and chose to become a monk, after he heard the cry of animals that had been brought to the royal kitchen to be slaughtered for the wedding feast.

Neminath’s wife, Rajul or Rajmati, on realising her husband’s decision, decided to become a nun too, rejecting all attempts to stop her. On a rainy day, Rajmati took shelter in a cave, where her wet body was seen by her brotherin-law, Rathnemi, who had also aspired to be a monk.

But the sight of Rajmati’s beautiful body made him lose control of his senses and he tried to convince Rajmati to also give up her vows and marry him. She refused and admonished him and convinced him to remain steadfast on the Jain path.

The monk’s wife

Tales of men choosing not to marry in order to become monks, or men walking away from marriage to become monks, recur in Jain folklore. How do the women respond? In some cases, the women are supportive and become nuns themselves, as in the case of Rajmati. In other cases, they become hostile.

Here is the story of a supportive wife. A farmer and his wife were so influenced by Jain teachings that they decided to renounce the world. He became a monk and she, a nun. Years later they encountered each other in the course of their wanderings.

The monk remembered his passion for her and told his wife of his yearnings through another nun. The wife felt sad that her husband was losing control over his senses and was willing to break his monastic vows. To prevent such an event, she decided to give up food and starve herself to death. When the farmer heard what his wife had done, he was so ashamed that he gave up food and starved himself to death. This story comes from the 11th century Mulashuddhi Prakarana of Pradyumna Suri.

Here is a story of a hostile wife. A prince walked away from his wife and decided to become a monk. His wife was so upset that when she died she turned into a fierce malevolent goddess. She remembered her past life and decided to teach her husband, now a very senior monk, a lesson.

While he was asking alms from a woman called Celana, she caused his body to get aroused and display an erection. Celana saw the monk’s erection but knew that the monk was pure and free of all desires. So she ignored the erection and even used her garment to hide his arousal from others. The monk eventually attained the highest state and thanked Celana for her understanding.

However, he had to undergo that humiliation as part of his karma. He did not hate his former wife and hoped she would eventually gain wisdom in a future life. This story comes from the 10th century Brhatkathakosha of Harisena.

The mind over matter

In Hemachandra’s 12th century Parisista Parvan, Sunanda’s brother became a Jain monk, her husband and her son too. Heartbroken, she decided to become a nun, and found peace through detachment. But, in Ravisena’s 7th century Padma Purana, Sahadevi was not so forgiving — when her son followed her husband to become a monk, she died and was reborn as a tigress who ate her own son.

Her husband, however, did not get angry with the tigress. Observing his peace, the tigress felt remorse and decided to follow the Jain path when given a human form in a future life.

In all these stories, it is the man who takes the initiative and the woman responds. But there is one story where the woman takes initiative and gets men to choose the monastic life over marriage. This comes from the Shwetambar tradition and is the tale of Mallinatha, the 19th Tirthankara.

Malli was so beautiful that six princes declared war on her father’s kingdom, and against each other, in order to marry her. She invited them to her chambers, where they found a statue that looked just like her, but when they came closer, they found it to be releasing foul odour. They recoiled in disgust.

The princess said the statue was full of food that was rotting. She had been eating the very same food, but she was able to digest the food because her body contained the soul. The point of life is not to covet the flesh but to discover its true resident, the soul, she told the princes.

So, instead of fighting over her body, they should follow the Jain path.

She then renounced the world and walked the monastic path, as did the six princes who wanted to marry her. In the Digambar tradition, Mallinatha was a man as the belief was that the highest state of realisation cannot be attained by one with a female anatomy.

In the 7th century, Ravisena wrote the Padma Purana, in which he tells the story of Simhika, wife of King Naghusha. While the king was busy fighting enemies in the north of the kingdom, it was attacked from the south. So Simhika led the soldiers left behind in the city to battle and pushed back the southern invaders. Everyone praised the queen but the king, who also returned triumphant, was upset, feeling a woman who goes to war cannot be a chaste woman.

He sidelined and ignored her. Years later, the king became sick and the doctors said only the water given by a truly chaste woman can cure him. Only when Simhika gave him water was he cured, and he realised how petty and mean he had been. He apologised to her, installed her son on the throne and became a monk.

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