One among the most worshipped Jain tirthankaras, Parshvanatha or Parshva is a historical figure who is estimated to have lived between the seventh and ninth century BC. He is the twenty-third of the twenty-four tirthankaras, after Neminatha, and was born in Banaras (present-day Varanasi) in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India. Parshvanatha received enlightenment on Mount Sammeta, or Sammeda — also called Parasnath after him — and is known for popularising and reviving Jainism in the subcontinent. He is said to have established four of the five mahavratas or great vows of Jain asceticism, namely ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (to not steal) and aparigraha (non-possession). Parshvanatha is popular among worshippers in central, western, and southern India, and his life remains interwoven with myths and legends.
Parshvanatha is closely associated with serpents, with the snake being his emblem. Legends say that around the time of his birth, Parshvanatha’s mother dreamt of a black serpent slithering past her — in another version of this myth, she is said to have dreamt of herself lying on a seat of serpents. As per the Kalpasutra, a seminal Jain text, Parshvanatha was once a Brahmin named Marubhuti, and Kamatha was his younger brother. The two souls reincarnated multiple times, with Kamatha killing Marubhuti each time. In one incarnation, Marubhuti was born a prince to King Ashvasena and Queen Vamadevi of Varanasi. One day, he found two snakes getting burnt alive in the fire that a sage — the reincarnated Kamatha — had lit for a panchagni tapas. Reprimanding the sage, Marubhuti tried to save the snakes, chanting the Navakara mantra. Later, when Marubhuti renounced his worldly life and began to meditate, Kamatha, who had by then been reborn as a god named Meghamaalin, sent rain and floods, as well as genies, lions, scorpions, and fire-breathing monsters to hinder his meditation. The snake that Marubhuti had tried to rescue from Kamatha’s fire was reborn as Dharanendra, and aided Marubhuti against Meghamaalin’s interference. Dharanendra is believed to have coiled himself around Marubhuti and spread out his seven hoods in a fan to shield him from Meghamaalin.
Based on these legends, Parshvanatha is characteristically depicted with the hood of a serpent above his head. Images of him sometimes feature Dharanendra and his queen Padmavati, both shown as snakes. This serpentine symbolism is also typical of imagery of Suparshvanatha, the seventh tirthankara. While images of Suparshvanatha are crowned by a five-headed serpent, Parshvanatha images are commonly distinguished by a serpent with seven heads and the icon of a cobra located at the foot of the figure. The multi-headed snake is a standard feature of Parshvanatha despite the differences in how the two sects of Jainism — Digambara and Shwetambara — portray him and his teachings. Another feature of Parshvanatha, and the tirthankaras in general, is the shrivatsa, one of eight auspicious symbols in Jainism, that is usually found on the figure’s chest.
Parshvanatha is represented in various mediums and sizes in temples, shrines, bronze images, manuscripts, paintings, hero-stones, ayagapatas, or carved votive stone tablets, and panchatirthis, so named because they depict five figures. The earliest archaeological evidence of images of Parshvanatha were found at Kankali Tila in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. These sculptures are dated to the first century BCE, although historians differ in their opinions regarding this estimation. Other images of Parshvanatha during this period depict him in ayagapatas. Another significant stylistic depiction of the Jinas in Mathura are sarvatobhadra, which feature four tirthankaras including Parshvanatha facing the four cardinal directions. Sarvatobhadrikas depict the Jinas delivering their first sermons to the samavasarana after enlightenment, which justifies their facing all four directions. Over time, the convention of such polytheistic depictions of tirthankaras would give way to monotheistic ones.
Parshvanatha images generally portray him either seated in padmasana or standing in the kayotsarga pose. He is commonly attended by yakshas, and in Kushana period images, by other tutelary figures such as monks, nuns, laypersons and celestial figures. Portrayals of Dharanendra and Padmavati protecting Parshvanatha in the face of Kamatha’s wrath are also found in images of the Digambara sect. This narrative can be seen in Aihole (sixth century), Badami caves, Ellora (eighth century) and several instances in the Madura district in Tamil Nadu (eighth and tenth century). Other large, singular, free-standing sculptures of the Parshvanatha are housed at basadis or temples in Shravanabelagola and Halebidu in Karnataka, as well as in Madhya Pradesh. Parshvanatha also appears on hero-stones in several locations in Karnataka.
In the Shwetambara sect, certain regional iconographies of Parshvanatha have a cult worship. When a Parshvanatha temple in a region became revered, it gathered a cult following that would replicate the figure in other locations while retaining the name of the original location. Examples of such developments include Shankeshvara Parshvanatha in Gujarat (eleventh century), Godi Parshvanatha in Mumbai, originally located in Sindh, and Jiravala Parshvanatha in Rajasthan.
Other representations of Parshvanatha can be found in panchatirthis. Parshvanatha occurs as the central figure in such images, flanked by other Jinas, and also with lesser celestial figures such as the navagrahas, or the nine celestial bodies. Moreover, the Kalpasutra also contains illustrations of Parshvanatha, along with several other Jaina manuscripts and scrolls, which were popular from the eleventh century until the early nineteenth century in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and even Karnataka. In such texts, Parshvanatha is shown either seated or standing in meditation, with snakes at times coiled around his limbs or shading his head.
Parshvanatha remains a central figure in ritual practice and pilgrimage today. Some of the most popular temples of the deity are Shankeshvara in Gujarat, Parshvanatha Temple in Madhya Pradesh, Raktapura and Parshvanatha Basadi in Karnataka, and Godiji in Sindh. With a pan-Indian presence, the deity is worshipped and revered by Digambaras and Shwetambaras alike.
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