The concept of thirthankara is peculiar to Jainism. A tirthankara is a religious teacher who has been freed from the bonds of karma and crossed the world of transmigrations. Through his teachings and personal example, he makes it his central objective to help mankind achieve nirvana or salvation.
Jain tradition recognizes 24 Tirthankaras who propagated the religion during their existence upon earth, after receiving enlightenment through severe austerities and ascetic practices. The last of the Tirthankaras was Vardhamana Mahavira who succeeded Parsvanatha, the 23rd thirthankara, and made Jainism popular in the Indian subcontinent by reviving many of its ancient traditions and practices. The Tirthankaras constitute the Jain pantheon.
Although Jainism is an atheistic religion, followers of Jainism worship the statues, icons, images and symbols of the Tirthankaras in temples and homes seeking their blessings and intervention for liberation.
A thirthankara is not a god, but an enlightened and perfect being who has been rendered by his previous karma to be a source of knowledge and enlightenment to others. He is higher than the gods of Jainism.
The Tirthankaras appear in certain periods of human history to redeem people from the cycle of births and deaths by teaching them the doctrine of Jainism. Followers of Jainism believe that in each artha kalpa (half time cycle) 24 Tirthankaras manifest upon earth.
The Tirthankaras manifest not only upon earth, but in several other worlds that exists in different parts of the universe. The Digambara Jains believe that all the Tirthankaras who were born in this time cycle are men, while the Svetambaras believe that of the 19th thirthankara was a woman named Mallinath.
Some of the Tirthankaras such as Mahavira,Parsvanath and Rishabhanath are confirmed historical personalities. In their icons the Tirthankaras are usually depicted as either seated in lotus position or standing.
The Digamabaras depict them without clothes while the Svetambaras show them decorated with clothes and ornaments. Parsvanatha, the 23rd thirthankara is usually shown in the company of snakes or overshadowed by a snake hood.
Rishabha, also known popularly as Adinath, was believed to be a historical person, born to King Nabhi Raja and Queen Marudevi at Ayodhya in the Ikshvaku clan. P. C. Roychoudary puts the date of Risabha at the end of Stone Age and beginning of the agriculture age. Some historians like Ramprasad Chandra, John Marshall, suggested that Rishabhanatha was known to Indus valley people and worshipped by them.
According to Jain legends, Rishabh existed in prehistoric times before the development of human civilization. As the first knowledgeable person, he said to have taught the mankind agriculture, animal husbandry, art, architecture, music, dance, criminal justice and many other branches of knowledge and arts and crafts.
With the blessings of his father Nabhiraja, he assumed the responsibilities of a king and introduced a social order based on virtues and profession, dividing the society into merchants, warriors and workers, a system that was subsequently adopted by the vedic people with suitable modifications. Vinita or Ayodhya was his capital.
He had several sons, of whom the eldest was Bharata who became the first emperor of ancient India. Bahubali was his another son, whose mammoth statue now stands at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka and worshipped by millions of Jains. Some Hindu Puranas mention the name of Rishabhanath. According to the Bhagavata purana, Rishabha was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Ajitnatha, the second Jain Tirthankara, was born to King Jitashatru Raja and Queen Vijaya at Ayodhya in the same Ikshvaku clan in which Rishabha and Lord Rama were born. He received enlightenment after performing severe austerities under the guidance of Arindam Suri. One of his brother's name was Sagara, who according to some, was the father of sage Bhagiratha who was responsible for the descent of the Ganges on to the earth through his penances.
The list of the 24 Tirthankaras with their associated details are shown below.1
|Male disciple; |
|I. Lord Rishabha (Adinath)||Sarvarthasiddha||Vinittanagari; |
|golden||bull or ox||Vata (banyan)||Gomukha and |
|II. Ajitnath||Vijayavimana||Ayodhya; |
|Mahayaksha and |
|III. Sambhavanath||Uvarimagraiveka||Savathi; |
|Trimukha and |
|IV. Abhinandannath||Jayantavimana||Ayodhya; |
|Nayaka and |
|V. Sumatinath||Jayantavimana||Ayodhya; |
|golden||curlew or |
|Sala||Tumburu and |
|VI. Padmaprabha||Uvarimagraiveka||Kausambi; |
|red||lotus||Chhatra||Kusuma and |
|VII. Suparshvanath||Madhyamagraiveka||Varanasi; |
and Santa; or
|VIII. Chandraprabha||Vijayanta||Chandrapura; |
|white||moon||Naga||Vijaya and |
Syama or Vijaya
|IX. Pushpadanta||Anatadevaloka||Kanandinagari; |
|white||Crocodile||Sali||Ajita and |
|X. Sheetalnath||Achyutadevaloka||Bhadrapura or Bhadilapura; |
|golden||Kalpavriksha or |
|Priyangu||Brahma and |
|XI. Shreyansanath||Achyutadevaloka||Simhapuri; |
|golden||rhinoceros||Tanduka||Yakshet and |
|XII. Vasupujya||Pranatadevaloka||Champapuri; |
|ruddy||female buffalo||Patala |
|Kumara and |
|XIII. Vimalnath||Mahasaradevaloka||Kampilyapura; |
|Shanmukha and |
|XIV. Anantnath||Pranatadevaloka||Ayodhya; |
|Patala and |
|Jasa ; |
|XV. Dharmanath||Vijayavimana||Ratnapuri; |
|Kinnara and |
|XVI. Shantinath||Sarvarthasiddha||Gajapura or Hastinapuri; |
|Garuda and |
|XVII. Kunthunath||Sarvarthasiddha||Gajapura; |
|golden||goat||Bhilaka||Gandharva and |
|XVIII. Aranath||Sarvarthasiddha||Gajapura; |
|golden||fish or |
|Yaksheta and |
|XIX. Mallinath||Jayantadevaloka||Mathura; |
|blue||jar or Kalasa||Asoka||Kubera and |
|XX. Munisuvrata||Aparajita-devaloka||Rajagriha; |
|Varuna and |
|XXI. Nami Natha||Pranatadevaloka||Mathura; |
|blue water-lily or blue lotus||Bakula |
|Bhrikuti and |
|XXII. Neminatha||Aparajita||Sauripura and Ujjinta (Ujjain); |
Mount Girnar (Girnarji)
|black||conch||Vetasa||Gomedha and |
|XXIII. Parshva||Pranatadevaloka||Varanasi; |
|Parsvayaksha or |
|XXIV. Mahavira||Pranatadevaloka||Kundagrama or Chitrakuta; |
|yellow||lion||teak||Matamga and |
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Atomic Theory of Jainism
- History of Jainism
- Jainism - Philosophy and Doctrine
- Major Beliefs of Jainism
- Jain Literature and Canonical Texts
- Jainism Cosmology
- The Jains And Their Creed
- Jainism - Doctrine and History
- An Introduction to Jainism or Jain Dharma
- The Philosophy and Practice of Jainism
- Information Websites on Jainism
- Jainism and the Belief in God
- Jainism - Jivas, the Embodied Souls
- Jainism - Belief in Karma
- The Theory of Knowledge in Jainism
- History of Jainism after Mahavira
- Vardhamana Mahavira
- Jainism - Anekantavada or Nayavada
- An Outsider Perspective on Jainism
- Jainism - Sects and Subsects
- Syadavada or Saptabhangi
- The Tattvas of Jainism
- Jain Thirthankaras
- Ethics of Jainism - The Three Jewels
- Tirthahkaras Before Mahavira
1. The table showing Jain Tirthankaras was adopted with some modifications from Wikipedia