Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu is the 17th of the 24 Jinas of the present cycle of time. The word Jina means ‘victor’ in Sanskrit. A Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma through practising extreme asceticism and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A Jina is also called a Tīrthaṃkara or ‘ford-maker’ in Sanskrit – that is, one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience.
Kunthu is not an historical figure. He is not singled out for individual biographies in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. Treated like most of the other Jinas, he is provided only with basic biographical information. This information is fairly standardised and remains identical throughout later sources except for occasional variations, or confusions, in numbers.
The meaning of his name is not straightforward and has been interpreted differently in traditional sources. The word itself has no clear etymology and may be of non-Sanskrit origin.
There are minor differences between the accounts and descriptions of this Jina among the two main Jain sects. According to Śvetāmbara biographies, Kunthu married princesses and governed the earth as a king before leaving worldly life for monastic initiation. According to the sect of the Digambaras, none of the Jinas assumed the responsibilities of a householder before becoming a monk. However, both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras believe that three of the 24 Jinas were universal emperors – cakravartins – before they left worldly life. Kunthu is the sixth of 12 universal emperors in each half-cycle of time.
Each Jina has standard biographical information found in various sources. Among the earliest Śvetāmbara canonical sources that provide biodata of all the 24 Jinas is the final section of the fourth Aṅga, the Samavāyānga-sūtra and the Āvaśyaka-niryukti. Among the earliest Digambara sources is a cosmological work, the Tiloya-paṇṇatti.
The standard Digambara biography of Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu is found on pages 97 to 120 of the 1968 edition of Guṇabhadra’s Uttarapurāṇa in Sanskrit and Hindi. The standard Śvetāmbara biography is on pages 1 to 10 in volume IV of Johnson’s English translation of Hemacandra’s work, Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākāpuruṣa-caritra.
The biographical data can be categorised in a standard manner, and includes numbers, which are significant in wider Indian culture.
These standard details can also be used to identify individual Jinas in art, since they are usually depicted as stereotyped figures. Pictures or statues of the Jinas present them in either the lotus position or the kāyotsarga pose. Both of these imply deep meditation.
Jina and Cakravartin
- 16th Jina, Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti
- 17th Jina Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu
- 18th Jina Aranātha or Lord Ara.
In their lives as lay men, after these three men succeeded their fathers as kings the disc-shaped jewel – cakra – appeared in front of them. It led them to conquer all regions in turn so that they became Cakravartins – universal emperors. In each half-cycle of time there are 12 Cakrvartins. Ara is the seventh Cakravartin in the present era. The eighth Cakravartin, Subhūma, is regarded as his contemporary.
A Jina’s mother has an important role because she gives birth to a future Jina, and in practice a Jina is often called ‘the son of X’. Another reason for her importance is that the names given to the various Jinas are said to originate either in pregnancy-whims or in a dream their mothers had, at least in Śvetāmbara sources. This dream is specific, and adds to the traditional auspicious dreams that foretell the birth of a child who will grow up to become a Jina.
In the case of ‘Kunthu’, Śvetāmbara sources say that he was so named because his mother had seen a heap of jewels called ‘kunthu’ in a dream. Even so the meaning of kunthu is far from clear. The commentary on the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, for instance, understands it as meaning ‘staying on the earth’, analysing it as being formed of:
- ku – earth
- thu from the Sanskrit root sthā – ‘to stand, to stay, to be’
Śrī – Śvetāmbara
Śūra – Śvetāmbara
Of the five auspicious events that mark a Jina’s life – kalyāṇakas – four take place on earth and are associated with a specific village or town in the sources. Archaeological evidence often helps to identify the old names with modern places. Even when it is lacking, there is a tendency to carry out this identification process. Associating auspicious events with certain locations makes these places sacred to Jains, so that they are potential or actual pilgrimage places and temple sites.
Last incarnation and birthplace
Hastināpura or Hastinapur is located 37 kilometres from Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh. Today a large village, it is a place of high antiquity, a site of prehistoric culture and the capital town of the Pāṇḍava lineage, famous from the Mahābhārata epics. Its importance as a Jain sacred place comes from its association with several Jinas. It is the birth place of the three Jinas who are also Cakravartins:
- 16th Jina, Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti
- 17th Jina Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu
- 18th Jina Aranātha or Lord Ara.
It is also the place where the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, is said to have broken his year-long fast when Prince Śreyāṃsa gave him sugar-cane juice. This first alms-giving event is commemorated during the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā festival.
In today’s Hastinapur, the main Śvetāmbara temple is dedicated to Śānti. The main temple image of Śānti is flanked by Kunthu and Ara on the right and left respectively. Thus the three Jinas traditionally connected with the locality are shown together.
There is a lot of literary evidence from the 13th century onwards showing that the place was a favourite pilgrimage destination for Jains who wanted to pay homage to Aranātha or Lord Ara and the two other Jinas born there. Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti, Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu and Ara form a group and are often mentioned together.
A record dated 1318 CE (1375 of the Vikrama era) mentions a collective pilgrimage led by the Śvetāmbara mendicant Jinacandra-sūri, of the Kharatara-gaccha. The pilgrims recited hymns for the three Jinas which Jinacandra-sūri had composed specially.
In the same year Jinaprabha-sūri composed a praise of this place after a temple pilgrimage, and devotes two pieces to it in his collection on Jain sacred places, the Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa (number 16 and number 50; translated in Balbir 1990: 186–187). He starts with homage to the three Jinas Śānti, Kunthu and Ara. He states that four auspicious events – kalyāṇakas – in their lives took place in this locality, and then lists all the dates connected with the auspicious events of their lives.
In his 1641 autobiography called the Ardha-kathānaka, the Jain merchant poet Banārasīdās narrates how he was in a group of people who undertook a pilgrimage in 1618 to perform worship of Śānti, Kunthu and Ara. On this occasion he produced a poem of praise for the three Jinas, mentioning their names, their parents’ names, their size and their respective emblems:
He composed a poem for the teachers Śānti, Kunthu, Ara. May Banārasī recite it with heart and devotion: ‘Glory to King Viśvasena, to the monarch Śūrasena, to King Sudarśana. Acirā, Śrī, Devī sing the praises of these masters. Their sons have the emblems of the antelope, of the goat, of the nandyāvarta. Their bodies measure 40, 35 and 30 bows. They have a golden complexion[.]
Ardhakathānaka, verses 582 to 583
English translation based on Petit 2011 (page 117)
Dates and numbers
Worship of Kunthu
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain
The five auspicious events that mark a Jina’s life – kalyāṇakas – are traditionally associated with a specific date. This is given according to the system of the Indian calendar:
- day in the fortnight.
Astrological considerations also play a role here and the texts normally mention the constellations when an auspicious event takes place.
The dates associated with these events are potential or actual dates of commemoration. These may be marked in festivals, which determine the Jain religious calendar.
There may be variations in the dates in different sources, Śvetāmbara on one side, Digambara on the other. But there are also cases of differences within the same sectarian tradition.
3rd day of the bright half of Caitra
There are also other numbers connected with the life of this Jina.
Monastic and lay communities
A Jina is not an enlightened being who exists alone after reaching omniscience. After perfect knowledge comes general preaching – samavasaraṇa. This sermon, which is attended by all, is reported in the scriptures as resulting in large numbers of listeners being inspired. Many turn to religious life, becoming monks or nuns, while many others make the vows that lay people – śrāvaka and śrāvikā – can follow in their everyday lives. Further, the Jina’s teachings are preserved and passed on by his chief disciples – the gaṇadharas. This is why a Jina is also called a Tīrthaṃkara, meaning ‘ford-maker’ or ‘founder of a community’.
Each Jina establishes a ‘fourfold community‘, led by the chief disciples. Made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women, the fourfold community follows the principles the Jina has set out in his preaching. How members follow the religious teachings vary according to whether they remain householders or take initiation into mendicancy. Individual figures relating to each Jina are thus important.
35 led by Svayambhū
100,920 – Svetāmbara
381,000 – Śvetāmbara
Balā – Śvetāmbara
Besides the basic information, the sources provide more details on various topics. These are almost infinite and vary depending on the sources. Such information differs between Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras. Here are only a few instances of extra detail.
All of the princes who become Jinas are carried on a palanquin to the park where they perform the ritual gesture of initiation into monastic life – dīkṣā. The palanquin of Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu is named Vijayā. On this occasion, he is accompanied by numerous kings.
He performs a two-day fast. The next day he breaks his fast at the house of King Vyāghrasiṃha in the town of Cakrapura.
Events, stories and hymns
The life of Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu is almost eventless. In the ninth-century Lives of the 54 Jain Great Men – Cauppaṇṇa-mahāpurisa-cariya – written in Prakrit by the Śvetāmbara monk Śīlānka, the chapter about the 17th Jina is just one page, containing the main outline and basic information.
The same is true for the standard sectarian versions of Kunthu’s life:
- the 12th-century Śvetāmbara Sanskrit text Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra, written by Hemacandra
- Guṇabhadra’s Uttara-purāṇa, for the Digambaras.
Kunthu is mainly praised alongside other Jinas in hymns dedicated to the 24 Jinas. One instance is the devotional song dedicated to this Jina in the Gujarati set of hymns composed by Yaśo-vijaya in the 17th century. This example can be found among the manuscripts digitised on JAINpedia.
Temples and images
Figure of Kunthu
Image by Brooklyn Museum Collection © CC BY-NC
Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu is not one of the most popular Jinas. Yet he is known through at least a few temples dedicated to him or isolated images. He seems to have been more popular in south India, at least in medieval times.
One of the most ancient temples dedicated to this Jina is in Karandai, about 15 kms from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. This place, also known as Munigiri, was an important Jain centre until the 13th century.
One of the main temples to the 17th Jina is the Kunthunatha Jinalaya at Kamalapur, a village south of Hampi, in the Bellary district of Karnatak. This temple complex is also known as the Ganagitti temple. An inscription found on the pillar – māna-stambha – in front of the building records that it was buiIt by Iruguppa Daṇḍanāyaka, the minister of Bukkarāya II, in the reign of the Vijayanagara king Harihara II and that it was dedicated to Kunthunātha (Suresh 2004: 325; 2011: 185–188). However, the cella that originally housed the image is now empty. Jina sculptures are found in other parts of the temple, though. ‘It is one of the earliest Jina temples of the Vijayanagara period, well preserved and in good condition’ (Suresh 2004: 326).
This 19th-century watercolour from the Mackenzie Collection kept in the British Library probably depicts this temple.
Another temple in Karnatak is the Sri Kuntunatha Basadi in the Indira Nagar or Ittegegood area of Mysore. This is a modern temple, which was inaugurated in 1997. The main idol of Kunthu is flanked by images of the:
- 12th Jina, Vāsupūjyanātha or Lord Vāsupūjya, on the left
- 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, on the right.
Instances of stone sculptures of Kunthu are:
- a seated figure with emblem in the caves 8 and 9 of Khandagiri, Orissa
- a big 12th-century standing image at Bajrangagadha, Guna in Madhya Pradesh (Shah 1987: 157)
- a 7th- to 8th-century figure with emblem at the Bharata Kala Bhavana in Varanasi (Shah 1987: 157) and other images, mostly of Digambara style, in north Indian museums
- 12th- and 13th-century images in the Vimala Vasahi on Mount Abu, identified through inscriptions.
Examples of metal images in various collections are:
- bronze images from the 11th century found in the Aluara hoard, now in the Patna Museum (Shah 1097: 157).
- a bronze image dated 1470 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where the Jina is identified in the inscription at the back
- a bronze figure produced in 1476 in Vasantgarh, Rajasthan, kept in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where an emblem, which should be the goat, is visible
- a small idol in the Brooklyn Museum, New York
- a 12th-century image in the Huntington collection, based at Ohio State University.
- ‘Recent Developments in a Jaina Tīrtha: Hastināpur (U.P.): A preliminary report’
- The History of Sacred Places in India as Reflected in Traditional Literature: Papers on Pilgrimage in South Asia
edited by Hans Bakker
Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference series; volume III
E. J. Brill; Leiden, Netherlands; 1990
- Ardhakathanak: A Half Story
- translated by Rohini Chowdhury
Penguin Books India; New Delhi, India; 2009
- Jaina Temple Architecture in India: The Development of a Distinct Language in Space and Ritual
Julia A. B. Hegewald
- Monographien zur Indischen Archäologie, Kunst und Philologie series; volume 19
Stiftung Ernst Waldschmidt, G+H Verlag; Berlin, Germany; 2009
- edited by Muni Jinavijaya
Singhi Jain series; volume 10
Shantiniketan; Bombay, India; 1934
- Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
- Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004
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