Article: Brāhmī and Sundarī

Brāhmī and Sundarī are a pair of Jain satīs best known as the daughters of the first Jina, Ṛṣhabanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. They are numbered among the 16 satīs or soḷ satī and are in every Jain satī list even though their story is brief. As virtuous women who are role models for Jain women, satīs are characterised by their religious devotion and, often, marital fidelity and patient acceptance of suffering.

The story of Brāhmī and Sundarī was first given in the Ādipurāṇa of Jinasena, which tells the story of the life of the first Jina. A longstanding favourite among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains, the story has frequently been part of collections of tales intended to offer moral examples.

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī is usually retold as an example of the acute desire for renunciation and the perils of denying someone the chance to become an ascetic.

Story of Brāhmī and Sundarī

This detail from a Śvetāmbara manuscript shows the first Jina Ṛṣabha plucking out his hair in the ritual of keśa-loca. Part of the renunciation ceremony, dīkṣā marks the start of mendicant life. Śakra, king of the gods, watches this auspicious event.

Ṛṣabha becomes a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha had two wives, who each had a set of twins. The first, Sumangala, had a son, Bharata, and a daughter, Brāhmī. The second wife is called Sunanda by Śvetāmbara Jains and Sudana in Digambara sources. She had a son, Bāhubali, and a daughter, Sundarī.

Ṛṣabha renounced the householder life and became an ascetic, preaching the way to reach liberation. When Ṛṣabha gave his first sermon, hundreds of his sons and grandsons took ordination at his hand.

First nun and first lay woman

This detail from a manuscript shows four lay women listening to a sermon. Adorned with earrings and necklaces, the brightly dressed women raise their hands in homage. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

Lay women
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

When Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha became a mendicant, his elder son Bharata took over as head of the family. This meant that Brāhmī needed his permission to renounce and he gave this to her. Then Brāhmī took initiation from her father and became the first nun.

Sundarī asked her brother Bāhubali if she could renounce and he granted her permission. Because Bāhubali was a monk, he told Sundarī that she needed to ask Bharata for permission as he was now the head of the family. Bharata refused her request. Sundarī obeyed him and became the first Jain lay woman.

Renunciation in the heart

After many years away, Bharata returned and saw that Sundarī was very gaunt. He was told that she eaten only dry food – āyambil – since she had been denied ordination. Seeing that she had renounced already in her heart, Bharata gave her permission to renounce.

Sundarī rushed to Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha and joyfully took ordination.

Brāhmī and Sundarī were the joint leaders of the order of nuns under Ṛṣabha. When they died, both of them either attained enlightenment in Śvetāmbara sources or were reborn as gods according to the Digambaras.

References in Jain writings

In golden colours, this manuscript painting shows Ṛṣabha. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha takes the lotus position of meditation. His jewels and headdress show he is a spiritual king, stressed by royal symbols, such as the elephant and parasol.

Worship of Ṛṣabha
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The account of the sisters Brāhmī and Sundarī is set within the larger tale of the conflict between their brothers – the universal ruler Bharata and the great saint Bāhubali. Best known from the Ādipurāṇa, the sisters’ story has been widely repeated in collections of didactic narratives, however briefly. This tradition is still upheld today.

The story is often used as a clear example of how someone who greatly wishes to become an ascetic should be allowed to follow this desire. Although popular for centuries, it has not been expanded much from the plot recounted above.

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī is commonly known among both Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains. There are some small differences in the accounts favoured by the two sects.

Brāhmī and Sundarī in the ‘Ādipurāṇa’

The main source of the tale for Digambara Jains is the Ādipurāṇa, which tells the biography of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina of this era.

The story of Bharata and Bāhubali is a central narrative of Jinasena’s ninth-century Ādipurāṇa. As the most widely venerated text within the Digambara sect, this is therefore the most significant telling of the story of Brāhmī and Sundarī.

Other written sources

The tale of Brāhmī and Sundarī has often been included in collections of stories and these anthologies remain widespread in the present day.

The story is included in Pampa’s tenth-century Ādipurāṇa in Kannada. Within the Śvetāmbara tradition, Brahmī and Sundarī are named in the fifth-century Kalpa-sūtra as the leaders of the nuns under Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. These two satīs are also named in the Āvaśyaka-bhāṣya and Vinay-vijaya’s Kalpa-vṛttiḥ. The story is also given in the Āvaśyaka-cūrnī.

In the Āvaśyaka-niryukti there is a variant of the story that is not widespread. In this account Bharata wishes to marry his half-sister Sundarī and for this reason will not give her permission to renounce. Sundarī refuses to marry him and ultimately she renounces.

The story of Brāhmī and Sundarī forms a major part of Śvetāmbara medieval narrative collections. Examples include the first book of the 12th-century Trī-ṣaṣṭi-śalāka-puruṣa-caritra by Hemacandra, Śubhaśila-gaṇi’s 15th-century Bharateśvar Bāhubalī Vṛttiḥ and the later popular texts based on them.

In the present day the story of Brāhmī and Sundarī is usually part of comprehensive collections of Jain sati narratives, but it is not published separately. The story remains a widely known but not highly elaborated tale.

Reading

Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad’s Oriental series; volume 3
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1949

Full details


Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2009

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‘Thinking Collectively About Jain Satīs’
M. Whitney Kelting
Doctrines and Dialogues: Studies in Jaina History and Culture
edited by Peter Flügel
Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London; 2006

Full details


The Image of the Hero in Jainism: Rsabha, Bharata and Bahubali in the Adipurana of Jinasena
George Ralph Strohl
PhD dissertation submitted to University of Chicago in 1984

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