Article: Marudevī

Marudevī is best known as the mother of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanatha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Like other mothers of JinasJina-mātās – Marudevī experienced the auspicious dreams that herald the birth of a Jina.

Accounts of Marudevī’s life and her religious importance vary between the Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects of Jainism. These versions reflect the sects’ different views of women. Śvetāmbaras hold that Marudevī was the first person to reach liberation in this era while Digambaras believe that she has no significance beyond being the mother of a Jina.

Śvetāmbara and Digambara stories

The two main Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras give different weight to Marudevī’s religious significance. Their versions of her life story echo their contrasting approaches to the potential for women‘s enlightenment.

There is some written evidence that Marudevī was worshipped in the medieval period. There are also images of her seated on an elephant in the temples at Śatruñjaya and Rāṇakpur.

Svetambara traditions

This detail of a manuscript painting shows the first Jina Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha as an infant with his mother Marudevī. The births of Jinas are usually depicted in this way in Jain art.

Marudevī and the baby Ṛṣabha
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Among Śvetāmbara Jains, Marudevī is known to be the first person to achieve liberation in this era. Her story is cited as proof that lay women are capable of achieving emancipation.

In Śvetāmbara texts, Marudevī’s past life was as a nigoda and she gained enlightenment in her first life as a human.

Some Śvetāmbara traditions have Mahāvīra‘s last sermon focusing on Marudevī.

Digambara traditions

In Digambara accounts, however, the first person to be liberated was one of Marudevī’s grandsons, a son of Ṛṣabhanatha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Marudevī herself has no particular relevance for Digambaras beyond her role as a Jina-mātā.

In Digambara texts, Marudevī was a woman on another continent in the Jain universe in the life before she was reborn as Marudevī.

Story of Marudevī

This detail from a manuscript painting shows Marudevī experiencing the auspicious dreams. Carrying the baby who will become Ṛṣabha the first Jina, Marudevī has 14 dreams, according to the Śvetāmbara sect, 16 according to the Digambaras.

Marudevī has the auspicious dreams
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Marudevī is married to King Nābhi. On the night she conceives the baby who becomes the first Jina of this era, Marudevī has the auspicious dreams that foretell the birth of a Jina. In Marudevī’s case, the bull is the first dream rather than the elephant and therefore she named her son after it, calling him Ṛṣabha. This is why the emblem of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha is the bull.

Ṛṣabha reaches adulthood, marries and has a hundred children including Bāhubali, Bharata, Brāhmī and Sundarī. After this he decides to renounce the householder life to become the first Jain mendicant. He soon reaches enlightenment.

According to Śvetāmbara accounts, Marudevī rides an elephant to hear the sermon being given by some newly enlightened teacher. When she arrives she sees the holy man is her son, Ṛṣabha. Marudevī looks down from her elephant and sees the splendour of the universal assembly of a universal ruler. When she realises the universal ruler is her own son, she attains omniscience and then dies, achieving liberation.

References in Jain writings

Although Marudevī is mentioned briefly in the Āvaśyaka-niryukti attributed to Bhadrabāhu, the oldest story about her is in Jinadāsa’s Āvaśyaka-cūrnī.

Marudevī’s tale is further elaborated in Śilāṅka’s Cauppanna-mahāpurisa-cariyaṃ. Hemacandra’s 12th-century Trī-ṣaṣti-śalāka-puruṣa-caritra tells Marudevī’s story in the context of his longer account of the life of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha.

In the Digambara Jinasena’s Ādipurāṇa, Marudevī is described at length but only in her role as Jina-mātā and wife of Nābhi.

Marudevī is often named as the mother of Ṛṣabha in hymns but the story of her enlightenment is found only in the narrative literature.

Jinaprabha mentions the worship of Marudevī in the description of Mount Shatruñjaya in his 14th-century Vividha-tīrtha-kalpa. In his Caturviṃśati-prabhandhaḥ, Rajaśekhara-sūri describes the great Jain scholar-monk Hemacandra visiting the shrine of Marudevī while on pilgrimage to Shatruñjaya.

Many of the discussions of Marudevī in Śvetāmbara philosophical literature focus on the question of how she achieved enlightenment in her first human life and related features of Jain karma theory.

Reading

‘Stories from the Āvaśyaka Commentaries’
Nalini Balbir
The Clever Adulteress and Other Stories: A Treasury of Jain Literature
edited by Phyllis Granoff
Mosaic Press; Oakville, Ontario, Canada; New York, USA; London, UK; 1990

Full details


‘The Jain Sacred Cosmos: Selections from a Medieval Pilgrimage Text’
John E. Cort
The Clever Adulteress and Other Stories: A Treasury of Jain Literature
edited by Phyllis Granoff
Mosaic Press; Oakville, Ontario, Canada; New York, USA; London, UK; 1993

Full details


Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

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‘From Nigoda to Mokṣa: The Story of Marudevī’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Jainism and Early Buddhism in the Indian Cultural Context: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini
edited by Olle Qvarnström
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

Full details


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

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‘Constructions of Femaleness in Jain Devotional Literature’
M. Whitney Kelting
Jainism and Early Buddhism in the Indian Cultural Context: Essays in Honor of Padmanabh S. Jaini
edited by Olle Qvarnström
Asian Humanities Press; Fremont, California, USA; 2003

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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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