Article: Eight auspicious symbols

The term ‘eight auspicious symbols’ refers to a set of eight shapes or objects highly respected by the Jains and which they use in various religious contexts. The word commonly used to refer to it is the Sanskrit compound aṣṭa-mangala. The word mangala designates anything that brings good luck or well-being in any way, whether an object or a phrase.

The two main Jain sects list slightly different objects as the eight auspicious symbols. For both groups, especially the Śvetāmbaras, these symbols appear in all kinds of artistic media and are widespread in temples, worship and in general life.

Different lists of the eight auspicious symbols

Two svastikas are below the three jewels of Jainism. The crescent at the top represents the siddha-śilā and the line above it the liberated soul. Auspicious symbols made of rice grains and other substances are common in temples

Svastikas and other auspicious symbols in the temple
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

As often happens, the list of the symbols is different for the two main Jain sects of the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

Sectarian lists of the eight auspicious symbols

Śvetāmbara

Digambara

1

Svastika

Gilded vase – bhṛngāra

2

Śrīvatsa

Fly whisk – cāmara

3

Nandyāvarta

Banner – dhvaja

4

Powder box or flask – vardhamānaka

Fan – vyajana

5

Throne – bhadrāsana

Umbrella or canopy – chatra

6

Full water-jug – kalaśa

Seat of honour – supratiṣṭha

7

Pair of fish – matsyayugma

Full water-jug – kalaśa

8

Mirror – darpaṇa

Mirror – darpaṇa

Why these objects?

The eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – are often seen as freestanding metal objects in temples of the Digambara sect. Here, the symbols are lined up in the temple at Panjapattu in Tamil Nadu.

Auspicious symbols in a Digambara temple
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

These things are auspicious for different reasons. The meaning of some of these symbols is apparent in wider Indian culture, while the significance of others is less clear.

Some of them – like the throne, the fly-whisk, the banner and the umbrella – are well known as royal insignia.

Others are connected to prosperity, abundance or fertility, for example the full jug or pitcher and the flask of powder. The word used for the latter means ‘increasing’.

The mirror may represent the idea of purity and light.

The meaning of the pair of fish is not that clear. A Śvetāmbara author from the 14th century, Vardhamāna-sūri, interpreted the auspicious symbols. He said that the fish may represent the god of Love, on whose banner they are shown, who has been defeated by the Jina and has come to worship him. Vardhamāna-sūri’s approach tried to connect the auspicious symbols with the Jinas and Jainism, although they can be seen as general signs of good luck in the Indian context.

First three Śvetāmbara symbols

The first three items in the Śvetāmbara list feature among the emblems of some of the Jinas among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

First three Śvetāmbara auspicious symbols and Jina emblems

Symbol

Digambara Jina emblem

Śvetāmbara Jina emblem

svastika

Śītala – tenth Jina

Supārśva – seventh Jina

nandyāvarta

Supārśva – seventh Jina

Ara – 18th Jina

śrīvatsa

Śītala – tenth Jina

Svastika

An ancient lucky sign, the svastika is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala. A Jain svastika frequently has several dots laid out through and above it, with a crescent atop, often with a dot over it.

Jain svastika
Image by Malaia / Stannered © public domain

The svastika – known as the swastika in the West – is a cross with each of its four arms bent at a right angle and turned in a clockwise direction. The word itself connotes ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’. Svasti is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘well-being’. It is is often used as an exclamation, meaning, “May it be well!”

An ancient symbol found in civilisations dating back thousands of years, the svastika is often used to mark persons or things. It denotes good luck in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It is still widely used today in India, despite its sinister reputation, particularly in the West, after its close association with the Nazis.

In the Jain list of auspicious symbols, the svastika always comes first. The four arms of the svastika are considered to represent the four possible states of existencegati – in the world of rebirth, namely:

  • heavenly being or deity
  • hell-being
  • animal
  • human being.

It is also interpreted as referring to the four parts of the Jain communitycaturvidha-saṇgha, which are:

Nandyāvarta

The nandyāvarta is a shape like a labyrinth or a larger form of svastika. The term itself implies something positive, for nandī means ‘joy, prosperity’. This diagram has nine branches, which are said to symbolise the nine treasures of a universal monarch.

Śrīvatsa

One of the eight auspicious symbols, the śrīvatsa is frequently found on the chest in images of Jinas.

Endless knot or śrīvatsa
Image by Rick J Pelleg © public domain

The śrīvatsa is a diamond-shaped mark found on the chest of the Jinas. It can often be seen on sculptures or pictures of the Jinas.

Variations and general uses

The Śvetāmbara list is known from at least two Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures.

The Aupapātika-sūtra, the first Upānga, is the standard reference. When King Kūṇika heard that Mahāvīra, the first Jina, was about to preach, he left his palace in great pomp to reach the place of the universal gathering:

While he was mounted on his superb elephant here are the eight auspicious things that were present before him in the following sequence [which forms the standard list]

In the Jambū-dvīpa-prajñapti, the list has the same number of objects but some of the items are different. Here, the eight auspicious symbols of “Umbrella, banner, pot, fly whisk, mirror, seat, fan, and vessel proceeded before the Lord” (quoted in Jain-Fischer 1978: 11).

These two passages show that the auspicious signs present themselves in specific circumstances to persons of rank. These may be either conventional kings or Jinas, who are spiritual kings.

Early representations

The oldest depictions of the eight auspicious symbols are found on the votive tablets of Mathurā, dating back to the second to third centuries CE. The full jug, a pair of fish, the śrīvatsa, the svastika and the powder box can be recognised.

But there are also other symbols that do not belong to the classical lists, like the ‘three jewels‘ – tri-ratna. This indicates some variation before the lists took the standard form known today.

Symbols in the Jain temple

A lay man makes auspicious symbols in uncooked rice in a temple in Mumbai. Creating auspicious symbols such as the svastika or auṃ mantra is one of the rituals of Jain prayer, which revolves around making offerings and singing or chanting hymns.

Creating auspicious symbols
Image by ૐ Didi ૐ – Dey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The eight auspicious symbols are a central part of Jain religious life. They are a commonplace sight in many temples in the form of bas-reliefs or sculptures on temple walls. They can be seen most frequently on the door lintel or window frames of wooden domestic shrines.

In Digambara temples the eight auspicious symbols are often found as freestanding metal objects.

It is common to see Jain devotees sitting cross-legged in front of low wooden tables, producing elaborate pictures of some of the auspicious symbols with rice grains.

Creating svastikas and nandyāvartas is particularly widespread because both shapes are linked to the more general concepts of karma and rebirth. Sometimes the eight symbols are incised in the tables.

The worshippers place rice-grains over them and gently wipe them with the edge of the palm so that the grains fill the recesses to reveal the white design of the aṣṭamangala

Jain-Fischer page 11, 1978

The offering-stands, which are made of wood or metal, often have the eight auspicious symbols carved or set in relief. In the Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākāpuruṣa-caritra, the 12th-century writer Hemacandra describes how: ‘Below the arches were the eight auspicious signs, svastika, etc., just like those on offering-stands’. (Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra I.3.432, Johnson 1931: 190.)

Symbols in Śvetāmbara art and life

This painting from a manuscript page depicts the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. Illustrations of the symbols are often found in manuscripts, temples, art and daily life because they are believed to bring good luck.

Eight auspicious symbols
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Śvetāmbaras have developed the theme of the auspicious symbols into a religious and decorative motif.

The symbols appear both on the pages of manuscripts and on manuscript covers. They also feature in the invitation letters Jain communities in India send to leaders of mendicants, which invite them to spend the next rainy season with the laity. Śvetāmbara ascetics frequently have the symbols embroidered on the cloth they use to protect their monastic equipment.

Manuscript pages

A mangala in the form of words must appear at the start of a Jain text, whether it is a stanza or a sacred formula. Similarly, the eight auspicious symbols are a visual beginning. The symbols can be shown alone or in succession or may accompany the depiction of one of the religious teachers, especially Mahāvīra or his chief disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama.

Placing them at the opening of a text emphasises the connection of the auspicious symbols with passing on religious teachings.

Manuscript covers

This embroidered 19th-century manuscript cover illustrates the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – of the Śvetāmbara sect. These symbols are used in many religious ceremonies and are common in temples, art and daily life.

Eight auspicious symbols
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Together with the 14 dreams, the eight auspicious symbols have proven one of the favourite Śvetāmbara themes on manuscript covers – called pāṭhuṃ in Gujarati – since the 18th century.

The Ethnographic Museum in Antwerp in Belgium – now part of the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) – has a good selection of such covers. They are made of either cardboard covered with cloth or painted wood. They demonstrate characteristics of the pictorial style of the regions where they were made.

Paintings in invitation scrolls

Invitation scrolls or vijñapti-patras are formal letters inviting a leading monk and his followers, from a certain monastic group, to spend the next rainy season in a certain place. A community of lay Jains sends these letters, the local merchants often sending these on behalf of the wider group.

These invitations take the form of long scrolls with text and paintings. The text consists of poetical description and praises of mendicants and the Jinas. Generally, the opening paintings are the eight auspicious symbols and the 14 auspicious dreams.

An example of an invitation scroll is in the Jain collection at the British Library.

These invitation letters are found in Rajasthan and Gujarat from the 17th century onwards. They are a speciality of the Śvetāmbara Kharatara-gaccha and Tapā-gaccha communities.

Embroideries of the symbols

The cloth of this bookstand is embroidered with colourful examples of the auspicious symbol of the svastika.

Monastic bookstand with embroidered svastikas
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Śvetāmbara monks and nuns wrap the handle of their brooms or small book-standsthāpanācārya – in pieces of cotton or woollen cloth. One or all of the auspicious symbols are often embroidered on them.

Reading

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

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

Full details


'The Kalpa Sûtra of Bhadrabâhu'
Bhadrabāhu
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes
Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft series; series editor Otto Loth; volume VII: 1
F. A. Brockhaus; Leipzig, Saxony, Germany; 1879

Full details


A Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of Miniature Paintings of the Jaina Kalpasūtra as executed in the Early Western Indian Style
W. Norman Brown
Freer Gallery of Art – Oriental Studies series; volume 2
The Lord Baltimore Press / Smithsonian Institution; Washington DC, USA; 1934

Full details


Studies in Jaina Art
Umakant Premanand Shah
Abhinav Publications; Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1955

Full details


Treasures of Jaina Bhandāras
Umakant Premanand Shah
L. D. series; volume 69
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1978

Full details


Steps to Liberation: 2500 Years of Jain Art and Religion
Jan van Alphen
Etnografisch Museum Antwerpen; Antwerp, Belgium; 2000

Full details


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

Full details


Links

Please consider the environment before printing