Article: Jain epics

Like most religions and ideologies, Jainism was influenced by, and helped shape, the broader environment in which it rose and prospered. Jains have the reputation of being the treasurers of South Asian narrative material. This is partly because Jain poets and writers adapted verse epics and folk tales from across the subcontinent to create versions featuring Jain figures and reflecting their own beliefs. These then often became important in passing on elements of Jain culture and religious doctrine. Significant examples of this process are the Sanskrit epics the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. Jain retellings of the tales have become parts of the Jain cultural heritage and identity.

Sanskrit epics

Legends, myths and stories have played an important role in Indian culture throughout history. Composed and sung by bards at local courts, songs about legendary kings and heroes were very popular. Some centuries before the Common Era narrative cycles of hymns were combined to form what would become known as the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa.

According to most scholars, the oldest kernels of both these epics were not particularly religious, but later redactions and additions transformed the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa into important scriptures of Hinduism. One reason is that they introduced two important deities:

  • Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa.


Blue-skinned Kṛṣṇa advises the Pāṇḍava brothers in this illustration of a scene in the Mahabharata, believed to be the longest poem in the world. Jain versions of the poem underline values such as non-violence and are part of Jain Universal History.

Kṛṣṇa and the Pāṇḍavas
Image by Gift of Doris and Ed Wiener, Brooklyn Museum © No known copyright restrictions

With its title meaning ‘the great [war] of the descendants of Bharata’, the Mahābhārata revolves around a legendary battle between two camps within the same family, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Sons of gods, the Pāṇḍavas are five brothers who share one wife, Draupadī. The brothers are supported by their many allies, including the deity Kṛṣṇa, in the brutal war against their cousins. They defeat the 100 Kauravas in a horrific 18-day battle.

Aside from the story of the war, the epic is highly encyclopaedic. It claims to contain all the knowledge in the world, including many legends and stories as well as philosophical treatises. To the main epic an appendix was later added, called the HarivaṃśapurāṇaAncient Book about the Dynasty of Hari [=Kṛṣṇa]. This is the first full biography of Kṛṣṇa and is sometimes considered an autonomous work.

With 100,000 verses, the Mahābhārata is thought to be the longest poem in the world. It is traditionally ascribed to Vyāsa. As the grandfather of both the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, he is also the narrator and a character in the story. The text as it stands now came into being over several centuries, between 400 BCE and 400 CE.


Translated as the Journey of Rāma, the Rāmāyaṇa recounts the story of Rāma, a prince of Ayodhyā.

Through the intrigues of his stepmother, Rāma is banished to the forest. His beloved wife Sītā decides to accompany him into exile. In the forest Sītā is kidnapped by the demon king Rāvaṇa. He rules the Rākṣasa demons, who inhabit the island of Laṅkā. Together with his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa, Rāma enlists the help of the Vānaras, the monkey people, to rescue Sītā and kill Rāvaṇa. The Vānaras are led by King Sugrīva and his charismatic minister Hanumān. After being reunited with Sītā, Rāma returns to Ayodhyā, where he ascends to the throne.

According to tradition the epic of about 24,000 verses was composed by the legendary seer Vālmīki. This Sanskrit epic waxed into its current form between the sixth century BCE and the second century CE. From an early date other tellings of the Rāma story were composed, such as an abbreviated version found in the Mahābhārata or a Buddhist version in the Dasaratha Jātaka.

Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa in Jainism

The 22nd Jina Nemi with his cousin Kr̥ṣṇa. To Jains Kr̥ṣṇa is Prince Nemi's cousin, who appears in his life story. He is the ninth and final Vāsudeva of this time period and thus a a śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man'. To Hindus Kr̥ṣṇa is the avatar of Viṣṇu.

Nemi and Kr̥ṣṇa
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Even though the stories in these two great epics of Indian culture are certainly the most well-known and authoritative versions, many other tellings have been composed over the past 25 centuries. Poets from different social, ideological, geographical and cultural backgrounds have brought their own concerns and experiences to the tales. Jainism too incorporated these legends into its own world view and, from the first centuries of the Common Era onwards, poets began creating Rāmāyaṇas and Mahābhāratas from a Jain perspective.

The Jain Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa underline some key ideas of Jain doctrine in their concern for non-violence and karma and the desirability of renouncing the world to become Jain ascetics. A good example is the story of Neminātha or Lord Nemi, the cousin of the Jain Kṛṣṇa, who is so repulsed by the violent death of the animals that will provide food for his wedding feast that he becomes a monk.

Paralleling the high status of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa among Hindus, Jains accord honoured places to these narratives and their main characters, integrating them into Jain Universal History. The heroes and their principal enemies are categorised as śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’.

According to Jain Universal History, each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time, nine Baladevas and their nine half-brothers – the Vāsudevas – battle their mortal enemies, the Prati-vāsudevas. The main characters in the Jain epics are assigned specific roles in the Jain trios, which comprise a Baladeva, a Vāsudeva and a Prati-vāsudeva.

Great men’ of the Jain epics



Role as ‘great man’



eighth Baladeva

his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa

eighth Vāsudeva

his enemy Rāvaṇa

eighth Prati-vāsudeva



ninth and final Vāsudeva

his older brother Balarāma

ninth and final Baladeva

his enemy Jarāsaṃdha

ninth and final Prati-vāsudeva

References in Jain literature

In the Śvetāmbara canonical texts references are made to the categories of śalākā-puruṣas, but there is no trace of an actual Jain telling of the Rāmāyaṇa in this corpus. The god Kṛṣṇa, on the other hand, is mentioned several times in the canonical texts and episodes of his life are narrated in a number of places. However, his complete biography is absent from the canon, along with those of the other characters of the Mahābhārata.

The biographies of the 63 great men typically form the subject of Jain Purāṇic literature, which arose during the first centuries of the Common Era. The Purāṇic context places the stories of the śalākā-puruṣas in the mouth of Mahāvīra or his first disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama. This grants them very high authority and status.

Famous Jain Rāmāyaṇas




Paüma-cariyam – Acts of Padma


written in Māhārāṣṭrī Prākrit, before the fifth century

Padma-purāṇa – Purāṇa of Padma


written in Sanskrit in 678

Paüma-cariu – Acts of Padma


written in Apabhraṃśa in the 9th to 10th century

Jain retellings of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are numerous but some have been particularly influential. The tales are also often found in other Jain repositories of stories, such as the kathākośas – ‘treasures of stories’.

Famous Jain Mahābhāratas





Jinasena Punnāṭa


Riṭṭhaṇemi-cariu Biography of Nemi


written in Apabhraṃśa in the 9th to 10th century

Pāṇḍava-caritaActs of the Pāṇḍavas



Pāṇḍava-purāṇaPurāṇa of the Pāṇḍavas




The Sanskrit Epics
J. L. Brockington
Handbuch der Orientalistik, Indien series; volume 12
Brill; Leiden, Netherlands and Boston, Massachusetts, USA; 1998

Full details

Rām-kathā: (utpatti aur vikās)
K. Bulke
Hindī Pariṣad Prakāśana; Prayāg, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1950

Full details

‘An Overview of the Jaina Purāṇas’
John E. Cort
Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts
edited by Wendy Doniger
State University of New York Press; New York, USA; 1993

Full details

‘A Purāṇic Counter Tradition’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Purāṇa Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts
edited by Wendy Doniger
State University of New York Press; New York, USA; 1993

Full details

Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Paula Richman
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

Full details


Please consider the environment before printing