Article: Jain Universal History

Western scholars use the term ‘Universal History’ for the narrated history of people in the different known parts of the world and the interconnections among them. In Jain studies, the term refers to the body of work consisting of the biographies of the śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’. In particular, Jain Universal History deals with the lives of the Jinas, the Cakravartins and the nine groups of Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas.

The texts that recount these biographies are generally called purāṇas – ‘ancient [scriptures]’ – or caritras – ‘deeds’. The Jain Purāṇas tell the complete mytho-legendary history of the world for the current time period from a distinct Jain perspective, up to the last historical Jina, Mahāvīra, and his famous early disciples.

The symmetry and repetitiveness that characterises Jain cosmology can be found here too. For example, although these narratives are limited to the present time period, they are representative of the history of other time periods as well, namely the past and future. The lives of many of the great men also show marked similarities, featuring, for instance, prophetic dreams and the interventions of gods and supernatural elements.

Periods of time

In the part of the universe where human beings live, time moves in cycles. Each cycle has 12 parts of different length, moving through half-cycles where things gradually get worse – avasarpiṇi – and then gradually get better – utsarpiṇi. Then the cycle be

Cycle of time
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain

According to traditional Jain cosmology, the regions where humans live are categorised as karma-bhūmi – ‘land of action’. They are subject to a regular sequence of alternating time periods, called:

Two of these phases make up one cycle of time. The phases alternate between improving and worsening conditions of life. When human existence is at its climax of development in terms of spirituality, morality, lifespan, stature, knowledge and pleasure, a new avasarpiṇī begins. Conditions gradually begin to deteriorate, until they reach a nadir. Then a new utsarpiṇī starts, in which the conditions gradually improve until a new climax is reached. Each phase is composed of six eras of different lengths.

'Great men'

In practice, what is called Jain Universal History consists of the biographies of specific categories and numbers of heroes and other characters, who are thought to recur in every half-cycle of time. These characters are śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’.

The most frequently used list of 'great men' has 63 characters for every time phase, comprising:

Other lists exclude the Prati-vāsudevas or include other categories, such as the:

  • 9 Nāradas
  • 11 Rudras
  • 24 Kāmadevas
  • 7, 14 or 16 Kulakaras
  • 24 mothers and fathers of the Jinas.

These biographies generally include accounts of several previous existences of each of these mahā-puruṣas and their principal antagonists. These effectively explain what happens to them in their lives as mahā-puruṣas and integrate their stories into the broader frame of Jain karmic theory.


A manuscript painting depicts the omniscient first Jina among symbols of high status. The first of the 24 Jinas, Ṛṣabha set up social institutions such as marriage and agriculture.

Omniscient Ṛṣabha
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The greatest of the mahā-puruṣas are the Tīrthaṃkaras – ‘ford-makers’ – who are also frequently referred to as Jinas – ‘conquerors’. Their life stories in Jain Universal History are often very similar.

The first of the 24 Jinas of the present half-cycle of time is Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, who lived during the suṣamā-duṣamā period. All the others were born in the following period, the duṣamā-suṣamā period, which is the era before the present one.

The Jinas of this avasarpiṇī phase of time all hail from royal families. In one of their earlier existences, their souls bound a specific type of karman, called the tīrthaṃkara-nāma-karman. This forecasts that one becomes a Jina in a future birth.

In ritual and art, the main events in the life of a Jina are reduced to five episodes, the so-called pañca-kalyāṇakas – ‘five auspicious episodes’ of:

Each of these episodes is accompanied by miraculous elements, such as rains of gems or the attendance of gods and goddesses.


This manuscript painting in a Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna shows the 14 magical jewels – ratna – of a 'universal ruler' – cakravartin. He uses these to conquer his enemies and become a universal monarch. The first panel depicts the cakravartin and a servant

14 magical jewels
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Cakravartin is a ‘universal emperor’, who rules over large parts of the world, typically the six parts of Bhārata-varṣa. In Jain cosmology this is the entire civilised world. They live at different times in every half-cycle of time and their early lives share similarities with those of the Jinas. Cakravartins have various supernatural possessions or associates and have a variety of destinies.

The 12 Cakravartins of the present time period are:

  1. Bharata
  2. Sagara
  3. Maghavan
  4. Sanatkumāra
  5. Śānti
  6. Kunthu
  7. Ara
  8. Subhūma or Subhauma
  9. Mahāpadma or Padma
  10. Hariṣeṇa
  11. Jayasena
  12. Brahmadatta.

Three of these men become Cakravartins – ‘universal emperors’ – before they become Jinas. These are the:

  • 16th Jina, Śāntinātha or Lord Śānti
  • 17th Jina, Kunthunātha or Lord Kunthu
  • 18th Jina, Aranātha or Lord Ara.

In previous existences the Cakravartins gathered a large amount of religious merit, and cultivated a nidāna – an intense desire to become a cakravartin, which is held on to in various incarnations of the soul. Their early lives proceed in a similar way to that of the Jinas, in that they are all born into royal families and their destiny is prophesied by a number of dreams of their pregnant mothers. They grow up to become powerful rulers, subjugating surrounding kingdoms – digvijaya. Eventually, the magic discus – cakra – Sudarśana appears in their armouries and they are then anointed cakravartin, which literally means ‘he who revolves the discus’. They marry many wives and have many sons.

Cakravartins possess:

  • 14 ratnas – ‘jewels’ – which are supernatural beings assisting them in their conquest
  • 9 nidhis – ‘treasures’ – which contain objects or sciences to facilitate their destiny.

At the end of their lives, some Cakravartins renounce the world and attain omniscience and final liberation. Others become a god in one of the heavens, while still others are reborn in one of the hells.

Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas

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)

A Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva always live simultaneously. There are nine sets of them in every half-cycle of time. Bound in a triangle of enmity over many births, these men are popular mythical characters and feature in some of the best-known texts of the Jain Purāṇas. They have close affinities with some figures in Hinduism.

The Baladevas are righteous Jains, who go to heaven or attain liberation at the end of their lives. The Vāsudevas are their younger half-brothers. They kill their arch-enemies, the Prati-vāsudevas, which literally means the ‘anti-Vāsudevas’.

The hostility between the Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva is explained through their encounters in many previous existences. In their lives as mahā-puruṣas the magic discus – cakra – Sudarśana first appears in the armoury of the Prati-vāsudeva, as with the Cakravartin. During the ultimate battle with the Vāsudeva, the Prati-vāsudeva hurls the discus at him. Instead of killing the Vāsudeva, the discus flies into the hands of the Vāsudeva, who throws it at the Prati-vāsudeva and kills him. The Vāsudeva is then hailed as an ardha-cakravartin – ‘half universal emperor’ – and reigns over half of Bhārata-varṣa.

The Jain categories of Baladevas and Vāsudevas, by their very names, are clearly based on the characters who are better known from the Hindu traditions as avatāraavatars – of the deity Viṣṇu. These are:

  • Balarāma, also known as Baladeva
  • Kṛṣṇa, also called Vāsudeva, the son of Vasudeva.

The Jains consider these two brothers, Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa, to be the ninth and final Baladeva and Vāsudeva of this time period. They are both popular characters in Jain and Hindu myth. Their enemy, the Prati-vāsudeva, was Jarāsandha, whom Kṛṣṇa eventually vanquishes. The eight preceding Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prati-vāsudevas are variously named in different sources, shown in this table.

Nine sets of Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva






Acala or Vijaya




Vijaya or Acala




Bhadra or Dharma


Meraka or Madhu




Madhu or Madhusūdana, or Niśumbha or Madhukaiṭabha




Niśumbha or Madhukaiṭabha or Madhukrīḍa


Ānanda or Nandiṣeṇa or Nandimitra


Bali or Niśumbha


Nandana or Nandiṣeṇa or Nandimitra

Puruṣadatta or Datta

Prahlāda or Praharaṇa or Balīndra


Padma or Rāma

Lakṣmaṇa or Nārāyaṇa

Rāvaṇa or Daśānana


Balarāma or Rāma, or Padma



Many of these also resemble the names of characters from myths associated with the Hindu deity Viṣṇu or one of his avatars, particularly Kṛṣṇa. The Jain Vāsudevas are modelled after the popular description of Kṛṣṇa. With a black-blue complexion, he wears yellow robes and is for ever young and without any facial hair. In addition, in Jain texts he is referred to by popular epithets from the Vaiṣṇava tradition, such as Viṣṇu, Janārdana, Govinda, Nārāyaṇa, Keśava and Mādhava.

Other great men

Statue of Bāhubali, one of the sons of the first Jina, Ṛṣabha. A śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man' in Jain Universal History – Bāhubali is one of the 24 Kāma-devas – ‘love-gods’. He is famous for giving up his worldly life to become a great ascetic.

Figure of Bāhubali
Image by Vikas m © public domain

Other, more extensive lists of Jain 'great men' include further categories of śalākā-puruṣas.

Among these are the 9 Nāradas, named after the divine intriguing musician Nārada, who is well known from the Hindu epics and Purāṇas. The Jain nāradas, who live in succession, are malicious troublemakers who go to hell for their machinations.

The 11 Rudras – ‘dreadful ones’ – are ascetics, living successively, in the monastic order of one of the Jinas. They eventually abandon the path of asceticism and therefore also go to hell.

The Kulakaras – ‘patriarchs’ – vary in number from 7 to 14 or 16. They are born consecutively in the suṣamā-duṣamā period, when people become frightened by the changing conditions in their surroundings. The Kulakaras teach them how to adjust to these conditions and thus provide them with a sense of security. The last of the Kulakaras of this time period was Nābhi, the father of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha.

A popular secondary category of śalākā-puruṣas are the 24 Kāma-devas – ‘love-gods’. Like the pan-Indian god of love, Kāma, they are very handsome and have many wives. The most famous among them is one of the sons of the first Jina, named Bāhubali. Other Kāma-devas are Kṛṣṇa’s father Vasudeva and his son Pradyumna, and characters better known from the Sanskrit epics, such as Hanumān and King Nala, the beloved of Damayantī.

Literary forms

A painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra shows Queen Triśalā and her newborn son. He will grow up to become Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. This is a conventional way of illustrating the birth of a baby who will become a Jina

Mahāvīra and his mother Triśalā
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

According to tradition, the subject matter of Jain Universal History was narrated in the Pūrvas, a part of the Jain canon which has been lost since the fourth century BCE. Other parts of the Śvetāmbara canon, which is not accepted by the Digambaras in its entirety, contain some information about the lives of the śalākā-puruṣas, especially some Jinas.

The literary genre associated exclusively with Jain Universal History is that of the Jain Purāṇa. This forms a ‘counter tradition’ to the rising popularity of Hindu Puranic religion. Śvetāmbaras often call these compositions caritra – ‘deeds’. The oldest available purāṇa or caritra is the Paümacariya by Vimala-sūri, written in Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit. It focuses on the lives of the eighth:

In effect, it is a Jain version of the popular Rāmāyaṇa tale. Aside from the story of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Paümacariya also includes the biographies of the first two Jinas, and the first, second and ninth Cakravartins.

The most popular characters from Jain Universal History, as far as literary adaptations are concerned, appear to be those included in compositions generally called Nemi-caritras or Harivaṃśa-purāṇas. These all focus on the lives of the ninth Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva, who are called Balarāma, Kṛṣṇa and Jarāsandha. They also deal with the life of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi, who is Kṛṣṇa’s young cousin.

The first complete literary composition of Jain Universal History, often referred to as a mahā-purāṇa – ‘great purāṇa’ – was composed by Śīlāṅka in 868 to 869. This is his Caüppaṇṇa-mahāpurisa-cariyaDeeds of the 54 Great Men. Śīlāṅka does not count the nine Prati-vāsudevas among the śalākā-puruṣas, hence the lower number of 54 instead of 63. Historically, more influential is the Mahā-purāṇa by Jinasena and Guṇabhadra written in the ninth century and the Tri-ṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra by Hemacandra, dating from the 12th century.

Finally, one of the books in the Śvetāmbara canon, the Kalpa-sūtra, provides the earliest life stories of the most prominent Jinas, namely:


Śīlāṅkas Cauppaṇṇamahāpurisacariya: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Jaina-Universalgeschichte
Klaus Bruhn
De Gruyter; Hamburg, Germany; 1954

Full details

‘Repetition in Jaina Narrative Literature’
Klaus Bruhn
Indologica Taurinensia
edited by Nalini Balbir and Colette Caillat
volume 11
International Association of Sanskrit Studies; 1983

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

‘Genres of Jain History’
John E. Cort
Journal of Indian Philosophy
volume 23

Full details

Jainism: An Indian Religion of Salvation
Helmuth von Glasenapp
translated by Shridhar B. Shrotri
Lala Sundar Lal Jain Research series; volume 14
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 1999

Full details

‘Contemplating the Jain Universe: Visions of Order and Chaos’
Phyllis Granoff
Victorious Ones: Jain Images of Perfection
edited by Phyllis Granoff
Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd and Rubin Museum of Art, New York; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India and New York, USA; 2009

Full details

Outlines of Jainism
Jadmanderlal Jaini
edited by F. W. Thomas
Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK; 1916

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

Umakant Premanand Shah
Abhinav Publications; New Delhi, India; 1987

Full details

Jadivasaha’s Tiloya-Paṇṇatti
edited by A. N. Upadhye and Hiralal Jain
Jivaraja Jain Granthamala series; volume 1 and 1.2
Jaina Samskriti Samraksaka Samgha; Sholapur, Maharashtra, India; 1951–1956

Full details

Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa
Jinendra Varṇi
volume 38
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Publication; New Delhi, India; 2003

Full details


Please consider the environment before printing