The Life of Bhagavan Rishabhanatha

Published: 10.10.2010
Updated: 02.07.2015

The Life of Lord Rishabha

1. Previous Births of Rishabha

In his previous incarnation, Lord Rishabha Dev remained in the Mahavideha-kshetra (interior province of Jambudvipa) as a Dhanna-seth (successful and veracious) person. He was a successful businessman who offered alms and services to many ascetics and others.

Later he completed seven births as a Dev (god) and subsequently as a human where he was then born as Vaidya Jivanand in his 9th incarnation. As Vaidya Jivanand he discovered a remedy for Pandu-rog (dreaded skin disease).

In his 11th incarnation he was born as a Chakravartin (ruler of the worlds) named Vajranabh. As King Vajranabh he had supported the poor and desolate masses. After many years of reign he renounced the world and became an ascetic.

As a result of unprecedented spiritual practices - including religious studies, penance, tolerance and meditation - he earned Tirthankar-nam and Gotra-karma. These pious deeds of earlier births resulted in his last birth as Rishabha Dev.

2. The Age of the Twins

During the first three eras of the current descending cycle the mankind was completely dependent on nature for all his needs since the wish-fulfilling trees provided all their requirements. People were simple, peaceful and contented in attitude. The environment was absolutely unpolluted. Water was tasteful, cold and sweet. Even the sand was sweet as sugar. The air was healthy and exhilarating. The grains and fruits were nutritious and filing. A simple meal of little quantity of fruit and water lasted for days. A filled stomach and satisfied desires acted as an antidote to irritation and reduced disputes and other sinful activities. The whole animal kingdom lived in harmony with the nature.

With the passage of time gradual changes occurred and around the end of the third era the yield from the Kalpa-vrikshas reduced and a deterioration in every sense led to the beginning of quarrels and disputes. To guard against these disputes and to live in peace and harmony, people formed groups and finally the Kulkar system was evolved. A number of people formed a ‘Kula’ (family) and the head of such a group was called ‘Kulkar’. It was the duty of the ‘Kulkar’ to remove discord and to establish order. Nabhiraja was the seventh and the last in the line of Kulkars, his wife was Marudevi. This epoch of Kulkar system was known as the epoch of twins (Yugalia). Each family usually had twins - a son and a daughter. These twins would become husband and wife on reaching adulthood and used to lead a happy and contented life and died a natural death together.

People usued to consume what was available for everyone, this was the usual way of life. As such this period was also known as Bhog-Bhumi-Kaal (era of free consumption). Up to the time of Kulkar Nabhiraja man lived in this land of abundance.

3. Birth of Lord Rishabha Dev

It was during the last part of the third era, of the current descending cycle of time, that the great and pious soul, that was to become Rishabha Dev, descended into the womb of Marudevi. According to the Hindu calendar it was on the fourth day of the dark half of the month of Ashadh. When this pious soul was conceived, Marudeva had of fourteen auspicious dreams (according to Digambara tradition she had sixteen dreams). Nabhiraja was an experienced and scholarly person. When he heard about these dreams he said: "Devi! You will give birth to a highly endowed soul who will show the path of peace and happiness to this world".

On the eighth day of the dark half of the month of Chaitra, around midnight, Marudevi gave birth to twins. This pious birth influenced the surroundings. The sky became filled with a soothing glow, the wind became fragrant and the whole atmosphere became impregnated with unprecedented joy, more than words can say.

From all around came the fifty-six goddesses of directions. They circumambulated the Tirthankar’s mother and bowed before her. They also sang in praise of the child that was to become Tirthankar and then proceeded to perform post-birth cleaning rituals.

At that instant the king of gods of the Saudharm dimension, named Saudharmendra Shakra, also came to know that the first Tirthankar has taken birth. He arrived with his large retinue of gods and bowed before the mother.

After the salutations the mother was put to sleep. Saudharmendra created five look alike bodies of himself. With one body he carefully lifted the baby in his hands. With the second body he took an umbrella in his hands and stationed the body behind the baby. With the third and fourth bodies he took whisks and stationed these bodies on both sides of the baby. With the fifth body he lifted his Vajra (divine weapon) and stationed himself ahead of the baby as a guard. In this formation the king of gods airlifted the baby to Meru mountain where all the gods, including their 64 kings with their consorts, ceremoniously performed the Abhisheka (post-birth anointing rituals). This ceremony is popularly known as Janma-kalyanaka of a Tirthankar and it is unparalleled in this world.

4. Naming Ceremony

Next morning Nabhiraja organized the birth celebrations. He invited his friends and relatives to a feast and announced: "As there is a sign of a bull on the thigh of the new born, and Marudevi first of all saw a bull in her great dreams, we name this child as Rishabha Kumar. His twin will be known as Sumangala."
The Beginning of the Ikshvaku Clan
When Rishabha Kumar was one year old, Saudharmendra came to Kulkar Nabhi for formalizing the family name, carrying a sugarcane (Ikshu) in his hand. Rishabha was sitting in his father's lap. When he saw the sugar-cane he eagerly extended his tiny hands to grab it. Saudharmendra gave the sugarcane to the baby and saw his affinity for it. So he formally named the family as Ikshvaku.

5. Marriage

Rishabha Kumar was married to a girl named Sunanda whose twin died in an accident. This was the beginning of the marriage system. He was also married to his twin Sumangala in a ceremony that was arranged by the gods. Prince Rishabha led a happy married life. In due course Sumangala gave birth to Bharat, Brahmi and ninety eight other sons. Sunanda gave birth to Bahubali and Sundari.

6. Evolution of Crafts and Trades

Prince Rishabha was a highly endowed, farsighted and industrious individual. He had a profound insight into the human psychology. Looking at the needs the times and society he evolved numerous arts, crafts and trades and taught them to people with right aptitude and physical and mental capacities. To some he taught farming and to others the trade of agricultural produce. He invented the alphabets, language and the numbers along with the tools for writing. Brahmi lipi, named after her daughter, is still not a forgotten thing. For self defense he evolved martial arts and taught these to individuals with strong physique. He also established systems of social security and penal codes. Pottery, architecture, music, dance and many other arts and crafts that enriched the human society in the fields of knowledge, are said to be his contribution.

7. Rishabha Dev as a king

Over the years king Nabhi assigned major responsibilities of his Kingdom on Rishabha Dev. Rishabha was very qualified and such was the effect of his words, that by just saying: "You should have not done this", the culprit felt ashamed and stopped his bad works immediately. After a while Nabhi Raja saw that Rishabha had finally taken the complete responsibilities of kingdom and performing them very well. In fact he seemed to have become an idol of the people. So then one day, on the request of the people’s representatives, Nabhi Raja nominated Rishabha to become the first king of this age. He arranged for an elaborate coronation ceremony and handed over the reign of the state to Rishabha Kumar. The ceremony was attended by all members of the family as well as a large number of twins and gods. The gods created a golden throne and anointed Rishabha with the water collected from various pilgrimage sites. They attired him in divine dress and ornaments and formally put the crown on his head. The twins humbly poured water on his feet from the cups made of lotus leaves. So Rishabha became the first king of this era. The king of gods ordered Kubera (god of wealth) to construct a suitable city. Firstly this beautiful city was named Vinita but later on it became popularly known as Ayodhya.

For many years Rishabha continued to rule his people and opened new frontiers of knowledge. During the reign of his father the population was organized into random groups only. Rishabha reorganized them according to their virtues, activities and professions and in this way he broadly divided the society into three groups. Trading community was known as Vaishya, martial community was known as Kshtriya and all other people indulging in a variety of services were known as Shudra. At that time the Brahman group was not formed.

8. Path of Renunciation

After a long span of time (6.3 million Purva) king Rishabha's interest in mundane things and activities declined and so he drifted more and more to detachment towards earthly things. Once, while he was watching a dance, the dancer suddenly died. Rishabha became very disturbed by this incident and he reflected on the event. Then he realized that every phenomenon and every situation in the universe undergoes changes and that no situation stays forever. So he began to deny everything that is impermanent and ephemeral and as a result of this detachment and to devote his life to the search of lasting happiness he transferred all his responsibilities to his sons. After this Rishabha proceeded towards liberation through spiritual practices. He also desired to reach the state of omniscience and consequently show the path of disciplined life and spiritual practices. His concept was, that indulgence in mundane things does not give real happiness but only an illusion of happiness since true happiness is derived out of freedom from mundane indulgences.

Following the stream of his thoughts Rishabha divided the area of his rule between his one hundred sons. Bharat was given the state of Ayodhya and Bahubali that of Takshashila. Getting free of the responsibilities of the state, Rishabha Dev decided to take Diksha (the formal initiation into the ascetic way). At that time the gods from the edge of the universe (Lokantikdev) arrived and requested: "O savior of the human race! Your desire to show the path of renunciation to the mankind is admirable, kindly proceed soon to the task of propagating Dharma."

After one year of meritorious charity, Rishabha Dev sat in the palanquin named Sudarshana and arrived in the Siddharth-vana garden. At the eighth day of the dark half of the month of Chaitra, Rishabha abandoned all his apparels and ornaments. Sitting under an Ashoka tree he started to pull out his long strands of hair. After four fistfuls, when he was pulling out the fifth fistful of hair, god Indra said: "O venerable! This strand of hair on the crown of your head and hanging down over your shoulders looks attractive. Kindly leave it as it is." Rishabha agreed. Due to this bunch of hair he got the popular name Keshariya-ji (one with hair). The king of gods picked the hair pulled out by Rishabha in a divine cloth and immersed them in the divine ocean of milk.

Following the example of Rishabha many of his subordinate rulers as well as common people got inspired to embrace the ascetic way of life. The scriptures mentioned that four-thousand other people followed Rishabha and took Diksha.

9. Beginning of religious charity and alms giving

After becoming an ascetic, Rishabha Dev took the vow of total silence and started wandering accompanied by other ascetics. After his penance,when he went out to beg for food, he did not get anything to eat. The common people of that age were ignorant about the practice of giving food as alms. They did not even appreciate the need to do so. Whenever Rishabha approached them, they offered him respect and valuable gifts as they would to a king. But then Rishabha used to proceed ahead without accepting anything. As time passed the accompanying ascetics conferred among themselves and finally decided to eat fruits and vegetables which were naturally available. So they slowly drifted away from Rishabha Dev and the true ascetic way of life. After one entire year of wandering from place to place and doing harsh spiritual practices without touching any food or water Rishabha decided to beg food once again. To this time he came to the city of Hastinapur where Bahubali’s son, named Somprabh, was the king.

Somprabh had a son named Shreyans Kumar who had a dream during one night that Suvarnagiri, the golden mountain, had turned black but he himself had brought it back its golden color by washing it with pitchers full of milk. He narrated his dream to his father and friends, but no one could interpret its significance.

Shreyans Kumar was sitting in the balcony of his palace and brooding over the dream he saw last night. All of a sudden he heard the noise caused by happy masses who had seen Rishabha Dev entering the town. Thousands of citizens of Hastinapur rushed toward Rishabha with gifts. But Rishabha did not even look at these things and continued his graceful walk in the direction of the palace.

When Shreyans saw approaching Rishabha, he rushed to welcome his great grandfather. After bowing down at the great ascetics feet, when Shreyans looked at Rishabha’s face, he could not shift his gaze. He went into a state of meditative thoughts and suddenly he acquired Jati-smarana Gyana, the knowledge that opens up memories of the past births. In his past birth Shreyans was the charioteer of king Vajranabha (the past incarnation of Rishabha Dev). This knowledge also made him aware of the duties of laity toward Shramanas. He realized that Bhagavan Rishabha Dev had been wandered around without food or water, due to the prevailing ignorance of the people regarding ascetic norms.

With due reverence he requested Rishabha Dev: "Prabhu! I am honored by your presence. I have just received 108 pitchers full of fresh sugarcane juice that are pure and suitable for you in all respects. Kindly accept the juice and break your fast." Rishabha extended his cupped palms and Shreyans poured the sugarcane juice from a pitcher. Rishabha broke his fast and the skies reverberated with the sound of divine drums and divine applaud: "Hail the alms giving!" The gods also showered gems, flowers and perfumes.

This was the beginning of the tradition of religious charity and alms giving. In memory of this incident, the third day of the bright half of the month of Vaishakh is celebrated as Akshay Tritiya festival. The Jains specifically celebrate it as the breakfast day after the penance of Varsha Tap (one meal and fast on alternate days for one year).

10. Omniscience and Nirvana

For one thousand years Bhagavan Rishabha Dev continued his harsh spiritual practices completely ignoring his body and other mundane activities. On the eleventh day of the dark half of the month of Falgun he was meditating under a Banyan tree in the Shakatmukh garden outside Purimtal town, close to Ayodhya. Around forenoon he transcended to the purest higher state of meditation. The intensity of his practice caused the shedding of the knowledge and perception obscuring Karmas as well as the illusory Karmas. As a result, he attained omniscience, the purest and enlightened state of soul. Rishabha Dev became a Jina.

When he attained omniscience, the whole world was filled with a soothing glow for a moment. Numerous gods descended from heavens to pay their respects to the Tirthankar. They also created the Samavasarana, a divine pavilion. King Bharat also proceeded toward the divine assembly, riding an elephant and taking along his grandmother Marudevi. Apprehensive about the hardships of the ascetic life of her son, Marudevi was relieved when she beheld the scintillating face of Rishabha Dev sitting in the divine assembly surrounded by happy and dazzling gods. The vision of her son perched on the spiritual pinnacle triggered the flow of spontaneous joy in the heart of Marudevi. This mundane joy slowly turned into the ultimate bliss and she acquired omniscience. Coincidentally, at the same moment she completed her age and became liberated soul (Siddha). Bhagawan Rishabha Dev made the announcement, that Marudevi had become a Siddha.

In his first discourse Rishabha detailed the trilogy of right conduct. Knowing about the significance of life as a human being and importance of a dutiful life, thousands of people including Rishabhasen, the eldest son of Emperor Bharat, and five thousand other members of royal family embraced the acetic way of life. A thousand of other persons accepted the Shravak Dharma (the religious way for laity). As he founded the four pronged religious ford at the beginning of the present era, Bhagavan Rishabha Dev became popularly known as Adinath, the first Tirthankar.

The first disciple of Bhagavan Rishabha Dev was Rishabhasen, who became the first chief disciple. He was also known as Pundarik.

11. Liberation

For a long time Bhagavan Rishabha Dev continued to propagate his religion having the five great vows as its central theme. When he realized that all his remaining Karmas are approaching their end he proceeded to the Ashtapada mountain. On the thirteenth day of the dark half of the month of Magh, a little before noon time, Rishabha along with ten thousand other ascetics was observing a six day fast without water. He was sitting in the meditation in the Paryanka pose. When the moon entered the Abhijit lunar mansion he got nirvana and became liberated from all sorrows.

Saudharmendra, the king of gods, Emperor Bharat and numerous gods and men gathered and celebrated the auspicious event of Bhagavan Rishabha Dev’s Nirvana.

Sandstone image of Rishabhanatha (Adinatha), c. 9th century CE, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Rishabha is sitting on a lion-supported throne, attended by two Chamaradharas (flywhisk-bearer). The main icon is identifiable by the long strands of hair, which is a common attribute of Adinatha images. The Jina is sitting beneath a Trichattra (triple parasol) with flying Vyadharas (genies) on each side. Beneath the throne the Yaksha-couple Gomukha (left) and Cakreshvari (right) is figured. The throne-supporting lions are flanking a Cakra (wheel), a symbol which the Jainas borrowed by the Buddhist art.


Compiled by PK

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhisheka
  2. Adinath
  3. Adinatha
  4. Akshay Tritiya
  5. Ashoka
  6. Ayodhya
  7. Bahubali
  8. Body
  9. Brahman
  10. Brahmi Lipi
  11. Cakra
  12. Cycle of Time
  13. Dharma
  14. Digambara
  15. Diksha
  16. Environment
  17. Gyana
  18. Hastinapur
  19. Indra
  20. Jambudvipa
  21. Jina
  22. Karmas
  23. Kula
  24. London
  25. Meditation
  26. Meru
  27. Nirvana
  28. PK
  29. Prabhu
  30. Purva
  31. Rishabha
  32. Rishabhanatha
  33. Samavasarana
  34. Shravak
  35. Siddha
  36. Soul
  37. Suvarnagiri
  38. Tap
  39. Tirthankar
  40. Tolerance
  41. Vaidya
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