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The Bhattarakas of Shravanabelgola and Mudabidri

Published: 03.02.2011
Updated: 07.07.2015

The Bhattarakas of Shravanabelgola and Mudabidri

Many Jains in North America have had chance to meet Bhattarak Shri Charukirtiji Maharaj of Mudabidri who has been visiting North America several times since 1979. In the beginning he was severely criticized back in India for traveling overseas to the country of the "mlechchhas". Because he was head of perhaps the best known Bhattarak Peeth in India, he was expected to be the guardian of orthodoxy. His blessing has enhanced the stature of the Jain community overseas. He passed away recently on January 15, 1998. His position among Jains was like that of the Shankaracharyas among the followers of vedanta.

The Bhattarakas remain a mystery even to the Jains in India. Who are the Bhattarakas? If they represent the Digambara tradition, how come they are not "sky clad"? What is the origin of the Bhattarak tradition? Why the Bhattarakas are only in South India? I present here a historical account based on ancient inscriptions, texts, pattavalis (lines of ordination) etc. There have been several Bhattarak Pithas that have been the focal point of Jain activities in their regions, however I will write about the two famous Bhattaraka Pithas in South India, Shravana-Belgola and Mudabidri. Both share some common which is quite fascinating.

Who is a "Bhattaraka"?

A Bhattaraka is a head of a religious institution, often called a "Matha". A Bhattaraka is somewhat like a spiritual ruler over a specific domain. Sometimes they have even enjoyed the right to bear the trappings of royalty, and they have been criticized for deviating from the ideals of a wandering Jain monk. Most Bhattarakas have belonged to the Digambara tradition, although there are some Svetambara Bhattarakas also. Actually the "Bhattaraka" concept has not been unique to Jainism, although now the term is used by the Jains only. A copper-plate grant of King Govindachandra of Gahadvala dynasty (ruler of Kannoj, UP), dated AD 1129, mentions donation of several villages to a Buddhist order, the chief of whom was the "Buddha-Bhattaraka" living at Jetavan- Mahavihara. Similarly in the Dahal region (MP), there was an order of Shaivite monks headed by a Bhattaraka. Thus the Buddhists and the Shaivites also used to have Bhattarakas.

What does the word "Bhattaraka" then mean? In India, it was a common custom to refer to sovereign kings as "Parama-Bhattaraka". In Jain literature, Lord Mahavira has occasionally been referred to as "Parama-Bhattaraka" also. Thus the word Bhattaraka has two meanings.

Let us examine the word. In Sanskrit, there are two related words "Bhata" and "Bhatta" generally meaning a soldier and a scholar respectively. Occasionally they are used interchangeably. A "Bhattara" or a "Bhattaraka" is the chief of them [1]. Thus a "Bhattaraka" is either a regional ruler (mandalika) or a regional chief of an order of monks (i.e. an Acharya). A "Parama- Bhattaraka" is then either a overlord sovereign, or the Chief of all Acharyas i.e. Lord Mahavira himself.

Until the early part of this century, the Bhattarakas were present in several major Jain centers of North India. They include Delhi, Idar (Gujarat), Surat (Gujarat), Gwalior (MP), Bateshwar(UP), Chanderi (MP), Ujjain, Nagaur (Rajasthan), Chittor (Rajasthan), Mahavirji (Rajasthan) and several other places. Today, as far as I know, all Bhattaraka seats in the North are vacant or dissolved. However in Maharashtra and in South India the Bhattarakas still play an important role within the Jain community and as representative of the Jains in the society.

The Origin of the Bhattarakas

Let us now look at the origin of Bhattaraka institution as it exists today. The ancient Sramana ideal for a monk is that of a wandering ascetic unattached to any place or specific lay communities [2]. Ideally a Jain monk should not stay in a single place for a long time, except for the rainy season.

Sometime in history, several Jain institutions arose where scholars were instructed and libraries were organized, headed by Jain monks. Their work was very important for preservation and propagation of Jain principles. However becoming attached to stationary institutions represented a compromise. In both Digambara and Svetambara traditions, the organizations of such stationary institutions, called Mathas, came under criticism by other monks who rigorously adhered to the original ideals [3]. The growth of Mathas was perhaps a Jain response to the rise of sectarian militancy in the Indian society.

In Jainism, the term "Bhattaraka" was used even before modern Mathas arose. The great Acharyas Dharsena, who composed "Shat- khand-agama" and Virasena, who along with his student wrote the scriptures Dhavala, Jayadhavala and Mahadhavala in 120,000 verses, were also termed Bhattaraka because they headed a school of scholars. However, in what follows we will mostly talk about the Bhattaraka lines that still exist today.

How did the tradition of Bhattaraka who wear yellow robes, arose from the sky-clad Acharyas? Some of the accounts (Pattavalis) have an explicit answer. Let me quote from the Bateshwar Pattavali, a document written perhaps more than a hundred years ago. It mentions Prabhachandra [4] as the acharya who originated the tradition of clothed Bhattarakas in the 14th century.

"One time the Muslim Emperor of Delhi wanted to convert all local Jains. The Shravakas went to Gujarat. Acharya Prabhachandra came to Delhi to meet the Emperor to protect the Shravakas from becoming Muslim. Then thinking about the time, Prabhachandra created the order of clothed monks. Saved Jainism."

Also in another place it sadly states:

" [...]and after Prabhachandra, all the Acharyas became Bhattarakas, because this is bad time[...]".

The account is supported by other sources. A Prashasti in Sanskrit and Kannada that is traditionally recited at Shravanbelgola, mentions several Bhattaraka Pithas, the very first of them "Dehali", suggesting the custom originated at Delhi.

During the Muslim rule, it was impossible for any sky-clad monks to wander freely. From 13th to 20th centuries, the Digambaras of North India only had Bhattarakas and no full-fledged monks [5]. Until recent times, Bhattarakas was actually initiated as a sky-clad monk. The initiation was then followed by a ceremony in which the leaders of the Shravakas would request the newly initiated Bhattaraka:

"These are adverse times. It is no longer possible for sky-clad monks to move around freely. Please accept wearing of clothes".

The Bhattaraka would then accept clothes, sometimes giving them up during meditation.

Shravanbelgola and Mudabidri

These two are extremely important "Mathas". The Bhattarakas of both are all named "Charukirti" by convention, and both belong to the order called "Mulasangh-Nandisangh-Deshiyagana- Pustakagachha". We will call it MNDP for convenience.

All of you about Shravanbelgola, famous for the idol of lord Gomateshwar (Bahubali) that was consecrated in 981 AD by Chamundaraya, a general of the Ganga King Rachamalla. Actually Shravanbelgola had been famous as a tirtha long before this. The Chandragiri mount has 271 inscriptions of considerable historical importance on it, the oldest has been dated to sixth century that mentions the arrival of Bhadrabahu along with his disciple Chandragupta, the former Maurya emperor. Throughout many centuries Jain monks and pious householders had been coming to Shravanbelgola for their final sallekhana meditation. On this sanctified hill stands an exquisite temple constructed by Chamundaraya. The famous acharya Nemichadra Siddhanta- chakravarti, the spiritual guide of Chamundaraya had made Chandragiri his abode. Between Chandragiri and Indragiri where the idol of Lord Gommateshwar stands, is the town of Shravanbelgola. In Kannada "belgola" means a clear water lake, "Shravan" refers to the long time presence of the Shramanas. You can see the rectangular lake (in Sanskrit "Dhaval-sarovara") surrounded by steps and beautiful South Indian style gateways in the photograph. There are many ancient Jain temples in the town including one built by queen Shantala of the Hoysala king Vishnuvardhana.

Mudabidri is also in Karnataka, an extremely fascinating and important place near the sea coast. This area was ruled by the Jain Chautar dynasty for about 700 years. Their descendants still live in an old palace. In old days, the Jains here used to travel overseas for trade. They used to take small idols carved out of precious stones with them on their trips. Mudabidri has many old temples, which are totally different from north Indian temples. Mudabidri temples all have wooden roof like those in Nepal and Kerala and they have a manastambha column carved out of stone. They have large collection of exquisitely crafted idols. There is a collection of ancient idols carved out of precious gemstones like ruby, sapphire, diamond, gomedaka etc. Amazingly, one temple has a terra-cotta mulanayaka idol. But their proudest possession is the collection of 3 ancient manuscripts: Dhavala, Jayadhavala and Mahadhavala, collectively called the "Siddhanta" in Digambara tradition. For many centuries, the only copy of the Siddhanta was this collection.

In 18th century the leaders of the "Atyadhma" movement (i.e. Terapanthi sect) in Rajasthan tried in vain to acquire copies of these books. I quote from an note by Brahmchari Raimal who sadly wrote:

"We sent 3-4 bothers to Jain Badri [6] on the sea coast to acquire copies of Dhavala, Mahadhavala and Jayadhavala [...] At this time the Siddhanta books are not studied but are only for viewing [worshipping]. Two thousand rupees [then a huge sum] has been spent on the travel of 5-7 persons. One of them Daluram died during the travels. These efforts took 4-5 years. We will try some other ways [...] It is heard that the Siddhantas are also present at Malkheda [7], 100 kos [8] from Aurangabad. Let us see, this is a very difficult task [...]".

These books were finally printed and made available 4-5 decades ago.
History of Mulasangh-Nandisangh-Deshiyagana-Pustakagachha Order

There are many branches of Jain monastic orders. Lord Mahavira has himself divided his sangh into twelve Ganas, each headed by a Ganadhara. Over the course of past 2500 years, many orders emerged and dissolved, only few branches exist today. Let us briefly see the history of the MNDP order to which the two Bhattaraka seats belong.

In the tradition of Lord Mahavira, first there were the Kevalis and then the Shruta-kevalis. Last of the full Shruta-kevalis was Bhadrabahu I. After him, gradually there arose many branches. The line of Vishakhacharya eventually came to be known as Mulasangh, the line of Sthulabhadra became Kottiya-Gana. Todays Digambara orders are branches of the Mulasangh, and the Swetambara orders are descendants of the Kottiya-Gana.

The term Mulasangh is said to have been used in the time of Acharya Guptigupta, perhaps around first century of the common era. Because of Acharya Maghnandi, after Guptigupta, a branch of Mulasangh came to be called Nandisangh. In Indranandi's "Shrutavatar", there is an account of an a council called by Acharya Arhadbali at Mahimanagar (Dist. Satara, Maharashtra). The monks who used to live in the caves were called "Nandisangh". Perhaps these monks were associated with Dharasena, who used to live in a cave at Nirnar (Junagarh Gujarat) [9].

Later in Mulasangh-Nandisangh, Acharya Padmanandi became the leader, better known as "Acharya Kundakunda" perhaps in the 2nd century AD. He is the author of many famous books like Samayasara etc. We will talk about him separately sometime. Kundakunda lived in Tamilnadu- Karnataka-Andhra region. Mulasangh-Nandisangh had several branches, we don't exactly know when they originated. The oldest known inscription mentioning Mulasangh is from the 5th century. The oldest known mention of Deshiyagana is from the 9th century. "Deshiyagana" literally means the "local order", we can perhaps take "desh" to mean the Kolhapura region at Maharashtra-Karnataka border. Some say that in Kundakunda himself belonged to the Deshiyagana.

Bankapur to Mudabidri

For this part of the story we start at Bankapur, the site of the ancient Jain learning center and we will see how the institution at Mudabidri is in fact continuation of the same school. Historically this part of the account is supported by numerous contemporary inscriptions and accounts, as well as an old manuscript "Jainacharya Parampara Mahima", discovered recently in a library in Madras.

The great Jain emperor Amodhavarsha (815-880) of Rashtrakuta clan had a chief general Vir-Bankeaya- Rasa. He had settled a city Bankapur. Bankapur became the host for a Jain institute of learning. Mahapurana of Gunabhadra was released here in 898. Rashtrakutas flourished until Indra IV, who was defeated. The last Rashtrakuta king retired to Shravanbelgola in 973. In 982, a year after the consecration of Gommateshvar, where he eventually took sallekhana (final meditation) [10]. Around this time, the schoolat Bankapur shifted to Shravanbelgola.

Let us now continue the story of the Mulasangh-Nandisangh- Deshiyagana-Pustakagachha order. Some time in 11th century Gollacharya became the Acharya. He was formerly a king of the Golla country. Many of the famous acharyas of Desiya-Gana were spiritual descendants of Gollacharya. One of them was "Maghnandi of Kolhapur" (1108-1130). King Gandaditya was his follower, several Jain temples of that period still exist in Kolhapur (Maharashtra) and nearby region. So many Jain monk lived there at that time that Kolhapur was sometimes called "kshullka-pur".

"Maghnandi of Kolhapur" was a charismatic Acharya. It is said that he had 770 students and had established 25 mathas administered by his students. Several descendants of Gollacharya were distinguished authors. Among them was the great Nemichandra-Siddhanta-Chakravarti, who wrote Gommatsar, Labdhisar and Trilokasar. Chamundaraya had the idol of Gomateshwar consecrated under the direction of Acharya Nemichandra.

Another spiritual descendant of Gollacharya was Charukirti, who was the teacher of the Hoysal King Ballal I (1101-1106 AD). Ballal had given him title "Panditacharya". It is said that miraculously cured the king of some deadly disease and hence he was also called "Ballal Jiva Rakshaka". It is even said that the air currents passing by Charukirti possessed healing properties. It is from Charukirti that the Bhattarak like of Shravanbelgola and Mudabidri is derived. The name "Charukirti" and the title "Panditacharya" is still borne by the Bhattarakas of Shravanbelgola and Mudabidri. The 31st occupant of the Shravanbelgola throne composed "Jainacharya Parampara Mahima" preserving the oral tradition of the order.

In 1220 the current Charukirti visited Mudabidri and established a branch of the Matha there. In 1630 the Shravanbelgola math ran into some financial problems. For a few years the Bhattaraka left Shravanbelgola and lived elsewhere. This caused a disruption in the learning tradition. The main part of the library was moved to Mudabidri. A few years later the ruler of Mysore, Chamaraj Wadiyar assisted reestablishment of the Shravanbelgola math. At Mudabidri, there are some remarkable monuments to late Bhattarakas. These funerary monuments, Nishadhikas in Sanskrit, are shaped like pyramidical stupas.

The most famous temple at Mudabadri is the Tribhuvana-Tilaka Chudamani shrine, also called "Thousand Pillars Basadi". It was constructed by several local rulers and merchants during the reign of king Devaraya II of Vijayanagar (1430 AD). The main idol of Lord ChandraPrabh is 7 feet tall, made of a five-metal alloy. In addition there are about 18 other basadis (temples).

At this time, because of the continued presence of the institute and the collection of ancient books, Mudabidri is perhaps regarded as the main seat of orthodoxy in the Digambara tradition. Late Bhattaraka Charukitiji was actually educated in North India. He had an MA in Sanskrit literature and MA in Hindi literature and had also earned Sahitya Shastri, Siddhanta Shastri and Upadhyaya degrees. As the Bhattaraka, he was the 12 institutions at Mudabidri besides being affiliated with numerous national organizations. Being a Bhattaraka, he was not by the rigorous code of orthodox monks and thus eas able to travel overseas. A sky-clad monk probably cannot do that.

The Bhattarakji of Shravanbelgola has also visited North America in the past. Recent history of the Shravanbelgola Math has been recorded recently by Niraj Jain after interviewing several elderly residents of Shravanbelgola. Shantaraj Swami, originally from Kanchi region in Tamilnadu was inaugurated Bhattaraka in 1886. After him Chelluvar Swami, also from Tamilnadu, ruled as the Bhattaraka until 1926. He was cremated at the Samadhi Hil, the traditional place for final rite for the Bhattarakas since ancient times. The seat remained vacant for about 3 years. In 1928, with the symbolic involvement of the maharaja of Mysore, Nemisagar Varni from Karkal was invited to be a Bhattaraka. He had about 70 students. His own students were later invited to take up the Bhattaraka seats at Narasimharajpur, Humach, Jina-kanchi (Tamilnadu) and Karkal. In 1940 because of his old age Nemisagar retired to Dharmasthal.

The next Bhattaraka during 1947 to 1969 was Bhattakalanka Swami from North Canara Dist. At the beginning of his tenure, 11 villages were attached to Shravabelgola institution, having been granted to the Math in ancient times. They were lost in 1951 due to land reforms in India causing significant financial strain. Still a school, a hostel and two guest houses for the pilgrims were built using donations. In 1969, Ratnavarma, a student at Humacha, was identified as a suitable person to succeed him. After some hesitation he agreed and became the current Bhattaraka in 1969 at the young age of 19. In accordance with an ancient practice his second pattabhisheka was done on 1982. The Matha continues to be very active in initiating religious and educational activites.


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