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Parsvanatha, sculpture, Chakravarti Paloja, 12th century. Museum no. 931(IS)

Parsvanatha with seven-hooded cobra canopy, standing in kayotsarga pose, Chakravarti Paloja, Gulbarga, Southern India, 12th century. Black shale sculpture. Museum no. 931(IS)

Veneration of the 24 Jinas is the most significant devotional focus in Jainism. These perfected-beings serve as role models to guide the faithful on the proper path to liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth. While all are revered as great teachers, four of the Jinas occupy the most exalted positions and have received particular attention in textual and artistic portrayals.

  • Rishabhanatha, the 1st Jina, is believed to have invented fire, castes, and the arts; he is identifiable by his long locks of hair.
  • Neminatha, the 22nd Jina, is regarded as a cousin of the Hindu deities Krishna and Balarama and is revered for his exceptionally strong commitment to non-violence.
  • Parsvanatha, the 23rd Jina, was a great teacher said to have lived in the 8th century BC. He is recognised by the seven-hooded cobra canopy over his head; his beneficial association with serpents parallels that of the Buddha.
  • The most recent Jina is Mahavira (about 599-527 BC), a contemporary of the Buddha, who was instrumental in fostering the Jain faith as a reaction against the established caste system and its associated sacrificial rituals.
Rishabhanatha, sculpture, 9th century. Museum no. IS.12-1996

Rishabhanatha, Uttar Pradesh, India. 9th century. Sandstone sculpture. Museum no. IS.12-1996

The conceptual basis for the image of a Jina is the pan-Indian ideal of the yogic or ascetic wanderer. Jinas are always shown in the seated posture or the standing body-abandonment pose (kayotsarga). The latter is position uniquely Jain and combines vigorous austerity and non-violence through immobility, thereby avoiding even accidental injury to other creatures. Perhaps because Jain images are often indistinguishable from those of the Buddha, a distinctive chest mark (srivatsa) was introduced to establish a deity's identity as a Jina.

Early in their history, due in part to a conflict over what constitutes total renunciation, Jainism split into two groups: the Svetambaras (meaning 'white clad' or clothed) and the Digambaras ('sky clad' or naked).

The Digambaras are the more austere sect and their monks consider any possessions, including clothing, a hindrance to spiritual liberation.

Download: Jina fact file (PDF file, 359.0 KB)

Other Jain deities

While the Jinas are the highest venerated members of the Jain pantheon, there are many other deities and subsidiary divinities portrayed in Jain art. These include gods and goddesses, guardian spirits and celestial beings who, it is assumed, came to be worshipped as a result of exchanges of ideas with Hinduism and Buddhism. All India's early religions shared a common ancestry in the nature cults of the ancient Vedic period.

While many of the secondary members of the Jain pantheon are shared with the Hindus and Buddhists, Jain artistic representations generally emphasise only their benign forms, due to the principle of non-violence.

Click on an image below to find out more about Jain deities and how they are represented in Jain art.

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