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South and Central Asia

Son of semi-divine parents–his father is sometimes regarded as one of the fourteen Manus—Rishabha was the first tirthankara, and founder of Jainism. He had one hundred sons. Relinquishing his kingdom to Bharata, the eldest son, he retired to a hermitage, where he led a life of such incredible austerity that he was no more than a bag of skin and bones on his death. Although the theme of abdication and retirement is a perennial one in India, the Jaina doctrine of the karmic bondage of the soul, a profound sense of contamination in daily experience, meant that those who sought spiritual release had to detach themselves utterly from ordinary existence. To Sravana Belgola, the granite eminence sacred to the Jains in Mysore, came the aged Chandragupta Maurya, having taken a similar vow of renunciation and travelled southwards with his guru, Bhadrabahu. This monarch had come to power in 322 bc, five years after the raid of Alexander the Great into the north-western plains of India, and under his energetic rule the states of the Ganges valley were amalga-mated into a powerful empire. Like the Buddha, Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the pre-Aryan nobility, whose more vigorous sons were able to re-establish native dynasties once the invading Aryans showed signs of exhaustion. Out of this indigenous stock and its traditions Jainism probably sprang, though the historical date of Rishabha was always considered to be beyond computation.

The first of twenty-four tirthankaras, or ‘makers of the crossing’, Rishabha was the pristine example, whose ethereal form carved in rock would forever concentrate the devotee's mind upon the ultimate freedom of the spirit, nirvana. The only sign of individuality exhibited in the statues of this saint is a bull beneath his feet.

Subjects: Religion.

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