Parshvanatha (Pārśvanātha), also known as Parshva (Pārśva) and Paras, was the 23rd of 24 tirthankaras (ford-makers or propagators of dharma) of Jainism. He is one of the earliest tirthankaras who are acknowledged as historical figures. He was the earliest exponent of Karma philosophy in recorded history. The Jain sources place him between the 9th and 8th centuries BC whereas historians point out that he lived in the 8th or 7th century BC.[4] Parshvanatha was born 273 years before Mahavira. He was the spiritual successor of 22nd tirthankara Neminath. He is popularly seen as a propagator and reviver of Jainism. Parshvanatha attained moksha on Mount Sammeta (Madhuban, Jharkhand) in the Ganges basin, an important Jain pilgrimage site. His iconography is notable for the serpent hood over his head, and his worship often includes Dharanendra and Padmavati (Jainism's serpent god and goddess).

Parshvanatha was born in Banaras (Varanasi), India. Renouncing worldly life, he founded an ascetic community. Texts of the two major Jain sects (Digambaras and Śvētāmbaras) differ on the teachings of Parshvanatha and Mahavira, and this is a foundation of the dispute between the two sects. The Digambaras believe that there was no difference between the teachings of Parshvanatha and Mahavira. According to the Śvētāmbaras, Mahavira expanded Parshvanatha's first four restraints with his ideas on ahimsa (non-violence) and added the fifth monastic vow (celibacy). Parshvanatha did not require celibacy, and allowed monks to wear simple outer garments. Śvētāmbara texts, such as section 2.15 of the Acharanga Sutra, say that Mahavira's parents were followers of Parshvanatha (linking Mahavira to a preexisting theology as a reformer of Jain mendicant tradition).

Parshvanatha is the earliest Jain tirthankara who is generally acknowledged as a historical figure.[5][6][7] According to Paul Dundas, Jain texts such as section 31 of Isibhasiyam provide circumstantial evidence that he lived in ancient India.[8] Historians such as Hermann Jacobi have accepted him as a historical figure because his Chaturyama Dharma (Four Vows) are mentioned in Buddhist texts.[9]

Despite the accepted historicity, some historical claims (such as the link between him and Mahavira, whether Mahavira renounced in the ascetic tradition of Parshvanatha and other biographical details) have led to different scholarly conclusions.[10] In Buddhist Text Manorathapurani, Vappa, the Buddha's uncle, was a follower of Parsvanatha tradition.[11]

Parshvanatha's biography is legendary, with Jain texts saying that he preceded Mahavira by 273 years and that he lived 100 years.[12][3] Mahavira is dated to c. 599 – c. 527 BC in the Jain tradition, and Parshvanatha is dated to c. 872 – c. 772 BC.[12][13][14] According to Dundas, historians outside the Jain tradition date Mahavira as contemporaneous with the Buddha in the 5th century BC and, based on the 273-year gap, date Parshvanatha to the 8th or 7th century BC.[3]

Doubts about Parshvanatha's historicity are supported by the oldest Jain texts, which present Mahavira with sporadic mentions of ancient ascetics and teachers without specific names (such as sections 1.4.1 and 1.6.3 of the Acaranga Sutra).[15] The earliest layer of Jain literature on cosmology and universal history pivots around two jinas: the Adinatha (Rishabhanatha) and Mahavira. Stories of Parshvanatha and Neminatha appear in later Jain texts, with the Kalpa Sūtra the first known text. However, these texts present the tirthankaras with unusual, non-human physical dimensions; the characters lack individuality or depth, and the brief descriptions of three tirthankaras are largely modeled on Mahavira.[16] Their bodies are celestial, like deva. The Kalpa Sūtra is the most ancient known Jain text with the 24 tirthankaras, but it lists 20; three, including Parshvanatha, have brief descriptions compared with Mahavira.[16][17] Early archaeological finds, such as the statues and reliefs near Mathura, lack iconography such as lions or serpents (possibly because these symbols evolved later).[16][18]

He was born on the tenth day of the dark half of the Hindu month of Pausha to King Ashwasena and Queen Vamadevi of Varanasi .[21][8][22] Parshvanatha belonged to the Ikshvaku dynasty.[23][24] Before his birth, Jain texts state that he ruled as the god Indra in the 13th heaven of Jain cosmology.[25] While Parshvanatha was in his mother's womb, gods performed the garbha-kalyana (enlivened the fetus).[26] His mother dreamt sixteen auspicious dreams, an indicator in Jain tradition that a tirthankara was about to be born.[26] According to the Jain texts, the thrones of the Indras shook when he was born and the Indras came down to earth to celebrate his janma-kalyanaka (his auspicious birth).[27]

Parshvanatha was born with blue-black skin. A strong, handsome boy, he played with the gods of water, hills and trees.[27] At the age of eight, Parshvanatha began practicing the twelve basic duties of the adult Jain householder.[27][note 1]

He lived as a prince and soldier in Varanasi .[29] According to the Digambara school, Parshvanatha never married; Śvētāmbara texts say that he married Prabhavati, the daughter of Prasenajit (king of Kusasthala).[30][31] Heinrich Zimmer translated a Jain text that sixteen-year-old Parshvanatha refused to marry when his father told him to do so; he began meditating instead, because the "soul is its only friend".[32]

Parshvanatha achieved moksha (liberation of the soul) at Shikharji on Parasnath, the highest mountain in Jharkhand.

At age 30, on the 11th day of the moon's waxing in the month of Pausha (December–January), Parshvanatha renounced the world to become a monk.[33][34] He removed his clothes and hair, and began fasting strictly.[35] Parshvanatha meditated for 84 days before he attained omniscience under a dhaataki tree near Benares.[36] His meditation period included asceticism and strict vows. Parshvanatha's practices included careful movement, measured speech, guarded desires, mental restraint and physical activity, essential in Jain tradition to renounce the ego.[35] According to the Jain texts, lions and fawns played around him during his asceticism.[34][note 2]

On the 14th day of the moon's waning cycle in the month of Chaitra (March–April), Parshvanatha attained omniscience.[38] Heavenly beings built him a samavasarana (preaching hall), so he could share his knowledge with his followers.[39]

After preaching for 70 years, Parshvanatha attained moksha at Shikharji on Parasnath hill[note 3][42][43] at the age of 78 on Savana Shukla Saptami according to Lunar Calendar.[8] His death is considered moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) in Jain tradition[22] and celebrated as Moksha Saptami. This day is celebrated on large scale at Parasnath tonk of the mountain, in northern Jharkhand, part of the Parasnath Range[44] by offering Nirvana Laddu (Sugar balls) and reciting of Nirvana Kanda. Parshvanatha has been called purisādāṇīya (beloved of the people) by Jains.[45][46][47]

Jain mythology contains legends about Parshvanatha's human and animal rebirths and the maturing of his soul towards inner harmony in a manner similar to legends found in other Indian religions.[48][note 4] His rebirths include:[50]

Agnivega was reborn as a god with a life of "twenty-two oceans of years", and the serpent went to the sixth hell.[58] The soul of Marubhuti-Vajraghosa-Sasiprabha-Agnivega was reborn as Parshvanatha. He saved serpents from torture and death during that life; the serpent god Dharanendra and the goddess Padmavati protected him, and are part of Parshvanatha's iconography.[12][59]

According to the Kalpa Sūtra (a Śvētāmbara text), Parshvanatha had 164,000 śrāvakas (male lay followers), 327,000 śrāvikās (female lay followers), 16,000 sādhus (monks) and 38,000 Sadhvis or aryikas (nuns).[60][61][50] According to Śvētāmbara tradition, he had eight ganadharas (chief monks): Śubhadatta, Āryaghoṣa, Vasiṣṭha, Brahmacāri, Soma, Śrīdhara, Vīrabhadra and Yaśas.[44] After his death, the Śvētāmbara believe that Śubhadatta became head of the monastic order and was succeeded by Haridatta, Āryasamudra and Keśī.[33]

According to Digambara tradition (including the Avasyaka niryukti), Parshvanatha had 10 ganadharas and Svayambhu was their leader. Śvētāmbara texts such as the Samavayanga and Kalpa Sūtras cite Pushpakula as the chief aryika of his female followers,[60] but the Digambara Tiloyapannati text identifies her as Suloka or Sulocana.[31] Parshvanatha's nirgrantha (without bonds) monastic tradition was influential in ancient India, with Mahavira's parents part of it as lay householders who supported the ascetics.[62]

Parshvanatha with Padmavati and Dharnendra in a 16th-century manuscript

Texts of the two major Jain sects (Digambara and Śvētāmbara) have different views of Parshvanatha and Mahavira's teachings, which underlie disputes between the sects.[63][64][65][66] Digambaras maintain that no difference exists between the teachings of Parshvanatha and Mahavira.[64] According to the Śvētāmbaras, Mahavira expanded the scope of Parshvanatha's first four restraints with his ideas on ahimsa (non-violence) and added the fifth monastic vow (celibacy) to the practice of asceticism.[67] Parshvanatha did not require celibacy,[68] and allowed monks to wear simple outer garments.[63][69] Śvētāmbara texts such as section 2.15 of the Acharanga Sutra say that Mahavira's parents were followers of Parshvanatha,[70] linking Mahavira to a preexisting theology as a reformer of Jain mendicant tradition.

According to the Śvētāmbara tradition, Parshvanatha and the ascetic community he founded exercised a fourfold restraint;[71][72] Mahavira stipulated five great vows for his ascetic initiation.[71][73] This difference and its reason have often been discussed in Śvētāmbara texts.[74] The Uttardhyayana Sutra[75][76] (a Śvētāmbara text) describes Keśin Dālbhya as a follower of Parshvanatha and Gautama Buddha as a disciple of Mahavira and discusses which doctrine is true: the fourfold restraint or the five great vows.[77] Gautama says that there are outward differences, and these differences are "because the moral and intellectual capabilities of the followers of the ford-makers have differed".[78] According to Wendy Doniger, Parshvanatha allowed monks to wear clothes; Mahavira recommended nude asceticism, a practice which has been a significant difference between the Digambara and Śvētāmbara traditions.[79][80]

According to the Śvētāmbara texts, Parshvanatha's four restraints were ahimsa, aparigraha (non-possession), asteya (non-stealing) and satya (non-lying).[12] Ancient Buddhist texts (such as the Samaññaphala Sutta) which mention Jain ideas and Mahavira cite the four restraints, rather than the five vows of later Jain texts. This has led scholars such as Hermann Jacobi to say that when Mahavira and the Buddha met, the Buddhists knew only about the four restraints of the Parshvanatha tradition.[66] Further scholarship suggests a more-complex situation, because some of the earliest Jain literature (such as section 1.8.1 of the Acharanga Sutra) connects Mahavira with three restraints: non-violence, non-lying and non-possession.[81]

The "less than five vows" view of Śvētāmbara texts is not accepted by the Digambaras, a tradition whose canonical texts have been lost and who do not accept Śvētāmbara texts as canonical.[66] Digambaras have a sizable literature, however, which explains their disagreement with Śvētāmbara interpretations.[66] Prafulla Modi rejects the theory of differences between Parshvanatha's and Mahavira's teachings.[64] Champat Rai Jain writes that Śvētāmbara texts insist on celibacy for their monks (the fifth vow in Mahavira's teachings), and there must not have been a difference between the teachings of Parshvanatha and Mahavira.[82]

Padmanabh Jaini writes that the Digambaras interpret "fourfold" as referring "not to four specific vows", but to "four modalities" (which were adapted by Mahavira into five vows).[83] Western and some Indian scholarship "has been essentially Śvētāmbara scholarship", and has largely ignored Digambara literature related to the controversy about Parshvanatha's and Mahavira's teachings.[83] Paul Dundas writes that medieval Jain literature, such as that by the 9th-century Silanka, suggests that the practices of "not using another's property without their explicit permission" and celibacy were interpreted as part of non-possession.[81]

Parshvanatha is a popular tirthankara who is worshiped (bhakti) with Rishabhanatha, Shantinatha, Neminatha and Mahavira.[88][89] He is believed to have the power to remove obstacles and save devotees.[90] In Shvetambara tradition, there are 108 prominent idols of Parshvanath idols these idols derive their name from a geographical region, such as Shankheshwar Parshvanath and Panchasara Parshvanath.[91]

Parshvanatha is usually depicted in a lotus or kayotsarga posture. Statues and paintings show his head shielded by a multi-headed serpent, fanned out like an umbrella. Parshvanatha's snake emblem is carved (or stamped) beneath his legs as an icon identifier. His iconography is usually accompanied by Dharnendra and Padmavati, Jainism's snake god and goddess.[12][59]

Serpent-hood iconography is not unique to Parshvanatha; it is also found above the icons of Suparshvanatha, the seventh of the 24 tirthankaras, but with a small difference.[92] Suparshvanatha's serpent hood has five heads, and a seven (or more)-headed serpent is found in Parshvanatha icons. Statues of both tirthankaras with serpent hoods have been found in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, dating to the 5th to 10th centuries.[93][94]

Archeological sites and medieval Parshvantha iconography found in temples and caves include scenes and yaksha. Digambara and Śvētāmbara iconography differs; Śvētāmbara art shows Parshvanatha with a serpent hood and a Ganesha-like yaksha, and Digambara art depicts him with serpent hood and Dhranendra.[95][96] According to Umakant Premanand Shah, Hindu gods (such as Ganesha) as yaksha and Indra as serving Parshvanatha, assigned them to a subordinate position.[97]