The Real Bahubali Was A Jain Prince

The tallest monolithic statue in the world is that of Bahubali, a Jain prince who advocated ahimsa and gained Moksha.

In a hill town, three hours away from the Silicon City of Bangalore, a 57-foot tall statue of Bahubali bears testimony to nonviolence. According to the Jain legends, Bahubali was a prince; the son of a King who had a hundred sons and two daughters. It is believed that Bahubali existed millions of years ago. The two-part melodramatic film, recently released in two parts, bears few similarities to the story of the Jain prince but none of the merit.

The real Bahubali, a revered figure among the Jains, is the son of the first Tirthankara (spiritual teacher), Rishabhanatha. His exact timeline is impossible to verify, for, in Jainism, you could replace ‘millions of years ago’ with ‘decillions of years’ ago – and still run up short.

The Indologist, Helmuth von Glasenapp, states that Jainism divides time in a special way. It starts with a moment (Samaya – the time an atom takes to traverse its own length) and extends up to a year (Samvatsara). But then, the numbers grow exponentially. 8.4 million years make a Purvanga and 8.4 million Purvangas make a Purva. Rishabhanatha was 20 million Purva years old when he was anointed king – and he then ruled for 63 million Purva years.

The story of Bahubali, being a myth, doesn’t exist in any fixed time frame. In fact, prior to the eighth century B.C., it’s a leap for Indian historians to prove historicity for anything. But it’s the message, not the date, that counts.

Like in the blockbuster film, the story of Bahubali involves a dispute between two brothers. Rishabhanatha had renounced his kingdom and divided it up into 100 shares.

For 98 of the sons, this was fine. But one, Bharata, wanted to fulfil his destiny to become a mighty ruler. He started invading other lands. Bahubali, who inherited a relatively walled-off Kingdom, stayed aloof. And one day, 98 of Rishabhanatha’s sons decided to forfeit their lands to become monks. Bharata gained them all.

At last, he approached Bahubali and demanded his kingdom. The two brothers were finally pitted against each other. Rather than waste soldiers lives in battle, the kings went man-against-man. The conflict began with a staring match, ‘Drishti-Yuddho‘ – “Looking at each other without winking.”

In some versions, this is followed by a shouting match and ends with ‘Malla-Yuddha‘, wrestling.

In each, Bahubali prevailed. In desperation, Bharat tried to kill him by throwing his chakra at him. But miraculously, it veered away. It was Bahubali’s turn to kill his brother. At the last minute, he reconsidered whether he truly wanted to commit this crime.

Standing perfectly still, he takes up the Kayotsurga pose – a posture of standing meditation. It’s a yogic pose, relatively simple to pull off in your first attempt. Stand up straight, hold your arms to your side, and expand your chest to facilitate constant breathing.

Bahubali held this pose for one whole year. During this time, wines grew around his legs. In some retellings, anthills developed at his feet. Wishing to renounce his body, Bahubali held still in constant meditation. Towards the end of a year, his two sisters came to him – and realised that he was close to moksha – enlightenment. But what prevented him, from crossing over, was his own ego – that by performing such penance, he had ascended to a higher level than all else.

His sisters asked Bahubali to “please come down from the elephant.” Bahubali relinquished his ego and became the first to achieve enlightenment in the current era of time.

A statue for the ages

Bahubali’s tale is a telling story, of ahimsa (non-violence), renunciation and determination. In honour of this, a statue was built in 981 A.D., in what is now the town of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka.

Also known as the Gommateshwara statue, it was carved from a single chunk of granite, and is the tallest monolithic, free-standing statue (supported only by its feet) in the world. It was commissioned by the Prime Minister of the Talakkad Ganga kingdom.

Myth surrounds the statue. The most famous myth is that the king, Chandragupta Maurya, died in the hills around Shravanabelagola (one of which, Chandragiri, was named after him). Supporting this theory are many inscriptions, including the naming of a hill after the king. Chandragupta is said to have had a Jain teacher called Bhadrabahu, who convinced him to spend his final years in the South of his empire.

It’s a contested claim¬†because only one school of the Jains – the Digambaras (those whose garments are the sky alone – i.e. nude monks) – make a claim to the conversion of India’s mightiest king. But legend has it that Chandragupta took up the vow of Sallekhana – ritually fasting to death as a final absolution of his earthly body.

Curiously, it was Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, who would also relinquish an expansionist empire to adopt Ahimsa – though he took up Buddhism rather than Jainism.

For the mighty to relinquish a great material life for the spiritual has become an ethos of the Indian consciousness. Sadly, the modern day “Baahubali” outpaces the older one – at least in terms of Google search trends. Baahubali the film is a tale of vengeance – one brother (the expansionist) kills another (the pious) and the latter’s son returns to claim bloody revenge.

Bahubali, the statue, is one of the seven wonders of India. Rather than the film’s lesson of cold-served revenge, the lesson of the Jain prince, of refrain and non-violence, could be better applied to solve family disputes. Non-violence requires us to stand still in the face of the violence, thought and deed. Bahubali’s story and his statue in Shravanabelagola have stood as a silent testament to the spirit of non-violence for centuries.


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