In Jainism, a tirthankara (tīrthaṅkara; literally a ‘ford-maker’) is a saviour and spiritual teacher of the dharma (righteous path). The word tirthankara signifies the founder of a tirtha, which is a fordable passage across the sea of interminable births and deaths, the saṃsāra. According to Jains, a tirthankara is an individual who has conquered the saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth, on their own, and made a path for others to follow. After understanding the true nature of the self or soul, the Tīrthaṅkara attains Kevala Jnana (omniscience). The first Tirthankara founded Jainism. Tirthankara provides a bridge for others to follow the new teacher from saṃsāra to Mahaviraswami (liberation).

In Jain cosmology, the wheel of time is divided in two halves, Utsarpiṇī or ascending time cycle and avasarpiṇī, the descending time cycle (said to be current now). In each half of the cosmic time cycle, exactly twenty-four tirthankaras grace this part of the universe. There have been an infinite number of tirthankaras in the past time periods. The first tirthankara in this present time cycle was Rishabhanatha, who is credited for formulating and organising humans to live in a society harmoniously. The 24th and last tirthankara of present half-cycle was Mahavira (599 BC–527 BC). History records the existence of Mahavira and his predecessor, Parshvanath, the twenty-third tirthankara.

Tirthankara images at Siddhachal Caves inside Gwalior Fort.

Tirthankara images at Siddhachal Caves inside Gwalior Fort.

A tirthankara organises the sangha, a fourfold order of male and female monastics, srāvakas (male followers) and śrāvikās (female followers).

The tirthankara’s teachings form the basis for the Jain canons. The inner knowledge of tirthankara is believed to be perfect and identical in every respect and their teachings do not contradict one another. However, the degree of elaboration varies according to the spiritual advancement and purity of the society during their period of leadership. The higher the spiritual advancement and purity of mind of the society, the lower the elaboration required.

While tirthankaras are documented and revered by Jains, their grace is said to be available to all living beings, regardless of religious orientation.

Tīrthaṅkaras are arihants who after attaining kevalajñāna (pure infinite knowledge) preach the true dharma. An Arihant is also called Jina (victor), that is one who has conquered inner enemies such as anger, attachment, pride and greed. They dwell exclusively within the realm of their Soul, and are entirely free of kashayas, inner passions, and personal desires. As a result of this, unlimited siddhis, or spiritual powers, are readily available to them – which they use exclusively for the spiritual elevation of living beings. Through darśana, divine vision, and deshna, divine speech, they help others in attaining kevalajñana, and moksha (final liberation) to anyone seeking it sincerely.


The word tirthankara signifies the founder of a tirtha which means a fordable passage across the sea of interminable births and deaths (called saṃsāra). Tirthankaras are variously called “Teaching Gods”, “Ford-Makers”, “Crossing Makers” and “Makers of the River-Crossing.


Jain texts propound that a special type of karma, the tīrthaṅkara nama-karma, raises a soul to the supreme status of a TīrthaṅkaraTattvartha Sutra, a major Jain text, lists sixteen observances which lead to the bandha (bondage) of this karma:

  • Purity of right faith
  • Reverence
  • Observance of vows and supplementary vows without transgressions
  • Ceaseless pursuit of knowledge
  • Perpetual fear of the cycle of existence
  • Giving gifts (charity)
  • Practising austerities according to one’s capacity
  • Removal of obstacles that threaten the equanimity of ascetics
  • Serving the meritorious by warding off evil or suffering
  • Devotion to omniscient lords, chief preceptors, preceptors, and the scriptures
  • Practice of the six essential daily duties
  • Propagation of the teachings of the omniscient
  • Fervent affection for one’s brethren following the same path.

Panch Kalyanaka

Main article: Panch Kalyanaka

Five auspicious events called Pañca kalyāṇaka mark the life of every tirthankara:

  1. Gārbha kalyāṇaka (conception): When ātman (soul) of a tirthankara comes into his mother’s womb.
  2. Janma kalyāṇaka (birth): Birth of a tirthankara. Indra performs a ceremonial bath on tirthankara on Mount Meru.
  3. Tapa kalyāṇaka (renunciation): When a tirthankara renounces all worldly possessions and become an ascetic.
  4. Jñāna kalyāṇaka: The event when a tirthankara attains kevalajñāna (infinite knowledge). A samavasarana (divine preaching hall) is erected from where he delivers sermons and restores sangha after that.
  5. Nirvāṇa kalyāṇaka (liberation): When a tirthankara leaves his mortal body, it is known as nirvana. It is followed by the final liberation, moksha, after which his souls dwells in Siddhashila.


Main article: Samavasarana

After attaining kevalajñāna, a tirthankara preaches the path to liberation in the samavasarana. According to Jain texts, the heavenly pavilion is erected by devas (heavenly beings) where devas, humans and animals assemble to hear the tirthankara. A tirthankara’s speech is heard by all humans and animals in their own language. It is believed that during this speech, there is no unhappiness for miles around the site.

Tīrthaṅkaras of present cosmic age

Jainism postulates that time has no beginning or end. It moves like the wheel of a cart. The wheel of time is divided in two halves, Utsarpiṇī (ascending half cycle) and Avasarpiṇī (descending half cycle). 24 tirthankaras are born in each half of this cycle. In Jain tradition the tirthankaras were royal in their final lives, and Jain texts record details of their previous lives. Their clan and families are also among those recorded in legendary stories. Jain canons state that Rishabhanatha, the first tirthankara, founded the Ikshvaku dynasty, from which 21 other tirthankaras also rose over time. Two tirthankaras – Munisuvrata, the 20th, and Neminatha, the 22nd – belonged to the Harivamsa dynasty.

In Jain tradition, the 20 tirthankaras attained moksha on mount Shikharji, in the present Indian state of Jharkhand. Rishabhanatha attained nirvana on Mount Kailash, presently located in Tibet, close to Indian border, Vasupujya at Champapuri in North Bengal, Neminatha on mount Girnar, Gujarat, and Mahavira, the last tirthankara, at Pawapuri, near modern Patna. Twenty-one of the tirthankaras are said to have attained moksha in the kayotsarga (standing meditation posture), while Rishabhanatha, Neminatha and Mahavira are said to have attained moksha in the Padmasana (lotus position).

List of the 24 tirthankaras

Present cosmic age

In chronological order, the names, emblems and colours of the 24 tirthankaras of this age are mentioned below: Dhanuṣa means “bow”, hatha means “hands” and 1 Purva equals 8,400,000 x 8,400,000 or 70,560,000,000,000 years.

No. Name Symbol Colour Height Age Moksh Vriksha
1 Rishabhanatha (Adinatha) Bull Golden 500 dhanuṣa 8,400,000 Purva Ficus Benghalensis
2 Ajitanatha Elephant Golden 450 dhanuṣa 7,200,000 Purva Alstonia Scholaris
3 Sambhavanatha Horse Golden 400 dhanuṣa 6,000,000 Purva Shorea Robusta Gaertn
4 Abhinandananatha Monkey Golden 350 dhanuṣa 5,000,000 Purva Petrocarpus Marsupium Roxb
5 Sumatinatha Heron Golden 300 dhanuṣa 4,000,000 Purva Prunus Mahaleb L.
6 Padmaprabha Padma Red 250 dhanuṣa 3,000,000 Purva
7 Suparshvanatha Swastika Golden 200 dhanuṣa 2,000,000 Purva Albizia Lebbeck (L.) Benth
8 Chandraprabha Crescent Moon White 150 dhanuṣa 1,000,000 Purva Mesua Ferrea L.
9 Pushpadanta (Suvidhinath) Crocodile or Makara White 100 dhanuṣa 2,00,000 Purva Aegle Marmelos (L.) Corrrea
10 Shitalanatha Shrivatsa Golden 90 dhanuṣa 1,00,000 Purva Ficus Amplissima Sm.
11 Shreyanasanatha Rhinoceros Golden 80 dhanuṣa 84,00,000 Years Diospyros Malabarica (Desr.) Kostel.
12 Vasupujya Buffalo Red 70 dhanusa 72,00,000 Years Stereopermum Suaveolens (Roxb.) DC.
13 Vimalanatha Boar Golden 60 dhanusa 60,00,000 Years Syzygium Cumini (L.) Skeels
14 Anantanatha Porcupine according to the Digambara
Falcon according to the Śvētāmbara
Golden 50 dhanuṣa 30,00,000 Years Ficus Religiosa L.
15 Dharmanatha Vajra Golden 45 dhanuṣa 10,00,000 Years Lomonia Acidissima Groff
16 Shantinatha Antelope or deer Golden 40 dhanuṣa 7,00,000 Years Ficus Retusa L.
17 Kunthunatha Goat Golden 35 dhanuṣa 95,000 Years Wendlandia Heynei (Schult.) Santapau & Merchant
18 Aranatha Nandyavarta or fish Golden 30 dhanuṣa 84,000 Years Mangifera Indica L.
19 Māllīnātha Kalasha Blue 25 dhanuṣa 56,000 Years Saraca Indica L.
20 Munisuvrata Tortoise Black 20 dhanuṣa 30,000 Years Magnolia champaca (L.) Baill.ex Pierre
21 Naminatha Blue lotus Golden 15 dhanuṣa 10,000 Years Mimusops elengi L.
22 Neminatha Shankha Black 10 dhanuṣa 1000 Years Salix Tetrasperma Roxb
23 Parshvanatha Snake Blue 9 hath 100 Years Anogeissus Latifolia (Roxb.ec DC.)Wall. ex Guillem. & Perr.
24 Mahavira Lion Golden 4 hath 72 Years Manilkara Hexandra (Roxb.) Dubard

Next cosmic age

The 24 tirthankaras of the present age (avasarpinī) are the ones listed above. The names of the next 24, which will be born in utsarpinī age are as follows. [Mentioned in the parentheses is one of the (previous human birth) of that soul.]

  1. Padmanabha (King Shrenika)
  2. Surdev (Mahavira’s uncle Suparshva)
  3. Suparshva (King Kaunik’s son king Udayin)
  4. Svamprabh (The ascetic Pottil)
  5. Sarvanubhuti (Śrāvaka Dridhayadha)
  6. Devshruti (Kartik’s Shreshti)
  7. Udaynath (Shravak Shamkha)
  8. Pedhalputra (Shravak Ananda)
  9. Pottil (Shravak Sunand)
  10. Shatak (Sharavak Shatak)
  11. Munivrat (Krishna’s mother Devaki)
  12. Amam (Krishna)
  13. Shrinishkashay (Satyaki Rudhra also Satyaki of Mahabharata)
  14. Nishpulak (Krishna’s brother Balbhadra also known as Balrama)
  15. Nirmam (Shravika Sulsa)
  16. Chitragupta (Krishna’s brother’s mother Rohini Devi)
  17. Samadhinath (Revati Gathapatni)
  18. Samvarnath (Sharavak Shattilak)
  19. Yashodhar (Rishi Dwipayan)
  20. Vijay (Karna of Mahabharata)
  21. Malyadev (Nirgranthaputra or Mallanarada)
  22. Devachandra (Shravak Ambadh)
  23. Anantvirya (Shravak Amar)
  24. Shribhadrakar (Shanak)

Iconography of tirthanakars

Famous idol of Mahavir Swami at Shri Mahavirji

Famous idol of Mahavir Swami at Shri Mahavirji

A tīrthaṅkara is represented either seated in lotus position (Padmasana) or standing in the meditation Khadgasana (Kayotsarga) posture. This latter, which is similar to the military standing at attention is a difficult posture to hold for a long period, and has the attraction to Jains that it reduces to the minimum the amount of the body in contact with the earth, and so posing a risk to the sentient creatures living in or on it. If seated, they are usually depicted seated with their legs crossed in front, the toes of one foot resting close upon the knee of the other, and the right hand lying over the left in the lap.

Tirthanakar images do not have distinctive facial features, clothing or (mostly) hair-styles, and are differentiated on the basis of the symbol or emblem (Lanchhana) belonging to each tirthanakar except Parshvanatha. Statues of Parshvanath have a snake crown on the head. The first Tirthankara Rishabha can be identified by the locks of hair falling on his shoulders. Sometimes Suparshvanath is shown with a small snake-hood. The symbols are marked in the centre or in the corner of the pedestal of the statue. The sects of Jainism Digambara and Svetambara have different depictions of idols. Digambara images are naked without any ornamentation, whereas Svetambara ones are clothed and decorated with temporary ornaments. The images are often marked with Srivatsa on the chest and Tilaka on the forehead. Srivatsa is one of the ashtamangala (auspicious symbols). It can look somewhat like a fleur-de-lis, an endless knot, a flower or diamond-shaped symbol.

The bodies of tirthanakar statues are exceptionally consistent throughout the over 2,000 years of the historical record. The bodies are rather slight, with very wide shoulders and a narrow waist. Even more than is usual in Indian sculpture, the depiction takes relatively little interest in the accurate depiction of the underlying musculature and bones, but is interested in the modelling of the outer surfaces as broad swelling forms. The ears are extremely elongated, suggesting the heavy earrings the figures wore in their early lives before they took the path to enlightenment, when most were wealthy if not royal.

Sculptures with four tirthanakars, or their heads, facing in four directions, are not uncommon in early sculpture, but unlike the comparable Hindu images, these represent four different tirthanakars, not four aspects of the same deity. Multiple extra arms are avoided in tirthanakar images, though their attendants or guardians may have them.

In other religions

See also: Rishabha (Hinduism) and Paranath Avtar

The first TirthankaraRishabhanatha is mentioned in Hindu texts like the Rigveda, Vishnupurana and Bhagwata Purana. The Yajurveda mentions the name of three Tīrthaṅkaras – Ṛiṣhabha, Ajitnātha and Ariṣṭanemi. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa includes legends about the Tirthankaras of Jainism particularly Rishabha. Yoga Vasishta, Chapter 15, Sloka 8 gives the saying of Rama:

I am not Rama. I have no desire for material things. Like Jina I want to establish peace within myself.

Champat Rai Jain, a 20th-century Jain writer, claimed that the “Four and Twenty Elders” mentioned in the Book of Revelation (the final book of the Christian Bible) are “Twenty-four Tirthankaras“.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Leave a Reply