At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a statue of Buddha. In fact after it was donated to the museum in 1940 it was added to the register as just that, but in fact it’s a statue from a different religion altogether. Made in northern India around 400 years ago this statue is believed to represent Naminatha, the twenty-first Tirthankara of the Jain religion.
Jainism is an ancient Indian religion with an emphasis on living a harmless life and respecting all living things. Jains are strict vegetarians and believe that all plants and animals contain living souls and should be treated with respect. Another aspect of their belief system which is quite pertinent in the current climate is that of living a life that minimises their use of world resources.
An interesting aspect of Jainism is that there are no specific Gods or spiritual beings that help humans, everyone having the potential to become a God, but there are a number of what we would probably refer to as prophets called Tirthankara.
According to Jains, over time their teachings are forgotten and then an individual is born who renounces the material world to conquer the cycle of death and rebirth and then refound the religion. These individuals are known as Tirthankara, which means “Ford-maker” as they ford a path across the sea of birth and death to enlightenment.
Jains believe there have been 24 Tirthankara, the first being Rishabhanatha. According to Jain texts, Rishabhanatha was born in a king’s family in an age when there was happiness all around with no one needing to do any work because of divine wish-fulfilling trees called Kalpavriksha. These trees provided places to live, clothes, pots and pans, good food, fruits and sweets, harmonious music, jewellery, beautiful flowers, radiant lamps, and a bright light at night, and due to this there was no killing, crime, or vice. Gradually as time progressed, the efficacy of these trees decreased and the people rushed to their king for help. Rishabhanatha is then said to have taught the people six main professions. These were: swordsmanship for protection, writing skills, agriculture, knowledge, trade and commerce, and crafts. He introduced an age of action by founding arts and professions allowing the people to sustain themselves.
The statue in the Scarborough Museums Collection is believed to represent Naminatha, the twenty-first Tirthankara. Naminatha was born to King Vijay Raja and Queen Vipra Rani who were the rulers of Mithila on the India-Nepal border at that time. Queen Vipra had seen fourteen auspicious things in a dream at the moment of conception and as a result the court seers declared that the unborn child was going to be a Tirthankara.
During Vipra’s pregnancy, a group of powerful kings attacked and the peaceful King Vijay struggled to find a resolution. A seer told the king that the queen should climb to the roof of the palace and observe the attacking armies. The pregnant queen followed these instructions and looked out at the large armies stationed on the fields outside the town. The aura of the unborn child, Naninatha, was so powerful that it cast a pacifying spell on the attackers. The invading kings, who had been sure of winning the battle, surrendered immediately and bowed before king Vijay.
Naminatha had a happy childhood and when he was older married and took over the reign of the kingdom. After a long and peaceful reign he eventually reached enlightenment and with 17 disciples preached to the masses.
If you want to have a closer look at this fascinating piece of history, it’s currently on display in the Scarborough Art Gallery.
The Jain statue is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.
For further information, please contact collections manager (maternity cover) Simon Hedges on Simon.Hedges@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384505.