The earliest epigraphic evidence of the existence of the Nigantha sect in northern India comes from a solitary inscription of Ashoka (3rd century BC). This is the Seventh Pillar Edict Ashoka and it is recorded on the pillar Firoze Shah Kotla in Delhi. This pillar was originally in Topra in the Ambala district of Haryana, and was brought to Delhi by Firoze Shah Tughlak. Ashoka mentioned in this edict that he had appointed senior officers to look after the affairs of the religious people of the various sects. These officers had been directed to occupy themselves with matters concerning the (Buddhist) Sangha the Brahmans, the Ajivikas, and the Niganthas. (There are other edicts of Ashoka that mention the Sangha, the Brahmans and the Ajivikas, but Niganthas have not been mentioned in any other Ashokan inscription.) Since the officers were directed to look after the Niganthas, clearly this sect existed in this area in sufficient number. Otherwise the specific mention of this community was not necessary. However, we have no Jain literary records to show the existence of this community in Haryana at that time, and Mahavira himself, perhaps never traveled west of Shravasti that is in eastern Utter Pradesh. But the epigraphic evidence is clear. The Jain religion had by the time of Ashoka spread in northern India at least as far as Haryana.
It appears from the genealogy of the pontiffs given in the Kalpa Sutra that within a hundred years of Ashoka, Jainism had spread as Far West as Pathankot. The Jain pontiff at the time of Samprati, the grandson of Ashoka, was Suhastin. Suhastin's disciple Rohana who became the next pontiff had founded the Uddeha gana that was divided into four Shakhas. One of these shakhas was Udumbarika. Now the country of Audumbara is the present district of Gurudaspur, and its capital was Pratisthana (Pathankot). Thus we know that a substantially large group of Jains was settled in the Pathankot area by the 2nd century BC
The next two centuries appear to be quite dark so far as any information about the Jains is concerned. There are no contemporary epigraphs or literary records. The later Jain historians say that Jainism had spread to Ujjayini at the time of Ashoka's grandson Samprati. Hemachandra (12th century) wrote that Suhastin the head of the Jain Church at that time was living in Ujjayini 25 when ruled from his capital there, and Samprati was a patron of the Jains. This might have been actually so but there is no epigraphic or other independent proof of Samprati's affinity to Jainism.
Ujjayini, however, was the scene of an important event which is said to have occurred in the first century BC This legend is connected with the Shaka conquest of Ujjayini and the origin of the Vikram era.
The legend mentions Gardabhilla, a king of Ujjayini. He had abducted the sister of Kalakacharya, a celebrated Jain teacher (Kalaka was a king's son and had later become Jain. His sister whose name was Saravati was herself a Jain nun). Kalakacharya approached one of the Scythian kings, the Shahis, in Shakasthana for help. But that king was afraid of attacking Gardabhilla, a powerful ruler enjoying the protection of the goddess Rasabhi, who by the spell of her voice made it impossible for an enemy to approach within 24 kilometers of the king. On his part Kalaka had magic powers and could produce wealth at will. He persuaded the Shaka king to raise an army and march against Ujjayini. When he encamped at a distance of 24 kilometers from Ujjayini, the goddess began to raise her voice for the protection of Gardbhilla, but the shaka army stopped her mouth with their arrows, and she became unable to utter a sound. The Gardabhilla was easily made captive and Kalaka's sister was recovered. When he was later forgiven and released, Gardabhilla retired to a forest where he was devoured by a tiger. Some years afterwards, the son of Gardabhilla, according to some accounts the glorious Vikramditya, came up from Pratisthana with an army, expelled the invaders from Ujjayini, and ruled there for many years in great splendor and established the era that goes by his name (58-57 BC).
Though the exact historical foundation for this legend cannot easily be ascertained, its setting fits the first century BC very well, as it was clearly a period of Shaka inroads into India and of the attempts of Indian rulers, particularly the Satavahanas to resists them. The Hindu Puranas which describe the Satavahanas as Andhras, count Gardabhilla among the feudatories (bhrityas) of the Andhras.26 Thus the Jain story is partly corroborated. There might thus be some historical truth in this legend of Kalakacharya.
It is possible that the legend existed in some form since the first century but its first recorded form is found in KalakacharyaKathanaka, a work by Mahesara Suri27 who probably existed at the time of Hemachandra Suri (12th century). Thus the legend or history of Kalakacharya was put down in writing about 1200 years after the alleged event.
The inroads of the Shakas into northern India was followed by those of other foreigners such as the Greeks, and the Kusanas, and these inroads continued for a few centuries from the beginning of the Christian era. The political center of northern India moved to Mathura. It was in Mathura that we find the existence of a large prosperous Jain community at this time.
A large number if Jain relics have been dug up from a mound called Kankali-tila in this town. The relics include one Jainstupa, two temples, and many inscriptions recording the dedication of images of Tirthankaras, and other religious things by pious Jains. Some of these inscriptions bear dates, which mention the years in Kusana era. These dates lie between year 5 and year 98 of this era. Since we do not know the year in which this era started, it is possible only to assign an approximate period of these Mathura relics.
Scholars hold different opinions about the beginning of the Kusana era. Some hold the opinion that it is the same as the Shaka era and started in AD 78. Other dates given for the beginning of the Kusana era are AD 102, AD 128, AD 144, etc., R. C. Majumdar has, however, suggested 29 the date AD 244 and this suggestion appears to be getting more and more support. If this is correct then the years in which a flourishing Jain community lived in Mathura lie between AD 250 and AD 350.
Mathura during the rule of the Kusanas was the most important city of northern India. There were in Mathura rich people of many communities, Buddhist, Jain and Brahman. The inscriptions dug out in many localities in Mathura show that religious monuments were built and grants were given by all these communities. So far as Kankali-tila was concerned, it seems to have been at this period the exclusive preserve of the Jains. Some centuries before that period, the Buddhists, who had built a stupa here, perhaps occupied the tila. One Jain inscription (59) 30 clearly mentions that the Jain image was established on a Vodve (Buddhist?) stupa, which had been built by the gods. It has been conjectured that the stupa at that time was already so old, that people had forgotten who its builders were. They, therefore, thought that the Gods built it. 31 In the Kusana period, the Buddhists seem to have moved on to the Jamalpura mound in Mathura.
We may now consider the Jain inscriptions of Mathura belonging to the Kusana period. (Altogether 78 inscriptions have been given in the JainShila-Lekha Sangraha, Vol. II. It appears that the compiler of this volume might have missed a few more inscriptions. For instance, the Lucknow Museum Jain Image Inscriptions 32 of Havisha ---year 48 appears to have been missed. In any case, the total number of Jain inscriptions discovered here should not be many more than 90).
The Rulers named in the Inscriptions
Mathura before it came under the Kusanas was a part of the Shaka-Pahlava empire. The provincial governors under these emperors were called Mahakshatrapas. We have only one Jain inscription (5) of a Mahakshatrapa, the one belonging to Mahakshatrapa Sodasa in Mathura. It is dated year 72 33 but we do not know the era. It appears that Mathura came under the Kusanas after Sodasa. These are three inscriptions (19, 24 and 25) of Kaniska, six of Huviska (37, 39, 43, 45, 50 and 56) who succeeded Kaniska's immediate successor Vasika who had a very short reign, and three of Huviska's successor Vasudeva (62, 65 and 69) in the Kankali-tila group. The names of the rulers in the other inscriptions at this place were either not recorded or are unreadable.
Mahavira -- one (16); Mahavira and Vardhamana--- One (67).
2. Sambhava --- One (in the Lucknow Museum Jain image inscription of Huviska -- year 48).
3. Rishava --- One (56); Usabha -- One (82).
4. Arishtanemi --- One (28).
5. Shantinatha -- One (29).
Apart from these there are donative inscriptions, one to Nemesa (13), who may be Negamesa, 34 and one to Nand (ya) varta (59) which is said to be meant for the 18th Tirthankara Arantha, Nandyavarta being his symbol. There are four donations (22, 26, 27, and 41) to the sarvatobhadra images. These are four-sided sculptures with images of one Tirthankara on each side.
It is quite clear from the above that Mahavira was the most popular Tirthankara among the Jains in Mathura at that time. Absence of Parshva's name is noticeable.
Many of the donors have mentioned their professions. In the case of the women donors, the professions of their husbands are sometimes mentioned. We know from these that most of the donors belonged to the trader class, though some of them were artisans such as goldsmiths or (iron) smiths. The list of professions or occupations and the inscription numbers where they occur are these:
Profession or Occupation Number in the Jain
1. Shresthi (Merchant) 19, 26
2. Vanika (Trader) 71
3. Manikara (Jeweller) 31
4. Lohavaniya (Iron trader) 31
5. Hairanyaka (Gold smith) 67
6. Sarthavaha (Caravan guide) 33
7. Gandhika (Perfume seller) 41, 42, 62, 69
8. Lohikakaraka (Smith) 54, 55
9. Ganika (Courtesan) 08
10. Na(r)taka (Dancer) 15
11. Vacaka (Reciter, Priest?) 22
12. Gramika (Village headman) 44
13. Cotton dealer (35) 56
We thus get an idea as to how people of all such occupations as were common in a large provincial capital were living in Mathura in those days. At least one courtesan was not ashamed to disclose her profession as a stone tablet. Not much can be gleaned about social customs from these inscriptions. Inscriptions' number 14 is interesting. Here a woman named (Ba) Lahastini declares that she along with her parents and parents-in-law, had put up a religious arch. According to the present Indian custom, a woman for all religious purposes belongs to her husband's family and she has nothing to do in religious matters with her parents. Performance of a religious act of a married woman with her own parents in Mathura at that time perhaps shows that these people were foreigners (Shakas or Kusanas) newly converted to Jainism and were still maintaining some of their old customs.
The names of a few of the donors also show foreign influence. Some of these names are Mosini (22), Bubu (52), Vadhara (31), Huggu (31), Jabhaka (35), Nada (08), etc.
Another Shaka influence is shown in the mutilated Sarasvati image found at Kankali-tila. Two small figures of attendants are shown on each side of the Goddess. One of these attendants is in Shaka.36 The present Jain custom of women keeping long fasts was known in Mathura of Huviska's days also. We have in inscription number 52, the statement that one Vijayasiri who was the wife of Rajyavasu had kept a fast for a month.
One Jain iconography practice had already been standardized in Mathura. The images of Tirthankaras all bear the shrivatsa37 symbol on the chest as an auspicious mark (and perhaps also to distinguish them from the Buddha images that do not bear such marks on the chest).
It is perhaps not possible to state definitely whether the people who donated the images and the other religious objects at Mathura were Svetambaras or Digambaras. The donors have mentioned their ganas, kulas, etc., in the accompanying inscriptions. Some of these ganas, kulas, are similar to those found in the Kalpa Sutra. 38 Now the Kalpa Sutra is a Shvetambara work and is not recognized by Digambaras. Similarly, it is the Svetambaras only who believe that the God Harinegamesi transferred the embryo of Mahavira to the womb of Trishala. The Digambaras completely reject this story. If, therefore, the name Nemesa read in one of the Mathura inscriptions, is the short form of "Harinegamesi", the Jains of Mathura would definitely have to be called Svetambaras. On the other hand, all the images of the Tirthankaras found at Kankali-tila are nude. All the Jain images of these centuries, for instance, those found at Kahaum (AD 460) in the Gorakhpur district, depict the Tirthankaras as nude. Added to this is the fact, that most of the Jains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar today are Digambaras. Thus it is difficult to be sure about the sect of the Jains of Mathura in the Kusana period. It is likely, however, that the Shvetambara-Digambara split had not become clear-cut by that time. In any case the Svetambaras even if they existed, as a separate sect had not started worshipping non-nude images of the Tirthankaras, for no non-nude image of a Tirthankara prior to the fifth century has been found so far.
Mathura continued to be a center of the Jains for a long time. Many Jain sculptures belonging to the Gupta and the early medieval period have been discovered there.