In the state of Karnataka, about 150 km from Bengaluru, in the district of Hassan, stands Shravanabelagola, where there is a lake, known as white (bili) lake (gola), that gives the settlement its name, and two stone mountains, Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri, associated with the founder of the ancient Mauryan dynasty, Chandragupta.
Most people have heard stories of how the shrewd brahmin, Chanakya, enabled Chandragupta to raise an army, overthrow Nanda, establish the Mauryan empire with its capital in Pataliputra and kept Alexander’s Greek army at bay. But not many have heard of Chandragupta’s spiritual guru, a Jain monk called Bhadrabahu. Following a great drought, Chandragupta lost interest in worldly matters, and passing on the throne to his son, Bindusara, he became a Jain monk and moved to the south, to the stone hills of Karnataka which came to be named Chandragiri after him. Here, Bhadrabahu, and later, Chandragupta, performed Sallekhana, the act of ritually abandoning all food as one draws to the end of one’s life, and thus voluntarily letting go of the mortal body, which is the ultimate act of renunciation in Jainism. This happened 2300 years ago. And so, on Chandragiri hill, we have a cave dedicated to Bhadrabahu and a basadi (Jain temple) in honour of the late Mauryan emperor, as well as many other shrines built for the various Jain Tirthankaras, as well as the yakshas and yakshinis that guard them.
On the opposite hill, Vindhyagiri, is one of the world’s tallest freestanding statue, the 57 feet tall Gomateshwara Bahubali, which is bathed every twelve years with milk and scented water. This image was carved about a thousand years ago for Chavundaraya on the request of his mother. Chavundaraya was military commander of the Western Gangas who were feudatories to the Rashtrakuta kings. He played a key role in establishing the Ganga dynasty. He was an influential figure in medieval Karnataka history, and a patron of literature, who composed some of the earliest available literature in Kannada.
It is important to remember what ‘1000 years ago’ means: it is the time when the regional languages and scripts of India were just emerging, when Islam had not impacted life in India, when Shankaracharya had written his commentary on Vedanta, but not Ramanuja, or Madhwa. The Tamil Alwar and Nayanar poetry was just being composed, the Bhakti movement was just emerging, and much of South India was under the influence of Jain, and Buddhist, doctrine.
The story of Bahubali was very popular in this time. We find retellings of his saga in Sanskrit as well as Kannada. In Jain mythology, the world has no beginning or end. It goes through waves of fortune (utasarpini) and misfortune (avasarpini). In each of these waves, there are twenty-four great sages (Tirthankaras) and twelve great kings (Chakravartis). Rishabhanatha was the first Tirthankara of the current wave. He was a great king, and had a hundred sons, to whom he gave a hundred kingdoms, before he renounced the material world. To his two daughters, Brahmi and Sundari, he gave the art of writing and counting.