Jain Zen – Getting Down from the Elephant

The origin of the Jain religion is in a story that is so Zen-like.

The first Tirthankar of the Jains, Rishabdev, left a major part of his property to his two sons, Bharata and Bahubali, and renounced the world. Bharata had ambitions and he conquered the rest of India and also asked Bahubali to surrender his share. Bahubali had a great ego and he refused and it was decided to settle the matter in a one on one combat.

Bahubali turned out to have the upper hand and right at the moment when he was about to kill Bharata, he realized the futility of it all. He stood at the same place and entered meditation. It is said that he stood there for a year and still did not attain enlightenment. Tribute has been paid to his meditative position through the various Bahubali statues in India, the most famous being the one at Shravanbelagola.

So when one stands in the same position for a year, he will lose his clothes and creepers will grow on him. Bahubali’s sisters got worried and asked their father Rishabdev what to do. He said, nothing can be done unless Bahubali gets off the elephant first. So the sisters went to Bahubali and asked him when he will get off the elephant. Hearing this, Bahubali got instantly enlightened. He is said to be the first person to get enlightened in this cosmic era.

The analogy is apparent to those who understand but the point is that the story is so Zen-like. Zen, as we know it, came much later but the essense of what we call Zen is clearly seen in this story.

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