Jain Hermits in Lore: Two Tales

Jain tales are of three types: 1) genealogical, recounting birth-predecessors and legends explaining the present, or how things came to be as they are, 2) biographical or hagiographical, highlighting the virtues or vices of the story subject, and 3) didactic, teaching a moral lesson.

Two hermit tales overlap these genres. The story of Somacandra, from Hemacandra's Lives of the Jain Elders, is part of a larger explanation of Somacandra's birth-successors, culminating in Mahavira; the tale also represents Jain religious expression, wherein asceticism is a major component. (Quotes are taken from the Fynes translation; see references). The second tale, the story of Vipul and Vijan, is entirely didactic and is often addressed to children. It features a hermit and allows this exemplar of virtue to instruct concerning both the good and the bad, with a more positive lesson than the polemical Jain Sutra that states "Many heretics lead the life of a hermit in order to avoid worldly sorrows and pains."

1. Somacandra.

One day, Somacandra, king of Potana, sat by a window, his loving wife Dharini stroking the hair of his head. She discovered a gray hair, plucked it gently, and told her husband that a messenger had arrived. He looked around, and remarked that he saw no one. Dharini showed him the gray hair, and said that the messenger was a religious one announcing old age.

Somacandra grew somber. Though not ashamed of growing old, he recalled that at his age, even before gray-haired, both his father and grandfather had pursued the ascetic life of the forest hermit. But, thought Somacandra, his young son Prasanachandra was still at his mother's breast, while the age of abdication was traditionally at the birth of a grandson.

But Somacandra was seized by a desire to take the ascetic vow, to turn over the kingdom to his son to be raised by his mother. Dharini shook her head, averring that she would follow her husband anywhere. "I want to be at your side," she declared, "like a shadow, your servant, even into solitude. Let our son follow his karma, like an upright tree in the thick forest, pursuing his destiny as we would ours." And so it was that Somacandra and Dharini renounced the kingdom, gave their son over to trusted ministers, and departed with a nurse into the deep forest.

They entered upon a life of austerities. They discovered an abandoned hermit's hut in which to live, and built another as hospitality for travelers and forest animals. Their diet was fruits, leaves, and water. Somacandra was "sown with threads of affection" for Dharini, and she remained "passionately devoted to her husband, ... together without infringing their asceticism."

What they did not know was that when they left the city, Dharini was with child. One day the child was born, but Dharini died in childbirth. Somacandra assiduously cared for the child, regularly procuring buffalo milk, carrying him everywhere on his hip. But soon the nurse died as well. He pursued the upbringing of his son Valkalacirin himself. The boy grew up to be an ascetic like his father, but ignorant of the world, knowing only the forest and the life of virtue. Many years passed.

It happened one day that King Prasannacandra learned that his mother had given birth to a son, his brother, in the forest. "Immersed in the lake of royal pleasures," the worldly king pitied his brother living "a forest life like a barbarian." He summoned prostitutes to find and lure his brother away from the forest and to bring him to the palace, where he could meet him and educate him in the ways of the world.

Prasannacandra succeeded. His father was unaware of what had happened to Valkalacirin, searching everywhere for him, his tears finally blinding him. Many years passed. One day, the worldly Valkalacirin tells his brother that he feels sorrow about what happened to his father and wishes to visit the forest and find him. Prasannacandra agrees to accompany his brother. They finally discover their father, old and blind. But his sight is restored by tears of happiness. At that moment, Vakalacirin sees his past lives as a monk and ascetic, even as he remembers and treasures his youthful forest asceticism. In this moment he gains omniscience and a physical brilliance in the appearance of an enlightened monk. His father and brother bow before him, receiving instruction. Somacandra dies in bliss, and Prasannacandra, now enlightened, returns to his kingdom to rule with dignity and virtue.

2. Vipul and Vijan.

In the forests of Pratisthan lived a hermit well known for predicting the future. Villagers would gather around him, though the hermit did not like to satisfy their curiosity. He determined to move deeper into the forest until people stopped looking for him.

One day two friends, Vipul and Vijan, lost their way in the forest while traveling to Pratisthan. Night fell, and they grew fearful and looked for shelter. At last they saw a light far away and they approached cautiously. They peeped into the hut and saw a hermit sitting in the deep meditation. They easily guessed that he was the hermit known for his predictions of the future. The pair waited until the hermit finished his meditation, and then announced themselves, relating how they had gotten lost in the forest.

The compassionate hermit listened to their story and offered them the hospitality of fruits and water. He advised them to rest and sleep. At daybreak, the hermit asked one of his disciples to show the visitors a path out of forest and back to the village. But before Vipul and Vijan left, they folded their hands before the hermit and asked him to tell them of their future. The hermit declined politely, telling them that it was unwise for anyone to know the future and that sometimes the future may change. But the two friends insisted and refused to leave, until the hermit reluctantly consented. He looked at Vipul and told him that he would become a king in a year's time. He looked at Vijan and told him that he would die at the hands of an assassin in a year's time.

Leaving the forest, Vipul could not contain his joy, while Vijan was very somber.  Back in the town, Vipul behaved arrogantly, telling everyone that if they treated him wrongly he would chop off their heads when he became king. Soon everyone in the village feared and avoided him. Meanwhile, Vijan, who was a teacher, pursued his work with great devotion and spent a lot of time in prayer. He was humble and kind to everyone. Eventually his gloom dissipated, because he no longer feared death, but had surrendered himself to God.

Six months later, Vipul asked Vijan to accompany him to select the site of his future palace. Both were surveying a deserted place when Vipul stumbled across a pot full of gold coins. He was elated and told Vijan that he was going to use this money to buy a crown. At that moment, a robber watching them jumped out of a bush and tried to snatch the pot from Vipul. Vijan came to his friend's rescue. The robber attacked Vijan with a dagger. Vijan drove off the robber with only a cut on his shoulder. The grateful Vipul offered his friend half of the gold, but Vijan politely refused, saying that he was going to die soon anyway, and he would have no use for gold. Vipul spent all of the money eating, drinking, and being merry.

A full year passed but Vipul did not become king, nor did Vijan die.

The two friends went to the hermit for an explanation. The hermit sat in meditation before receiving them. Then the hermit looked at Vipul and said, "Your destiny changed because of your stupid actions over the months. The crown that was meant to come to you was reduced to a simple pot of gold which you found in the field." Then the hermit looked at Vijan and said, "Your prayers, humility, and trust in the Divine changed your destiny. Death by the hands of an assassin was changed to a mere wound by him." The two friends returned to the village in silence, thoughtful of their actions and of the meaning of life.


"Somacandra" from Hemacandra: The Lives of the Jain Elders, translated by R. C. C. Fynes. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, Canto I. "Vipul and Vijan" from JainWorld.com.