Located on the Vidyagiri hills at the Jain pilgrimage site of Shravanabelagola near Bangalore is the colossal sized monolithic statue of the Jain God Bahubali or Gomateshwara. The 57-foot piece of granite has been meticulously carved out to produce a majestic figure with half-closed eyes and a gentle, serene smile. Jain poet Hemchandra had described the Gommateshwara statue as “verily the personification of tranquillity”. Every 12 years, this piece of Jain craftsmanship is visited by thousands of pilgrims from around the world for a ceremony known as the Mahamastakabhisheka, or the anointing of the statue in the presence of Jain acharyas. This year though the festival is being attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is currently visiting the poll-bound state of Karnataka.
The Bahubali Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav is believed to be one of the most important religious occasions for Jains who leave no stone unturned in ensuring a splendid execution of the ritual. The festival was inaugurated by president Ram Nath Kovind on February 7 and will conclude with the visit of the prime minister. Interestingly, though the Mahamastakabhisheka ceremony is widely known to be a mark of Jain religiosity, it is also historically believed to be a moment when political leadership has been involved in the event and also when social reforms were carried out in Karnataka.
Who is Bahubali?
The son of the first Tirthankara of Jainism, Bahubali is a revered figure among the Jains. Jain mythology holds up Bahubali as the one who succeeded in attaining liberty from worldly desires through a long period of sustained meditation. The story of Bahubali, though varied in details, is that of a ruler who won against his brother and was filled with grief over his actions and therefore abandoned his possessions and kingdom in search for omniscience. The Jain poet Bopanna wrote of him as the one who “gave back the whole earth though he had completely conquered it”.
The virtues of Bahubali are celebrated not just in the gigantic statue at Shravanabelagola, but there are various other figures created of him at Karakala, Dharamasthala, Venur and Gommatagiri. His story is narrated in Sanskrit texts like the Adi Purana and the Bahubali charitra as well as in Kannada literary texts and poems.
What is the Gomateshwara statue at Shravanabelagola?
Widely believed to be one of the largest free-standing statues in the world, the Gomateshwara at Shravanabelagola was built in 983 AD. It is known to have been commissioned by the ruler and minister of the Ganga dynasty, Chamunda-Raya. Although, it is uncertain whether Chamunda-Raya actually got the statue built or whether it already existed at the site and the minister discovered it through a divine intervention.
In any case, a large number of inscriptions at the site give references to Chamunda-Raya being the one who brought to public notice the Gomateshwara statue and also arranged for its anointment. So much was he appreciated for his efforts that he was given the epithet, Gommta-Raya.
The image of Gomateshwara is nude and stands tall facing north. The shoulders are broad and the arms hang straight down the sides. The lower portion of the body is shown to be covered in ant hills, while the face has so created that it shines in meditative spirit with a serene smile on his face. Such large images of religious figures are common in all parts of the world where Jainism and Buddhism exists, but the one at Shravabelagola is believed to be the largest of such idols.
What is the Bahubali Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav?
Chamunda-Raya did not just install the the Gomateshwara statue at Shravanabelagola but also performed the great ceremony of consecration of the image on March 13, in 981 AD. The event was carried out in the precise manners prescribed in the Jain scriptures and in the scale and grandeur befitting the enormity of the image. Eventually, this ceremony of anointing came to be referred to at the Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav and was carried out every 10 to 15 years at an auspicious moment decided on the basis of the positioning of heavenly bodies. Over time, the event is decidedly carried out every 12 years on a grand scale with thousands of priests and pilgrims gracing the event. Last time the Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav took place in 2006.
From the twentieth century on, the event came to be graced by the visit of several political figures as well. In March 1910, during the Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav, Krishna-Rajendra Wodeyar attended the ceremony and also performed the worship of the statue of Bahubali. At the same event, a special session of the All-India Jain Digambara Jaina Mahasabha was held wherein several social reform resolutions were passed. One such resolution was the decision to impart religious education along with Western education. Accordingly, several Jain boarding schools were opened in various parts of the country. The ceremony that took place in 1940 was marked by the fact that it was completely managed by the Muzrai department of the Mysore state, instead of the Jain religious committee that had hitherto been managing it.
With the president inaugurating the Mahamastakabhisheka Mahotsav this year and the prime minister visiting it, the ceremony has yet again acquired a political significance.