Four and Twenty Tirthankaras

Champat Rai Jain

There is a special fascination in the number four and twenty; the Hindus have twenty-four avataras (incarnations) of their favourite god, Vishnu; there are twenty-four counsellor gods of the ancient Babylonians; the Buddhists posit four and twenty previous Buddhas, that is teaching gods. The Zoroastrians also have twenty-four Ahuras who are regarded as “the mightiest to, advance desire and Dominion of blessings!”

These Great Ones are thus addressed in one of the sacred books of the Parsis :- “ Your blessings shall ye give us, all ye that are one in will, with whom right good thought, Piety and Mazda (are one), according to promise giving your aid when worshiped with reverence “ (Yasna, li. 20). But the more remarkable case of identity of thought between Jainism and a non-Jaina creed is furnished by Jewish Apocrypha. which acknowledges exactly four and twenty “faces” on the Ladder of Jacob. The explanation given is as follows:-

“ The ladder which thou sawest which had twelve steps having two human faces which changed their appearance-now this ladder is this age, and the twelve steps are the times of this age, and the twenty-four faces are the kings of the lawless heathen of this age. Under these kings will be tried (thy children’s children and the line of) thy sons . . . .”
(The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament, pages 96, 98 and 99.)

Of course, the language would not have been apocryphal had it been a little more lucid! But the true interpretation of the passage is not difficult. The term heathen refers to the non-Israelites; and the lawless are those who have risen above the dead letter of the law, that is to say, who conform to the spirit of the teaching and who have rid themselves of the petrifying outer encrustation, namely, the mere rules and regulations of the scriptures. Hence, those who have realized the Self, i.e., the divinity of their Soul, are the lawless, and their four and twenty kings are the four and twenty TIRTHANKARAS under whom shall be judged, that is to say, by whose standard, shall be judged all those who seek to attain salvation. In other words, the four and twenty Tirthankaras are models of Perfection for men, who must raise themselves to Their standard to be ‘saved.’

Such is the testimony furnished by the Jewish Esotericism, which is the only true side of their religion. Its true merit has been lost sight of owing to the allegorical vogue. which has estranged us from one another and from the Truth. When the true interpretation of the world’s apocrypha is reached, the differences will simply melt away, leaving men gaping at each other, in sheer astonishment and wonder!. Let the reader read ‘The Key of Knowledge,’ the ‘Confluence of Opposites’ and the ‘Jainism Christianity and Science’ to realize this great truth for himself.

But the most remarkable case of this doctrinal identity is furnished by the Christian Apocalypse, where the scene and the surroundings are purely Jainist. An initiation scene is laid in allegorical style. In the centre of a huge hall is placed a throne on which is placed Life (Jīva) that is Divine; round about the Throne are four and twenty seats on which sit four and twenty Elders, robed in white and wearing crowns of gold. In this Assembly is introduced the Lamb (the symbol of the soul characterized with supreme humility) that is to be initiated. In front of the Throne are four remarkable beasts : one of them is like a lion, another resembles an eagle, the third has the appearance of a calf, and the fourth has the face of a man. These beasts have six wings each, and are full of eyes all over; and they rest not night and day, but keep on blessing the One on the Throne.

Such is the scenic imagery of the hall of initiation. A detailed elucidation of it is to be found in the tenth chapter of ‘ The Key of Knowledge’ but a brief explanation may be attempted here. The beasts represent the difierept kinds of souls that are embodied in the four elements (of matter), namely, the earth-bodied (represented by the lion, since he walks on the earth), the air — bodied (represented by the eagle who flies in the air), the water bodied (represented by the calf, which is the young of the sea-mammals), and the fire-bodied (represented by the sun which is painted as the face of a man).

Wings are a symbol for time, since it flies; and the number six is descriptive of the six aras of a half-cycle in which four and twenty Tirthankaras appear and preach the Truth. Plainly put, the significance of the secret teaching is only this that Life is Divine, and its divinity is manifested most perfectly and fully in the case of four and twenty Tirthankaras, who appear in a half -cycle of time, consisting of six aras, and preach the Noble Truth to and for the benefit of the souls embodied in material bodies! Why these higher truths were couched in the mystery language that is generally unintelligible to men, will be found explained in the books named above, and cannot be repeated here.

But what are we to say to those wiseacres who think that Jainism only came into existence in the time of Mahavira or at the earliest in that of Parsva Nath, and the earlier two and twenty Tirthankaras are the outcome of the Jaina imagination ? Some of these intellectual giants had at one time relegated the Jaina Creed to the position of an offshoot of Buddhism, that was deemed to have arisen in the sixth century of the Christian era! But to-day the historicity of Parsva Nath is beyond dispute. What is really remarkable about the Jaina account is the confirmation of the number four and twenty itself from non-Jaina sources.

Source: Four And Twenty Tirthamkaras