- The Tirthankaras (ford crossers), those who have crossed the ocean of birth and rebirth and have been released from the bonds of KARMA, are the central objects of devotion for Jains (see JAINISM). A Tirthankara is a karmically select being, not a god, but a perfected YOGI who has reached enlight-enment. At rare intervals, such people appear in this world to teach and promulgate the tradition of the Jains. Technically, no one can become com-pletely released from karma until death; Jains use the term Tirthankara in anticipation of the libera-tion from karma that these venerated beings have earned.In each “half-era,” 24 Tirthankaras manifest. Such events have transpired for an infinite num-ber of eons and will do so in the future; thus, there have been an infinite number of Tirthan-karas, in theory. Besides, Jain cosmology posits numerous other realms beyond our Earth where other Tirthankaras manifest, so it is understood that though we have no living Tirthankara here on Earth, there is always one alive somewhere in the universe.In Jain temples the Tirthankara is often the central icon in the shrine, usually depicted at his or her moment of enlightenment and first teaching, surrounded above and around by all the gods, humans, and animals present to hear the teaching. The 24 Tirthankaras of the current half of a cosmic cycle: RISHABHA, Ajita, Sambhava, Abhinandana, Sumati, Padmaprabha, Suparshva, Chandraprabha, Suvidhi/Puspadanta, Shitala, Sreyamsa, Vasupujya, Vimala, Ananta, Dharma, Shanti, Kunthu, Ara, Malli, Munisuvrata, Nami, Nemi, PARSHVANATH/MAHAVIRA.DIGAMBARA and SHVETAMBARA Jains agree on this list; however, the Shvetambara believe that Malli was a woman, while the Digambaras do not accept that women can achieve enlightenment or release from karma in a female birth. Most often the names of the Tirthankaras are followed by the term Natha, or “Lord,” for example, Parshvanath. The final Tirthankara of our half of a cosmic cycle, MAHAVIRA, however, is generally not addressed this way. In iconography, the first Tirthankara and the last three are by far the most commonly seen.Further reading: Jyotindra Jain and Eberhard Fischer, Jaina Iconography, 2 vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978); P. S. Jaini, The Jaina Path of Purification (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979); T. G. Kalghatgi, Tirthankara Parsva-natha: A Study (Mysore: Dept. of Jainology and Prakrits, University of Mysore, 1977).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.