Mallinath or Malli is the nineteenth Tirthankara (Universal Savior, from Sanskrit: “One Who Makes a River Crossing”) in the Jain religion. Recognized as a woman in the Svetambar sect of Jainism, Mallinath expresses both masculine and feminine identities in the myths about her. Mallinath reflects the tensions inherent in many societies when women are put into positions of supreme authority, and how these tensions are somewhat reduced by granting the woman in question legitimate identity as a man, thus presenting blended gender in a positive, even holy, framework. This possibility of holiness and blessing can then be extended to identities within the LGBTQ orientation (same-sex to hetero-sex), gender (feminine to masculine), and biological sex (male to female) spectra.
Mallinath’s Contested Gender
Mallinath’s identity is a point of contention between the Svetambar Jains, who believe she is a woman, and the Digambar Jains, who see him as a man. The Svetambar (“White-Clad”) Jains believe that women may achieve moksha (“enlightenment”). The Digambar (“Sky-Clad” or “Naked”) Jains, however, believe that only men can become enlightened.
Jainism holds that the jiva or soul is bound to the Earth by bad karma (the result of one’s actions). To prevent bad karma, Jains practice ahimsa (non-violence), which includes living on a modified vegetarian diet in order to prevent harming other living beings.
The Digambar position on enlightenment and sex is based on an understanding of how men’s bodies are physiologically designed in ways that allow a saintly man to achieve moksha when he does not have sex. Celibacy creates a build-up of semen that eventually results in enlightenment when it is channeled up the body into the brain. Women are thus incapable of enlightenment due to the lack of sperm production within their bodies. Women who have sex are even further away from achieving moksha. Their vaginas are home to millions of tiny beings that are killed when the woman engages in sexual intercourse.
Svetambar Jains not only believe that Mallinath was a woman-savior, but also that the first person to become enlightened in this age was Marudevi, mother of the first Tirthankara, Adinath (also known as Rishabh). Special devotion is given to Marudevi, as with all the mothers of the twenty-four Tirthankaras.
Soul of a Man, Body of a Woman
Even within Svetambar Jainism, Mallinath’s identity as a woman is not unconditional. She is the incarnation of a great holy man who made a vow with six other holy men to practice self-denial together. But pride crept into his mind, and he was secretly more severe in his fasting than the others (alternative version: he was ill and therefore ate less, thus breaking his word). He was punished by being reborn female.
But to say that Mallinath was an enlightened man occupying a woman’s body would be too simple an explanation. Her name, “Malli,” means “jasmine” in Sanskrit, and she was especially fond of flowers. Her appearance was beautiful, not unusual for Tirthankaras, who are excellent in every way, but her feminine beauty plays a major part in stories about her. To privilege her masculine identity over her femininity would subvert the myths about her as feminine and attractive, and would also imply that those men who were erotically attracted to her were in reality attracted to another man.
One argument brought up by Digambar Jains to confirm Mallinath’s masculine identity is that statues of Mallinath do not appear to be female, a stance that cannot be confirmed absolutely because, unlike other Tirthankaras who are sometimes portrayed naked and standing (exposing their male genitalia to view), Mallinath is shown seated in the lotus position, with hands covering the groin. Svetambar response to the Digambar argument includes the following: Mallinath does not look like a woman in much of her iconography because she attained moksha before she reached puberty.
The issue of gendered representation should be understood in the context in which images of the Tirthankaras are made. There is often a single iconic image used for all Tirthankaras, with identifying symbols added to specify which of the twenty-four Jina (Sanskrit: “hero”) is being represented.
Sex and Anti-Violence
One important myth of Mallinath describes how her beauty inspired her suitors (including the six holy men who had been her companions in her former life) to threaten each other and almost in warfare over her hand in marriage.
Disapproving their aggressive posturing, Mallinath used her beauty to teach the suitors a lesson. She had a hollow lifelike image made of herself, stuffed it full of rotting food, sealed it, and invited all the suitors to come see her at the same time, but did not let the suitors know that others were there. Each one was isolated in a separate room in front of the statue that he believed to be Mallinath herself, and that he alone could see her. Completely deceived, each man was enraptured with what he thought was Mallinath until she opened up the statue and the foul smell of putrid food filled the air. When the choking suitors complained, she revealed herself to them, and the men to each other. She then gave a sermon on the illusion of physical beauty, including her own, and helped her six former colleagues attain moksha.
The myth is remarkable in the ways gender and power are portrayed, displayed, and subverted, ending with Mallinath as a woman in the position of authority over men and as a universal savior. Although the story of Mallinath’s incarnation as a Tirthankara initially bases her authority on her masculine identity in her former life, her feminine identity is the position from which she attracts men, and then teaches men that gender has no importance when taking the path to salvation.
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