Unlike Emperor Asoka who became a convert to Buddhism after the Kalinga War, Emperor Kharavela was a born Jaina.
Most likely, the Chedi Kings of Kalinga were the devout followers of Jainism. Therefore, right from the beginning of his rule, Kharavela became a patron of Jainism and did whatever he could to promote the cause of that religion.
A devout Jaina himself, Kharavela did the same for Jainism what Kanishka or Harsha did for Buddhism. His Hatigumpha Inscription opened with salutes to the Jaina Arhatas and the Siddhas to proclaim his devotion to Jainism. The inscription also contained sacred Jaina symbols.
As a Jaina monarch, Kharavela tried to uphold the honour of Jainism even during his military campaigns. In the eighth year of his reign, he drove out the Indo-Greeks from the sacred city of Mathura which in those days was a centre of Jainism, visited by large number of Jaina pilgrims from other parts of India.
After making that place free of the Yavanas, Kharavela brought from Mathura the sacred “Kalpa Tree burdened with foliage” in a religious-cum-military procession to Kalinga. This act of Kharavela might have not only restored Mathura to its fame as a place of Jaina pilgrimage, but the procession over a long route also would have roused the people’s devotion to Jainism.
In the twelfth year of his reign, when Kharavela won his crowning glory over Magadha, he turned that victory into a religious victory for his Jaina subjects of Kalinga. Centuries ago the Nanda King of Magadha had taken away from Kalinga the image of the Kalinga Jina (according to some, the Seat of Kalinga Jina) which was an object of great veneration. Kalinga had not forgotten the loss of that sacred thing. Kharavela properly used his royal power to bring back that image after he humbled Magadha with his military power.
He thus combined his political achievement with his religious objectives. The recovery of the Kalinga Jina image from Magadha and its restoration in Kalinga at its original seat might have given a new life to Jainism in the Kalinga Empire. According to some scholars, this image was the image of Rishabhanatha who was one of the Jaina Tirthankaras and who belonged to Kalinga.
It was in the thirteenth year of his reign that Kharavela took up his real religious activities as a Jaina monarch. He seems to have retired from political activities during that year to take up religious works of immense merit. He selected the Kumari Parvata or the Udayagiri Hill for his religious mission. The Hatigumpha Inscription presents a vivid picture of Kharavela’s activities at that place where Mahavira Jaina himself had preached Jainism in 6th century B.C. The inscription describes the Kumari hill as the place “where the Wheel of Victory had been well turned”, meaning thereby Mahavira’s preaching at that sacred place.
Kharavela was a Svetambara Jaina though he respected all other sects of Jainas with equal veneration. At the Kumari hill, he engaged himself as the worshiper of the Jaina monks who used to clothe themselves in fine cloth. For them and for other monks he excavated many caves in the Kumari hill for their shelter in the rainy season, and also to serve the purpose of “dwelling cells for the resting of the bodies of the Yapannapaka Arhatas who had renounced their sustenance.” These Jaina monks were the believers in extreme penances to attain salvation by giving up everything, including cloth.
Kharavela’s presence in the Kumari hill gave that place a new dimension. It became a famous centre of religious discourses. Not only that it attracted Jaina monks from everywhere, but that it also attracted the saints of other faiths for religious practices. The Hatigumpha Inscription describes that many celebrated Sramanas and Yatis or the Jaina saints, many Tapasas and Rishis or the saints of Brahminical faith, and many Samghayanas or the Buddhist bhikshus came there from all corners of India.
For such religious men of the whole country, Kharavela took up huge construction works for their shelter, near to the dwelling places of the Arhatas. At the desire of one of his queens, named as the Queen of Simhapatha, Kharavela undertook this construction “with thirty five hundred thousand stone slabs, raised from the best quarries and from a distance of many yojanas.” This magnificent house had a pink coloured floor with “pillars bedecked with emerald at a cost of one hundred and five thousand.” Kharavela also “caused to erect towers with strong and beautiful gateways” at that place.
The inscription further mentions that during that year Kharavela revived the traditional performances of dance, song and concert, known as the Tauryatrika, and which had sixty-four branches of art. These performances obviously contained much of religious themes, besides artistic charm, to entertain the people in a nobler way.
For such religious activities of a royal patron, Jainism received a fresh vigour and encouragement. He was one of the greatest champions of that faith even though he was tolerant to all other faiths.
The examples of Kharavela’s religious works at the Kumari hill inspired his near ones to take up similar activities. The twin hills of Udayagiri and Khandagiri thus became a place of extraordinary architectural enterprise. The chief queen of Kharavela, as well as the princes of the royal house, Kudepasiri and Vadukha, excavated a number of caves and dwelling places for the Jaina monks. Even the chief officers and nobles of Kharavela dedicated caves to the Arhatas for their stay and religious practices.
Thus that Kharavela attained fame for his religious achievements during the brief period of his rule. Jainism was at its zenith in Kalinga at the time of Kharavela. As Kharavela’s political influence was felt over a larger part of India, his support for Jainism would have carried the influence of that religion to different corners of the country. Above all, Kharavela’s numerous caves and edifices at Udayagiri-Khandagiri hills raised the fame of that place as one of the sacred most religious centres of all India. More than two thousand years after Kharavela the place stands as a monument to his greatness as a monarch and a savant.
After describing his religious achievements in the thirteenth year of his reign, the Hatigumpha Inscription concluded itself by describing Kharavela as the “King of bliss, the King of Prosperity, the Bhikashu King and the King of Dhamma, the mighty conqueror Sri Kharavela, the descendant of Rajarsi Vasu, the embodiment of specific qualities, the worshiper of all religious order, the repairer of all shrines of gods, the possessor of invincible armies, the upholder of law, the protector of law, and the executor of law, having seen, heard and felt all that is good.” But this imperial patron of Jainism was in no case intolerant towards his Hindu or Buddhist subjects. Magnanimous and benevolent towards all the religions and creeds, Kharavela was a true products of the spiritual culture of ancient India.