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Browsing: Vijñapti-patra (Or. 16192)

Image: Invitation to a monk

Title: Invitation to a monk

Source:
The British Library Board
Shelfmark:
Or. 16192
Author:
unknown
Date of creation:
1744
Folio number:
NA
Total number of folios:
1 large size
Place of creation:
unknown
Language:
Sanskrit, Prākrit and Rajasthani
Medium:
gouache on paper
Size:
20 x 501 cms
Copyright:
CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Image copyright: Creative Commons Public Domain

Background

This is an invitation scroll – vijñapti-patra – used in the Jain context. It is a formal letter of request from a particular lay community inviting a Jain teacher and his companions to their village or area. The lay people usually invite the group to come for the rainy season, when the monks and nuns have to stay in one place. This letter – kāgala orlekhaṇa – was sent some time between 1744 CE and 1801 of the Vikrama era by the community of Sirohi, near Abu in Rajasthan. The lay people invite the monk Jinabhakti-sūri of the Kharatara-gaccha, who is currently in Radhanpur in north Gujarat.

In its full form such a letter represents a skilful combination of generally splendid paintings with ornate descriptions or poems of praise. It might happen that different Jain communities compete to invite the same monk. Only the most convincing letter would be rewarded by his agreement. Thus a vijñapti-patra uses rhetorical patterns and embellishments in a highly formalised manner, for it is a literary genre with well-recognised features.

The paintings, which come first as the scroll is unrolled, are generally either religious and non-religious scenes. Both kinds are in this British Library document. They are visual representations of auspiciousness, wealth and joy.

Around 100 lines long, the text is written in formal script and style, with Sanskrit, Prakrit and Gujarati found alternately or side by side. Lengthy prose developments unfold all the qualities of a Jain teacher.

Besides such descriptions, the letters of invitation generally include one or several verse compositions. In this example, there is only one. Its purpose is to praise the teacher but also to express the devotion and nostalgic affection of the senders, using bhakti terminology and imagery.

The final part of the text, which has only 25 lines here, is written in cursive Rajasthani script and language. It lists the names and castes of the members of the lay community who present the request. 

As in many Indian epigraphical documents, the literary part is in Sanskrit and the performative or practical part in the local language of the region.

The vogue for writing such letters of invitation to Jain monks dates from the late medieval period to the  end of the 19th century. It is geographically restricted to Rajasthan and Gujarat in western India. Examplesknown so far mostly concern monks from the Tapā-gaccha and from the Kharatara-gaccha mendicant orders. The latter, however, are less numerous. 

An important stronghold of Jainism and a centre of political power and business, Sirohi is famous as a brilliant artistic centre. This invitation scroll is one of several known so far to have come from this place.

Jinabhakti-sūri, the teacher named in the London document, is probably the 66th or 67th pontiff of the Kharatara-gaccha. Born in V.S. 1770, he had a short life, being initiated into the order in V.S. 1779, becoming sūri in V.S. 1780 and dying in V.S. 1804 in Mandvi. A short poem in Gujarati dedicated to him as the Kharataragaccha nāyaka was written by someone called Dharmasī in V.S. 1799. Published in 1994, the poem is accompanied by a painting of the pontiff from a private collection.

Such invitation scrolls are rare in public institutions outside India, although they have recently entered the art market in increasing numbers. This is one more element which makes the London document very valuable.

Glossary

Common Era
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
Jain
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
Kāla
Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.
Kharatara-gaccha
Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century. 
Saṇgha
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
Sūri
A title for the leader of a religious order among the Śvetāmbaras. It is a higher position than ācārya.
Tapā-gaccha
A Śvetāmbara mūrti-pūjaka sect, first established in the 13th century and reformed from the 19th century. Today nearly all mūrti-pūjak mendicants belong to this sect.
Initiation
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Laity
Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.
Monk
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
Rainy season
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
Vijñapti-patra
A highly decorated formal letter inviting a leading monk of a certain monastic group to spend the next rainy season in a certain place. Sent by lay people, the vijñapti-patra is a speciality of the Śvetāmbara Kharatara-gaccha and Tapā-gaccha communities.
Bhakti
From the Sanskrit for 'devotion', the bhakti movement originated in the late medieval period. It revolved around the emotional experience of devotion to religious figures and gods, stressing that caste, ritual and complex religious philosophy were unimportant compared to expressing overwhelming love for the deities. Showing this by repeatedly chanting the deity’s name is a powerful devotional practice, because the chanter both praises the god and moves nearer to spiritual self-realisation. These emotional experiences were often recorded in poetry and hymns, which became a repertoire of devotional hymns for later devotees.
Sanskrit
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Gujarati
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
Prākrit
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
Gujarāt
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
Rajasthan
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
Rajasthani
The language spoken in Rajasthan, in north-western India, and surrounding states. It is also spoken in some parts of neighbouring Pakistan. Also the adjective describing people, things or places in or associated with the state of Rajasthan.
Auspicious
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 
Caste
Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:
  • Brāhmaṇa – priest
  • Kṣatriya – warrior
  • Vaśya – merchant or farmer
  • Śūdra – labourer.
Relating to ritual purity, castes are hereditary and probably based on occupation. Members of different castes performed particular socio-economic roles and did not mix or eat the same food. People outside the caste system were usually looked down upon.
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