Article: Studying Jainism

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Early contact between Jains and Western visitors to India in the early 16th century gradually led to a more scholarly approach to the Jain faith on the part of many Westerners. The academic study of Jainism was born at the end of the 19th century. Since then it has developed in many different ways in several places, both in India and outside. More and more scholars in India and the West are joining this relatively new field of academic research. Beginning with textual and linguistic approaches to Jain holy writings, the study of Jainism in Western universities has branched out more recently into fields such as art, sociology and anthropology.

Research into and study of Jainism in India has also grown, with the establishment of research centres and universities dedicated to Jain studies. The attitudes of the various sects differ regarding education in religious studies but both lay and mendicant Jains are increasingly undertaking formal study of Jainism within the university system.

Seminars and conferences discussing Jain studies – for which some people use the term ‘Jainology’ – are becoming more frequent. Books and online resources on Jain studies are also on the rise. In Western countries where significant Jain communities live, there is ever-greater interest in the study of Jainism, resulting in various activities. The JAINpedia website and project is one outcome of this trend. Jain studies may be represented by a handful of scholars in each country outside India, but they form an active minority.

Western discovery of the Jains

Meetings in India between Western visitors and Jains were recorded from the early 16th century. Europeans who visited the subcontinent to carry out business or to evangelise Christianity sometimes met Jains, whom they initially found almost impossible to understand. A fascination with the most visible differences from their own customs is the hallmark of European records of these encounters.

As Europeans became more familiar with India over the following centuries, they often documented in great detail what they noticed about the people and places they met. They were strongly struck by the holy places of Jainism and centres of pilgrimage, especially the colossal statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola and the huge temple-city of Shatrunjaya. However, close contact with Jains, their scriptures and their religious practices took place chiefly in the context of the European colonisation of India, especially British India. Western merchants, missionaries, scholars, soldiers and civil servants built up their knowledge of what they found in India in large part from their encounters with local people. This was probably the most decisive factor in the Europeans’ dawning recognition of the unique nature of the Jain faith.

First encounters with Jains – intriguing people

First published in 1916, this photograph shows three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks sitting cross-legged, a boy monk on the left. Initiation as a child still occurs today, though rarely. In the colonial period many Britons became very interested in India

Three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks
Image by R. V. Russell and Rai Bahadur Hira Lāl © public domain

The first meetings between Jains and European visitors to India produced deep cultural shock in the latter. The visible signs of the Jain faith – people and places – struck foreigners very strongly but at that time there was still no place for something called ‘Jainism’ – a doctrine and tradition, a set of principles.

The main early evidence of Europeans coming into contact with Jains in India dates back to the 16th to 17th centuries. The Europeans were Portuguese, Dutch, British, Italians or French who travelled to the western Indian coast or to southern India for trading or missionary purposes. Those travelling in western India came face to face with people whom they often called ‘Baniyans’ or merchants. In their parlance, this means Jains.

Occasionally the Europeans came across people they called ‘Vartia’ or ‘Vertea’. This term is an approximate rendering of the Indian word vratya – roughly ‘those who take vows’ – and refers to Jain monks. These travellers often mentioned that the Jains wore mouth-masks or mouth-cloths and carried cotton brooms to avoid killing insects. Recurring features in the travellers’ accounts are the muṃhpatti and the rajoharaṇa, along with the plucking out of the hair, prohibition on eating at night and fasting unto death. Records of these encounters show that the travellers were rather puzzled and embarrassed.

In some cases, they went into more detail about what they observed. For example, a Scots sea captain named Alexander Hamilton described the monastic equipment of Śvetāmbara ascetics rather precisely. Henry Lord, an Anglican chaplain, is the first to name some Jain monastic groups, the Tapā-gaccha and the Kharatara-gaccha, as well as the festival of Paryuṣaṇ – ‘Putcheson’ as he called it. The Anglican clergyman John Ovington wrote A Journey to Surat in the year 1689. Here he went a step further than his fellow British travellers, supplementing his descriptions of Jain behaviour with explanations he must have got from oral informants.

In south India, the Jesuit Father Roberto de Nobili, the founder of the Madurai mission in 1606, gave an account of the troubled relations between Jains and Śaivas in the Tamil country. This is based on a Jain text, although he uses the label ‘Buddhist tradition’. In the 18th century the Jesuit Beschi and the Protestant Ziegenbalg intuited the important place held by Jains in the religious history and culture of south India. Jesuit missionaries coming from France in the 18th century, such as Father Coeurdoux or Abbé Dubois, also drew on Jain accounts of their own history. See Williams 1977 and Orr 2009 for more about these and other early contacts between Jains and Western Europeans.

Most observers, especially in western India, were struck by the appearance of Jain ascetics and by behaviours showing such profound respect for life – ahiṃsā – that they found it beyond understanding. The utter foreignness of what they observed meant they did not know how to assess what they saw or what to think about it. This is why they largely remained at the surface, describing only the visible signs of practices that were totally alien to their intellectual framework. To some extent, the part played by Jains in south India seems to have been realised in a better way and earlier.

Encounters with places and monuments – uncommon artistic achievements

Buchanan's sketch of Bāhubali

Buchanan's sketch of Bāhubali
Image by  © Heidelberg University Library

During the British control of India, imperial civil servants frequently travelled and conducted investigations of Indian life, mainly for administrative purposes. These led them to discover visible traces of Indian culture, to which the Jain tradition belongs, whether or not they were able to identify them as Jain.

The colossal Digambara statues of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola and Karkala were among those which struck Colin Mackenzie (1753–1821) and Francis Buchanan (1762–1829). These two men were among the first and most significant Europeans to discover the rich heritage of Jainism in south India, especially Karnataka (Orr 2009 and Howes 2010).

On the other hand, Jain monuments in western India were deliberately reviewed and described by British archaeologists, such as James Burgess and Henry Cousens. Regional branches of the Archaeological Survey of India carried out systematic tours cataloguing items of interest during the 19th century, including the famous temple-city of Mount Shatrunjaya.

The English botanical artist Marianne North is one of several widely travelled individuals who produced sketches or paintings of Jain monuments without necessarily knowing exactly what they were.

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