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.
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.
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.
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.
Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.
Apabhraṃśa is an umbrella term for the dialects that were the forerunners of modern Indian languages. Taken from the Sanskrit term apabhraṃśa, which literally means 'corrupt' or 'non-grammatical language', Apabhraṃśa was used to write a large number of Jain texts. Though Apabhraṃśa developed over the 6th to 13th centuries, literary works date back to the 8th century.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.
The religion founded by Buddha, often called the 'Middle Way' between the self-indulgence of worldly life and the self-mortification of a very ascetic way of life. Buddhism has similarities to Jain belief but some significant differences. For example, Buddhists hold that the world around us is a short-lived illusion and do not believe in individual, everlasting souls.
A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:
Both sects are practised in India.
A religion based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ or Anointed One. Jesus is an historically attested figure, who lived around 4 BCE to 30 CE in modern Israel. Adherents hold that Jesus is the Messiah or saviour, fulfilling a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.
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.
From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
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.
Sanskrit term meaning both:
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
The majority faith in India, often called Sanātana Dharma or Eternal Law. With no single named founder, Hinduism has a pantheon of gods and a range of different beliefs. Most Hindu traditions revere the Veda literature but there is no single system of salvation or belief, although many Hindus believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Large Hindu communities exist in southern Asia, with smaller groups across the world.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
The academic study of the civilisations found in the Indian subcontinent, chiefly their history, languages and literature. Also known as South Asian studies, Indology covers the modern states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
Born in Scotland, James Burgess (1832—1916) published many volumes on Indian architecture and became director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1886 to 1889. He is best known for his work documenting significant architectural sites in western India between 1871 and 1885 and for establishing the journals Indian Antiquary in 1872 and Epigraphica Indica in 1888.
The Book of Ritual attributed to Bhadrabāhu. It has three sections:
A significant sacred text for Śvetāmbara Jains, the Kalpa-sūtra has a central role in the annual Paryuṣaṇ festival.
State in south-west India.
Pulling out one’s hair in handfuls in a symbolic gesture as a part of the religious initiation known as dīkṣā. Only mendicants do this, and they do it regularly in their monastic life.
Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century.
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.
Bordering on the Arabian Sea, Māhārāṣṭra in central India is the third-largest and the richest state in India. Its capital is Mumbai and the official language is Marathi.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
A single-sex group of ascetics that vows to follow rules set out by a founding religious teacher. They formally renounce the world to become monks and nuns. They usually have a hierarchy of leaders at different levels to govern them.
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.
Modern Indo-aryan language term from the Sanskrit ‘mukhavastrikā'. The small rectangular piece of cloth permanently fixed over the mouth by some mendicant orders. This is to avoid being violent accidentally, either by inhaling tiny creatures or killing them by breathing over them unexpectedly.
This is not the same as the mouth-cover used on some occasions by other mendicants and by laypeople when they perform certain rites.
The capital of the state of Mahārāṣṭra, the city of Mumbai is the biggest and richest in India. Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is the centre of Indian film-making and commercial activities.
Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.
Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.
The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.
A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
'Learned one' in Sanskrit and used originally for a Hindu brahmin scholar and teacher. Nowadays a Jain pandit is a scholar who has been educated traditionally and is expert in the sacred texts of at least one of the Jain sects.
The study of texts with a focus on language. It covers the historical development and structures of languages, and of written records. Philologists may be interested in establishing the authenticity or age of a text or in tracing the introduction and evolution in usage of certain terms or languages.
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.
Someone who protests against the established doctrine and practices of his or her religion. Protestants try to return their religion to a purer condition, free of the corruption and misunderstanding they believe has grown up.
Originally used of Europeans in the late medieval period who raised formal objections to the practices and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, triggering the Reformation.
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
The cotton-thread broom used by some groups of Śvetāmbara ascetics to sweep the ground before sitting, for example, so no insects or small creatures are harmed by mistake. It is also used by lay Jains when performing certain rites.
'Eating at night'. No Jains should eat after dark because of the greater risk of unknowingly eating living beings. It is counted as a supplement to the five Greater Vows of the ascetics. Lay Jains should also observe it, but not all of them do so.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
One of the four main Hindu sects, in which the faithful worship Śiva as the supreme being. There are various strands of Śaivism but many devotees daub sacred ash on their foreheads and other parts of their bodies. Some Śaivites may also use cannabis as a sacred offering or smoke it as part of a spiritual experience.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
A special category of nuns in the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect. The nuns are officially free from certain rules restricting their movements and can visit institutions in India or go abroad to pursue academic research or minister to the Jain diaspora.
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
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.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
A title of respect often used to indicate holiness or divinity. It honours a person or place and is also added to the name of written or sung texts, such as scriptures. It is added before the name, for example Śrī Ṛṣabha.
The Indian or South Asian subcontinent is a term for the geographical area roughly covering modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A subsect of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin, which originated in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The Terāpanthin do not worship images. One of the sect's best-known leaders was Ācārya Tulsī, who created a new category of ascetics in 1980. These samaṇ and samaṇī are allowed to travel using mechanised transport and to use money.
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.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
A cluster of many temples built so close together that they form a group as large as a small town or city. No one lives in a temple-city, which has no shops or other buildings found in normal towns, because it is dedicated to worship. Consisting solely of temples and other religious buildings, usually linked by streets, a temple-city is visited by pilgrims and priests.
One of the four main Hindu traditions, which worships Viṣṇu – or his avatars Rāma and Kṛṣṇa – as the original and supreme deity.
The everyday or common language spoken by people in a particular country or region, often contrasting with the literary form or the national or official language. Similarly, vernacular architecture reflects local conditions and conventions more than other considerations, such as national or international design trends, and may be built by non-professional architects.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Among the Śvetāmbaras, a spiritually advanced lay man. It may also refer to a Jain monk.