Article: Studying Jainism

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Encounters with people – a decisive factor

This 1822 manuscript painting shows the British soldier James Tod on an elephant. The information on the geography, history and social customs of central and western India which Tod collected in the early 19th century influenced European ideas of India

Captain James Tod mounted on an elephant
Image by San Diego Museum of Art © public domain; Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Encounters with living Jains, who had direct access to their tradition, have been decisive factors in helping Europeans understand that there is a specific Jain identity. These encounters mostly took place within an official context. British officers posted in India from the 18th century onwards had Indian informants and assistants for the various tasks they had to fulfil. Scholars of south Asian cultures also met Jains while researching their work.

The 18th-century French Jesuit Abbé Dubois is considered ‘the first missionary who came into personal contact with a member of South India’s Jain community’ (Orr 2009: 267).

Posted to south India, Francis Whyte Ellis (1777–1819) was in direct contact with the chief guru of Shravana Belgola in Karnataka.

In Calcutta at the beginning of the 19th century, Henry Thomas Colebrooke was in close contact with a member of the prominent Jagatseth family, Jains who later turned Vaiṣṇavas. The Jagatseth connection was the main source of the Jain manuscripts that later formed the Colebroke collection at the India Office Library, now part of the British Library.

In 1802 the Scottish soldier Alexander Walker was appointed the first political resident at the court of Baroda in Gujarat and wrote Narratives of the Mahrattah History and an Account of the Jeyn or Shravacca Religion. In this book he refers to information from members of the Śvetāmbara monastic community. He shows sympathy towards the Jains and a rather intimate knowledge of the Gujarati Jains of his time. In his still unpublished work (see Luithle-Hardenberg, forthcoming), he also rightly insists on differentiating the Jain religion from the ‘Hindoo faith’.

European scholars who travelled in western India during the 19th century refer to various Śvetāmbara mendicants as having introduced them to temple-libraries or having informed them about the past and present of Jains in the region. An example is James Tod, who travelled in Gujarat and Rajasthan between 1819 and 1823 and mentions Yati Jñānacandra from the Kharatara-gaccha monastic order.

In this period individual Jains were important contacts for Westerners in India, either as assistants to scholars and administrators, or as sources of information.

Among the assistants in South India to Colin Mackenzie, Surveyor General of India from 1784 to 1821, was a Jain physician called Durmiah and, later, his son. They were instrumental in deciphering inscriptions, providing information about their faith’s past and present and introducing the right people.

When the search for Jain manuscripts was organised systematically in western India in the 19th century, Jain individuals played an important role. One such case is that of Bhagavandas Kevaldas (1850–1900). He was employed by the Department of Education of the Bombay Presidency for tours undertaken in search of Jain manuscripts all over Gujarat and Rajasthan during the 1880s. As a learned Jain from Surat, he had several helpful connections with local owners. Not only did he work officially for the Bombay Presidency, but he also helped individual scholars and libraries in Europe to buy manuscripts.

‘Jainism’ established as a specific tradition

Interested in Indian life, Colin Mackenzie hired learned Indians to help him research topics such as history and religion. This painting depicts Mackenzie with his Jain and Telegu brahmin assistants and on his left, holding a telescope, his peon, Kistnaji

Colin Mackenzie and his assistants
Image by anonymous copy of Thomas Hickey's oil © public domain

Discovery of texts and monuments, encounters with people and manuscripts slowly paved the way to the recognition of Jainism as a tradition distinct both from Hinduism and Buddhism. The 1809 contributions by Mackenzie and Colebrooke to Asiatick Researches are still hesitant in this respect. To some extent, they recognise the differences from Hinduism, but Buddhism is more problematic. Jainism and Buddhism were clearly distinguished by Hermann Jacobi seventy years later.

 In the 1879 introduction to his edition of the Kalpa-sūtra, Jacobi shows that, though Jainism shares features with Buddhism, it is neither identical nor an offshoot. Instead, it is a tradition that evolved independently in the same geographical area of eastern India at around the same period, in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.

The distinction between these two religions had been prepared and was continued by the works of another master of Indology and Jain studies, Albrecht Weber, who:

  • in 1865 to 1866 published part of the Bhagavatī-sūtra, which forms the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, and is one of the richest in content
  • in 1883 to 1885 published a detailed description of the sacred works of the Jains, which was entirely based on the manuscripts collected for the Berlin Royal Library in the 1870s.

The Jainism that Western scholars discovered belongs to the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka tradition rather than to the other main sect of the Digambaras. This is explained partly by the fact that Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka Jains were more visible in the Indian society of that time. Digambaras, especially, were rather a suppressed minority during British rule. A notable exception to this concentration on Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka sects was the first Surveyor General of India, Colin Mackenzie. He focused on south India and collected a lot of material, as yet partly unexplored, on the Tamil tradition of Jainism.

Trends in Jain studies

This manuscript painting depicts some of the dreams of the woman carrying a Jina. According to the Śvetāmbaras, she has 14 dreams while the Digambaras say 16. Twelve Śvetāmbara dreams are shown here, minus the sixth and seventh – the moon and the sun.

Dreams of an expectant mother
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

At the end of the 19th century the Jain tradition’s distinctive nature was established by textual study. Transmitted through manuscripts, holy texts demonstrated Jain uniqueness to researchers more than investigations of contemporary Jains. Jains did not figure prominently in Indian society at the time, although observations of contemporary Jain practices did exist. The wealth of written matter and the low profile of Jains in 19th-century India explain, at least partly, why textual studies were the focus of scholarly efforts for a long time. It is an exaggeration to state that the philologists of the 19th and 20th centuries concentrated only on the past, ignoring living Jainism. It is true that the first Western studies dealt with the early scriptures, especially those of the Śvetāmbaras. However, the languages of these scriptures are varieties of Prakrits that had to be explored at the same time as the contents of the texts, as both were equally unknown in the West. Hence editions, translations and linguistic analyses were academics’ main activities.

It has often been remarked that serious work on Jain scriptures in the West did not necessarily go with sympathy for their contents or liking of their style. Indeed, judgmental comments minimising or disparaging the contribution of Jainism to world faiths, especially when compared to Buddhism, have been made quite frequently. Today they are shocking or simply out of place. But this was not the attitude of all scholars. Those who had contact with living Jains and observed them carefully often realised the originality and intellectual interest of their views on the world.

Today, textual studies have diversified, concentrating as much on later scriptures as on the early tradition and including literature in vernacular languages. This has led to scholarly activities in the following areas:

  • Jain philosophical works, in Sanskrit
  • dialogue between Jain and Buddhist thought
  • inter-sectarian debates
  • Jain narrative literature.

Coming from religious traditions that share features of origin and early development, Jain and Buddhist thinkers have had a sometimes uneasy relationship. The differences and similarities of the two faiths were particularly explored in the 5th to 12th centuries CE in texts written by leading mendicants of both religions.

Studies of different sects’ approaches to certain issues have shown that Jainism is not a monolithic block. Like any developing and living faith, it has given birth to various currents and groups, who differ over matters of ideas and practices. The position of women and the practice of nudity are examples of divisive issues that have been the subject of centuries-old debates.

The importance of Jain stories had been recognised by the scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Stories are a fundamental component of Jain teaching. Jain mendicants have written many and have contributed to the pan-Indian repertoire.

Since the 1980s ethnographic and anthropological studies have developed extensively and given a new angle to the scholarly examination of Jainism. The study of Jain art is a more recent trend, with more significant exhibitions held, especially outside India. Examples include major shows in Los Angeles and London during 1994 and 1995, Antwerp in 2000 and New York in 2009.

In general more work has been done on the Śvetāmbara tradition than on the Digambara. This deficit on the Digambara side is being remedied as more scholars these days turn to this rather neglected area.

Investigations of a rather technical character and handbooks or collections that aim at a wider audience can be easily distinguished. The latter aim to make Jains and Jainism accessible to as many people as possible.

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