Article: Studying Jainism

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


In Japan, the study of Jainism has long been secondary to that of Buddhism, which is a prominent active religion in the country. But since the 1980s more Japanese scholars have become specialists in Jain studies.

The Japanese Association of Jain Studies edits the Journal of Jain Studies in Japanese. Several Japanese scholars, such as S. Matsunami, M. Yajima, T. Tanigawa, S. Fujinaga, Y. Kawasaki, have published valuable studies focusing on the Jain scriptures in Prakrit or on Jain philosophy. A young generation of scholars working in the field is coming up, having recently completed doctorates at Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and Sendai universities.

Jain studies in India

There has often been a tension within the Jain community between the desire for academic study of Jainism and the fact that this study could endanger or question the religious practice. Some people have encouraged education in Jainism, while others have defended the idea that lay people and even mendicants should be satisfied with rituals and hymns or other texts oriented towards daily life. Even so, the study of Jainism in both India and the West would not have progressed without the efforts of Jain mendicants. They not only authored books and organised institutions, but they also often encouraged or helped the work of Western scholars. This situation still holds true today.

Studying Jainism in India is carried out today in different contexts. Traditional teaching continues among the mendicant and lay communities while formal study in Western-style universities is on the rise. Depending on their sect, both mendicants and lay Jains may enrol in official study programmes. Naturally, non-Jains also study Jainism, but they are less common.

Mendicants and the study of Jainism

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Scholars and religious teachers are revered among the Jain community, with Jain beliefs being passed down from mendicant teacher to student through the ages. A teacher–apprentice relationship is a key part of the novitiate stage for many new monks and nuns even today.

Monks and nuns live their faith in their daily life through respecting monastic rules, through recitation and reading of scriptures. But, depending on the monastic order to which they belong, they may also be encouraged to study the development and principles of their faith. They usually do this in the traditional method, listening to and discussing with senior monastic teachers or lay Jain scholars – pandits – who are versed in the areas of grammar and philosophy, for instance. Today the Śvetāmbara Terā-panthin sect has a special category of nuns, the samaṇis, who often pursue their studies in universities and gain postgraduate degrees in Jain studies.

In the later 19th century and in the 20th century Western scholars such as Sylvain Lévi, Luigi Pio Tessitori or Ludwig Alsdorf acknowledged the help of monks such as Vijaya-dharma-sūri and Jina-vijaya. Mendicants often helped foreign researchers secure manuscripts from India which they needed for their work and, in return, became familiar with Western scholarly approaches.

In the 20th century some prominent monks contributed in different ways to knowledge of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, such as:

Their critical editions and deep reflections on their tradition and its transmission over time were influential in understanding both holy texts and the relationship between scriptures and religious practice.

It is no surprise that several of these monks took radical action to preserve manuscripts and make their material as widely available as possible. They organised or reorganised traditional manuscript libraries, established modern libraries and used new technologies to reproduce manuscripts.

Leading monastic figures such as Vijaya-dharma-sūri also played a significant role in the assessment of a specifically Jain archaeological past. This proved crucial to the contemporary political and social establishment of Jain identity in India. Thus explorations of the history of Jain holy places became one of their main concerns.

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