Article: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Colebrooke's work on the Jains

As part of his research into all areas of Indian culture, both past and present, Colebrooke encountered the Jains. He was one of the first Western scholars to write about them in detail, providing information on Jain beliefs and practices that were largely unknown outside the subcontinent. His central work on the Jain tradition was his essay in the ground-breaking 1807 journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, although he also wrote about the Jains in other works.

Colebrooke's research and writings on the Jains are undoubtedly very important in 19th-century Indology and in the roots of Jain studies, but suffer from the beliefs standard among European scholars of the period. At one time he concluded that the Jains were a sect of Hinduism and later on he believed that they constituted a sect of Buddhism. Later scholars, particularly Hermann Jacobi, refuted these opinions.

Colebrooke's research methods were unusual for the period. He read texts in their original languages, consulted highly educated locals who were experts in the matters he was investigating and analysed information using works from historical authors. Colebrooke's belief that Jainism was not a distinct religion, however, hampered his research. He failed to distinguish between the languages favoured by the Jains for their scriptures and those used by the Buddhists for their holy texts. Colebrooke collected and copied large numbers of manuscripts and other artefacts during his time in India, getting many of his Jain manuscripts from a Jain individual who had converted to Hinduism.

'Asiatic Researches' 1807 – volume on the Jains

Colebrooke's interest in Indian society extended to the Jains, evidenced primarily in his 'Observations on the Sect of Jains' (1807). This important essay was published in volume nine of the Asiatic Researches, which is a landmark publication as it collects several contributions on Jains from the pens of British people based in India.

The table gives details of all the pieces on Jain topics that appeared in this volume of Asiatic Researches.

Articles on Jain topics in Asiatic Researches, volume 9, 1807




'Account of the Jains, collected from a priest of this sect, at Mudgeri. Translated by Cavelly Boria, Brahmen, for Major C. Mackenzie'

Colin Mackenzie


'Notices of the Jains, received from Cārukīrti Ācārya, Their Chief Pontiff at Belligola, in Mysore'



'History and legendary account of Belligola, communicated by the high priest at that station'



'Extracts from a Journal of Major C. Mackenzie'

Colin Mackenzie


'Particulars of the Jains extracted from a journal by Doctor F. Buchanan, during Travels in Canara'

Francis Buchanan


'Observations on the Sect of Jains'

Henry Thomas Colebrooke


As can be seen simply from the titles, most of the articles from other writers stem from south India, where Major Mackenzie and Francis Buchanan were based or travelled principally. It is important to note that they are based on accounts from:

  • one Indian informant – Cavelly Boria was one of the two 'natives' indispensable to Mackenzie
  • a Jain representative of the religious hierarchy – the bhaṭṭāraka or 'chief pontiff' – of the seat of Shravana Belgola.

These essays are a combination of:

  • what would now be called field notes, specifically relating to how Jains live and practise their faith in Karnatak
  • basic information on the Jain tradition, such as a list of the 24 Jinas, description of concepts such as time or cosmology and the main features of Jain monastic ethics.

Such information was vital at a time when non-Indians knew hardly anything about the Jains and when the position of the Jain tradition in relation to other Indian religious traditions was not clearly defined. Two of the key questions for Europeans who encountered Jainism were whether it was distinct from the majority religion of the subcontinent – Hinduism – and how it related to Buddhism.

'Observations on the Sect of Jains' and Jain texts

This 19th-century aḍhāī-dvīpa demonstrates the importance of symmetry and repetition in traditional Jain ideas of the universe. An aḍhāī-dvīpa is a colourful, detailed diagram of the Two and A Half Continents where human beings live

Two and A Half Continents
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Colebrooke was unusual among his peers in India in using historical texts to validate information from living Indians and in cross-checking references in different writings. Two of the works he quotes in his 1807 essay are essential texts in Śvetāmbara Jain thought – the Kalpa-sūtra and the Abhidhāna-cintāmaṇi of Hemacandra. Colebrooke also references the key cosmological works of the Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna and the Lokanālī-dvātriṃśikā. He uses these texts to summarise and analyse some of the principal Jain beliefs.

The beginning of Colebrooke's contribution on the Jains is worth remembering and quoting. While it assesses the importance of oral informants who are followers of the faith in knowing what it is, it is novel in attaching equal importance to written sources, namely manuscripts, as relevant for establishing the authenticity of the tradition.

The information collected by Major Mackenzie, concerning a religious sect hitherto so imperfectly known as that of the Jainas, and which has been even confounded with one more numerous and more widely spread (the sect of Buddha), may furnish the ground of further researches, from which an exact knowledge of the tenets and practice of a remarkable order of people may be ultimately expected. What Major Mackenzie has communicated to the Society, comes from a most authentic source; the declarations of two principal priests of the Jainas themselves. It is supported by similar information, procured from a like source, by Dr. Buchanan, during his journey in Mysore, in the year following the reduction of Seringapatam [in 1799, which ended the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and resulted in the East India Company's control of the Kingdom of Mysore]. Having the permission of Dr. Buchanan to use the extracts, which I had his leave to make from the journal kept by him during that journey, I have inserted [...] the information received by him from priests of the Jaina sect. I am enabled to corroborate both statements, from conversation with Jaina priests, and from books in my possession, written by authors of the Jaina persuasion. Some of those volumes were procured for me at Benares; others were obtained from the present Jagat Set, at Murshidābād, who, having changed his religion, to adopt the worship of Vishnu, forwarded to me, at my request, such books of his former faith as were yet within his reach

1807: 287–288; Balbir's italics

Colebrooke's approach is significant for directly consulting fundamental works on the tradition. This method distinguishes his undertaking from those of Mackenzie or Buchanan, who wrote down information communicated by informants and pandits who had read the books for them.

In the main part of his article, Colebrooke begins to analyse historico-mythological information connected with Jainism on the basis of two works:

I shall […] state the substance of a few passages from a work of great authority among the Jainas, entitled Kalpa-sûtra, and from a vocabulary of the Sanskrit language by an author of the Jaina sect

1807: 302

The Kalpa-sūtra is probably the most widely circulated Śvetāmbara work. Written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, it provides, in particular, data about the 24 Jinas.

The vocabulary Colebrooke had in mind is the Abhidhāna-cintāmaṇi of Hemacandra. This 12th-century lexicon is one of the most famous dictionaries of synonyms produced in Sanskrit. Hemacandra’s work broadly follows the same pattern as the Amara-koṣa, its most illustrious predecessor. Both lexicons share a large amount of words and definitions, but the Abhidhāna-cintāmaṇi is clearly the work of a Jain and the Jain stamp is present in many ways. One of the most visible signs is the mythological information and the list of Jinas found in the first section (I.24ff.). The result was that Hemacandra’s work was significant in the discovery of Jainism by Western scholars and in the intuition that Jainism had its own tenets and view of the world, which differed from those of other Indian religions. A lithographed edition of the Abhidhāna-cintāmaṇi had been prepared under Colebrooke's supervision and published in Calcutta in 1807 by his copyist Bābūrāma. The first edition ever, it was later criticised for its numerous flaws. It also contained the homonymic lexicon of Hemacandra, his Anekārtha-saṃgraha.

Colebrooke analyses combined information provided by both works about the 24 Jinas of the avasarpiṇī and other Jain mythological categories of their 'Universal History'. There are 63 'great men' divided into the different categories of Jinas, Cakravartins, Baladevas, Vāsudevas and Prativāsudevas.

[Jinas] appear to be the deified saints, who are now worshipped by the Jaina sect. They are all figured in the same contemplative posture, with little variation in their appearance, besides a difference of complexion; but the several Jinas have distinguishing marks or characteristic signs, which are usually engraved on the pedestals of their images, to discriminate them

1807: 304

Ages and periods of time as described in the Abhidhāna-cintāmaṇi are also dealt with (1807: 313).

Colebrooke then turns to an exposition of Jain cosmology, saying: 'The Saṃgrahaṇīratna and Lokanāb-sūtra, both in Prakrit, are the authorities here used' (1807: 318 n. 2). The Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna is indeed a standard Jain writing on the universe, known in recensions of different lengths. It is concerned with Jain cosmography as well as with results of karmas and the way they determine rebirths at various places in the universe. The 'Lokanāb-sūtra' is usually known as the Lokanālī-dvātriṃśikāThirty-two Verses on the Tube of the World. This is a concise and technical work. Both texts are classics used even today in the Śvetāmbara monastic curriculum. Colebrooke describes the:

The essay ends rather abruptly with a discussion of Jain conceptions of the universe compared to those of the Hindus as expressed by Bhāskara.

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