Article: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Relationship of Jains to Hindus and Buddhists

Colebrooke's accounts of various Jain texts are correct and reliable but the conclusions about Jainism in his body of work cannot be accepted any longer. Both the scarcity of his sources and Colebrooke's general reluctance to accept a distinct Jain tradition are not supported by later scholarly work.

Colebrooke observes in 1807 that:

the Jainas constitute a sect of Hindus, differing, indeed from the rest in some very important tenets; but following, in other respects, a similar practice, and maintaining like opinions and observations

page 288

Twenty years later, in 1827, he gives a correct reading and translation of an inscription found on a stone slab showing the feet – pādukās – of Gautama-svāmī, in On Inscriptions at Temples of the Jaina Sect in South Bihar. Colebrooke notes that the slab was installed in 1686 of the Vikrama era (1629 CE) by a Jain family, at the instigation of the Śvetāmbara monk Jinarāja-sūri from the sect of the Kharatara-gaccha. He correctly observes that Gautama and Indrabhūti are the same person and refer to the first disciple of Mahāvīra. But he wrongly writes:

It is certainly probable as remarked by Dr. Hamilton and Major Delamaine, that the Gautama of the Jainas and of the Bauddhas is the same personage; and this leads to the further surmise, that both these sects are branches of one stock

ibidem: 520

This misidentification may stem from their knowing that Siddhartha Gautama was the name of the founder of the Buddhist faith, before he was known as the Buddha.

In an article published the same year in the same journal, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, dealing with 'Indian Sectaries', Colebrooke writes:

The Jainas and Bauddhas I consider to have been originally Hindus; and the first-mentioned to be so still, because they recognised, as they [the Hindus] yet do, the distinction of the four castes

1827: 549

This does not prevent him from giving in the subsequent nine pages a fairly complete description of the main features of Jain doctrine, such as the:

  • nine principles – tattva
  • six substances – dravya
  • eight main varieties of karmakarma-prakr̥ti.

Colebrooke also indicates in this essay some of the differences between the two main Jain sects of the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.

Languages of the Jain scriptures

The text is in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit and Sanskrit, written in Devanāgarī script. Read left to right, the verses are divided by vertical red lines. The folio number is in the right margin. This typical verso page is from a 15th-century Uttarādhyayana-sūtra.

Typical manuscript page
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

An accomplished Sanskritist, Colebrooke was aware of the existence of the Prakrit languages, in which the Jain scriptures are mostly written. However, once again his assessment of the texts was hindered by his opinion that Jainism was an offshoot of Buddhism, which was generally shared by European scholarship.

Colebrooke focused on the Prakrit languages in two articles published at a seven-year interval in the journal Asiatic Researches. In his piece in volume seven, published in 1801, Colebrooke mentions Māgadhī and Apabhraṃśa, but does not take note of any relation of Prakrit languages with the Jains.

In the second article, however, which was published in volume ten in 1808, he makes use of the 12th-century grammar by Hemacandra, which describes Prakrit in its eighth book. He correctly observes that 'specimens of it [i.e. Prakrit, are] in the Indian dramas, as well as in the books of the Jains' (1808: 393). As seen above, the 'Observations on the Sect of Jains' (1807) are largely based on Jain texts in Prakrit. However, they are described as 'composed in the Prakrit called Māgadhī' (1807: 310), which is not correct. Canonical works such as the Kalpa-sūtra are predominantly in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit while texts such as the Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna or the Lokanālī are in Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit. The time had not yet come for a differentiation of Prakrit dialects.

The holy texts of Buddhism are principally written in Pali. The impossibility of accepting the Buddhist and Jain traditions as different from each other also led to the inability to recognise the languages of their scriptures as distinct. Thus Colebrooke could write: 'I believe [the Prakrit called Māgadhī] to be the same language with the Pali of Ceylon' (1807: 310 note). This belief was probably further encouraged by the fact that Buddhists use the term 'Māgadhī' to refer to the original language of their scriptures. Twenty years later Colebrooke held to the same position:

Both religions have preserved for their sacred language the same dialect, the Pali or Prakrit, closely resembling the Māgadhī or vernacular tongue of Magadha [in modern-day South Bihar]. Between those dialects [Pali and Prakrit] there is but a shade of difference, and they are often confounded under a single name.

1827: 521

Such statements are no longer tenable. The correct situation can be described roughly as being that:

Source of Colebrooke's Jain manuscripts

The initial passage from the 'Observations on the Sect of Jains' quoted above gives valuable information about where Colebrooke obtained his Jain manuscripts. They were acquired in Benares and Murshidabad, and point to Colebrooke's personal connections with prominent personalities, easily explainable through the high administrative positions he held and his scholarly reputation.

Murshidabad is a town in the north of Calcutta. It was the home of several Jain families from Rajasthan who had emigrated there for economic reasons in the 18th century. They form the so-called Marwari community. The Jagatseths, whom Colebrooke mentioned, are one of those families, described as 'the Rothschilds of India' (Little 1920). Colebrooke mentions on another occasion the Jagatseth member who converted to Hinduism, and thus did not need his Jain books any longer. He describes the convert as 'The representative of the great family of Jagat-śeṭh, who with many of his kindred was converted some years ago from the Jaina to the orthodox faith' (1827: 549–550). This individual can be identified as Harakh Chand, who died in 1814, and who:

was the first of the family who abandoned the Jain religion and joined the [Hindu] sect of the Vaishnavs. He was childless and being extremely anxious to have a son he faithfully followed all the ceremonies enjoined by the Jain religion in such a case but with no result. At length a member of the Vaishnav sect advised him to propitiate Vishnu. He did so and obtained his desire. [...] He and his successors have been respected as much as before by the members, of their old religion. In fact it is doubtful whether the members of this family ever renounced entirely their Jain religion

Little, 1920, part 2: 104–105

Few of the manuscripts Colebrooke was given by Harakh Chand have colophons indicating where they could have been copied. But it is likely that some of them were copied in Rajasthan and carried by the family to eastern India, with the Jagatseths probably commissioning others after they settled near Calcutta.

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