Article: Hermann Jacobi

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

One of the most important European Indologists, Hermann Jacobi (1850–1937) was a pioneering scholar and a very major figure in Jain studies. He is known for two main intellectual achievements. Firstly, in 1879 he demonstrated definitively that Jainism had been separate from Buddhism from the earliest times. Before that, it was commonly stated that Jainism was an offshoot of Buddhism. Secondly, Jacobi produced numerous editions of Jain texts in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhraṃśa, as well as translations. Many of these have remained the standard reference works for students and scholars.

Just as crucial for the development of Jain studies is the Jacobi collection of Jain manuscripts. In 1897 Jacobi sold his collection of manuscripts to the British Museum. Now housed in the British Library, this collection is one of the main sources for Jain manuscripts in the United Kingdom. Many of Jacobi's manuscripts are digitised on JAINpedia.

Life and academic career

Nineteenth-century German scholar Hermann Jacobi was a leading Indology scholar. His 1879 establishing of Jainism as a religion distinct from Buddhism and his translations and critical studies of major Jain texts laid the foundations for modern Jain studi

Hermann Jacobi
Image by unknown © unknown

Hermann Georg Jacobi was born in Cologne in Germany on 11 February 1850. Scholars from the German-speaking nations have long formed a prominent branch of European Indologists. At the University of Berlin, Jacobi was a pupil of Albrecht Weber, a giant of Indology and an early scholar of Jain studies, with whom he studied Sanskrit and comparative linguistics. He also studied mathematics at an advanced level. He obtained his doctorate from Bonn University in 1872 with a thesis on astrological terminology.

Jacobi had a very long academic career, and taught Sanskrit at the universities of Münster, from 1876, Kiel from 1885 and Bonn. He retired in 1922 but continued to publish until the end of his life. A festschrift was published in his honour in 1926, offered to him by his pupils, colleagues and friends. Bonn is where he stayed the longest and where he died in 1937. Jacobi’s archive was kept in Bonn University after his death, but it was destroyed during the Second World War.

Jacobi travelled in India on two occasions. He first travelled around western India and northern India in 1873 to 1874, searching for manuscripts. His second trip took place over 1913 to 1914. Initially Jacobi went to Kolkata, where he was invited to give lectures and was awarded an honorary doctoral degree. He also went to Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, searching for Jain texts in Apabhraṃśa. He was awarded the title Jaina Darśana Divākara – Sun of Jain Doctrine – at the All-India Jain Literary Conference, held in Jodhpur in Rajasthan under the auspices of Ācārya Vijayadharma-sūri.

Like most Indologists of the time, Jacobi had a very broad scope of research. The fields to which he contributed very significantly are:

  • astronomical literature
  • problems of chronology in ancient India
  • linguistic studies relating to Vedic Sanskrit, classical Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhraṃśa
  • Indian prosody and metrics
  • rhetoric and poetical treatises – alaṃkāra-śāstra
  • Sanskrit epics, especially studies of the Rāmāyaṇa
  • studies in Indian philosophical thought and logic.

Contribution to Jain studies

First published in 1916, this photograph shows three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks sitting cross-legged, a boy monk on the left. Initiation as a child still occurs today, though rarely. In the colonial period many Britons became very interested in India

Three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks
Image by R. V. Russell and Rai Bahadur Hira Lāl © public domain

The intellectual arena in which Jacobi’s contribution marks a turning point and opened many new scholarly avenues is that of Jain studies. His proof that Jainism is an independent religion paved the way to its study as a separate discipline. Jacobi’s efforts to increase the number of Indian texts available to Indological scholars were also crucial in advancing scholarly research into Indian religion, philosophy, languages and culture. His editions and translations of these texts were frequently the first in the West and are often still used as the standard works in Western scholarship. Jacobi’s literary and linguistic research shows a depth of insight and intellectual ability that ensures his work is highly relevant even today.

Probably Jacobi’s most significant achievement is his demonstration that followers of the Jinas have always had beliefs and practices distinct from those of other Indian religions. This challenged the idea widespread among Western observers and scholars that the Jains formed a branch of the Buddhist or Hindu faiths.

Jacobi continued the task that had been started by his teacher Albrecht Weber in expanding the number and study of Jain texts available to scholars. Weber had managed to get a good collection of Jain manuscripts from India into the Berlin Royal Library and had himself published several important studies. Jacobi used the Berlin Jain manuscripts in his research and added some he had collected himself, considerably enriching the number of Jain texts accessible to intellectuals. Before him, such works were extremely limited, not just in the West but also in India.

Proving Jainism is a distinct religion

Jacobi’s introduction to the edition of the Kalpa-sūtra in 1879 and his 1880 article entitled 'On Mahāvīra and his predecessors' are landmarks in the history of Jain studies. The introduction states the problem in clear terms:

Before entering upon an inquiry about the date of Mahāvīra’s Nirvāṇa, we must first discuss the question whether Jainism and Buddhism had each its separate and independent origin or the one was a division of the other

1879, page 1.

For the first time Jacobi provided textual evidence that the Jain tradition was distinct from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In the introduction Jacobi pointed out how Jains are referred to in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures not as 'Jaina' but under the name niggantha – without knot – that is, free from possessions and attachment. Secondly, he proved that Jains have always claimed the founder of their religion in this era to be Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. As a near contemporary of Buddha, Mahāvīra had been thought of as the founder of Jainism by outsiders.

Before Jacobi’s findings, Jains were considered to be a Buddhist or Hindu offshoot and not an independent tradition. In his introduction Jacobi reviewed the opinions of Western scholars such as H. H. Wilson and E. T. Colebrooke, who had promoted this idea. This belief had taken hold because in the 18th and 19th centuries the Jains in India did not present any textual evidence in public about themselves and the historical situation forced them to remain either very discreet or almost hidden.

Jacobi’s evidence was based on his deep knowledge of the scriptures of the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These texts call Jains 'niggantha'. They are described as one of the numerous 'heretic' groups that were active in north-eastern India during the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. The Jains themselves also used 'niggantha' in some of their early scriptures to mean Jain ascetics. The proper name Nigantha Nātaputta found in the Buddhist texts refers to the leader of the 'nigganthas' and can be identified with Mahāvīra. Jacobi concluded that 'Buddha and Mahāvīra were two distinct persons but contemporaries' (1879: 6). The opinions the Buddhists credit to Nigantha Nātaputta are in general accordance with Jainism.

Jacobi’s studies of Jain writings also demonstrated that Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, was not the founder of Jainism but a reformer. His teaching was a reform of the principles put forward by his predecessor, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina. But this does not mean that Pārśva founded Jainism. The Jain tradition is unanimous in making Ṛṣabha the first Jina and the true founder of Jain beliefs in this era.

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