Article: Royal Asiatic Society

Contributed by Kathy Lazenbatt

The Royal Asiatic Society is a scholarly body in London, which was set up in 1823 to further the study of Asia. Since its foundation, the society has played a critical role in expanding and deepening the understanding of Asia through its publications, lectures and events. The Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) also has collections of important items from all over Asia, especially South Asia, which were mainly acquired in the 19th century.

The RAS holds a small but significant collection of Jain objects. Some of the Jain treasures in the collections are available on JAINpedia, and include:

The diagram is a kind of maṇḍala or yantra, which both mendicants and lay people use in meditation and worship. This item is a rare and valuable sūri-mantra-paṭa, which only Śvetāmbara monks use, and is also one of the earliest surviving examples. It is also interesting because, during the conservation process for the yantra, two smaller uninscribed diagrams were found in different layers of the fabric. This unusual sūri-mantra-paṭa is a highlight of JAINpedia.

Background

The oldest institution in the UK devoted to a deeper understanding of Asia, the Royal Asiatic Society was established amid growing interest among 19th-century Europeans in the cultures of Asia. The RAS has a respected history of intellectual engagement with all parts of Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent. This tradition continues today with publications, projects and events, which are open to everyone who is interested in Asia, not just professional academics.

History

Bust of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke. While in India working for the East India Company, Colebrooke developed an interest in Sanskrit and then in wider intellectual and cultural life in India.

Bust of Colebrooke
Image by unknown © public domain

The Royal Asiatic Society was the first British organisation dedicated to the study of Asia. It was founded at a time when Europeans were beginning to learn Asian languages in a systematic way, gaining a real knowledge of Asian cultures, history and religions. The society was instrumental in encouraging an exchange and transfer of cultural understanding, a process which is still ongoing today. In Britain it was at the heart of that process, fulfilling a national role in Asian studies, and it collaborated with organisations and scholars worldwide.

The society was founded in 1823 by the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke ‘for the investigation of subjects connected with and for the encouragement of science, literature and the arts in relation to Asia’. Many distinguished scholars have been associated with its work, including:

  • Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890), explorer and first translator of the Arabian Nights and the Kāma Sūtra
  • Rammohan Roy (1772–1833), Indian reformer and first Indian member of the RAS
  • Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943), archaeologist of the Silk Road
  • Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), Bengali poet and writer.

Current activities

Today the Royal Asiatic Society provides a forum, independent of government, in which professional scholars join those with a general interest in Asia. To fulfil its aims the RAS:

  • runs a library of books, manuscripts, artworks and photographs
  • publishes an annual journal with Cambridge University Press
  • publishes four or five books on Asian studies each year
  • holds two monthly lectures, one presented by students
  • hosts a variety of other talks and events on Asian topics
  • undertakes joint projects with other professional and academic institutions.

All activities and access to the library are free of charge to the general public.

Collections of the RAS

The library at the Royal Asiatic Society provides access to specialist books, periodicals and research material free to readers.

Library at the Royal Asiatic Society
Image by Helen Porter © Royal Asiatic Society

Although the collections of the Royal Asiatic Society feature numerous items originating in the Indian subcontinent, the society's holdings comprise items from across Asia. The RAS holds a small yet valuable collection of Jain artefacts, which consists of works of art as well as manuscripts. Several of these pieces are very rare outside India.

Most of the unique material in the RAS library – such as manuscripts, paintings and drawings, and photographs – was donated during the early to mid-19th century. In its early days the society built up a museum, which included some beautiful and rare objects, such as a jade cup owned by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Later the museum objects were disposed of, mainly to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. However, the society has retained its other collections. The society has never purchased material other than books, so its collections have developed from the generosity of many donors.

The library collections include:

  • 1700 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and other Indian languages, Tibetan, Malay, Javanese and Pali
  • 2000 paintings and drawings from all parts of Asia
  • 4000 photographs, in particular 19th-century photographs from India and China
  • 40,000 books and journals relating to the history, languages and literature, arts and culture of Asia.

As a result of the long British association with India, the library collections relating to South Asia are particularly strong.

Jain material

The Royal Asiatic Society's collection of Jain heritage material consists of:

  • paper manuscripts, part of the Tod Collection
  • paintings on cloth
  • miniature paintings, from the Baxter Collection.

Of these, three items are available as digitised images on JAINpedia.

Tod Collection of manuscripts

James Tod (1782–1835) of the British East India Company authored several books and articles on Indian topics in the early 19th century. Though not a scholar, he carried out research over his 23 years in India and joined the Royal Asiatic Society

James Tod
Image by unknown © public domain

Most of the Jain works at the Royal Asiatic Society are in the Tod Collection. Out of the 190 manuscripts in the collection, 36 relate to Jainism. Some manuscripts contain copies of several different texts, so the collection is made up of nearly 60 individual Jain texts. Of these the most significant is a copy of part of the Kalpa-sūtra with the Kālakācārya-kathā, under the shelfmark Tod MS 34. The text appears to have been copied in VS 1461 (1404 CE), making it a very early copy, and it has several exquisite coloured illustrations.

The collection is named after its original owner, James Tod (1782–1835), who was a well-known soldier and administrator in British India. He served as the East India Company’s political agent to the western Rajputana states in the early 19th century, and while working there he undertook extensive research on Rajput history. Tod later published this research as his exhaustive two-volume work Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan (1829/32).

On his return from India Tod was appointed the first Librarian of the newly formed Royal Asiatic Society. He gave the society four large collections of manuscripts, coins, miniature paintings and topographical drawings. Some of the manuscripts were presented to Tod by local rulers, such as Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar. Many others were copied for him on the orders of rulers of various Rajput states who knew of Tod's keen interest in Rajput history.

Paintings on cloth

The rare sūri-mantra-paṭa in the collections of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Dated 1499, it is one of the oldest surviving examples and, being mainly textual, looks quite different from contemporary ones.

Sūri-mantra-paṭa
Image by Royal Asiatic Society © Royal Asiatic Society Images/RAS, London

The Royal Asiatic Society holds two Jain-related paintings on cloth – a rare yantra or meditation diagram and a cosmological map.

The first cloth painting is a meditation diagram, of a type known as sūri-mantra-paṭa. It was intended for use by members of the Kharatara-gaccha sect.The diagram consists of concentric circles within which are formulas of homage to various deities, types of Jain monks, sacred knowledge and so on, along with magical syllables. If the date on the piece is correct, it was created in 1449 CE, around the time the Kharatara-gaccha was flourishing particularly in Rajasthan. This type of diagram is hardly ever found outside India and it is a particularly early example, making this an exceptionally rare and interesting piece.

The provenance of the yantra is not clear cut. It was found among the papers of Sir Henry Miers Elliott (1808–1853), a civil servant and historian. Miers Elliott worked for the East India Company in various parts of the subcontinent and was interested in Indian culture and history. He died at the Cape of Good Hope on the way home from India and his manuscripts and papers were passed on to various scholars. It seems likely that one of them gave some material to the RAS, including this yantra, although there is no record of the donation.

During the conservation process undertaken for JAINpedia digitisation, two further diagrams were revealed on the back of the yantra's fabric. They are small labyrinth-shaped squares without any text inscribed.

The other painting on cloth is a map of part of the Jain universe, known as an aḍhāī-dvīpaTwo and A Half Continents – which is an artwork depicting Jain cosmography. It represents in the form of concentric circles three areas of land with two oceans in between. These areas of land represent the realm of human beings, and the diagrams include many details of specific rivers and mountains found on the continents. This painting is of particular interest because it includes information about:

  • the pandit who wrote it
  • his monastic lineage
  • the pandit who owned and used it
  • the date it was created, which is 1816 CE.

The aḍhāī-dvīpa was presented to the RAS by Major General William Miles on 17 June 1837. It had been given to him 'by a Jain priest of the Province of Marwar'. Miles was the author of an article called ‘On the Jains of Gujerat and Marwar’, published in the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1835.

Baxter Collection of paintings

Śvetāmbara painting of the worship of an image of Naminātha or Lord Nami, the 21st Jina. The blue lotus emblem identifies the figure in the lotus pose of meditation, wearing jewellery and fanned by richly dressed lay people.

Worship of Nami
Image by Royal Asiatic Society © Royal Asiatic Society Images / RAS, London

Comprising painted works of art, the Baxter Collection at the Royal Asiatic Society contains 19 examples of Jain religious art. The 24 Jinas are frequently portrayed in art and can usually be identified only from their personal emblems.

Born in 1793 in Calcutta, Nadir Baxter was the son of a British merchant and his wife. He grew up in India and came to England in 1825. Shortly after his arrival, Baxter donated to the Royal Asiatic Society 47 Indian miniature paintings dating from the early 19th century. The Baxter Collection comprises:

  • 19 paintings from a series depicting the 24 Jinas
  • 24 paintings from an incomplete ragamala set
  • 3 paintings of Hindu gods
  • 1 painting of Sri Nathji, with 7 images of the Vallabha sect.

There is no information about the provenance of the artworks.

The Jinas represented in the paintings are given in the table. The Sanskrit term nātha means 'Lord' and is usually shortened to nath in modern Indian languages. It is added to the end of a person's name and is frequently used for deities.

Jina paintings in the Baxter Collection

Jina number

Name given in painting

Name in romanised Sanskrit

1

Sri Risabha

Ṛṣabha

3

Sri Sambhava Nath

Saṃbhava

4

Sri Abhinandan

Abhinandana

5

Sri Sumati Nath

Sumati

6

Sri Padham Prabhu Nath

Padmaprabha

7

Sri Suparsa Nath

Supārśva

8

Sri Candra Prabhuji

Candraprabha

9

Sri Subhadji

Puṣpadanta

10

Sri Sitalji

Śītala

14

Sri Anantji

Ananta

15

Sri Dharam Nath

Dharma

16

Sri Santi Nath

Śānti

17

Sri Kutha Nath

Kunthu

18

Sri Ara Nath

Ara

19

Sri Malli Nath

Malli

20

Sri Mansubuta ji

Munisuvrata

21

Sri Nemi Nath

Nami

22

Sri Nema Nath

Nemi

24

Sri Mahavira ji

Mahāvīra

Images

  • Bust of Colebrooke Bust of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke. While in India working for the East India Company, Colebrooke developed an interest in Sanskrit and then in wider intellectual and cultural life in India. Returning to England after 30 years in India, he donated his large collection of Indian manuscripts to the India Office Library in 1819 and led the foundation of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1823. This collection forms a significant part of the British Library's important holdings of Indian manuscripts and papers.. Image by unknown © public domain
  • Library at the Royal Asiatic Society The library at the Royal Asiatic Society provides access to specialist books, periodicals and research material free to readers. . Image by Helen Porter © Royal Asiatic Society
  • James Tod James Tod (1782–1835) of the British East India Company authored several books and articles on Indian topics in the early 19th century. Though not a scholar, he carried out research over his 23 years in India and joined the Royal Asiatic Society on his return to London.. Image by unknown © public domain
  • Sūri-mantra-paṭa The rare sūri-mantra-paṭa in the collections of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Dated 1499, it is one of the oldest surviving sūri-mantra-paṭas and, being mainly textual, looks quite different from contemporary examples. Like all yantras used in ritual worship, it contains mantras that are recited to aid meditation but is used only by high-ranking Śvetāmbara monks.. Image by Royal Asiatic Society © Royal Asiatic Society Images/RAS, London
  • Worship of Nami Śvetāmbara painting of the worship of an image of Naminātha or Lord Nami, the 21st Jina. His emblem of the blue lotus identifies the figure in meditation, adorned with jewellery and under a royal parasol within an ornately carved shrine. Richly dressed lay people stand either side, fanning the statue with fly-whisks.. Image by Royal Asiatic Society © Royal Asiatic Society Images / RAS, London

Glossary

Aḍhāī-dvīpa

The Hindi phrase for 'Two and A Half Continents' describes the only part of the universe where human beings live in the Middle World of Jain cosmology. It is made up of the central continent, Jambū-dvīpa, the second continent, Dhātakīkhaṇḍa, and Lavaṇa-samudra, the circular ocean that separates them. Kālodadhi is the ring of ocean around Dhātakīkhaṇḍa, dividing it from the 'half' continent, which is the inner part of the Puṣkara continent.

Common Era

The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.

Cosmology

A belief system about the universe that covers its origin, structure and parts, and natural laws and characteristics such as space, time, causality and freedom.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Dhyāna

Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.

Donor

A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.

East India Company

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth of England granted a royal charter for a company to carry out trade with the East Indies, a term Europeans used at that time for parts of Asia. Many European countries established similar companies in this period. Gradually, the British East India Company became the effective ruler of large parts of South Asia, with its own armies and administration.

Hindu

Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Jahangir

Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir, Mughal ruler of India from 1605 to 1627. A great patron of the arts, Emperor Jahangir was also tolerant of the many faiths of his subjects.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Kālakācārya-kathā

The very popular Story of the Ācārya Kālakā recounts the adventures of the Śvetāmbara monk Kālakā. Emphasising the connection between religious practice and magical abilities, the story is frequently found as an appendix to the Kalpa-sūtra because it explains how Kālaka changed the date of Paryuṣaṇ. This annual festival gives a central role to the Kalpa-sūtra scripture.

Kharatara-gaccha

Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century. 

Paṇḍit

'Learned one' in Sanskrit and used originally for a Hindu brahmin scholar and teacher. Nowadays a Jain pandit is a scholar who has been educated traditionally and is expert in the sacred texts of at least one of the Jain sects.

Persian

A widely used language in northern India for hundreds of years, developed in modern south-western Iran. Used for administration and literary works in areas ruled by Islamic regimes across northern India, it became associated with culture, education and science, and was the official language of the Mughal Empire. Persian influenced other languages in India and was gradually supplanted by English and Hindustani – the forebear of modern Hindi – in the 19th century.

Provenance

The origin of something, especially its history of ownership. This is used in art and archaeology, in particular, to help establish the age and creator of an artwork or other artefact.

Rajasthan

The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.

Rajput

An ethnic group probably descended from warrior castes, who claim their ancestors were Hindu gods. Rajput clans dominated large parts of the northern, western and central areas of the Indian subcontinent from around the sixth century until the rise of the Mughal Empire. After the Mughals fell, Rajput princes ruled many of the 'princely states' of the British Raj.

Sanskrit

A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Śrī

A title of respect often used to indicate holiness or divinity. It honours a person or place and is also added to the name of written or sung texts, such as scriptures. It is added before the name, for example Śrī Ṛṣabha.

Subcontinent

The Indian or South Asian subcontinent is a term for the geographical area roughly covering modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Vikrama-saṃvat

Often abbreviated, Vikrama-saṃvat is the calendar associated with Emperor Vikramāditya. It begins in about 56 BCE so the equivalent date in the Common Era can be calculated by subtracting 57 or 56. Based on Hindu traditions, it is a lunar calendar often used in contemporary India.

Yantra

Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.

EXT:mediabrowse Processing Watermark

Related Manuscripts

  • Full view

    Full view

    Royal Asiatic Society. 065.001. Unknown author. 1449

  • Aḍhāī-dvīpa

    Aḍhāī-dvīpa

    Royal Asiatic Society. 069.001. Pandit Tilokacanda Dayacanda. 1816

Related Manuscript Images

http://www.jainpedia.org/themes/people/studying-jainism/royal-asiatic-society/mediashow/print.html - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at www.jainpedia.org

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.