Article: Jains and Muslim iconoclasm

Contributed by Audrey Truschke

Material responses

Enormous Digambara statues of Jinas were carved in the 15th century. The reasons are unclear but the images in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, may have been created to withstand the end of the world. Emperor Babur ordered many of the naked figures mutilated.

Mutilated figures at Gwalior
Image by geohs © CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Jains took several practical measures against Muslim assaults on religious images and buildings. For example, many stories narrate that the gods instructed people not to make bejewelled images but, rather, to use stone or brick to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Earlier writers, such as Jinaprabha-sūri, refer to images being buried in order to avoid damage by Muslims. Later writers, such as Samayasundara, also confirm that idols were concealed underground by attesting that they were reintroduced to the Jain community in the 17th century. Jains often replaced and, less frequently, recovered images that had been taken by Muslims.

Jains also produced artistic responses to Islamic iconoclasm and the associated end of the world. Most notably, in the 15th century, Digambara followers carved a series of monumental Jain images into the rock face of the Gwalior fort in Madhya Pradesh. A poet known as Raidhū oversaw the creation of the statues, which was largely financed by wealthy lay donors. Raidhū left no direct account of the motivations behind this project. However, his poetry and writings by later Jains suggest that the colossal images were designed to survive the end of the world, which was linked with the spread of Islamic power.

Incidentally, these same naked figures disconcerted the Mughal Emperor Babur in the early 16th century. He records in his Turkish memoirs that he ordered many to be mutilated.

Literary responses

Jain texts, primarily from the 14th century and later, mention some specific Muslim attacks that resulted in lost or damaged idols but tend not to dwell on these events. Jain authors most frequently note the damage and subsequent renovations at highly symbolic locations, such as Somanatha and Shatrunjaya in Gujarat. But often they do not refer to these incidents at all, preferring to describe other episodes, such as conflicts between Jain and Hindu groups and even clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

This seeming lack of concern with Islamic iconoclasm against Jains may partially reflect the overall amicable relations between the two religious groups in politics and trade. Additionally, Indian kings had desecrated the temples of their adversaries, including Jains, for centuries before the advent of Mughal rule. Thus such experiences were hardly new with the advent of Islamic dynasties on the subcontinent.

Indeed, when Jains writers do record instances of temple destruction, they almost never characterise these assaults as religious conflicts. Rather, they viewed Islamic attacks as merely one symptom of the inevitable cosmic trend towards depravity in the current corrupt age. Sometimes Jain writers even blamed such events on the carelessness of the gods in these troubled times.

Jain texts also incorporated Islamic iconoclasm into narratives that proclaimed the greatness of the Jain faith. Jinaprabha-sūri describes how images were miraculously restored, without any human intervention. In these stories, Jainism is alive and well, and Muslim temple destructions provide the perfect stage for highlighting the tradition’s ongoing prosperity.

Jain aniconism

A Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditates. Meditation – dhyāna – is very important for all Jains but is one of the main methods of worship for members of the Sthānaka-vāsin sect. They reject the worship of images in favour of mental worship – bhava-pūjā

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditating
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

Some Jains formulated strong criticisms of idol worship during the height of contact with Islamic traditions. Among the Śvetāmbaras, Loṅkā Śāh led the most influential movement against using religious images. Digambara groups such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth also developed at this time. However, there is no proof of any direct link between strains of Islamic thought and these aniconic Jains.

In the 15th century, Jain reform movements that rejected idol worship surfaced in the Śvetāmbara tradition. Their relationship to Islamic ideas remains unclear, however. In Gujarat, Loṅkā Śāh condemned the veneration of idols as inconsistent with Jain scriptures. Many of his followers returned to standard mūrti-pūjaka practices in the 16th century, but five monks renewed Loṅkā Śāh’s criticisms in the following century. Each one founded his own monastic lineage. Today these are collectively referred to as the Sthānaka-vāsin Jains. In the 18th century, the sect of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin developed into a separate aniconic community.

While the timing of Loṅkā Śāh's objections seems to coincide with the growing presence of Islam on the subcontinent, there is no evidence of specific connections. Loṅkā Śāh’s own followers did not produce written historical records until the 19th century. Only with 20th-century murti-pujak Jains, such as Jñānsundar, does the notion arise that Islamic ideas prompted Loṅkā Śāh’s suspicion of idol worship.

Additionally, Digambara movements that do not use icons, such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth sect, also arose in the 15th to 16th centuries. They do not have any ideological relationship to Islam, although Muslims were among the earliest followers.

Moreover, scholars have pointed out that there have been criticisms of idol worship throughout Jain history. Thus, it is perhaps not necessary to look outside the tradition to explain different opinions about the role of images. Indeed, early-modern Jain thinkers who authored texts defending image worship directed their remarks against other Jain groups. For instance, Dharma-sāgara and Yaśovijaya wrote against the practices of Loṅkā Śāh and his followers.

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