Article: Songs of devotion

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Known as stavan or, in Hindi, bhajan, Jain hymns are composed and performed to praise the Jinas. Written in every language Jains have used, the predominant pada form reflects Jain involvement in Indian poetics and in the bhakti devotional movement more commonly associated with Hinduism.

Musically, Jain hymns can be grouped into the folk genres of devotional music in western India, such as Gujarāti rās-garbā and Rājasthāni folk music. More modern musical influences such as Bollywood film melodies are also clear, although the Jain style of singing hymns descends from traditional popular music.

As a central element of Jain worship, hymns form part of the morning ritual and are essential to most religious ceremonies, such as offering alms to a mendicant. Religious songs are especially important in public festivals and celebrations, such as the ordination of a monk or nun, or the completion of a fast. Hymns are sung solo and by mixed groups or male- or female-only choirs in temples and domestic settings, in public and private worship.

In all settings and occasions, Jain hymns aim to help individual souls advance along the cycle of rebirth. The hymns most frequently use the rasa of peace to create a mood of tranquillity among listeners and performers, fostering the meditation necessary for spiritual development.

Development of Jain hymns

Both main Jain sects agree that Jain hymns have a mythological beginning, stemming from when the king of the gods first praised the qualities of the Jinas. They believe that the daily hymn Sakra Stavan is based on this exaltation, which lists many images that help to form basic concepts of the Jina.

Although Jains have drawn on elements of the Hindu tradition of bhakti poetry in developing religious songs, they have adapted it to their philosophical ideas and practices. Jain hymns stress praise of the Jinas and extol their virtues.

Origin of Jain hymns

According to both Śvetāmbara and Digambara mythological traditions, hymns in Jain worship derive from praise given to the Jinas by Śakra, the king of the gods. This has become the Śakra Stavan, recited as part of the daily morning prayers. Memorised by all observant Jains, the text provides a list of images for Jain devotional literature while also giving it a mythological pedigree. Many of the epithets for Jinas in hymns come from this and other texts recited as part of the morning worship. They are memorised by many Jains more often than any other long text so these images create the basis of understanding what a Jina is and what a Jina can do.

Influence of Hindu bhakti

The 22nd Jina Nemi with his cousin Kr̥ṣṇa. To Jains Kr̥ṣṇa is Prince Nemi's cousin, who appears in his life story. He is the ninth and final Vāsudeva of this time period and thus a a śalākā-puruṣa – 'great man'. To Hindus Kr̥ṣṇa is the avatar of Viṣṇu.

Nemi and Kr̥ṣṇa
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jains have participated fully in the bhakti devotional movement but they have done so in ways that support their religious beliefs. Jain writers have composed thousands of devotional hymns, the most popular of which are performed daily.

Jain hymns draw on bhakti poetry aesthetics in language, metaphor and poetic metre and form discussed below in turn. However, these hymns differ from the standard trope of Hindu bhakti poetry, which focuses on passionate attachment to a god and cajoling of the divinity for favours. Instead, Jains emphasise the cultivation of spiritual progress and praise of the Jinas’ virtues.

Jain involvement in the bhakti tradition parallels the developments in bhakti literature more broadly. Jains have used the same poetic forms and devices as their Hindu counterparts. In addition, Jain bhakti poetry often shares metaphors with Hindu bhakti verse. For example, hymns addressed to the Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi share with hymns addressed to the Hindu god Kṛṣṇa the focus on romantic love and the suffering of separation.

Hymns that are still commonly performed to this day include those by the great Digambara writers:

  • Daulatrām (1789–1866)
  • Dyānatrāy (1676–1726)
  • Budhjan (circa 1763–circa 1838)
  • Bhādardās (circa 1700–circa 1765).

Popular religious songs for the Śvetāmbara sect include those by:

  • Ānandaghan (1603–1673)
  • Udayratna (circa 1692–circa 1743)
  • Jñānvimal-sūri (1645–1713).
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