Article: Songs of devotion

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Hymns

In general, the Sanskrit word stavan refers to ‘hymn’. Sometimes called bhajan or pada, Jain hymns are devotional songs usually sung in Gujarāti, Hindi, Mārvāḍī, and Braj Bhāṣā.

There are several other words that have been translated as ‘hymns’ within the Jain tradition but nowadays these terms usually describe recitations.Contemporary Jains use stavan when they mean religious song.

Jains customarily include several types of songs – gīt – in collections of hymns:

  • fasting songs – tapasya gīt
  • mendicant welcome songs – sādhu svāgatam gīt or gahuli gīt
  • ordination songs – dīkṣā gīt
  • auction songs – boli gīt
  • veil songs – cunḍaḍī gīt.

Other kinds of ‘hymns’

This highly decorated manuscript page is from an 18th-century copy of the Bhaktāmara-stotra, one of the most popular Jain prayers. The figure in the centre is the first Jina Ṛṣabha. An auspicious image of a Jina or god often appears at the start of a text

Bhaktāmara-stotra opening
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Several other words have often been translated as ‘hymns’ and, confusingly, each of these terms has been used differently among Jains. Though sometimes used instead of stavan, these other genres now refer chiefly to recitations rather than sung hymns.

Sajjhāys are narrative devotional poems recited or sung as part of the rite of confession or as a form of devotional study.

A stotra is a prayer to be recited, not sung. There are certain stotra that are widely read and recited, most notably the Bhaktāmara-stotra.

A stuti is an old prayer usually in Prakrit or Apabhraṁśa, which can be chanted or recited.

A sutra or verse is usually a ‘fixed’ text, which the reciter cannot change. Examples include the Kalpa-sūtra and the Khamāsamāṇo-sūtra, which are often recited from memory.

Languages and poetics

This 19th-century idol from Jaipur, Rajasthan, is of Candraprabha, the eighth Jina. This typical Digambara image shows the plainly sculpted Jina nude with closed eyes. He wears a small cap but his emblem of the crescent moon is missing

Digambara sculpture of Candraprabha
Image by Gift of Sir Michael Sadler K.C.S.I., C.B. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jain hymns are written in every language that Jains have used. The bulk of medieval and modern hymns performed today are written in Gujarāti and Hindi, including dialects of Hindi such as Mārvāḍī. There are also substantial numbers of hymns written in Marathi and Kannada. The older hymn genres include hymns written in Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil.

Jain hymns are heavily influenced by Sanskritic conventions of verse. Their poetics draw on two major traditions within Sanskrit poetics – rasa and alaṅkār. Rasa poetics is a theory of mood focusing on a poem’s creation of mood. The most significant one in Jain religious songs is the rasa of peace or calmness. The alaṅkār, or ornament, devices include both metaphors and the music of the poetry.

Jain religious songs most frequently follow the pada verse form. Although this form is associated with the bhakti devotional movement in Hinduism, Jain writers adopted pada for their own religion.

Inherited as part of pada poetry, the moraic metre is generally used in Jain hymns. This musical metre counts the lines of the song in one of two methods. Either the heavy and light beats can be counted, or the stressed and unstressed beats in the rhythm of the language.

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Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images

  • Hymn to Ara

    Hymn to Ara

    British Library. Or. 13623. Yaśo-vijaya. 1733

  • Yantra for stanza 1

    Yantra for stanza 1

    British Library. Or. 13741. Mānatunga. Perhaps 18th to 19th centuries

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