Article: Banārasīdās

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

Banārasīdās (1586–1643) was a merchant, poet and leader of the anti-ritualistic Adhyātma lay movement. His life is well known because he was the first Indian author to write an autobiography. Controversial but resolutely Jain, Banārasīdās sp­ent his life questioning his family religion, trying to attain the Supreme Self while continuing in the family business. An inspiration to lay men, Banārasīdās is also cited as an inspiration by the founders of the Digambara Terāpantha sect.

Life

In 1641, at the age of 55, Banārasīdās decided to write down what he remembered of his life. He entitled his autobiography Half A Story because the Jain tradition promises human beings a lifetime of 110 years. Most of the information about his life comes from this source.

Childhood and youth

Banārasīdās was born into a Śrīmāl Śvetāmbara Jain family in Jaunpur. His father came from the village of Rohtak, in the north-west of Delhi. As a child he had had to run away with his mother because all their belongings had been confiscated by a Mughal soldier in the army of Emperor Humāyūn. They had found refuge in Jaunpur, a city built on the banks of the River Gomati, near Vārāṇasī. The city had been very important in the 15th century as an influential centre of military and cultural activities. By the 17th century, however, its brightness had declined, mostly because the Mughal Empire had chosen the city of Agra as its capital.

Banārasīdās’s father was named Kharagasen. He was a serious man, a dedicated Jain lay man and a meticulous jeweller.

Banārasīdās had received a good education in mathematics and Jain scriptures under the guidance of a Śvetāmbara monk. But he was a turbulent young man, devoted to his two passions of reading and womanising. He also stole from his own father to offer gifts to his lovers, and contracted syphilis from his debauched lifestyle.

Business experiences

This 19th-century engraving shows the main street of Agra, Uttar Pradesh, around 1860. One of the capitals of the Mughal Empire at its zenith, Agra was a wealthy centre of culture and commerce from the mid-16th century.

Main street of Agra, around 1860
Image by unknown © public domain

After he had reasserted Jain values in his heart, Banārasīdās saw his father. Kharagasen gathered together all the precious stones, condiments and clothes he owned and told his son to sell the merchandise in Agra. In his autobiography Banārasīdās relates that: “Now, he said, the burden is on your shoulders. You have to feed all the family”.

So Banārasīdās travelled to the capital city. He recounts that his journey was full of misadventures. These included heavy rains making the roads impassable, escaping from thieves by disguising himself as a brahmin and finding that caravanserais were full, obliging him to spend the night outside.

At the market-place in Agra Banārasīdās did not seem to be a natural businessman, for his first venture made him bankrupt. Kharagasen was in despair when he saw his son come back as a beggar.

After that, Banārasīdās established some business partnerships, as was generally the case at that time. The first one was with Dharmadās, the ‘bad son’ of an Osvāl family from Delhi. He was more interested in smoking opium than selling goods in the markets. Banārasīdās then built a more fruitful partnership with Narottamadās, who became his best friend. They worked a lot together, finally earning good money. Even so, Banārasīdās had to work with an investor, Sabal Siṅgh, who neglected business, preferring to listen to his private musicians.

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