Article: Banārasīdās

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

Questioning Jainism

Some types of living beings are illustrated in this manuscript painting. Over the course of the cycle of birth, a soul is born into various types of body according to the karma that has become attached to it. This painting shows examples of these beings.

Examples of types of living beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Based on Digambara philosophy, the Adhyātma lay movement flourished in several cities of northern India during Banārasīdās’s lifetime. Though he was born into a Śvetāmbara family, Banārasīdās was seen as the leader of the movement by the end of his life. His association with this movement followed his exploration of various religions and viewpoints.

Throughout his life, Banārasīdās had questioned his family religion and looked for spiritual fulfilment from different sources. After studying the major Jain scriptures, he became a devotee of ritual. Tricked by a false ascetic, he recited a mantra that would allow him to earn money. Misled by a false yogi, he became a devotee of the Hindu god Śiva and worshipped a white conch for a year. After this, his first contact with Adhyātma was decisive for his career.

The Adhyātma movement was founded in the middle of the 16th century in the cities of north India, mainly Agra, Delhi, Jaipur and Sanganer. During meetings, Jain lay men discussed philosophical tenets such as:

Together, they read important philosophical and doctrinal Jain works such as Kundakunda's Samayasāra and its commentaries. This Prakrit work of the 2nd to 3rd century caused a deep change in Banārasīdās’s thought and behaviour. In this work Kundakunda makes a distinction between:

  • the conventional point of view – vyavahāra-naya – which invites devotees to perform religious rituals
  • the absolute point of view – niścaya-naya – which goes beyond the practical life and invites truth-seekers to focus on the Supreme Self instead of following meaningless rules.

When Banārasīdās read this work and its commentaries, he became an ardent anti-ritual lay man, disregarding ritual-based practice of worship.

Banārasīdās finally found his own path after reading Nemicandra’s Gommaṭasāra. This 10th-century work expounds the ‘Scale of Qualities’ from delusion to omniscience, dividing spiritual progress into 14 stages – guṇasthāna. Banārasīdās understood that each human being should act in accordance with the degree of spiritual elevation he has reached. This theory allowed him to seek the Supreme Self while continuing his commercial activities.


Using the Braj Bhāṣā language, Banārasīdās wrote extensively during his search for spiritual truth. The Jains have never considered his writings authoritative, because of his hectic life and lay status, but his works have inspired many followers. He is considered the inspiration of the Digambara Terāpantha sect. Mostly created by Pandit Ṭoḍarmal in the mid-18th century, this sect claims Banārasīdās as its guide.

In addition to the Ardha-kathānakaHalf A Story – the best known works by Banārasīdās are the Banārasīvilāsa and Samayasāra Nāṭaka.


The 17th-century writer Banārasīdās casts his poem 'Navarasa' on the waters of the river Gomati after he rediscovers the Jain beliefs of his family. Banārasīdās later became regarded as the leader of the Adhyātma lay movement of northern India

Banārasīdās throws away his poem
Image by unknown © unknown

The first text Banārasīdās wrote in his youth was a treatise on the ‘Nine Sentiments’ – nava-rasa. These rasas are described by Indian poetics as:

  1. love – śṛṅgāra
  2. heroism – vīra
  3. disgust – bībhatsa
  4. anger – raudra
  5. mirth – hāsya
  6. fear – bhayānaka
  7. pity – kāruṇa
  8. wonder – adbhuta
  9. tranquillity – śānta.

After confessing that the text focused on ‘love’, Banārasīdās considered himself a ‘bad poet’ and denied his Navarasa by throwing the sheets of his manuscript into the River Gomati.

A picture promoting Jainism shows him sitting in a boat, the papers floating on the water. The caption of the picture is explicit: ‘When his religious views had changed [that is, when he became a resolute Jain], the great poet Banārasīdās threw his Navarasa composition in the Gomati River’.

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