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.


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.

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’.


Banārasīdās composed many philosophical poems, and rewrote numerous Jain devotional texts. These pieces, numbering approximately 50, were collected after his death by his friend Jagjīvan in an anthology called Banārasīvilāsa. The topics of the poems were probably inspired by discussions during meetings of the Adhyātma groups in Agra. Some pieces may be kinds of notes made after listening to an authoritative person. Usually between 20 and 100 verses long, the poems deal with matters such as:

  • different kinds of concentration – Dhyānabattīsī
  • the categories of karmaKarmachattīsī
  • the attainment of Heaven – Śivapaccīsī.

Samayasāra Nāṭaka

The 16th-century writer Rājamalla Paṇḍe wrote a commentary on Kundakunda's 'Samayasāra' that deeply influenced the 17th-century lay thinker Banārasīdās.

Pandit Rājamalla Paṇḍe
Image by unknown ©

The most significant Banārasīdās work on spiritual matters is probably the Samayasāra Nāṭaka.

One of the turning points in Banārasīdās’s life was sparked by a text and its commentary. The crucial moment came when a member of the Adhyātma movement named Arthamal Ḍhor gave him a copy of a Hindi commentary on Kundakunda’s Samayasāra. Ḍhor said to him, ‘Read this text and you will understand the truth.’

Banārasīdās called this text a nāṭaka – drama. The word ‘nāṭaka’ was used chiefly for commentaries on the Samayasāra that present a kind of drama with the soul as the main character. This commentary was written by Rājamalla Paṇḍe in the 16th century. Reading it was a life-changing event for Banārasīdās. From this moment, he wanted to attain the Supreme Self but did not really know how to do so. He said he stood like ‘a camel fart’, which never goes in any direction, a situation that lasted till he read Nemicandra’s Gommaṭasāra.

Profoundly inspired, Banārasīdās wrote a Samayasāra Nāṭaka of his own. His commentary on the Samayasāra of Kundakunda is quite a long work, numbering about 750 verses divided into 13 chapters, compared with Kundakunda’s 415 verses in 10 chapters. His commentary includes a chapter of 100 verses devoted to enlightening discovery of the 14 guṇasthānas.


In 1641, two years before he passed away, Banārasīdās wrote his autobiography, the Ardha-kathānakaHalf A Story. This is the first text of this genre in the history of Indian literature.

In 675 verses, Banārasīdās evokes his lineage, the paternal figure, his childhood, his business partnerships, his relationship with Jainism and the important people he meets on his path. At the end, he wrote that he lived ‘pleasantly’ in Agra with his third wife after his first two first wives and all his nine children had died. Banārasīdās finished this Half A Story by saying that the best part of his life is yet to come.

Banārasīdās seems to have composed this account principally to explain his unconventional progress in the Jain path to friends and detractors. It could be also a kind of confessionpratikramaṇa – which is one of the most important duties for Jain lay men. Indeed, at the end of the story Banārasīdās lists his main qualities and defects, which is quite unusual in Indian literature. The autobiography genre also implies an unavoidably didactic perspective.


  • Main street of Agra, around 1860 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.. Image by unknown © public domain
  • Examples of types of living beings 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 depicts examples of these beings, such as a god, various animals, plants and insects. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Banārasīdās throws away his poem 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 movement of northern India, in which Jain lay men discussed religious and philosophical issues.. Image by unknown © unknown
  • Pandit Rājamalla Paṇḍe The 16th-century writer Rājamalla Paṇḍe wrote a commentary on Kundakunda's 'Samayasāra' that deeply influenced the 17th-century lay thinker Banārasīdās.. Image by unknown ©

Further Reading

Ardhakathanak: A Half Story
translated by Rohini Chowdhury
Penguin Books India; New Delhi, India; 2009

Full details

Dhyānabattīsī: 32 steps to self-realisation
translated by Jérôme Petit
Pandit Nathuram Premi Research series; volume 31
Hindi Granth Karyalay; Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; 2010

Full details

Histoire à demi: autobiographie d’un marchand jaina du XVIIe siècle
translated by Jérôme Petit
Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle; Paris, France; 2011

Full details

Ardhakathānaka – Half a Tale: A study in the interrelationship between autobiography and history
translated by Mukund Lath
Prakrit Bharati Sansthan; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 1981

Full details

‘Banārasīdās’s Karmachattīsī’
Jérôme Petit
Svasti – essays in honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah for his 75th Birthday
edited by Nalini Balbir
Muddushree Granthamala series; volume 75
K. S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust; Bangalore, Karnataka, India; 2010

Full details

‘Review of M. Lath: 'Ardhakathānaka. Half a Tale'’
Nalini Balbir
Orientalistische Literaturzeitung
volume 82: 1

Full details

‘A Tale of Two Cities: On the Origins of Digambar Sectarianism in North India’
John E. Cort
Multiple Histories: Culture and Society in the Study of Rajasthan
edited by Lawrence A. Babb, Varsha Joshi and Michael W. Meister
Rawat Publications; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 2002

Full details

‘Jain Sectarian Debates: Eighty-four Points of Contention (Cauryāṃsī bol) Between Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras (Text and Translation)’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Journal of Indian Philosophy
volume 36

Full details

‘The Ardha-kathānak: a neglected source of Mughal history’
Ramesh Chandra Sharma
volume 7

Full details

‘Nāṭaka for the Samayasāra of Kundakunda’
Nagendra K. Singh
Encyclopaedia of Jainism
edited by Nagendra K. Singh
volume 16
Anmol Publications; New Delhi, India; 2001

Full details

‘Confessions of a 17th-century Jain merchant: the 'Ardhakathānak' of Banārasīdās’
Rupert Snell
South Asia Research
volume 25:1

Full details

‘The Ardhakathānaka by Banarasi Das: a socio-cultural study’
Eugenia Vanina
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
volume 3: 5: 2

Full details



City in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. One of the capitals of the Mughal Empire, Agra contains many fine examples of Mughal architecture, including the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.


Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.


A member of the highest caste in Hinduism, the priests or brahmins. 'Brahminical' means 'of or like brahmins'.

Braj Bhāṣā

A vernacular language used throughout northern India for centuries. It is still spoken but has disappeared as a literary language.


An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:

  • bālāvabodha
  • bhāṣya
  • cūrṇi
  • niryukti
  • ṭīkā.


Acknowledgement or declaration of the truth of a statement. In religious terms, it usually refers to admitting sin or wrongdoing to at least one other person in a ritual. It is normally a necessary step before absolution, which is formal release from guilt or consequences of wrongdoing.


An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.


Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.


'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.


A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.


The 14 stages of spiritual development the soul passes through to gain liberation from the cycle of birth. The stages go from the state of delusion to the state of omniscience without activity, which is reached just before death of the body. When the body dies after the soul has attained the 14th stage, the soul instantly becomes liberated – a siddha.


The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.


Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.


Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.


Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.


'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.


Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.


'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:

  • anger – krodha
  • pride – māna
  • deceit – māyā
  • greed – lobha.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.


Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.


Digambara monk who lived in the second or third centuries CE. Little is known of his life but his mystical writings, concentrating on the soul and internal religious experience, have been enormously influential in Jain thought. Key works include Samayasāra, Niyamsāra, Pañcāstikāya and Pravacanasāra.


Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.


A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.


A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.


The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858, a period noted for its wealth, overall religious tolerance, and cultural and intellectual achievements, particularly in art and architecture. Originally Muslims who swept down from Central Asia, the Mughals' best-known ruler is probably Akbar the Great (1556–1605).


'Learned one' in Sanskrit and used originally for a Hindu brahmin scholar and teacher. Nowadays a Jain pandit is a scholar who has been educated traditionally and is expert in the sacred texts of at least one of the Jain sects.


The highest soul, the liberated soul, the Absolute, often used instead of siddhi. Jains believe that a soul or ātman can achieve liberation from the cycle of birth through its own spiritual development. This concept has been called God in Western thought since the start of the Christian era.


A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.


'Introspection’ in Sanskrit. The elaborate ritual of confession and repentance that involves reciting liturgical texts and performing set gestures at dawn and dusk. It is one of an ascetic's six daily duties – āvaśyaka. For many lay people, pratikramaṇa is the essence of Jainism.


Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.


A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.


Reality or truth. This is very important to Jains and the satya-vrata is the second of the mendicant's Five Great Vows and the lay person's Five Lesser Vows.


An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.


The principal destroyer or transformer deity in the Hindu religion. One of the triad of major Hindu gods, along with Brahmā the creator and Viṣṇu the preserver or protector. Śiva is often depicted with a third eye, a crescent moon on his forehead, matted hair and smeared with cremation ashes.


'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.


'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

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