The Social Atmosphere of Present Jainism [1930]

Published: 24.02.2011
Updated: 02.07.2015

The essay was published in June issue of the Journal Calcutta Review, Calcutta University 1930. As a contemporary historical source the essay illustrates the situation of Jainism in the early 20th century as seen by the German scholar Dr. (Mrs.) Charlotte Krause, who became a follower of Jain religion just a few years before.


The Social Atmosphere of Present Jainism

Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India, older than Buddhism, and older perhaps than even the oldest systems of Hindu philosophy. Though according to present opinions, it never attained the power and extension of Buddhism, nor spread beyond the boundaries of India, still it acted once a prominent part in Indian religious life: counting, at a time, kings and nobles amongst its followers, and enforcing the influence of its humanitarian principles on other religious and philosophical systems. During the last centuries, however, it has lost a great deal of its power, and at present, the number of its actual followers decreasing from census to census, has come to a minimum standard of eleven lakhs (11,00,000 [Presently the number of its actual follower in India is more than one crore; Editor]) at last.

It would be unjustified, however, to infer from this fact that the Jaina religion itself is declining in proportion to this develop­ment, and ceasing to exercise its influence on the spiritual life of India. As a matter of fact, Jainism is not confined to those people who are Jainas officially, i.e., Jainas by birth and tradition, but Jainism is indeed far wider spread over the country than the census reports tell, and its tenets are clung to by far more people than the outsider could possible guess. For Jainism has constantly been, and is still being, carried from place to place, by highly learned, refined and enthusiastic Jaina ascetics, who have always known how to attract not only the broader masses, but especially educated people all over the country, and to arouse, even amongst the heterodox of them, liking and esteem, if not enthusiasm, for the religion they profess themselves. Thus, there are many persons, and I know a number of them personally, who, though never thinking in the least of giving up the Hindu, Parsee, or Musalman creed they profess by birth, tradition and ritual, could still be called convinced Jainas, regarding their view on life and their ethical ideas. Nay, there are even numbers of heterodox people who though sticking to their old creeds, still regularly visit Jaina temples, worship Jaina idols, and even perform various ascetical and other Jaina observances as ardently as only good Jainas could do. I may be allowed to quote, as an illustration of the latter fact, the example of H.H. the present Mahārānā of Udaipur and his heir-apparent, who, though orthodox Hindus, are known, to worship the Jina idol in the famous temple of Kesaria Nath (near Udaipur)in all publicity. And there are quite a considerable number of princes who could justly be styled protectors and devotees of Jaina ascetics, in whose sermons they take delight, and on whose instigation they have even issued decrees in order to promote the protection of animal life, etc., in the sense of Jainism.

Now one should think that there cannot be such a large step from admiring Jainism and living up to its ethical standard, or in a word, from being a Jaina by conviction - to being a Jaina by birth and tradition. Nor is indeed the gap between the two states such a wide one in the light of the situation as it represents itself in the peaceful South of India, amongst those calm-hearted intelligent Dravidian Jainas, who have preserved, in a state of rare purity, an old form of Digambara Jainism, one of the two chief confessions into which Jainism is divided. All their knowledge and all their observances are based on oral tradition, handed down from father to son, and from mother to daughter, without clerical interference. To them, Jainism is indeed nothing but a moral standard, and the key to the ideal view on life. It is therefore a powerful bondage connecting all the Digambara Jainas of the South (and there are no other Jainas in the South, except late immigrants) indissolubly with one another, as though they were members of one and the same lodge of freemasonry. Whether their mother-tongue be Tamil, or Kanarese, or Malayalam, or Telugu; and whether their respective caste be a high one or a low one: All the autochthonous Jainas of those parts are one great community, in which sub-sectarian and sectarian differences are unknown, and in which there exists an unexceptional mutual messmateship and complete freedom of intermarriage. To those pure-hearted and pious people, every Jaina is indeed a brother and friend, no matter if he be a born Jaina or not.

In North and Central India, however, where both the great confessions, Digambaras as well as Śvetāmbaras, are represented with their various sub-sects, and where there exists a regular system of Jaina schools and other educational institutions as well as a vivid Jaina propaganda, exercised both by laymen and by ascetics, the situation is quite a different one. Here, the title 'Jaina' implies not only the obligation of undergoing the most rigid ascetical and other practices and minute observances, but it also involves that the individual bearing the title is being entangled, from his very birth, in a net of caste and sub-caste regulations, which are exercising their influence on the individual's whole household and personal affairs, during his whole lifetime.

The reader must be wondering what religion can possibly have to do with caste regulations, all the more since the Jaina religion itself is known to plead for universal love and tolerance, and to recommend a close and indiscriminate alliance, especially of all 'Svāmībhāis', i.e., 'Brothers in the Lord', to whatever caste or profession they may belong, just as the one existing amongst the Southern Digambara Jainas. Still, the miracle-working hand of history has succeeded in bringing about that incredible and appa­rently inextricable combination of the two heterogeneous elements, caste and religion, in the case of the northern Jainas.

The present representatives of northern Jainism belong practically all to one or another of the Baniyā castes, which form the bulk of the Vaiśya or commercial group of Indo-Aryan society. Like the castes of the Brāhmana or priestly, and those of the Ksatriya or warriors groups of Indian society, those Baniyā castes too are very ancient institutions, of some of which we hear at as early a date as the sixth century A.D., and even earlier. All of them, the Brāhmana, Ksatriya and Baniyā castes of northern and central India go back, in the last instance, to local communities, bound to certain places of Marwar and Gujarat, the influence of the names of which is, in many cases, still visible in the names of the castes themselves. Thus, the present Modha Brāhmanas and Modha Baniyās go back to the town Modherā, the Nāgara Brāhmanas and Nāgara Baniyās to the place Vādanagar, the Osavāla Baniyās to the place Osia near Jodhpur, the Śrīmāls to a place named Bhinmāla (likewise near Jodhpur), etc., etc. Most of those Brāhmanas of old who had originally been Jainas gave up their religion under the influence of Śarikarācārya and his school. Thus, the Brāhmana castes have no practical importance in the later history of Jainism. The Ksatriya Jainas, however, gradually gave up their old profession in favour of the more peaceful, and, in the sense of Jainism, less harmful pursuits of trade, and were soon completely absorbed by the old Baniyā castes. We know for certain that, e.g., the present Osavāla, Śrīmāla, and Poravāla castes partly consist of descendants of the Chauhāna, Rāthoda, Chāvadā, Solaiikī and other famous Rājapūta clans, the names of which still appear in some of the gotra, i.e., family names of modern Baniyā Jainas.

Thus, it is the Baniyā caste alone that have been represen­ting Jainism in India for many centuries. Not only this much, but the greater part of them were even pure Jaina castes originally, as is known 'for certain with reference to' the Osavāla, Śrimāla, Poravāla, Vayad, Disāvāla, Nāgara, Modha and other Baniyās. Of the rest of the '84 Baniyā castes' of which tradition knows, this much is certain that all of them contained a greater or smaller number of followers of Jainism, many of whom have handed down their names on inscriptions of Jina statues and temples erected on their behalf. It was only since the 16th and 17th centuries that, owing to the decline of the Jaina clergy and to the rise and zeal of the Visnuitic Vallabhācārya sect that many members of the old Jaina Baniyā castes gave up their inherited religion and 'bound the Kanthī (i.e., the necklace of Tulasī beads, symbolical of Vaisnavism)', or, in other words, became Vaisnavas in great numbers. Late Jaina Ācārya Buddhisāgara says in the introduction to his 'Jaina Dhātupratimā Lekha Sangraha', vol. I, p. 18, that he heard a Vaisnava Pandita boast in a public assembly in Surat that the Vallabhācārya sect had conver­ted three hundred thousands of Jainas to Vaisnavism, and the author adds that this may very well be true.

Now the old Jaina castes, whose members had to live, from the very beginning, in the middle of a heterodox and, in their eyes, ritually impure and barbarous majority, very early developed, independently of one another, a number of strict regulations concerning messmateship and intermarriage. And when the main castes again split asunder, and various sub-castes sprang into life, such as the Śrī-śrīmāla, Vīsā-śrīmāla, Daśa-śrīmāla and Laduva-śrīmāla, or the Vīsā-osavāla, Daśa-osavāla, Pafica-osavāla, and Adhiā-osavāla, etc., castes, those restrictions and regulations multi­plied in the same measure. These sub-castes, in their turn, became divided into as many different branches as there were places, chiefly in Gujarat, Kathiāvada and Māravāda, where colonies of Baniyās had settled later on, up to a certain date.

And these sub-sub-castes again kept each strictly to their own regulations of messmateship and intermarriage. In many cases, moreover, the caste did not form a uniform religious community, but was divided into different sects and sub-sects. Thus, a Jaina Baniyā caste may not only be divided into the two main confessions of Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras, but there may be again idol-worshipping Śvetāmbaras, non-idolatrous Sthānakavāsī Śvetāmbaras and followers of the still more rigorously Calvinistic Terāpanthī Śvetāmbara sect, and there are, on the other hand, again Visāpanthī Digambaras and Terāpanthī Digambaras, each group refusing (with exceptions) to keep up messmateship and intermarriage with the rest.Thus, it came to pass that the groups within which mess­mateship and intermarriage were allowed, became smaller and smaller, and that even in such an enormous caste as, e.g., the Śrīmālīs are, it has become a difficult problem for the head of a family to find out brides for all the marriageable young men. For in many places of Gujarat and Kathiawar, it would even now-a-days be considered quite an unheard of case and liable to outcasting, if e.g., a Vīsā-śrīmāla Śvetāmbara idolator would give his daughter in marriage to a Vīsā-Śrīmāla Śvetāmbara Sthānakavāsi even of the very same place; and if a Daśa-osavāla Śvetāmbara idolator of Veraval would marry his daughter to a Daśa-osavāla Śvetāmbara idolator of Vala, it would be considered just as heavy a crime.

Owing to the strictness of the prohibition of widow-remarriages on one, and the frequency of even old widowers remarriages on the other side, owing to the great mortality of Indian women as a consequence of improper hygienic conditions in child­bed and of too early marriages, owing to the prohibition of marri­ages within certain distantly related clans, and many other reasons, there has always been a scarcity of marriageable women in India, which again resulted in such objectionable customs as the selling of brides for high prices. It was in order to prevent marriageable girls to be given away outside the respective communities, and in order to secure brides for poor and uneducated fellow-citizens for whom it has always been difficult to secure brides, that those circles of caste restrictions were drawn narrower and narrower. It is typical that these restrictions refer only to the giving away of brides, whereas there is complete liberty as to bringing brides home from outside provided they belong to the same chief caste.

Many of the ancient Jaina castes had moreover been deci­mated by those conversions to Vaisnavism alluded to above. Mess­mateship and intermarriages between the now heterodox parts of one and the same caste were in most cases soon stopped, owing to the pressure exercised by the renegades, who tried to force the rest of the caste by this kind of boycott to become Vaisnavas likewise. Wherever there was a Vaisnava majority and a Jaina minority, the latter had to give way, i.e., they had to give up their faith in order to get wives for their sons or for themselves, no matter how firm their innermost convictions as to their old creed might be. Old men in grey hair have indeed been seen weeping at the feet of Jaina monks, confessing with utter grief how it came that decades ago they had been forced to give up the still beloved faith of their fathers for practical reasons, and how much grieved they were at seeing their children growing up in the atmosphere of the new faith.

Thus, it could happen that, within the last hundred years, many castes which had been pure Jaina castes before, have lost the claim to this title, the small rest of Jainas amongst their members dwindling quickly away, as it is the case with the Modha, Maniyāra and Bhāvasara Baniyās. Only a few years hence the last Jainas of the Vādanagar Nāgara Baniyās have adopted Vaisnavism defini­tely, because the isolated, small, but enthusiastic flock could not, in their social needs, prevail upon the Vīsā-śrīmālī Jainas to receive them into their midst, and to allow them to join their messmateship and marriage-circle. The narrow-mindedness of their 'Brothers-in-the-Lord' drove them straight into the arms of Vaisnavism. Thus, the report of Jaina Ācārya Buddhisāgara (I, I. p. 1 If.). In the same way, the Lingāyat of the Deccan and the Sarāka of Bengal, both of them pure Jaina castes at a time, do not count even a single Jaina amongst their members at present.

Thus, the unreasonable caste and sectarian organization of the Jainas of North and Central India is indeed responsible for the greater part of the numerous cases of apostasy amongst the Jainas which happened in the last decades. There are other reasons too, such as the want of proper schools, where people could be taught to understand the inner reason and sense of those long prayers, hymns, etc., they mechani­cally recite, and of the various rites they daily perform without knowing why and where they could learn to connect the rigorous ascetical and other practices they have to undergo, with their beautiful philosophical justifications. The wealthy Jaina Setha, enthusiastic over his beloved religion, does spend lacs of rupees for religious purposes, such as pilgrimages, processions, Pūjā-ceremonies, etc. The famous pilgrimage of about four thousand Jaina laymen and four hundred ascetics, who went from Pātana to Girnāra some years ago, had been undertaken and patronized by a well-known merchant prince of Gujarat: it had cost no less than about twelve lacs (12,00,000) of rupees. Many of them do spend money in this way out of the purest motifs; still they have not yet learned to spend it for educations, the very basis of all religion and culture, being over-anxious to see their sons and grand-sons earning money and becoming settled in life as early as possible.

That many noble Jaina families gave up their faith in consi­deration of the heterodox belief of a royal master to whom they were attached by service and tradition, and from whose more intimate company their caste restrictions cut them off, is also a well-known fact, illustrated by the example of the ancient minister families of the states Udaipur, Jodhpur, etc., whose ancestors, convinced and faithful Jainas, once acted a great part in the history of their countries. Many of those discontented and disheartened Jainas who did not find the courage boldly to face those caste regulations, and who, on the other hand, did not desire to join the Vaisnava faith, ran into the open arms of the Arya Samāja, that institution of reasonably reformed and liberal-minded Hinduism which pays so much attention to education and which plays such an important part in the India of today. Many of those poor renegades may well have remained good Jainas in their heart of hearts, or even Jainas by conduct and observances: still what can the census report possibly know of them when stating the number of actual official Jainas? And what does the Jaina community care for it who are bewildered at seeing the number of their followers dwindling away from year to year? They have much pondered over the problem and have been trying many remedies, but in vain, for nobody has as yet dared even to look with an unfriendly eye on the sacred institution of the castes and their strange laws, which seem as unfit as possible for the century of general awakening and of a reasonable economy of powers.

Well, what have they been devising after all? There are two distinct parties with distinct views and suggestions. One of them is the conservative party, who, ignoring the actual reasons of the evil, are inclined to derive every damage from the tendency towards abandoning old views and old customs, and from the increasing influences of Western education with its revolutionary conceptions and theories. They recommend, as the only remedy, to cling in all rigidity not only to the general customs and views of old, but even to such ancient regulations as their ancestors once had to introduce in order to redress the needs of their own time, however, out of place they may be in the present age. Thus, they forbid every closer connection and collaboration with heterodox people, forbid travell­ing to Europe, forbid the sacred writings to be studied by laymen and disapprove of any education based on Western lines. Narrow-mindedness and an unreasonable conservatism can be said to be the chief characteristics of this party. Its spirit, though in a moderate form, can be said to dominate as yet with the majority. Still, this party has begun to lose ground, and it will soon enough cease to be taken in full earnest.

The other party denotes itself as the reform party. Having recognized with a clear eye the true causes of the rapid decline of Jainism, but still not daring to do anything openly and directly against the caste system, they have adopted an indirect way of fighting it; namely they eagerly propagate education on broad and modern lines, encourage and deepen the knowledge of the Sacred Writings, popularize Jaina literature not only in India, but even in the West, show how to separate the true essence of the Jaina religion from the profusion of traditional observances and conventions, by which its true nature is being concealed, improve the social position of women, propagate tolerance and sympathy everywhere, and last but not least try to create unity within the camp of Jaina sectarianism itself. The measures taken are no doubt useful ones, for with the progress of education, the conviction of the necessity of openly doing away with those caste regulations must arise in a daily increasing number of individuals. And on the other hand a closer union and collaboration amongst the different sects must needs create a more vivid feeling of responsibility, and strengthen the fighting lines.

At present, it is true, this aim is still far from being reached, the two chief confessions, the Śvetāmbaras and the Digambaras being still engaged in furious mutual quarrels about the possession of certain places of pilgrimage, such as Antariksa (near Akola), Pāvāpurī Rājagrhī, and Sametśikhara (all three near Patna), Kesariājī (near Udaipur), Maksī (near Ujjain), and others, and millions have been spent and are being spent in those fruitless strifes. And on the other hand, the idolatrous sect of the Śvetāmbaras, and the two non-idolatrous Śvetāmbara sect, viz., the Sthānakavāsīs and Terāpanthīs, are still violently fighting each other about insigni­ficant dogmatic discrepancies, whereas the Digambara party too has its own internal troubles. Within the aforesaid sects, mere are again sub-sects, parties and schools of opinions, which cannot keep peace with one another, but often enough cross each others schemes, the one spoiling what positive work the other may have achieved. So there can be no doubt that by stopping all these fruitless strifes many powers would become free to engage in the necessary work of caste reform and general uplift.

That reformatory work of this kind can hope to succeed even in present India, is shown by the example of the Jainas of the Punjab, who are heard to have formed, some years ago, one single great circle of common messmateship and intermarriage, and who are now collectively known as Bhāvadā, which name is likely to abolish the few caste distinctions which still survive. Examples of great circles in which at least the sub-caste is ignored in the case of marriages, are the Mārawadī and Bābū Jainas of Eastern Rāja-putānā, the United Provinces, and Bengal, all of whom form a unity, and the Jainas of the Deccan on the other side, who are at least partly united. Both are cases, it is true, in which small numbers of Jainas are spread over vast areas. Still they show what is possible where there is good will and tolerance.

There are also instances of such Jaina communities in Gujarat in which certain messmateship and intermarriage circles comprise even members of different chief castes, as is the case with the intermarriages between member of the Daśa-poravāla, Daśa-śrīmāla and Daśa-osavāla castes of Pātana. This is, however, not due to progress nor reform, but it is the outcome of a time honoured local usage. On the other hand, there are some such circles in Gujarat and Kathiāvāda, as comprise heterodox members of one and the same caste as the result of which intermarriages between Jainas and Vaisnavas occur. Still instances are relatively rare.

Leaving aside those few exceptions, as well as the ideal unity existing in the great brotherhood of the Southern Digambara Jainas, the social atmosphere of present Jainism is a very unwhole­some one, with its regrettable tendency of sacrificing religious ideals to material advantages, and the incomprehensible want of courage on the part of the less prejudiced amongst its followers. For the future of Jainism, it seems to admit of prospects little short of distressing.

One asks oneself with utter concern whether the time will ever come, when, as they all hope and wish, the powerful old religion of the Tīrthankaras, freed from the suffocating influence of those unreasonable caste regulations, and unhampered by the under­growth of prejudice and blind faith, in which the former are so firmly rooted, will once more return to a fresh and healthy life.

Sources

Calcutta Review

Compiled by PK

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