On the Margins of Jainism: Jain Studies at the AAR

Posted: 02.11.2016

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


For the past several years, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) has featured a panel on Jainism organized by the Jain Studies group. These panel sessions have been increasingly well-attended, and have sought to showcase new, innovative, and exploratory work in Jain Studies. In the midst of an enormous conference with hundreds of meetings and thousands of participants, the Jain Studies panel also serves as the one reliable place where North American scholars of Jainism can convene, and indeed, participants often reflect that a majority of the scholars working on Jainism are present each year. The 2013 annual meeting, held on 23 November in Baltimore, Maryland, included a Jain Studies panel entitled, 'On The Margins of Jainism', and showcased some fascinating new research.

The first paper was presented by Sarah Pierce Taylor (University of Pennsylvania, graduate student). Taylor began her paper by reporting that she, together with Steven Vose (Florida International University), had located a Jain temple in Karnataka with three fire pits for homa offerings set before a Jina image. Taylor's paper then pointed to several places in the Ādipurāṇa of Jinasena where Ādināth was equated with the sacrificial fires, and especially to a section of the fortieth chapter in which Jinasena gave a seven-fold classification of fifty-three Jain saṃskāras, or life cycle rituals. He then went on to provide and explain several mantras that are solidly couched in Vedic terms. Taylor argues that while scholars have assumed that the text reflects a later brahmanization, a more convincing case can be made that Jinasena was in fact trying to 'Jain-ize' the rituals that Jains were already performing at the time. She points out that while rejection of brahmanic ideals and Vedic sacrifice have constituted defining elements of Jains and Jainism for some time, '[t]he much heralded Jain critique and rejection of the brahmanical ritual framework was always incomplete at best'. This then also explains why Jain authors have frequently invoked sacrificial metaphors in praising Jinas.

The second paper, by Lindsay Harlan (Connecticut College), examined the role of Jains in the aftermath of the seventeenth-century execution by Maharana Raj Singh of his son and heir-apparent, Sultan Singh. Sultan Singh, now recognised as a protector deity of Udaipur, is one of the many Sagasji, or powerful ones, remembered in the annual Sagasji Mahotsav festival. Harlan presented the results of collected oral and written narratives. In the first tale, Raj Singh learns from a pujari that to expiate his sin, he must construct a great lake, and then find a sati, or virtuous wife, to do puja in it to both the king and the deceased son. The sati he finds is a Jain woman, and she obeys her husband's instructions to enter the lake. As the lake filled, the king ordered her to come out, but the sati only left the lake when her husband commanded. The king was so impressed with her virtue that, on the husband's request, he built a Jain temple beside the tank, at a cost of five rupees less than that required to build the lake itself. The second tale features a jatiji, or tantric Jain mendicant, who brings the murdered Sultan Singh back to life as he is being carried to his funeral pyre. In both cases, the tales express the superior ability of Jains to effect the expiation of sin.

The third paper of the panel, by Michael Slouber (Western Washington University), examined 'Love, Violence, and Healing in Jain Tantra'. Slouber began, as other panellists had, by pointing out the gulf between well-known norms of Jain doctrine and culture, namely ahiṃsā and renunciation of sexual desire, and the supposed foundations of tantra in sex, intoxicants, and the consumption of animal flesh. This seems at least on face peculiar, as the paper quickly turns to tantric content such as magical rituals for attracting a lover, which were taught by and for 'the best Munis'. Another text describes how to summon Kāmacāṇḍālinī, a goddess whose name Slouber translated as 'sex slave'. Slouber can only speculate that these rites were known, but not practiced, by Jain monks. Still other passages instruct one to use a yantra while worshiping the Tīrthaṅkar Pārśvanātha in order to paralyze an enemy, or to use another yantra in worshiping Padmāvatī to deflect an enemy army. While other tantric rituals connected to healing and exorcism of malevolent spirits seem more in line with Jain ethical ideals, they too encourage violence. One possibility is that Malliṣenasuri, the compiler of at least one of the three works Slouber uses here, hoped that by knowing these mantras and rituals, Jain munis would be better prepared to circumvent others' evil intentions. Slouber concludes by arguing, with Alexis Sanderson, that the Śaiva tantras have served as the source for much of this material, but also that Jain munis were often expected to have the same ritual powers and abilities that other holy men possessed in ancient and medieval India.

Kamini Gogri (University of Mumbai) and Anne Vallely (University of Ottawa) expressed the spirit of much of the research here presented when they explained, in the final paper, that the aspects of Jainism that their research addressed are 'marginal', 'not so much [because] they posit propositional claims about the nature of reality or the self with which orthodox Jainism quarrels. Instead, and more crucially, they are marginal because they evince a willingness to engage with the world on terms that Orthodox Jainism rejects. It is their openness to worldly powers that makes them problematic from the perspective of the shramanic ideal of the solitary detached self'. Gogri and Vallely's joint paper, read by Gogri, presented three 'ethnographic vignettes' surrounding the work of a Mumbai Jain woman, 'Bimla Auntie', who acts as a goddess medium. The medium's mastery has become famous, and she is visited not only by Jains but also by Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.

In the first anecdote, a man is suddenly struck with depression and lethargy. When Bimla Auntie discovers that his recently deceased maternal grandparents are attempting to use him to communicate with the rest of the family, he is immediately cured—but his wife then succumbs to their influence. The medium eventually channels the family's kuldevī, or family goddess, who prompts the family to return to their natal village and to conduct full funerals for the grandparents.

In the second vignette, Bimla Auntie approaches, unsolicited, a young woman who has recently had a tragic miscarriage. Auntie tells the young woman that an uncle, who had died suddenly, had been miserably wandering, and had thus decided to take human rebirth. His soul entered the young woman's womb at the fifth month of her pregnancy, and he then died a purposeful death, thus freeing himself from his torment.

The third account concerns Bimla herself, and her shrine room, which contains massive altars to her kuldevi and very little sign of Jainism. She insists that the devi and the Jina operate in distinct jurisdictions.

Gogri and Vallely pointed out that while the shramanic path urges separation from family and home, virtually every instance of healing that the devi works through Bimla Auntie relies on re-establishing and strengthening family ties. While orthodox moksa marg Jainism empha-sizes karma as the cause of sufferings, the ministrations of Bimla Auntie suggest that the kuldevi can be both the cause of suffering and the means of its relief. Where the moksa marg proposes the intentional 'detached death', the fact remains that most deaths are emotional and disrup-tive affairs. In short, '[w]hereas Jainism presents an ideal worth striving for, the goddess concerns herself with how things really are'.

All four of these papers point to margins between Jain and non-Jain, where Jains participate in supposedly non-Jain activities, borrowing texts, rituals, and practices from their non-Jain others, but also appearing in the most important of Hindu and other activities and literature. All four papers suggest that our understandings of who Jains are and what Jains do have occluded our vision of what Jains actually are and how they behave, and that much of what we have most strongly believed to be 'non-Jain' has in fact played a central part in the history of Jainism. In keeping with this spirit, the panel's respondent was Richard Davis (Bard College), a scholar who normally attends to topics in Hinduism. These papers also indicate that many topics which were once 'on the margins' of Jain Studies, have now become acceptable and indeed central concerns for many scholars in the field.

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