Jains and Jainism in South India: Jaina Studies at the AAR

Posted: 27.04.2017
Updated on: 28.04.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


On 20 November 2016, the Jaina Studies Group met at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in San Antonio, Texas to explore "Jains and Jainism in South India." The panel evaluated literary and historical depictions of relations between Jains and other religious traditions in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu from both Jain and non-Jain perspectives. The papers were pre-circulated for the first time, facilitating a workshop-style session.

Sarah Pierce Taylor (Oberlin College) and Shubha Shanthamurthy (SOAS) spoke on Theorizing a South Asian Religious Commons: Jains and Śaivas in the Medieval Deccan. They explored the fact that behind evidence of animosity between Jain and Śaiva communities in the Kannada-speaking regions of premodern India, lies each group's intimate knowledge of the other. Contact between the two groups, they argued, cannot be reduced to modern, liberal notions of religious pluralism or an uncritical narrative of constant animosity. In attempting to understand the nature of this contact, Taylor and Shanthamurthy introduced the idea of a religious commons, "an improvised assemblage of practices and ideas legible and appropriable by all traditions, but not owned by any of them." Taylor and Shanthamurthy argued that this religious commons was a space in which Jains and Śaivas, "mutually shaped... ways of thinking, forms of expression, and even ritual and spatial lives." In support of this idea the authors provided epigraphical examples that gestured towards each groups' knowledge and use of a common stock of religious vocabulary and ritual idioms.

Gil Ben-Herut's (University of South Florida) paper, Arguing with Vaiṣṇavas, Annihilating Jains: Two Religious Others in Early Kannada Śivabhakti Hagiographies, examined the processes by which early Vīraśaiva hagiographical literature creates "others" out of Vaiṣṇava Brahmins and Jains. Ben-Herut looked specifically at the Śivaśaraṇara Ragaḷegaḷu (Poems in the Ragaḷe Meter For Śiva's Saints), a thirteenthcentury collection of hagiographical stories written by Hampeya Harihara in Hampi. He argued that Harihara deemed Vaiṣṇava Brahmins an "opponent other," a group with whom Śiva bhaktas shared enough theological or cultural common ground to negotiate and argue with them. By contrast, Jains were depicted as "wholly other," completely separate, alien, and therefore irredeemable. The wholly other can only be converted or destroyed as seen in narratives of violent massacres and forced temple conversions. Ben-Herut argued that the process of creating Jains as the Śaivas' "wholly other" conceals the on-theground intimacy between the two groups. Nowhere is this better seen than in the domestic sphere; Harihara simultaneously rails against Jain-Śaiva intermarriage— indeed, some of the most violent encounters between the two groups occur in intermarried homes—while also presenting it as commonplace. Ben-Herut concluded by arguing that Harihara's goal in portraying the Jains as the wholly other served to create a distinctly Śaiva collective self-identity.

Tīrthaṅkara Munisuvrata decorated with a bodice (aṅgī), Dādābāṛī Amadābād (Photo: P. Flügel 26.12.2015)

Christoph Emmrich's (University of Toronto) Being North, Facing North, and Enacting the Other, or, How Tamil and How Jain  Do  Jains  Who Speak Tamil Think They Are? explored how modern Jains in Tamil Nadu think of themselves both as Jain and as Tamil. Emmrich began with a meditation on the topic of the panel itself: devoting a panel to Jains and Jainism in the South signifies its marginality in the field of Jain studies as a whole. Indeed, Emmrich pointed out how unlikely the topic "Jains and Jainism in the North" would be at the AAR. Emmrich further argued that the moniker of "Tamil Jain" itself implies relationships with languages other than Tamil and geographic regions other than Tamil Nadu, and that these relationships need to be explored in order to understand the limits of the moniker itself. For example, Emmrich pointed to the phenomenon of Digambara nuns (mātājīs) increasingly traveling to Tamil Nadu from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (the "north"). These nuns, popular among Tamil Jains, are learning Tamil and establishing relationships with Jain communities, thereby expanding the traditional landscape of Tamil Jainism.

Finally, Anne Monius' (Harvard University) paper, 'Plucking My Head Like a Bilberry Bush': The Fate of Jains as Religious Others in Tamil Śaiva Literature, examined the function of the "poetic 'I'" in the works of the seventh-century Tamil saint Appar (Father). Monius questioned readings of Appar's poetry that depict him as a former Jain monk rescued from a futile life of severe asceticism and filth by Śiva's grace. Instead of being strictly autobiographical, Monius argued that Appar's first-person account of his former life as a Jain monk marks one pole of a spectrum of possible human folly, a pole that is oftentimes contrasted with its opposite, a similar first-person account of Appar as ensnared in worldly pleasures, including a wife and family. The "poetic 'I,'" then, when referring to Appar's past life as a Jain monk, serves as a marker for the problem of living a life too dedicated to asceticism. On the other end of the spectrum, the "poetic 'I'" that references Appar as entangled in worldly pleasures and human relationships serves as a marker for a life led too indulgently. It is a life dedicated to devotion to Śiva that emerges in Appar's poetry as a middle ground and the most prosperous and fulfilling life to lead.

Lisa Owen (University of North Texas) delivered the response to the papers, adding to the discussion an examination of the visual record of the complex interactions between Jain and non-Jain communities in South India. Owen pointed out the importance of place in helping to shape interactions between religious communities, citing examples of seemingly civil relationships between Jains and Brahminical groups at courtly institutions and on sacred mountains. In another particularly enlightening example, Owen discussed a donor portrait from one of the Jain caves at Ellora. The carving featured a Jina in the center, surrounded by monks and nuns. Portrayed near the congregation of ascetics was the lay donor, whose name, Śivadevapati, was given in a Sanskrit inscription below the carving. In addition to the Jain Studies Group panel, there were several other papers on Jain topics presented at the AAR on separate panels.

Clines (Harvard) presented the paper, Plagiarized Purāṇas? Jain Textual Composition in Early Modernity, examining the phenomenon of purāṇic narrative copying among Digambara Jains in pre-modern north India. Building on previous arguments made by Padmanabh Jaini about plagiarism among early-modern Digambara Jains, Clines investigated the fifteenth-century Padmapurāṇa of Brahma Jinadāsa, and pointed out that it was in large part copied from Raviṣeṇa's seventhcentury work of the same name. Clines argued that the act of textual copying functioned as an accepted form of sectarian argumentation, especially concerning issues of lineage and institutional authority, rather than textual theft.

In the Tantric Studies Group panel, Ellen Gough (Emory University) presented Worshipping the Sisters of Śiva in a Jain Tantric Diagram. Gough discussed the use of cloth diagrams (paṭa) such as the Vardhamānavidyā among Śvetāmbara monks in secret rituals. She focused on four goddesses in particular—Jaya, Vijaya, Aparājitā, and Jayantā—who have been described as "Sisters of Tamburu," a form of Śiva first mentioned in a seventh-century tantra. Gough traced depictions of these sisters in Buddhist and Jain literature, and includesd observations from her own fieldwork in Gujarat in 2013. She argued that, in addition to being liberation-seeking ascetics, Jain monks took on the role of protectors of the lay community, facilitated by their ability to command these powerful tantric vidyās.

Finally,  Claire Maes (University of Texas at Austin) presented To Be or Not to Be Naked? An Examination of Identity Negotiation in Early Jainism, a comparative analysis of nakedness as an ascetic requirement in early Śvetāmbara and Digambara texts. Maes also compared Jain and Buddhist sources on the practice of ascetic nudity. She argued that the practice of nakedness was a "signifying practice around which boundaries could be drawn and identities negotiated." Maes brought Jain perspectives on asceticism to bear in the development of new theorizations of the premodern religious identity formation, showing how mapping synchronic and diachronic discussions of a single practice can help scholars to trace the shifting meanings of premodern religious identities among South Asian religious communities.

Papers on Jainism at the 45th Annual Conference on South Asia

In late October, four papers on Jainism were presented in the panel, "Rethinking the State of Jain Communities Under 'Muslim Rule'," at the 45th Annual Conference on South Asia, hosted by the University of Wisconsin's Center for South Asia. The theme of the conference was "decay," which each scholar addressed as a key problematic in previous depictions of Jainism in this period.

Steven M. Vose (Florida International University) started the proceedings with A Less Fated Kali Yuga: The Politics of Time in a Fourteenth-Century Jain Pilgrimage Text. Vose examined the trope of the Kali era in the Vividhatīrthakalpa, an enigmatic collection of narratives by the Kharatara Gaccha monk Jinaprabhasūri. Often used in studies of the medieval sacred geography in South Asia, Vose argued that the recurrence of the theme of the degeneracy of time, and Jains' efforts to overcome recent calamities, ties the otherwise disparate chapters together and gives the text a coherent rhetorical project. He argued that recent vicissitudes, while the result of time's decay, can be overcome through the efforts of devoted Jains and lead to a new era of prosperity for the community. According to Vose, the text's message culminated in two chapters that detail the meetings between the author and Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, in which the monk secured a number of edicts protecting Jains and Jain pilgrimage sites. The text argued for Jains to see the new polity as ushering in a new era of prosperity.

Lynna Dhanani, (PhD candidate Yale University), presented a section of her dissertation research on the production of Jain hymns in Gujarati from the fifteenth century onward: The Continuation of Hymn-Making in Old Gujarati during Muslim Rule. This period is characterized by the emergence of an independent sultanate in Gujarat, which coincided with an explosion of Jain hymns, narratives and other genres in the emerging linguistic medium of Gujarati. Dhanani argued that these new literary forms participated in a vibrant, inventive literary culture emerging at the time, contrary to earlier depictions of Jain intellectual life having gone into an isolationist retreat in this period. Dhanani demonstrated the ways in which Apabhraṃśa poetic forms were marshaled  to  create new literary modes of expression that both show Jain poets' intellectual and poetic bonafides as well as their ability to adapt new linguistic registers and poetic styles into their work.

Gregory Clines (PhD candidate at Harvard University) spoke on Digambara Jain Expansion in Fifteenth-Century North India. Clines offered a careful reconstruction of the status of the Digambara tradition in Gujarat in this period, addressing the near total lack of scholarship on Digambara communities of western India in this period. He demonstrated that several new centers of monastic power emerged in this period, such as Idar, Bhanpur and Surat, each producing new literary works that reveal competition, growth and innovation in the Digambara traditions. His comparison of Sanskrit purāṇas (Harivaṃśa and Padmapurāṇa) and Gujarati rāsas by the Digambara monk Jinadāsa show a new division of labor of concerns of works in each language—Sanskrit works concern themselves with social order, while Gujarati works focus more on poetic renderings of beloved figures such as Jaṃbūsāmī and Yasodharā. By showing the new concerns that emerged in both the classical and vernacular literature, he countered narratives of decline that have often characterized historiography on Jainism's encounters with Islam, and added a note of caution to avoid making arguments about Jain "exceptionalism" in our use of the literature of this period to write the history of this encounter.

In Telling the Story: The Historiography of Jain Communities in Mughal India Audrey Truschke (Rutgers University-Newark) argued that recent efforts to counter older historical narratives of decay and decline with narratives of cooperation and coexistence between Jains and Muslim rulers have elided the serious problem of the power imbalance between the two groups. Truschke discussed two narratives found in the Hīrasaubhāgyamahākāvya of Devavimala that highlight moments when Akbar made his Jain guests offers they could not refuse. To highlight just the first, Truschke discussed Akbar's gift to Hīravijayasūri of his predecessor's library, which he had kept in anticipation of meeting a Jain monk worthy to receive it. The monk was reluctant to accept the books until an advisor pointed out that refusing would cause him a great deal of trouble. The fact that their interactions were not between equals should caution historians not to offer sanguine historical depictions in place of demonizing ones, but to develop nuanced readings that attend to questions of power. Anne Monius, Harvard University, offered the response, with a lively discussion of the papers afterward.

Steven M. Vose is the Bhagwan Mahavir Assistant Professor of Jain Studies and Director of the Jain Studies Program at Florida International University. Vose's PhD dissertation focused on late medieval Śvetāmbara literature in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Old Gujarati to understand how mendicants' intellectual practices facilitated the encounter between Jains and the Delhi Sultanate in the early fourteenth century.

Gregory Clines is a PhD candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. His research interests include Jain purāṇic literature and earlymodern Digambara Jainism in north India

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