Jaina System of Education in Karnataka

Published: 01.11.2011
Updated: 30.07.2015

Jainism is a much more ancient faith than Buddhism. Jinas or Tirthankars are founders of Jainism. There were twenty-three Tirthankaras before Mahavira, who was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha (6th century BCE) and is credited with formulation of a sect known as Jainism. Jainas laid great stress on right knowledge and right conduct for self-realization. It was a full-fledged sect with well-organized sanghas in north before arriving in Karnataka.

Scholars differ in their opinions on identity, date and time of the entry of first Jaina preceptors in the south. Jaina traditional accounts and literature state that the great ascetic Bhadrabahu was foretold about a calamity and famine of twelve years in the north and migrated with his disciple Chandragupta and the entire sangha or community of ascetics to Shravanabelagola in the fourth century BCE [1]. Chandragupta, the disciple is identified with Chandragupta Maurya, grandfather of Emperor Ashoka who ruled from 322 B.C. - 298 B.C. Another theory is that Chandragupta was a grandson of Ashoka, who was Jaina by faith. However, it is generally believed that arrival of sage Bhadrabahu in the third century before the Christian era laid the foundation of Jainism in Karnataka. Shravanabelagola (Hassan District) became a great center of pilgrimage and learning. It has retained this unique honor for more than twenty-three centuries now. Very few places in the world can claim this long uninterrupted tradition of learning and imparting religious education.

Most of the education in ancient times was imparted orally and the students had to listen attentively. Sravana or samana (listening) came to be identified with student ascetics who were supposed to be ardent listeners of a guru's teaching. Belgola means white and pure lake. The great lake between two hills is so clean and sparkling that the surroundings are clearly reflected in the water. Shravanabelagola and its surroundings teem with monuments and inscriptions and epitaphs. The latter are erected in memory of great gurus and preceptors, who provided life-long spiritual guidance to monks and masses. Similarly a number of epigraphs on the hillocks of Chikkabetta and Doddabetta bear witness to the continuous tradition of unflinching devotion of the Jaina disciples towards their gurus.

The fifty-seven feet-tall statue of Gommata (or Gommateshwara) at Shravanabelagola is the very embodiment of teachings of Mahavira, which stresses compassion, renunciation, non-violence and readiness to undergo any suffering to achieve the three goals. The life story of Gommata or Bahubali, who outshone in valor, intelligence and good looks, but who sacrificed everything including the huge empire he inherited, is ever-enchanting and enlightening.

Shravanabelagola boasts of self-inscribed letters or signature of the great Kannada poet Ranna. Ranna might have engraved it when he visited the sacred place as a devotee. Several well-known Kannada poets like Mallishena, Boppana, Mallinatha, and Nagavarma have composed writings on stone, attesting thereby that the place was renowned for academic excellence and a testing place for seasoned as well as budding poets for centuries.

Great ascetic teacher of Jainism like Kundakunda, Samantabhadra, Pujyapada, Jinasena, Puspadanta and Somadeva etc. hailed from Karnataka and their works in Sanskrit and Prakrit are studied throughout India. Jainism, unlike Buddhism continues to flourish over centuries in this land.

Jainism is divided into two sects of Svetambara and Digambara. The Svetambara monks wear white and Digambara ascetics who practice extreme renunciation have to discard even the last piece of cloth or the barest necessity of life, to overcome worldly binding. Similarly sallekhana or death by observing religious injunction of fast unto death is not only permitted in Jainism [2], but also held in high esteem. Individuals who have died observing sallekhana are remembered in special epitaphs known as nishidi or nisadi stones.


Fig. 1. Jaina teacher and disciples. Jaina students devotedly listen to an ascetic teacher under the shade of a tree. © K. L. Kamat

The Jaina contribution to Karnataka has been tremendous and manifold. Most of the distinguished early poets like Pampa, Ponna, Ranna, and Janna were Jains. So were the early lexicographers and grammarians of the Kannada language. In the field of architecture, sculpture and painting Jaina element outshines all others. All this was possible due to the liberal patronage of royal dynasties, rich merchants and traders and munificent householders. Jaina faith lays stress on charity as a path towards self-realization. This charity is fourfold, consisting of food, shelter, medicine, and donating of books. This aspect of charity has helped the spread of education and learning in a great measure. Granthadana or giving of religious books was common to all faiths but among Jains it took an institutionalized form and helped masses a good deal to acquire knowledge.

As in the case of Buddhistic system, layanas or lenas (caves) were constructed in early centuries for temporary residence of the Jaina monks, around jinalayas or temples with Tirthankara idols. These jinalayas were basically places of worship and meditation, and grew into centers of learning. Basadi or originally residential quarter came to denote a building consisting of a shrine, place for group worship, and became a shelter for wandering monks as also residence for teachers, scholars and students. The inscriptions registering grants to basadis run into hundreds throughout the state of Karnataka providing huge amount and land.

All activities in jinalayas or basadis were concentrated around five revered great persons, called panchaparamesthis. Among these, the arhats or siddhas were equivalent to Jinas and Tirthankaras. Acharyas or the learned were peripatetic gurus as well as heads of the basadis. A group of sadhus or monks accompanied an acharya while touring and they were termed gachchas. Several such gachchas are mentioned in inscriptions.

Next in the educational hierarchy came upadhyayas who were subject-teachers. Sadhus were also known as sramanas who were always on the move and had close contact with the masses. A Jaina nun was known as sadhvi, kanti or ganti and this class of sadhus and sadhvis have contributed a good deal of towards propagation and spread of Jaina learning.

The local people administered jinalayas. Their total involvement in the maintenance helped organization of religious ceremonies, festivals, and arrangement of lectures and discourses of moving acharyas. Jaina mathas also came up, which were bigger establishments and catered to religious and spiritual requirements of the community. All the Jaina preceptors, acharyas, upadhyas and sadhus or shramanas were recluses and did not have a family or place of their own. They belonged to the whole humanity. To avoid attachment to worldly things, they kept on moving. Jaina mathas and basadis that existed throughout the country made provisions for the stay, food and religious discourses of ascetics. These mathas provided shelter and education to students of other faiths as well.

The sadhus and student ascetics used to live together in the mathas and jinalayas. Ajjis, aryakas or gantis also had a place there. With the arrival of acharyas, the place buzzed with activity. The village community accorded warm hospitality and arrangements were made for the address of the acharya attended by the whole congregation. The acharyas in assembly solved religious issues, and provided direction.

There was provision for education from primary level to highest education in a Jaina matha. Education of youngsters began at the age of five years. The acharya or upadhyaya initiated the young boys. Drawing letters of siddhamatraka or table started with siddham namah. The boys wrote on fine sand, spread on a board with their fingers. After mastering siddhamatraka they wrote on folding blackboards (kadata) with chalk (balapa) and finally went on to write on palm leaves. Ratnakarandashravakachara or code of conduct for householders was studied by heart by boys and girls alike. This handbook of 150 verses was written by sage Samantabhadra in Sanskrit but was translated in all Indian languages and studied in pathasalas or schools attached to the basadis and mathas. Stress was laid on learning through regional language. In northern parts of India it was Ardhamagadhi or variation of Prakrit, and in Karnataka it was Kannada. Many works in Sanskrit and Prakrit got translated into Kannada.

However, learning at a higher level had to be in Sanskrit only. All existing sects deemed knowledge as whole and study of Vedas, Upanishads, different darsanas (schools of philosophy), shastras (science) and puranas were studied by Buddhists, Jains, Tantriks, Shaktas, Shaivas and Vaishnavas [3]. Tradition mentions sixty-four arts a person had to learn and Jains added eight more to the list [4]. Special mention may be made of chemistry, science (vijnana) and manufacture of small machines. Perhaps the merchant class - the main patrons of Jainism - encouraged the study of these for the promotion of different arts and crafts.

The method of learning various subjects was traditional, i.e., memorizing repeating, and reproducing. Vada or discussion formed the main platform in Jaina system and training was given in oratory. Most of the famous preceptors were great orators and established supremacy of Jainism over other sects by arguing, disputing, and discussing logically. Tarkasasatra or science of logic occupied prominent place in Jaina syllabus. Titles like vadikolahala (who causes confusion among arguers) prativadi bhayankara (terror to counter arguers) vadi-raja (king among disputers) vadibha simha (lion to elephant-like arguers) were given by the king to the scholars in the assembly of the learned. Later, such titles were conferred to established disputants of other faiths as well.


Fig. 2. Education of Jaina Ladies. © K. L. Kamat

A Jaina guru was the most respected in the Jaina community and we have a good deal of pictorial evidence. Sculptures depicting teachers imparting lesson are several. Stools (tavanekolu) to keep the palm-book ready are depicted in numerous sculptures. Self-study was given due importance and a student is shown as reading a palm-leaf book with great attention. In one sculpture, a mendicant is studying palm-leaf books under a tiled roof with oil lamp.

Sallekhana samadhis or nishadi stone memorials [5] erected for the departed revered, illustrate the teachers in preaching pose with palm-leaf texts in hand. The Jaina monasteries invariably had libraries of palm-leaf books and these included treatises on many secular subjects besides Jaina agamas or holy texts. There were texts of other languages and regions as well. When we realize that a manuscript of Bilhana's Vikramankadevacharita depicting life and achievements of Chalukya king Vikramaditya of Karnataka was found in a Jaina library of Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) and a copy of Pampa's Adipurana in Ara (Bihar), we could visualize the length and breadth of the country these books traveled in ancient times. They are also witness to the care and attention they received for preservation over centuries. Perhaps many more old and rare manuscripts are stored in the libraries of well-known Jaina monasteries. But these are not easily available to scholars who are of non-Jaina faith.

The Jaina monastic life was well organized and an officer known as pravajyadāyaka selected student-ascetics after careful examination. Family backgrounds, educational and religious leanings were considered. After getting admission, a supervisor, known as the niryapaka kept a watch on the behavior of each and every student. Wrongdoers were admonished in time and waywardness punished. Rigorous training and study awaited the incumbents. They had to make their own arrangements for day-to-day needs and beg for food. Spicy food was to be avoided. Training was given to restrain basic instincts like anger, joy, and sorrow and show equanimity to all creatures under all circumstances.

Besides food and shelter, books were distributed free at jinalayas and it is likely that medical instruction was also imparted at the free hospitals attached. Hospitals big and small were attached to Jaina mathas where sick cattle and birds were also treated besides human beings. Jainism stood for compassion towards all living beings (sarvajeevidayāpara), and youngsters developed this trait early in life.

The role of the merchant community in the promotion and spread of Jainism is significant. They toured the entire subcontinent and beyond, in caravans (sarthavaha) built hospices along trade routes. They provided transport and protection to sadhus and sadhvis and received religious instruction gratefully. They patronized several shrines and mathas and gave hefty donations of land and cash for the upkeep and maintenance of basadis, orchards, tanks, inns and wells. All passers by folk benefited by these charitable deeds, irrespective of caste or creed.

The trading class knew several languages and scripts and mastered accounting. Their grants helped the Jaina system of education and there was no dearth of funds at any time. The basadis and mathas of Karnataka attracted ascetics from all over. Mudabidri, Karkala, Venuru, Barkuru (all in South Kanara district), Haduvalli, Gerasoppa, Banavasi (North Kanara district), Ballegavi, Humcha (Shimoga district), Koppal, Bankapur (Dharwad district), Kogali, (Bellary district), and Terdal (Belgaum district) were well-known centers of Jaina learning. Sholapur and Kolhapur, now in Maharashtra, attracted scholars from far and wide.

Reference has been already made to Shravanabelagola as age-old center of religion and learning. Banavasi being center of Buddhism in early centuries also shone as a Jaina center. Jaina erudition and teachings of Mahavira were compiled, scripted and propagated in book-form from Banavasi for the first time. Shatkhandagama, an anthology of tenets of Jainism in Prakrit language took shape in Banavasi. Sage Pushpadanta who authored it lived in 2nd century CE It is the most ancient anthology on Jainism.

Special mention has to be made regarding the instruction available for women in Jaina system. It is well known that Buddha welcomed women to sangha or monastic organization after initial reluctance and hesitation. The Jaina order had no such dithering. From the times prior to Mahavira, Jaina nunneries existed. Dharmadana or imparting religious education was a mission with this class. Wandering nuns created cultural awareness through discourses, which were attended by all classes and without gender discrimination.


Fig. 3. Education of Jaina Ladies. © K. L. Kamat

We come across grants to ajjis in inscriptions. This term is similar to arye or aryake, a learned nun. An ajji or kanti was entitled to initiate disciples into renunciation. Ajjis with several male disciples (gudda) figure in inscriptions and literature [6]. These were well versed in Jaina cannon and religious practices, since they had to initiate various disciples of different caliber and attainment, they had to remember and practice elaborate injunctions and rites.

As late as 14th century C.E., the Tapa gacha University in Gujarat conferred various degrees on learned women. They were

  1. Ganini (leader of gana),
  2. Pravarthini (Propagator), and
  3. Mahattara (The great or superior) [7].

The first and second category of female ascetics seems to have traveled across the country, providing spiritual guidance. Mahattara was a leader of nuns. We know one mahattara par excellence by the name of Yakini. Haribhadrasuri is a great name in Indian literature. He wrote books on Jaina ethics, yoga, logic, rituals and commentaries on shastras, besides stories. He calls himself yakini-mahattara-sunu, i.e. “son of great nun yakini.” This suggests that she must have been a genius and a great influence on his scholastic life.

Many sadhvis and kantis mastered and preached Jaina Agamas or holy texts. Some of them have erected monuments in memory of their gurus. The kantis were employed as instructors to princesses, to teach reading, writing and various arts. There were nuns who specialized in astrology and logic. Administrators like Jakkiabbe who administered a division, and several queens who ruled provinces, towns and religious establishments were of Jaina faith. The legendary queen Shantala excelled in music, dance and drama. Undoubtedly they all availed the facilities of education in Jaina system of those times.

We have to go back to Shravanabelagola to have pictorial evidence of sadhvis who moved from place to place. In the wall-murals of the Jaina matha is a scene of instruction wherein a senior nun is engaged in reading out and explaining to juniors who are intently listening with folded hands. Another scene depicts a nun addressing an assembly. From the dress of the instructor we can guess that she is a visiting sadhvi from north or west India. This only proves that wandering and preaching nuns were quite common.

The basadis continued to impart popular education where shravaka-goshtis or listening assemblies were held. Women learnt to read and recite Jinagamas, participated in community singing and listened to the stories of great men in Jainism. Kannada classics speak of housewives attending such sessions and their men folk encouraging it.

Jaina devotees undertook copying out sacred texts and donating them to basadis and individuals. Attimabbe's grant of a thousand copies of Shantipurana was a landmark. Those who could not arrange donation on such a large scale engaged copyists on a moderate scale. Others undertook it upon themselves. Basadis in Kolhapur are in possession of such manuscripts of copies of holy texts made by nuns and commoners. These holy texts and classics were read out to the conglomeration on special days and weeks. The ajjis used to conduct story-sessions and recitals. In the days when education could not be separated from religion, both mingled to motivate individuals with character-building and leading a pious life.


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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharya
  2. Acharyas
  3. Agamas
  4. Anger
  5. Ara
  6. Ardhamagadhi
  7. Arhats
  8. Ashoka
  9. Bahubali
  10. Basadi
  11. Basadis
  12. Belgaum
  13. Bellary
  14. Bihar
  15. Buddha
  16. Buddhism
  17. Calcutta
  18. Chandragupta
  19. Chandragupta Maurya
  20. Dharwad
  21. Digambara
  22. Equanimity
  23. Ganini
  24. Gautama
  25. Gommata
  26. Gommateshwara
  27. Gujarat
  28. Guru
  29. Hassan
  30. Humcha
  31. JAINA
  32. Jaina
  33. Jainism
  34. Jaisalmer
  35. Jinasena
  36. Kamat
  37. Karkala
  38. Karnataka
  39. Kolhapur
  40. Koppal
  41. Kundakunda
  42. Maharashtra
  43. Mahavira
  44. Mallinatha
  45. Matha
  46. Mathas
  47. Meditation
  48. Mudabidri
  49. Mysore
  50. Nishadi
  51. Non-violence
  52. PK
  53. Prakrit
  54. Pujyapada
  55. Puranas
  56. Puspadanta
  57. Rajasthan
  58. Sadhus
  59. Sadhvi
  60. Sadhvis
  61. Sallekhana
  62. Sangha
  63. Sanskrit
  64. Science
  65. Shastras
  66. Shravanabelagola
  67. Sravana
  68. Svetambara
  69. Tapa
  70. Tirthankara
  71. Tirthankaras
  72. Tirthankars
  73. Upadhyaya
  74. Upadhyayas
  75. Upanishads
  76. Vedas
  77. Yoga
  78. siddhas
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