Bhaṭṭāraka Tradition

Posted: 31.10.2012
Updated on: 02.07.2015

Rise of the Tradition

The Bhaṭṭāraka tradition is a very well established tradition of sufficiently long duration and prestige found among the Digambara Jainas of different parts of India. The Bhaṭṭāraka was a special type of religious authority evolved by the Digambara Jainas during the early part of the medieval period as a policy of survival to meet the severe challenges created by the advent of Muslim rule in India. As the Muslim rulers looked down upon the practice of nudity observed by the Digambara Jaina ascetics, it became extremely difficult for these Sādhūs or ascetics to move freely on foot in different regions according to the rules of conduct prescribed for them and to exercise their influence on the proper behaviour of the Śrāvakas or the lay followers of the religion.

The members of the Digambara Jaina community also faced disintegration due to uncertainty and insecurity prevailing at that time. In these peculiar and pressing conditions the system of Bhaṭṭārakas was slowly formed to save the religion and its followers from utter destruction. A special functionary known as Bhaṭṭāraka was created to perform certain important religious and social duties in the interests of the community and he was placed above the laymen and below the ascetics. With a view to helping the Bhaṭṭāraka in the discharge of his duties in an orderly and continuous manner, a new organization known as 'Maṭha' was also constituted. In this way the tradition of a Bhaṭṭāraka attached to a particular Maṭha came into existence and became popular in different parts of the country. It is thus clear that the system of Bhaṭṭārakas was not established on a particular day but it was slowly evolved during the medieval period. That is why about the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition we get stray references from the, 8th century onwards and continuous references from the 13th century onwards to the present day.

 

Extent of the Tradition

As the Bhaṭṭāraka was a religious preceptor of a Saṅgha or Gaṇa or Gachchha, i.e., a religious division of the Jainas, of a particular region or locality, the seats of Bhaṭṭārakas increased in number and were found in different parts of India during the medieval period. The location of the important seats of Bhaṭṭārakas of that period is given in the table below:

Region

Seats of Bhaṭṭārakas

North India

Delhi, Hissar (Haryana), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh).

Rajasthan

Jaipur, Nagaura, Ajmer, Chitauda, Pratapgarh, Dungarpur, Narasimhapur, Keshariyaji, Mahaviraji.

Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior, Sonagiri, Ater (Malwa).

Gujarat

Idar, Sagavada, Surat, Bhanpur, Sojitra, Kalol, Jerhat.

Maharashtra

Karanja, Nagpur, Latur, Nanded, Kolhapur, Nandani.

Karnataka

Malakhed, Shravanbelagola, Mudabidri, Karkal, Humcha, Swadi, Narasimharajpur.

Tamil Nadu

Melasittamur, i. e. Jinakanchi.

From this list of the seats of Bhaṭṭārakas it is clear that the Bhaṭṭāraka system was completely absent from East India and from the major portion of North India, was more popular in the regions which were strongholds of Digambara Jainas and was mostly concentrated in the regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra. Further, the popularity of the system can be seen from the fact that at some places there were seats of more than one Bhaṭṭārakas at the same time. For example, at Karanja in Maharashtra there were three seats of Bhaṭṭārakas belonging to Sena Gaṇa, Balātkāra Gaṇa and Kāṣṭhā Saṅgha; and at Surat in Gujarat there used to be one Bhaṭṭāraka of the Balātkāra Gaṇa and one of the Kāṣṭhā Saṅgha.

Even though these several seats of Bhaṭṭārakas were quite active for long periods, many of them could not maintain their continued existence during modern times due to various reasons. As such at present we find that only eleven seats of Bhaṭṭārakas have survived in India and that they are continuing the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition with vigour and in a useful way. The list of these existing Bhaṭṭārakas with their capital places of residence and their traditional names is as follows:

Sr. Nr.

Region

Traditional name

Capital place of residence

1.

Rajasthan

Yashakirti

Pratapagarh (Dist. Chitaurgarh)

2.

Maharashtra

Vishalakirti

Latur (Dist. Osmanabad)

3.

Maharashtra

Laxmisena

Kolhapur (Dist. Kolhapur)

4.

Maharashtra

Jinasena

Nandani (Dist. Kolhapur)

5.

Karnataka

Charukirti

Shravanabelagola (Dist. Hassan)

6.

Karnataka

Charukirti

Mudabidri (Dist. South Kanara)

7.

Karnataka

Lalitakirti

Karkal (Dist. South Kanara)

8.

Karnataka

Devendrakirti

Humcha (Dist. Shimoga)

9.

Karnataka

Bhattakalanka

Swadi (Dist. North Kanara)

10.

Karnataka

Laxmisena (Pinagondi)

Narasimharajapur (Dist. Chikmaglur)

11.

Tamil Nadu

Laxmisena (Jinakanchi)

Melasittamur (Dist. South Arcot)

From the above list it is evident that out of eleven existing seats of Bhaṭṭārakas, as many as six are in Karnatak, three in Maharashtra and one each in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Further, it also reveals that not even a single seat of Bhaṭṭāraka from the regions of North India, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat could survive to the present day and that only one seat out of nine seats from Rajasthan could maintain its continuity to this day. In this connection it may be noted that the flourishing seats of Bhaṭṭārakas at

 

Place

District

Region

Name

i.

Nagaura

Nagaura

Rajasthan

Devendrakirti

ii.

Mahaviraji

Jaipur

Rajasthan

Chandrasagar

iii.

Sonagiri

Datiya

Madhya Pradesh

Chandrabhushan

iv.

Karanja

Akola

Maharashtra

Virasena of Sena Gaṇa

 

 

 

 

Devendra Kirti of Balātkāra Gaṇa

v.

Malakhed

Gulbarga

Karnataka

Devendrakirti

were active upto the early decades of the twentieth century. It is thus clear that the regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra have been most successful in maintaining the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition through more than ten centuries.

 

Peculiarities of the Tradition

The Bhaṭṭāraka tradition has been the peculiar feature of the Digambara sect and even here the tradition is found only among the Bīsapanthī sub-sect. The recognition of the system of Bhaṭṭārakas was one of the major points of difference between the Bīsapanthī and Terāpanthī sub-sects of the Digambara sect. The Bīsapanthīs consider Bhaṭṭārakas as their 'Dharma-gurus', i.e., religious teachers, and as their 'Acaryas', i.e., heads of religion. But the Terāpanthīs do not treat Bhaṭṭārakas as their religious teachers or heads.

Another peculiar feature of the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition is the forging of close association of a Bhaṭṭāraka with a particular caste only. In fact the Bhaṭṭāraka was a religious preceptor of a 'Saṅgha' or a 'Gaṇa', i.e., a religious division of the Jainas. But when the Jainas adopted the caste system from the Hindus, with whom they were in intimate contact for centuries, it was considered that a parti­cular seat of Bhaṭṭāraka belonged to a specific caste only. Accordingly the Bhaṭṭāraka got special powers also to control the affairs of the caste which was associated with him. In this way an intimate link was established, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka, between the seat of a Bhaṭṭāraka and the members of a specific caste. The list of the names of such castes and their seats of Bhaṭṭārakas at present is given below:

Sr.Nr.

Name of the caste

Bhaṭṭāraka of that caste

 

 

Name

Place

1.

Narasinhapurā

Yashakirti

Pratapgarh

2.

Saitavāla

Vishalkirti

Latur

3.

Pañchama

Laxmisena

Kolhapur

4.

Chaturtha

Jinasena

Nandani

5.

Bogāra

Devendrakirti

Humcha

6.

Upādhyāya

Charukirti

Mudabidri

7.

Vaishya

Charukirti

Shravanabelagola

8.

Kshatriya

Lalitakirti

Karkal

Even though each Bhaṭṭāraka is linked with a particular caste it may be specifically noted that according to religious precepts every Bhaṭṭāraka belongs to all Jainas irrespective of the distinctions of caste and locality. The Bhaṭṭāraka is technically above all caste considerations and at present he has absolutely no powers to wield control over the affairs of a caste as the system of 'Jāti-Pañcā-yatas', i.e., caste councils, has become completely defunct among the Jainas in recent times. That is why we find that among many Jaina castes in the North like Agravāla, Jaisavāla, Kaṭhanerā, etc. there was no system of Bhaṭṭārakas at all and that among certain castes like Bagheravāla, Khaṇḍelawāla, Paravāra, Bannore etc., the system of Bhaṭṭārakas has become extinct.

Further, it may be observed that there is no counterpart of the system of Bhaṭṭārakas in the Śvetāmbara sect. It is stated that like Bhaṭṭārakas, there are 'Munis' who are attached to various religious divisions of Sthānakavāsī sub-sect known as 'Saṅghāḍās' of particular places. The 'Munis' are appointed and removed by the ' Saṅghāḍās '. These 'Munis' are not allowed to have any property and they do not exercise any control over the people or any authority over the caste councils like the Bhaṭṭārakas. Hence these 'Munis' cannot be regarded as counterparts of Bhaṭṭārakas among the Sthānakavāsī Jainas. But it is reported that among the Mūrtipūjaka Śvetāmbaras there are at different places the seats of 'Yatis' instead of Bhaṭṭārakas and that the pomp displayed by these Śvetāmbara 'Yatis' was practically like that displayed by the Digambara Bhaṭṭārakas.

 

Duties of Bhaṭṭārakas

The Bhaṭṭāraka has to perform a number of duties of religious and social nature. In the field of religion he has not only to direct and control the religious behaviour of his followers but also to encourage and help the undertaking and completion of various religious projects and activities. It is his responsibility to provide religious education to students and others by various means - like conducting 'Pāṭha-Śālās', i.e., religious schools, maintaining 'Śāstra-bhāṇḍārs', i.e., religious scripture houses, delivering 'Dharma-pravacanas', i.e., religious discourses, publishing and distributing 'Dharma-granthas', i.e., religious books, training persons in the performance of 'Dharma-vidhis', i.e., religious rituals, arranging 'Dharma-sammelanas', i.e., religious conferences, etc.

Further, it is his main work to supervise and direct several religious functions like 'Mūrti-pratiṣṭhā', i.e., installation of images in temples, and various 'Dharma-Samārambhas', i.e., religious ceremonies. Again, he has to officiate at all kinds of 'Pūjās', i.e., worships, and especially at the great 'Vrat-udyāpana-pūjās', i.e, the special worships arranged at the completion of vows.

On the same lines he is required to perform, personally or through others, important 'Dharma-Saṁskāras', i.e., religious sacraments, at the time of birth, marriage and death. Moreover, it is his major concern to look after the management of 'Tīrtha-Kṣetras', i.e., holy places and at times to arrange for long 'Tīrth-yātrās', i.e., pilgrimages, with a large number of followers.

Furthermore, it is his solemn work to encourage and help his followers in carrying out religious activities like construction of new temples, renovation of old temples, grant of donations, publication of books, provision of education, medicine and shelter to the needy, etc. In social matters it is the duty of a Bhaṭṭāraka to control the general conduct of his followers by exercising his authority over the caste-councils. He also collects contributions from his followers and thus tries to maintain personal contacts with them.

 

Status of Bhaṭṭārakas

The Bhaṭṭāraka has got a very distinctive position in society. He is a special type of religious functionary in society. In the 'Caturvidha Jaina Saṅgha', i.e., fourfold division of Jaina social organisation, consisting of Śrāvakas, (male laity), Śrāvikās (female laity), Sādhūs (Male ascetics) and Sādhvīs (female ascetics), he is placed above the laity but below the ascetics. As such he combines the characteristics of both laymen and ascetics. Like laymen, he lives in a house, holds estate, administers property, moves anywhere and uses all means of trans-portaion. At the same time like ascetics, he leads a celebrate and higher state of religious life, stays atone place during the 'Cāturmās', i.e., the four months of rainy season, wears sparse clothing, and carries 'Piñchhī', i.e., a tuft of peacock feathers.

In fact it is reported that in the beginning the 'Nirgrantha Sādhūs', i.e., the usual naked ascetics of the Digambara sect, used to work as Bhaṭṭārakas but with the increase in property and extension of activities of a social nature, instead of Nirgrantha Sādhūs special persons similar to Sādhūs were appointed as Bhaṭṭārakas. That is why even today the Bhaṭṭāraka is expected to enter, even though for a very short period, the 'Nirgrantha Sādhū' stage of the Digambara Jaina ascetic order at the time of his death.

Further, the Bhaṭṭāraka holds a distinctive characteristic position in society because he is regarded as a religious ruler. In this sense all the attributes, accessories and paraphernalia of a king are associated with the Bhaṭṭāraka. His 'Maṭha', i.e., central place of residence, is termed as 'Saṁsthāna', i.e., State, and his ceremonial place of sitting is termed as 'Gāḍī', i.e., throne. Like a king, he maintains huge property, wears luxurious dress, lives in a palatial building, uses articles made of gold or silver, goes in a procession led by elephants and horses, moves in a special palanquin, is entitled to use accessories like 'Chatra', 'Cāmara', 'Abādagiri', etc., on ceremonial occasions, gives honorific titles to distinguished persons, issues proclamations and orders with his own seal, settles caste-disputes, holds enquiries, conducts court proceedings, gives judgements, prescribes punish­ments of fine, expiation or ex-communication and collects contributions or taxes from his followers.

At the same time he enjoys certain privileges like going in a procession with his palanquin facing the road, using lighted torches during day­time in procession, and exemption from paying certain taxes and duties to the State. Of course with the liquidation of the Princely States in India, the Bhaṭṭārakas have ceased to use these royal honours, accessories and privileges. But it is a fact that in the past all rulers considered the Bhaṭṭārakas as "Rāja-gurus", i.e., King's preceptors and accordingly always received the Bhaṭṭārakas with honour and reserved elevated seats for them in the royal 'Darbārs', i.e., courts.

Many enlightened Muslim monarchs treated the Bhaṭṭārakas with respect and gave their royal recognition to the seats of Bhaṭṭārakas. For instance, in the 'Gurvāvali', i.e., the list of religious preceptors of the Balātkāra Gaṇa seat of Bhaṭṭārakas at Kārañjā in Maharashtra it is specifically mentioned that the preceptor Vidyānanda was recognised by the Turk Monarch Allauddin Khilaji. Even today the seats of Bhaṭṭārakas are treated with regard by the various State Governments.

 

Contributions of Bhaṭṭārakas

The Bhaṭṭārakas, throughout their long history, contributed a great deal to the advancement in various fields of culture of the region. Their lasting contribution can be seen in the development of several arts like architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance and drama. They encouraged their rich followers to construct new temples in large numbers and they personally officiated at the image installation ceremonies of these temples. It is reported that in 1492 A.D. Bhaṭṭāraka Jinacandra installed more than one thousand images at a single ceremony held at Muḍasā in Rajasthan and that these images were later on sent to a large number temples all over India.

On the same lines it can be noted that Bhaṭṭāraka Laxmisena (1896-1965 A.D.) of Kolhapur officiated at 59 major image-installation ceremonies from different parts of India. The images installed were of various deities of different metals and stones, and of several sizes. The temples and Maṭhas were decorated with paintings and the image installation and other religious ceremonies were usually accompanied with different performances of music, dance, and drama. The Maṭha also was a centre of cultural activities throughout the year. In this way the Bhaṭṭārakas were indirectly responsible in giving patronage to the cultivation of various arts.

In the field of literature, the contributions of Bhaṭṭārakas have been really impressive. Their main literary works have been in the forms of epics, stories and texts for worship. They also wrote on serious subjects like grammar, prosody, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, astrology, medicine and other allied sciences. Their compositions are found in classical languages like Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsha and in regional languages like Hindi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil. By their valuable literary works the Bhaṭṭārakas contributed not only to the enrichment of literature but also to the growth of different regional languages.

In the field of learning, the Bhaṭṭārakas made monumental contributions. By various means they turned their Maṭhas into the central seats of learning in the region. They used their Maṭhas as 'Grantha-bhāṇḍāras', i.e., book-houses, which were virtually treasure-houses of knowledge. In these Bhāṇḍāras they assiduously preserved a large number of manuscripts written on paper or palm leaves by both Jaina and non-Jaina scholars and in different languages on various religious and scientific subjects.

In addition to the preservation of knowledge, they also helped in the spread of knowledge by making specific arrangements to copy the manuscripts and to distribute the manuscripts to several places. Further, the Maṭhas were used as schools where permanent provisions were made to impart regular training to Jaina priests and general instructions to all students. There are many cases where non-Jaina students came to receive learning from Bhaṭṭārakas. The names of Muslim Hāji, Śaiva Mādhava and Dvija Viśvanātha are notable in this respect.

 

Decline and Revival of the Tradition

Thus the Bhaṭṭārakas by means of their personal accomplishments and in­fluence, their devoted services in the execution of their several duties and their significant contributions to the development of culture proved very beneficial and useful to society. Through their own learning and behaviour and with the help of their trained disciples, they not only spread the message of Jainism but also unified the disintegrated Jaina community. Without the introduction of the Bhaṭṭārakas the Digambara sect would have hardly survived. But later on the Bhaṭṭāraka institution degenerated to such an extent that instead of serving as a force of integration it hastened the disintegration of adherents.

In the beginning the field of activities of a Bhaṭṭāraka was very wide and he catered to the needs of all Jainas in general. But in course of time his field of activity was restricted to a particular caste of Jainas only and he began to control the religious and social life of that caste. Naturally this widened the gulf between various Jaina castes. In addition, the Bhaṭṭārakas slowly became worldly minded, tried to amass wealth and to raise their position by all means, and utterly neglected their religious and social duties. This was the state of decline of the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition roughly up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

But in recent years and especially after the attainment of Independence, the Digambara Jainas began to think seriously whether to discard the Bhaṭṭāraka institution altogether or to retain it by giving it a new shape to suit the changed circumstances. The general opinion moved in favour of reviving the institution because a religious preceptor was considered necessary to look after the spiritual and cultural life of the people. It was felt that if the Bhaṭṭārakas, who are well educated and who wish to lead a strictly religious life, are appointed and recognised not as the heads of particular castes but as organisers, propagators and preceptors of the Digambara Jaina sect, then not only the Digambaras would be united by closing their rift between the Bīsapanthīs and the Terāpanthīs but also they would be benefitted in the long run by diverting the large estates of the Bhaṭṭārakas to various religious and social purposes.

As this reformist view point gained ground, the process began to adjust the system of Bhaṭṭārakas to the needs of modern times. The seats of the Bhaṭṭārakas are not now so strictly restricted to the members of particular castes alone but are meant for all Jainas of the region. Accordingly the activities of the Bhaṭṭārakas are now carried out for the benefit of all Jainas. The Bhaṭṭārakas are also trying to improve their accomplishments through modern education and to adopt new means to spread the message of Jainism. The existing Bhaṭṭārakas in 1969 started a new organization known as 'Bhaṭṭāraka Sammelana' to coordinate their various activities. In this regard it is pertinent to note that for the first time in the history of the institution, the Bhaṭṭārakas of Śravaṇabeḷgoḷa, Mūḍabidri and Humach crossed the borders of India and actively participated in the World Peace and Religious Conferences held in Belgium, U. S. A., and other foreign countries.

Shri Laxmisena Bhaṭṭāraka of Kolhapur has started editing the book-series entitled 'Laxmisena Jaina Granthamālā', has launched under his editorship, a new journal entitled 'Ratnatraya' in Marathi, Kannada and Hindi languages, and has been carrying on educational activities for all through 'Laxmisena Vidyāpīṭha', and 'Laxmisena Education Society' founded by him. Shri Devendrakīrti Bhaṭṭāraka of Humach is catering to the modern educational needs of the students through different means. Shri Charukīrti Bhaṭṭāraka of Mudabidri has devoted his attention to publication and research in Jainology on modern lines and has started 'Srīmati Ramārāṇi Jain Research Institute' at Mudabidri.

This revival of the Bhaṭṭāraka tradition on modern lines in the States of Karnataka and Maharashtra has got a good impact on the Jainas in the South. As a result the Jainas in other parts of India are, it is stated, seriously thinking of restarting their old seats of Bhaṭṭārakas.

 

References:

  • Joharapurkar, V.: Bhaṭṭāraka Sampradāya, Solapur: Jain Saṁskriti Saṁrakshaka
    Saṅgha, 1958 (in Hindi).
  • Premi, Nathuram: Bhaṭṭāraka „Jain Hitaishi”, Vols. VII & VIII.
  • Sangave, V.A.: Jaina Community. A Social Survey, Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1959.
    Sangave, V. A.: History of Dakina Bhārata Jain Sabhā, Sangli: Dakshina Bhārat Jain Sabhā, 1976 (in Marathi).
  • Gurusmriti Special Number, Journal Ratnatraya, January, 1978.
  • Proceedings of Bhaṭṭāraka Sammelan, Kolhapur: Laxmisena Matha, 1969.
  • Old Manuscript Birudāvali (in Marathi), Balatkar Gana Mandir, Karanja.
Share this page on: