The Invention Of Jainism: A Short History Of Jaina Studies

Published: 17.12.2005
Updated: 02.07.2015

International Journal of Jaina Studies
(Online) Vol. 1, No. 1 (2005) 1-14



The article provides a short summary of the institutional history of the new field of 'Jain Studies' in its historical and political context. It shows that the Sanskrit term 'Jaina' used as a self-designation (rather than as the designation of a doctrine or in the sense of 'pertaining to the Jina') is based on the vernacular precursor 'Jain' which became prevalent from the early modern period onwards - most likely as an internalised observer category. The words 'Jain' and 'Jainism' became widely used only in the context of 19th communal movements in colonial India. At the same time the Jain scriptures were published to back the identity claims of the Jaina law movement and modern 'Jainism' as a disembodied text-based set of idea-ologies or dogmas from which one can pick and chose was born.


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The Invention Of Jainism: A Short History Of Jaina Studies

It is often said that Jains are very enthusiastic about erecting temples, shrines or upāśrayas but not much interested in promoting religious education, especially not the modern academic study of Jainism. Most practising Jains are more concerned with the 'correct' performance of rituals rather than with the understanding of their meaning and of the history and doctrines of the Jain tradition. Self-descriptions such as these undoubtedly reflect important facets of contemporary Jain life, though the attitudes toward higher education have somewhat changed during the last century. This trend is bound to continue due to the demands of the information based economies of the future, and because of the vast improvements in the formal educational standards of the Jains in India. In 1891, the Census of India recorded a literacy rate of only 1.4% amongst Jain women and of 53.4% amongst Jain men.[1] In 2001, the female literacy rate has risen to 90.6% and for the Jains altogether to 94.1%. Statistically, the Jains are now the best educated community in India, apart from the Parsis.[2] Amongst young Jains of the global Jain diaspora University degrees are already the rule and perceived to be a key ingredient of the life-course of a successful Jain. However, the combined impact of the increasing educational sophistication and of the growing materialism amongst the Jains on traditional Jain culture is widely felt and often lamented. In particular the Jain mendicants, whose daily sermons dominated traditional Jain religious education for centuries, and the few remaining Jain Pandits face an uphill struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing social and cultural environment, and sometimes choose to combine monastic and academic training to keep up with the rising expectations of their followers.

The dramatic changes within the Jain community were prompted by successive religious and social reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries which were instigated both by individual Jain laymen and laywomen, often by lawyers who were the first Jains with modern University education, and by individual Jain mendicants. The reformers faced strong resistance, in particular in the field of religious education which is vital for the transmission of the tradition. The publication of Jain scriptures, for instance, which was pioneered by European Indologists from 1808 onwards,[3] was obstructed, sometimes violently, by 'orthodox' Jains who objected to the cruelty of the printing press to micro-organisms, and to the open accessibility of the sacred scriptures.[4] Before the appearance of the first printed editions of the Śvetāmbara canon by Rāy Dhanpatisiïha Bāhādur in 1874-1900 (in the Prakrit original) and by Ācārya Amolakaçùi in 1916-1919 (with Hindi translation) primary access to the sacred texts was unattainable for Jain śrāvakas and śrāvikās, and certain sections of the Āgamas were (and sometimes still are) off limits even for nuns and junior monks. This explains, in part, why rituals and public celebrations were for millennia the only form of religiosity open to the Jain laity. Studying the original scriptures was not an option, except for the few who had access to the bhaõóāras and who knew the languages of the ancient texts; an expertise which was almost entirely lost during the first half of the 19th century, even amongst Jain monks, who had to be re-educated by Brahmin Pandits around the turn of the 20th century. Instead, the handwritten manuscripts became objects of ritual veneration, notwithstanding the fact that in some late canonical scriptures the process of writing itself is rejected due to its cruelty to single-sensed organisms, or ekendriyas.

Because no textual evidence was presented by the Jains in public, 'Jainism/Jinism'[5] was not recognised as an independent 'religion'[6] until 1879 when Hermann Jacobi in the introduction of his edition of the Kalpasūtra of Bhadrabāhu furnished for the first time textual proof that the ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures already depicted the nigganthas as a separate 'heretical' (tīrthyā) group. With this, Jaina Studies was established as an independent field of academic research. Before Jacobi, the Jains were regarded either as 'Buddhists' or as a 'Hindu sect'. After Jacobi's publication, Jainism became gradually recognized as a universal or 'world religion'.[7] The political value of the academic study of Jainism, and of Jacobi's findings in particular, was instantly realised by the educated Jain elite, who for some time demanded the public recognition of 'Jainism' and the 'Jainas' from the colonial government and in the courts.[8]

Like the use of the word 'Hindu', the use of the Sanskrit word 'Jaina' as a selfdesignation (not in the older sense of 'pertaining to the Jinas')[9] seems to be a recent development. It was predicated on earlier uses of the vernacular term 'Jain'[10] which was popularised by Jain leaders in the 19th century, particularly in the Panjab, most likely for the purpose of nominally presenting a united front of the different Jain sectarian traditions vis à vis the Āryā Samāj and other competitors, or within mixed Jain-Hindu castes. [11] When exactly the vernacular word 'Jain' was introduced as a self-designation is still an open question.[12] It may be that its history as an internalised observer-category echoes the history of conceptual reification of the other contemporary 'religions' which, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1982: 44, 72ff.) has demonstrated, emerged in circumstances of cultural contact and conflict, particularly in the age of the European reformation and Colonial expansion during the 16th-18th centuries.[13] The earliest known use of the word 'Jainas' in European literature goes back to Portuguese and German traveller and missionary accounts of the late 17th and early 18th centuries respectively. The word Zainas, designating 'a baniyā sect', is used in the anonymous Portuguese work Breve Relaçāo das escrituras dos Gentios da India Oriental e dos suos costumes, which Zachariae (1933: 181) placed in the second half of the 17th century,[14] and the word Tschāiner can be found in the translation of Letter 3 of the Malabarische Correspondentz of Tamil Brahmin informants to the 18th century German Protestant missionaries Johann Ernst GrŸndler and Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1714/1998: 94),[15] who in Letter 41, apparently for the first time, described the South Indian "Schāmmaner" as "eine a parte Religion" (a separate religion), though Letter 3 classified them as a sub-division of the 'Hindoos'.[16] With Colebrooke's (1807) influential article on the 'Hindu sect' of 'the Jains' the use of the word Jains in the plural became widespread both as an etic and an emic category.

Officially, the category 'Jain' was used for the first time in the Census of India of 1881.[17] The Census still remains the only government institution which classifies the Jains as a separate religious group.[18] Despite the legal recognition of the doctrinal differences between 'Hinduism' and 'Jainism' in the landmark judgement Gateppa v. Eramma AIR 1927 Madras 228, 'Jaina law' remains incorporated within 'Hindu law', and for all practical purposes Jains are treated as 'Hindus' by the Indian (UK and US) Government,[19] and were not even granted religious 'minority' status after the introduction of the National Commission of Minorities Act of 1992. The artificial political issue whether Jains are Hindus or not is largely based on (deliberately) ambiguous legal definitions.[20]

To raise the communal self-awareness amongst Jains, British educated Jain reformers campaigned from the mid 19th century onwards for the public selfidentification of the Jains as 'Jains', particularly at the time of the Census when many Jains, for one reason or another, still identify themselves as 'Hindu'.[21] The incentive of gaining separate representations and other privileges that were granted by the colonial and post-colonial governments to recognised religious communities promised new avenues for the advancement of the political and economical interests of the educated Jain elites and for the preservation of the Jain religion. For the ambitious reformers it was thus disturbing that, in the early 19th century, the Jain community was (like much of India) in a dismal state. The mendicant communities were defunct, with few mendicants, dominated by often uneducated yatis who maintained strong sectarian and caste orientations and rarely followed the canonical rules of conduct, with the temples, upāśrayas and mañhas in a state of decay, the bhaõóāras unkempt and the sacred manuscripts crumbling. The only hope for change seemed to be religious and social reform, a cornerstone of which was the revival of monastic education and the propagation of religious learning and secular education side by side for both men and for women who are the torchbearers of religion in traditional Jain families.

At the time, the academic study of the Jain tradition was perceived as a threat to customary religious practice by most community leaders. Although study (svādhyāya) was in the later parts of the Śvetāmbara canon already presented as an important form of karma-destroying asceticism (tapasya), the processes of acquisition and the benefits of knowledge were strictly circumscribed. While knowledge (jñāna) of the fundamental religious dogma, the tattvas for instance, is considered to be essential for any progress on the path of salvation, even for a reasonably good rebirth, more important than learning some-thing was the karma-destroying discipline of the act of studying itself, which was often predicated on the simultaneous performance of certain fasts and other ritual preconditions. The acquisition of objective knowledge or Bildung is not perceived as a worthwhile end in itself in classical Jainism, but only as an ascetic means for lifting the veil of karma from the soul whose innate quality is absolute knowledge. Spiritual or selfknowledge can not only be reached by studying but also through fasts and meditation, which, in the form of śukla dhyāna, is considered to be the ultimate form of religious practice.

Jain reformers regarded the prevalent 'ritualistic' attitude towards the scriptures and to the acquisition of knowledge in general as a major impediment for the progress of the Jain community, if not as one of the main reasons for its visible decay during the early modern period. In their view, the Jains should embrace secular (English medium) education rather than rejecting it. In 1926, the reformer Hem Chandra Rai noted in the Jaina Gazette that a "dark gloom of ignorance is stunting the growth of our community to a fearful extent all around.... As matters stand the large majority of Jains are content with rudimentary teaching of vernacular Pathsalas and schools, dotted all over the country. Higher education is distinctly unpopular. According to the mentality of the average Jain, college education is either unnecessary or positively harmful.[22]... Some of our mentors try to frighten us into the belief that the spread of [secular Western] education would lead to the decay of religion." [23] Rai argued instead that "College education should not at all imply the elimination of religion from the life of the youth, as some people imagine. On the contrary, religious training would be a profitable adjunct of college careers".

The desire for the 'upliftment' of the Jain community through modern education was reflected in the agenda of the All India Jain Association in 1926 which advocated setting up endowments for scholarships, boarding houses, āśramas, libraries for the collection and preservation of manuscripts, the publication of the Jaina scriptures with translations, a central Jaina museum, an archaeological institute, and funds to help poor Jain widows.[24] This program was not new but merely restated the principal aims of the western educated Jain elite which were gradually implemented from the late 19th century onwards. The first modern Jain educational institutions were public libraries, where the new printed community journals and books can be read, boarding schools or vidyālayas (the first in Bombay 1900), student hostels or chātrālayas, and schools or gurukulas which are generally also open to non-Jain children (Karanja 1918). Later, Jain research institutes or śodha saüsthānas (Arrah 1925), private colleges or vidyā pīñhas (Varanasi 1937), and private institutes for the publication of the scriptures such as the Prakrit Text Society and the L. D. Institute (Ahmedabad 1952) were founded.[25] Initially, most of these institutions were not open to the public but served exclusively the interests of the members of the Jain community or particular sections thereof. But the intention to spread the knowledge of the Jain doctrines throughout the secular educational system in India and beyond was in evidence early on. The Jaina Gazette reported in 1926 that M. J. Mehta, M. J. Jhaveri and A. H. Shah had approached the Hindu University in Benares (BHU) with the offer to finance a chair in Jain logic and philosophy in the University, under the condition "that the General Secretaries of the Jain Swetambar Conference should be consulted in prescribing the course".[26] The offer was declined. Only when the Indian Government itself made resources available with no strings attached were degrees in Prakrit and Jainology institutionalised at recognised Universities. Degree courses were established at the Universities of Vaishali 1955, Mysore 1971, Varanasi 1972 (P. V. Institute with BHU), Udaipur 1978, Madras 1982, and in 1991 at the Jain Vishva Bharati Institute in Ladnun, which remains the only 'deemed to be' Jain University to date. Degree courses in Jain Religion and Society are offered for the first time in Kolhapur from 2005 onwards.

Sadly, the impressive expansion of the institutional provisions for the study of Prakrit and Jainology masks a continuing decline of Jaina Studies in India after the renaissance of Jain scholarship in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For economic reasons, nowadays few Jains choose an academic career in Jainology or to become Pandits. As a consequence, University courses are empty, research is declining, and most of the remaining experts are Hindus (which is not bad at all but symptomatic). The only area of unabated excitement seems to be the craze for degrees as status symbols to be worn in tandem with Jainness itself. Similar tendencies can be observed elsewhere.

While India witnessed the progressive widening of access to Jain knowledge, culminating in the establishment of recognised University degree courses, Jaina Studies in Europe and North America experienced, for a while, a reverse process. Research on Hemacandra's work and the Śvetāmbara scriptures flourished in small academic circles, particularly in Germany, from 1865 onwards.[27] Jain education started in the U.K. and the U.S.A. due to the presence of three prominent Jain lawyers who studied, at different times, in London at the Bar, and for various reasons returned frequently from India to Britain and visited Europe and the U.S.A.: C. R. Jain (1867-1942) 1892-7, 1925-6, 1930- 3, V. R. Gandhi (1865-1901) 1894-5, 1896-1901, and J. L. Jaini (1881-1927) 1906-9 and 1913. As ardent Jains, the three lawyers were interested in spreading the knowledge of Jainism in the West and co-founded Jain study circles and learned societies for interested Europeans such as F. W. Thomas, the Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, or Herbert Warren. In 1909, J. L. Jaini created the Jain Literature Society in London together with F. W. Thomas and H. Warren, and in 1913 the Mahavira Brotherhood or Universal Fraternity with H. Warren, J. H. Dunn, A. & E. Gordon, D. Sainter, R. Wightman, and others. In 1930, the Rishabh Jain Lending Library was established by C. R. Jain and others in North London, where it was maintained at different places until 1946. The World Jaina Mission, finally, was founded in 1949, also in London, by M. McKay, W. H. Talbot, F. Mansell, and Mrs. K. P. Jain.[28] The character of these societies, whose Mahāvīra Jayantī meetings attracted between 30-100 participants, resembled the Theosophical Societies and it would not be out place to call their members 'Jain Theosophists'. They were educated professionals, vegetarians, and greatly influenced by the international peace movement during the period of the great wars, but less so by the interfaith movements such as the World's Parliament of Religions, since most members were disillusioned both with organised religion which they sought to transcend by finding a more fundamental spiritual dimension and with the materialism which came to dominate the world.

Due to the lack of interest amongst the Jains in India, the project of a World Jain Mission, which was also promoted by The Voice of Ahinsa (Delhi 1949), was abandoned after the death of Herbert Warren (1866-1954), and apart from isolated research work of renowned scholars such as A. L. Basham, J. D. M. Derrett, P. S. Jaini, and R. Williams at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, few Jain related educational activities can be noted in Britain or elsewhere outside India before the arrival of the East African Jain Diaspora from 1967 onwards. Understandably, the new migrants were more narrowly focused on the educational needs of their own communities, than the short-term Jain visitors two generations earlier. They established institutions for community education such as the now defunct Jain Pāñhśālā in Leicester 1973-1977, Candanā Vidyāpīñh in London 1998, and Jain Viśva Bhāratī London 2003, and organised śivirs and other educational events. In addition, Jain community organisations such as the Institute of Jainology, the Jain Academy, and Jain Spirit, which seek to transcend the sect and caste-based loyalties of the majority of the British Jains, promoted an Adult Education course on Jainism at the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck College in London from 1997, and University degree courses on Jainism at De Montford University in Leicester 1994-1997, and at SOAS from 1999 onwards. Though the interest in the academic study of Jainism continues to remain low amongst 'born' Jains, even if combined with a professional degree, the enthusiasm for Jaina Studies is increasing amongst the wider public and amongst professional academics and teachers. In Britain and in Europe and North America as a whole, the growing interest in Jainism and in the Jain way of life is reflected in the increasing number of publications on the Jain tradition, in public exhibitions such as Peaceful Liberators in the U.S.A. and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1996[29] and Steps to Liberation at the Etnographisch Museum of Antwerpen in 2000,[30] and in the new Centre for Jaina Studies, the first of its kind, which was founded by SOAS in March 2004 to host regular international Jaina Studies Conferences and Annual Jaina Lectures, and to promote teaching and research of the Jain tradition at the University of London.

The term 'Jain Studies' is not without its critics who point to its uneasy closeness to 'Jain studies' and to its artificially narrow thematic focus. Academic research on the Jain tradition was pioneered in the Departments of Indology which were newly introduced into European Universities during the first half of the 19th Century (only to be slowly abolished again in the first half of the 21st century).[31] The pioneers of Jaina Studies were predominately professional philologists who studied not a religious group or a set of religious practices but South Asian and Indo-European languages and literature in general; in this case the Ardhamāgadhī and other Prakrits which distinguish the Jain scriptures from the Brahmin and Buddhist scriptures. In recent years, the focus of academic research has shifted from the earlier philological, archaeological and art historical endeavours to the study of Jainism as a living religious and philosophical tradition. The study of the (post-canonical) Jain philosophy has been pioneered in India and in Japan,[32] while studies of the anthropology and history of the Jains has been advanced in France, the U.K., and the U.S.A. from 1985 onwards. Most of the few sociological studies following the work of Sangave (1959/1980) have been written in India. Outside India, Jainism is taught at University level, to varying degrees,[33] at Departments of the Study of Religions which alone provide a thematic focus on one or other religious tradition. In contrast to Indology, Archaeology, or Anthropology, Religious Studies is a field of study, like Diaspora Studies, Migration Studies and other related fields, but not an academic discipline.[34] It can therefore encompass diverse approaches and methodologies, and interact more closely with religious communities without jeopardizing academic independence and objectivity. [35]

This short overview shows that the institutional history of Jaina Studies can not be understood in isolation from the political, social and cultural contexts which prompted the invention of 'Jainism' as an independent 'religion' and of the 'Jainas' as an 'imagined community' in the 19th century and the institutionalization of 'Jaina Studies' in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[36] It may well be that we are presently witnessing the uncoupling of the doctrines of Jainism from the traditional institutional bedrock of the Jain communities and the establishment of a universal religion of non-violence (ahi§sā) embodied in a set of texts which, after their release from the vaults of the bhaõóāras and the monopoly of interpretation of the ācāryas, gained a life on their own in the form of printed or electronic texts which are freely available to anyone anywhere. 'Jainism' as a disembodied text-based set of idea-ologies[37] or dogmas from which one can pick and chose can be individually interpreted and applied in manifold ways without fear of social or supernatural sanctions.[38] The consequences of the ongoing transformation of Jain lay religiosity from ritual to reflection[39] for the future of the Jain tradition have to be seen.


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