Published on 25th March, 2022, in The Hindu
About two thousand years ago incidents took place which involved the Jain community that inspired an epic ballad that was put down in writing a thousand years later in Prakrit and local languages. This was the Kalak Acharya Katha that became the standard appendix of the main Jain text, the Kalpasutra, that described Jain cosmogony.
Then five centuries ago, illustrated Jain manuscripts appeared telling this story. These manuscripts were dedicated by Jain merchants and bankers to their patrons, the Muslim Sultans of newly emerging kingdoms of Ahmedabad, Jaunpur and Malwa. These peripheral kingdoms arose following the invasion of Timur 600 years ago that had weakened the Delhi Sultanate. With limited access to Central Asian talent, these Sultans were forced to employ local talent in their courts, especially Jain bankers with a sound knowledge of accounting and finance.
Kalak Archarya Katha tells the story of a great Jain Muni of the Shwetambar school called Kalak. His sister and he joined the Jain monastic order at an early age. He was extremely knowledgeable, and she was extremely beautiful. Even though she was a nun, she was abducted by the king of Ujjaini. Kalaka went to the king and begged him to release her, but the king refused. Frustrated because no local king helped him he travelled across the Sindhu river to the western banks, and took the help of Saka (Scythian) warriors. The Scythians agreed to help him because he displayed magical powers: the ability to turn their bricks into gold. They attacked Ujjaini, but the king of Ujjaini had a trick up his sleeve. He had a magical donkey. When it brayed, the terrible sound could kill a hundred soldiers at a time. Divining the presence of this magical and lethal donkey, the Jain muni instructed Scythian warriors to shoot arrows straight into the mouth of the braying donkey. That way they are able to stop the donkey from braying without killing it. Thus, with the help of the Scythians, Kalak, a Jain muni, was able to defeat the king of Ujjaini and rescue his sister.
This story is significant as Sakas are generally treated as foreigners in Hindu texts, along with Yavana (Greeks), Pahalava (Parthians) and Kushanas (Central Asian Chinese), though many patronised Buddhism, and a few even Jainism, and Hinduism. The story is remarkably similar to Ramayana where Ram takes the help of the monkeys in order to liberate his wife from the King of Lanka. But what is interesting is while the King of Lanka is an outsider, here the enemy king is an Indian king, probably well versed in Tantra, and the antagonist is a Jain Muni and his support comes from a foreign land, the Shveta-dvipa, or white continent, in the West, a term used in many scriptures for Central Asia, home of light-skinned Turks.
There are other stories of Kalak Acharya besides the Scythian attack. The muni’s nephews, Balmitra and Bhanumitra, from Bharuch eventually replace the Ujjaini king and venerate Kalak. But the Brahmins of Bharuch resent the popularity of the Jain monk who is gently encouraged to leave the city. Kalaka finds refuge in Pratisthana, whose king Shalivahan, gives him refuge, and accommodates Jain festivals alongside Hindu festivals.
The rivalry between Vikramaditya of Ujjaini and Shalivahana of Pratishthana is a key theme in folklore. There are stories that link the birth of Vikramaditya to a celestial donkey. Is that an allusion to the magical donkey of the evil Ujjaini king? It is difficult to derive facts from the world of folklore. In fact, dating the two legendary kings has proven next to impossible. Some link Vikramaditya and Kalak with pre-Gupta invasions of Sakas and Kushans while others date them with post-Gupta invasions of Hunas. The Sanskrit manuscripts which tell their story are dated to the 8th Century, a little before the Kalak Acharya Katha was put down in writing, probably in Gujarat. Speculation must be done with caution.
Another story in the epic speaks of Kalak’s disillusionment with his students who do not listen to his interpretations of the Jain Agama. A student of a student does not treat him with respect but apologises when he recognizes who he is. This differential treatment of monks based on status indicates the inability to rise above the ego, which thrives on hierarchy.
The 14th and 15th centuries were the golden era of Jain manuscripts. Following Islamic invasions, the Jain community felt it was prudent not to build structures that could be broken by ambitious iconoclastic Turks. So they instead invested in manuscripts that display fabulous calligraphy and are full of paintings using vibrant colours. This is Indian art before the influence of Persian painting popularised by Mughals. They were kept safely in libraries attached to Jain temples.
The story of Kalak Acharya Katha was added as an appendix to the Kalpasutra, which tells the story of the three types of special beings of the Jain universe: the heroic Vasudeva, the regal Chakravarthy and the wise Tirthankaras. Illustrating Kalpasutra, that describes the cosmogony of the Jain world, makes complete sense. But adding the story of the resilient, upright and powerful monk Kalak as an appendix does not. Why this of all the other Jain stories? Was it to make their patrons, the Sultans, feel that they could be seen as saviours, and not necessarily as invaders, if they collaborated with their subjects rather than simply exploiting them? This is of course, a controversial argument but needs to be considered.
Indian history obscures the contribution of Jain traders and merchants. The Jains were the oldest communities in India to build commemorative temples with icons of their sages and gods. The oldest image of Saraswati has been traced to a 2000-year-old Jain art collection found in Mathura. As traders, the Jains introduced many concepts in the field of mathematics and accounting. The hundi system of remittance was probably their invention. The game of snakes and ladders was invented to explain loss and profit, debt and equity. Jain monks, like Buddhist monks, were rivals of Brahmins and many Jain stories speak of this rivalry. For example, Jain epics speak of how the Jain sage Nemi was far superior to the Hindu god Krishna, his cousin. Jains have their own Ramayana and Mahabharata, where key characters adopt the Jain way of life.
While scholars try to seek the historicity of Kalak, it makes more sense to see the mythology of this story. The world of imagination and feelings they capture explains the relationship of the Jain community with foreign invading kings and local rival communities. Let us not overlook the fact that the name Kalak (or Kalk) is very similar to the Kalki. Kalki is visualised as riding a horse and carrying a sword, much as what Yavana, Saka, Pahalava, Kushan and Huna, and later Turk, Afghan and Mughal warriors would have looked like. The story does have a lot to do with the relationship of local communities with local kings and foreign kings. Today, politicians only remember the Mughal kings as foreigners. They remain strategically ignorant of other foreigners, like the Scyhtians who helped a Jain muni overpower a cruel Indian king.