Published on 11th January, 2023, in The Times of India.
We are inclined to see religion from a historical point of view, through the lens of time. But we rarely see religion from the perspective of geography. We are told Jainism is an Indian religion but which part of India did it originate from, where all did it spread, and why?
These are important questions to ask especially in times when pilgrim routes are being controversially seen as tourist routes. Many Hindus wrongly assume that Jainism is simply an offshoot of Hinduism, and not a religion where mercantilism is clearly separated from monasticism, the former being the common path, and the latter being the aspirational path.
While Vedic culture based on fire rituals consolidated itself in the upper Gangetic plains, in regions we now know as Delhi (Hastinapur), Mathura (Vraja), Ayodhya (Kosala) and Varanasi (Kashi), the more monastic orders of Buddhism and Jainism, collectively known as Shramana, originated in the lower Gangetic plains of Magadha.
Buddha’s enlightenment happened at Gaya, Bihar. Shikharji mountain in Jharkhand is linked to the final release (moksha) of 21 Jinas, who revealed the Jain way in this era. One of them Muni Suvrat lived at the time of Ram, who is a hero even in Jain chronicles.
Buddhism spread across India and beyond, to China, Southeast and Central Asia. Jainism did not follow the same trajectory. It went southwards to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and westwards towards Gujarat, but its northern reach was restricted to Hastinapur and Mathura; it did not significantly spread to Gandhara and Kashmir, though the first Jina, Rishabha, is connected with Mount Kailasa, through the mysterious site of Ashtapada.
The wandering monks
We do have stories of naked, wandering ascetics — probably Jain monks — known to the Greeks as gymnosophists, who travelled to Persia and Greece with Alexander’s army. It is said that the army was amazed at the detachment of these ascetics who were willing to fast to death and self-immolate themselves when they felt their work on earth was done. Other than this we do not hear stories of Jains travelling outside of what we call ‘Jambudvipa’ or ‘Bharatavarsha’.
The term ‘Jambudvipa’ is first used to describe India in the Ashokan edicts erected in 3rd century BCE. The Mauryan king was a patron of Buddhism, but his grandfather Chandragupta Maurya, and his grandson Samprapti are identified as Jains in Jain legends. Chandragupta fasted to death in Karnataka region in keeping with extreme Jain monastic practices while Samprati is said to have encouraged Jain monks to travel south to Tamillakam, just as Ashoka sent Buddhist monks to Sri Lanka,
The word ‘Bharatavarsha’ to describe India comes from the Hathigumpha inscription in Kalinga (Odisha) of King Kharavela in the 1st Century CE. Kharavela spoke of reclaiming a Jain image from Magadha. He excavated 117 caves for the Jain ascetics to rest.
The Kharavela inscriptions show how Jainism spread south from Bihar towards Kalinga, an important trading port. This makes sense, since most Jains were from the mercantile community. Tamil texts such as Thirukkural dated to 4th century CE make a strong case for vegetarianism and against animal sacrifice, suggesting Jain influence. Tamil works like Jivakachintamani are indicative of the Jain influence, where the main hero, Jivaka, after living a life of sensual, sexual, and violent escapades, becomes a Jain ascetic
At Madurai is the Samanar (Shramana) hills with caves and images of the Jina where Jain monks rested during the rainy season when travel was forbidden. Sadly, with the rise of Theistic Hinduism in the form of Alvars and Nayamnars, who were passionate devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, we find rising (and rather violent) opposition to Jains around 6th century CE.
During a great famine in Mauryan times, many Jains migrated to the Karnataka region. Jain influence peaked at the time of the Chalukyas and Rashtrakuta kings like Amoghavarsha, around the 7th century. The Rashtrakuta king Indra IV even fasted to death, like Chandragupta of yore. These kings celebrated Jain values by building magnificent basadis (temples) and pillars to the glory of Jina, especially in southern Karnataka. Here in the 10th century was carved the magnificent statue of Baahubali at Shravanabelagola.
But around the 11th century, Jains faced opposition from the saranas, passionate devotees of Shiva, who inspired the later Veerashaiva and Lingayat community. There are stories of Jain temples being claimed by Shiva worshippers. There is the story of one Shiva worshipper challenging Jain monks to emulate his feat of cutting his head and replacing it. The Jains, losing popularity and patronage, chose retreat.
Besides its southern spread, Jainism also travelled from Bihar along the tributaries of Ganga and the Narmada northwards and westwards. The earliest Jain images, including the earliest image of Saraswati, comes from a Jain site in Mathura that is 2,000 years old. It is amongst the earliest sculptures of India.
There are suggestions that originally even Jains built stupas like the Buddhists — the stupa-like structure was meant to showcase the act of samavasarana, when the Jina before his release shares his knowledge with the world. He faces all directions and all creatures surround him in concentric circles and are able to understand his words in their own language.
However, Jains stopped building stupas and chose to build temples and pillars and icons instead when, as per legend, Kanishka, the Kushan king, who ruled much of North India 1900 years ago confused a Jain site for a Buddhist site.
The most vibrant Jain community from the 5th century onwards is found in the Gujarat and Rajasthan region, which were major centres of trade with the Middle East. This was the region where Jain ideas were finally put down in writing in Vallabhi 1,500 years ago under the reign of the Maitraka Kings. Besides Bihar, it is in Gujarat and Rajasthan we find the sacred mountains of Jainism — Shatrunjaya or Palitana, Abu, and Girnar.
Girnar is linked to Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara, who is a cousin of Krishna. The story goes that Neminarha became an ascetic after he saw animals tied to be slaughtered for his wedding feast. Horrified by this he renounced all sensual and worldly pleasures and retreated to Mount Girnar. Shatrunjaya is where Adinatha gave his first sermon and is linked with the release of the Pandavas who also adopted Jainism as per Jain lore.
This Gujarat and Rajasthan region became the centre of Jain practices due to the rule of Kumarapala Chaulukya, who as per Jain lore converted to Jainism later in his life and banned animal slaughter. There is a Jain story that dealt with the anxiety of having a Jain non-violent king.
In thrall of kings
Kumarapala’s kingdom was threatened by a nearby kingdom who were perched to attack, taking advantage of his conversion to Jainism, and thus his practice of non-violence. Anxious, Kumarapala was told by a Jain ascetic that on a given day the rival will die without Kumarapala having to raise his sword.
True to the prophecy, when the rival king was sleeping on his elephant, his gold chain got caught in the branch of a tree, and he was strangled to death! Since Jains strictly followed the Indian practice of not crossing the sea, for fear of pollution, it was only in the 20th century that the Jains moved across the sea to foreign lands and made a mark for themselves in countries like the USA and Japan which now have Jain temples.
Jains have always tried to mingle with the local population since they follow a policy of pluralism (anekantavada). However, in recent times, some have been rather over-aggressive in opposition to butcher communities, in the name of non-violence (ahimsa), which has led to accusations of Islamophobia.
Perhaps now with its peaceful protests against turning Jain pilgrim spots into tourist trails, many young Jains are realising the perils of being too enamoured by aggressive ambitious politicians. Not everyone is Kumarapala and Amoghavarsha or Chandragupta Maurya. Many kings have no qualms about attacking even nonviolent ascetics, in the name of religion, in their quest for power.