Jaina footprint in South Indian tradition
by Sandhya Jain on 10 Aug 2009 18 Comments

[The unveiling of Tamil Jaina saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar’s, statue in Bangalore yesterday by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, is a virtual coup by Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who retains the capacity to spring the quiet surprise. That this will be followed next week by Yeddyruppa unveiling the statue of Kannada saint-poet, Sarvagna, in Chennai, is more than a political statement – it is a powerful affirmation of the regional efflorescence and continuity of India’s civilisational unity. Jainas have contributed vastly to the regional culture of both states from very ancient times – Editor]

A few centuries after the nirvana of Mahavira, a severe famine in the Bihar region around 360 BC caused a section of the Jaina community to migrate towards the south, and their return after an interval triggered off an irreconcilable split in the community. Despite the sectarian claims of the two main groups, there are scarcely any significant doctrinal differences between them. The Digambaras are those whose munis are clothed in air, while Svetambara monks wear white cotton unstitched garments.

According to tradition, the renowned Acarya Bhadrabahu, who knew all the Jaina scriptures by heart, led a large group of migrants to the Mysore region of Karnataka around 360 BC, to escape the rigours of a severe famine. Bhadrabahu passed away there, but the main body of his followers returned to Pataliputra (modern Patna, Bihar) twelve years later and found to their horror that the monks left in the care of his chief disciple, Sthulabhadra, had taken to wearing white garments as a concession to the lay society of the time.

Sthulabhadra had also in this interim had an official recension of the sacred texts prepared, so that they would not be lost in the event of future calamity. But the ‘southern’ group, enraged over the monks’ recourse to clothing in times of distress, rejected the recension as heretical and invalid. Proclaiming themselves the “true” Jainas, they wrote their own Puranas (legends) and scriptures, which would at times vary from those of the Svetambaras. Yet there were truly no genuine doctrinal differences between the two groups, and reverence for the Tirthankaras and the practice of austerities (tapas) remained the path to salvation in both groups. Of course, the Digambara monks remained unrivalled in the practice of tapas.

One important difference between the two schools, however, was their view on salvation for women. Digambaras believe that women do not have the strong and powerful bodies needed to undertake the kind of tapas and meditation that can lead to liberation, and must hence have a final incarnation as men in order to attain moksa. Svetambaras, however, believe that women can possess such bodies and hence arrive at salvation in the course of their present lives.[1] Svetambaras in fact believe that the twenty-first Tirthankara, Mallinatha, was a woman, and the Lucknow Museum has a beautiful headless torso of a female ascetic, which many believe to be a representation of Malli. Since the Svetambara tradition itself is more than two thousand years old, this view is quite precocious and revolutionary, given the rigid orthodoxy still displayed by many faith traditions towards female devotees and clergy.

Over time, the Svetambaras further branched out into several streams, but these are essentially lineages of distinguished teachers of the tradition, rather than the exposition of new doctrines. Of these, it may be relevant to mention the Sthanakvasi group to which my father’s family belongs, because this is believed to be the first Indic response to the trauma of iconoclasm in the medieval period. Long before Guru Gobind Singh declared the Granth Sahib to be the ‘Guru’ of the Khalsa Panth (Sikh community), the Jaina monk, Lonka Shah (c. 1450) created a spiritual tradition in which the faithful would congregate for community worship in halls (sthana, place, hence Sthanakvasi) rather than temples, and there would be no image (murti) of the Tirthankara. This group claimed that image worship was an accretion to the ‘pure’ traditions practiced till the time of Mahavira, and the community was now united through allegiance and devotion to the teachers of the new lineage.

Scholars and traditional Jainas, however, believe that the Sthanakvasi doctrine was a defense mechanism to ward off the sense of powerlessness and despair that gripped the faithful every time a temple was attacked and a loved image broken. It needs to be kept in mind that from the time Indians began to fashion images of gods for worship, and to create temples to house their deities, image worship has been a central tenet of worship among Hindus, Bauddhas and Jainas. Arguments that attempt to invoke the pristine purity of a pre-temple building era are therefore puerile and irrelevant.

It may be interesting, in this context, to cite Kokkala Grahpati's medieval inscription in a Siva temple at Khajuraho, which explicitly celebrates the unity of the diverse Hindu creeds:

yam vedantavido vadanti manasah samkalpabhutam sivam
brahmaikam paramaksaram tamajaram tam camaram tadvidah
anye tam sivameva buddhamamalam tvanye jinam vamanam
tasmai sarvamayaika karanapate sarvaya nityam namah

[I bow daily to the all-inclusive One who embodies all these:
Those who know Vedanta call him Siva, the knowledgeable;
some call him one indestructible and ageless Brahma,
others call Him as Buddha, Jina or Vamana].[2]


Jaina doctrine is provocatively ambivalent about warfare. Far from upholding ahimsa as an absolute value, valid in all circumstances, Jaina dharma demanded military prowess in the ruler and appreciated the need for state power to protect dharma. The Pali canon mentions Siha, a general (senapati) in the time of Mahavira and Buddha, who was a Jaina layman (niganthasavaka).[3] Candragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan empire, renounced his throne under the influence of the famous Jaina ascetic, Bhadrabahu. Accompanying the monk to Mysore, he practiced great austerities on Chandragiri hill, opposite the Bahubali statue at Shravana Belagola, before ending his life by sallekhana. The site is commemorated by his footprints. Centuries later, the last Rastrakuta king took the same route to salvation.

In the medieval era, Jainas fought invading armies. The tenth century saint, Somadeva, clarified: “a king should strike down only those enemies of his kingdom who appear on the battlefield bearing arms, but never those people who are downtrodden, weak, or who are friends.”[4] Jainas reconciled to necessary violence with the concept of virodhi-himsa (countering violence with violence). Laymen could resort to violence, as a last resort, in the legitimate defence of rights, property, honour, community, or if called upon to fight by the king (state). Jainas have never confused ahimsa with cowardice and never hesitated to defend dharma. Of course, the Jaina view of karma and its impact on the jiva (atman) necessitate the eventual negation of all acts of violence before one can attain moksa. That is why Jainas have not glorified the bravery involved even in a just war, nor offered birth in heaven to the protagonists, whether winners or losers.

Tamil culture’s Jaina roots

Jainas are an important all-India community, a fact that tends to get overlooked as scholars concentrate upon the Bihar region where Mahavira was born (Kundagrama, Vaisali) and attained nirvana (Pavapuri, near Patna). Jainas played a major role in shaping the history and culture of the Tamil people, making seminal contributions to Tamil learning and literature from a very early period. The Sangam classical literature includes works by Jainas, and notwithstanding serious sectarian conflicts with Tamil Saivas for more than a millennium from the eleventh century onwards, the participation remained active and intense, as attested to by epigraphic and archeological evidence.

Jaina monks and communities penetrated deep into the Tamil countryside, incorporating all classes and castes in their embrace, and getting powerful patronage from merchants, warriors, and kings (both Jaina and non-Jaina, including even Pandya and Chola rulers after Saivism had become dominant). They were particularly powerful during Kalabhra rule from the third to the sixth centuries AD, and produced great literature in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, and Tamil.

Jainas are in fact the most significant creators of Tamil literature, writing the most important ethical texts, most notably The Kural (Tirukkurral) of Tiruvalluvar. The Jaina poet-monk Ilankovatikal wrote the classic Cilappadikaram (fifth century) and the Digambara Muni Tiruttakkatevar penned Civakacintamani in the ninth century. The two epics influenced all future Tamil literature, regardless of religious affiliation. Another famous Jain Tamil epic, Culamani, shows a close relationship between the legends of Krishna and the hero, Tivittan.[5]

Though Cilappadikaram reflects the Jaina ethos completely, Ilankovatikal depicts the harmony and exchange between the Brahmanical and sramana groups in society. Even when sectarian conflicts overtook this concord, Tamil Jaina scholars continued making intellectual contributions to society throughout, and the most important Tamil grammars, dictionaries, and technical treatises were written by Jainas, such as Pavananti’s Nannul (twelfth century), the standard Tamil Grammar. Jaina grammars, treatises, and long poems were appreciated in commentaries by Saiva and Vaisnava scholars.

It would be difficult to talk about Tamil Nadu without taking note of Nampi’s famous story about the impalement of eight thousand Jaina monks in Madurai, capital of the Pandyan kings, after their defeat by Saiva saint Campantar. It is noteworthy that there are no historical records of any such event having taken place, and it is first mentioned in Tamil Saiva literature by Nampi, after which it is considered as an established fact.

The legend states that the Jainas had opted to die if defeated, and chose death by impalement on stakes. Historically, however, there is no record of such a massacre, and it seems inconceivable that Indic tradition could condone an en masse massacre of saints. Hence, despite the popularity of the legend, scholars believe it is more likely that state persecution prompted an exodus of Jainas.

Scholars today appreciate that Jaina views of karma have deeply influenced the Sanskrit Agama texts of Saiva Siddhanta. As both schools of thought have much in common, there appears to have been a free and extensive exchange of ideas and ideals over a long period of time, which reinforces the emerging view that Jaina and Hindu are not closed communities with rigid doctrines.

Like Jainas, the Siddhantins believe in a plurality of distinct animate and immaterial entities (jiva, atman), which have consciousness (cetanam). Though each soul has the potential to enjoy bliss, it is hindered by bondage. Saiva s believe that the bonds that encumber the soul include mala, karma, maya, and like Jainas aver that karma offers the way to liberate oneself. Padmanabh Jaini points out that Jainas believe that karma is itself actual matter, though other schools of thought invest it with quasi-physical or psychological properties. But like Jainas, the Saiva Siddhantins perceive karma as real and substantive, not as psychological or causal. Liberation comes through the gradual reduction and removal of karma.

A number of ascetic practices common to Saiva and Jaina traditions have percolated to other groups. Scholars believe the Saiva matham derived from the Jaina monasteries that thrived in Tamil Nadu at least from the fifth century. Though Jainas have been prominent in states like Bihar, Karnataka and Gujarat, their contribution to the creation of a distinct regional religious culture is most pronounced in Tamil Nadu.

1] Jaini, P.S., ibid, p. 39.
2] I owe this information to Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, Director, Saraswati Research Centre.
3] Lath, Mukund, “Somadeva Suri and the question of Jain identity,” in Carrithers, Michael and Caroline Humphrey, ed., The Assembly of Listeners. Jains in Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp 25.
4] Dundas, Paul, “The Digambara Jain warrior” in Carrithers et al, op. cit., p. 172.
5] I am indebted to Dr. Prema Nandakumar for this insight. She adds that the structure and mode of worship in Jain temples has close identity with the Vedic-Agamic mode of worship.

Excerpted from
Why I am a Jaina, Sandhya Jain, in
Why I am a Believer
Ed., Arvind Sharma
Penguin, New Delhi, 2009
Price: Rs 450/-

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