Absent Lord ► Kings of the Gods ► Reflexivity ► Reflexivity

Posted: 02.06.2015

While there exists no "authoritative theory of the puja" within the tradition (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994: 42), there is nonetheless a strong tendency among ascetic commentators and laypersons influenced by the views of ascetics to interpret puja, and the eightfold worship in particular, as an expression of soteriological ideas. This is not a coherent "theory" but a general point of view, one that happens to be extremely influential. It is expressed with greatest clarity in the interpretations of the eightfold worship provided in various layman's manuals (such as Muktiprabhvijay: n.d. and Hemprabhasriji: 1977) as cited above. Although many people perform worship in order to gain worldly benefits (a point to be addressed later in this chapter), these interpretations nonetheless emphasize the theme of liberation. As we have seen, the act of bathing the image is said to express the worshiper's hope of washing away the impurities that have accumulated on his or her soul from beginningless time, and the application of sandal paste (a cooling substance) is held to express the worshiper's desire for coolness of soul (that is, the eradication of passion). The remaining acts are interpreted in similar ways. The last offering, the fruit, stands for the "fruit" of the rite, liberation, which is why it is placed on the part of the diagram that represents the liberated state.

It will be noted that in none of this is there any suggestion of aid from the Tirthankar. It is a fact of the highest importance about Jain ritual culture that worshipers do not engage in any transactions whatsoever with the Tirthankars. The reason of course is the fifth kalyanak, the Tirthankar's liberation. This kalyanak is not the focus of very much Jain ritual,[1] but it has a great deal to do with the definition of the ritual situation because it establishes the Tirthankar as a liberated being. Liberation is a complete withdrawal into a nontransactional state. Ascetics who are on the road to liberation attenuate their transactions with the rest of the world; liberation is the complete cessation of such transactions. Many Jains obviously feel strong emotions while engaged in acts of worship, and there seems little doubt that, in the context of these emotions, the Tirthankar is in some sense "present." "Of course he hears prayers," an Ahmedabad respondent once said to me; "he's omniscient." But from the standpoint of transactional logic the Tirthankar is absent. He responds to no prayers or petitions, and dispenses no saving grace; he exists as an "other" in the relationship constructed by the rite, but transactionally he is nonexistent.[2]

The efficacy of worship, therefore, has to be reflexive; that is, whatever ritual does is done by the human ritual actor to himself. This is among the most important themes in Jain ritual culture, and a good illustration of it is provided by the following passages taken from a layman's manual authored by a Khartar Gacch nun named Hemprabhasriji: Worship (puja), she says, results in "purity of soul" (atmavisuddhi) (1977: 27). Elsewhere she says, "Just as the darsan of the supreme soul (paramatma, meaning the Tirthankar) makes the mind pure and becomes the means of the removal of karma (karm nirjara), so the puja of the Lord encourages the arising of [the proper] feelings (bhav), and the spark of these feelings will burn karmas and reduce them to ashes. Worship (aradhna) is done in order to destroy sensual vices and eradicate karma. Just as austerity and self-denial eradicate karma, in the same way the Lord's puja, done with devotion, also destroys karmas and provides many worldly benefits (labh) besides. Auspicious feelings (subh bhav) will result in the adhesion of merit (punya), and, from merit, material (paudgalik) happiness is automatically acquired" (ibid.: 25).

As we see, from her standpoint, worship is really a kind of substitute form of world renunciation, which in Jainism is the principal means of shedding the karmas that impede the soul's liberation. In this sense the act of worshiping an ascetic becomes - itself - an ascetic act. She also says that these ritual acts result in worldly benefits by means of that (relatively) positive form of karma called "merit" (punya). It is important to note, however, that she nowhere says that any benefit of the rite - material or spiritual - will actually come from the object of worship, the Tirthankar. This is not an obscure point among Jains; it is widely understood. It should be noted also that she places great emphasis on the "feelings" or "sentiment" (bhav) of the worshiper, which in her mind is clearly connected with the efficacy of the rite. This idea was echoed in the statements about the nature of worship made to me on many occasions by lay Jains. One should worship in the spirit of "devotion" (bhakti). This means that one should worship in the spirit of love for the Lord and with a sincerity of heart that Humphrey and Laidlaw have aptly characterized as "meaning to mean it" (1994: Ch. 9). But it needs to be stressed that in the ascetic commentaries on puja (such as Hemprabhasriji's) the portrayal of bhav is pushed in the direction of asceticism. The worshiper is supposed to feel like an ascetic. This view is often articulated by lay Jains as well. An Ahmedabad informant put it this way: The meaning of worshiping with offerings (that is, dravya puja), he said, is that "Oh Lord, I have these things, but I really don't want them - I want to leave them."

Share this page on: