Absent Lord ► Giving and Giving Up ► Variations ► Vaisnavas

Posted: 05.07.2015

A Svetambar Jain friend from Jaipur once suggested to me that, to understand why prasad is not distributed to the Tirthankar's worshipers, one must see things from the Vaisnava point of view. Vaisnavas are those who worship the major Hindu deity Visnu and his manifestations. To the Vaisnavas, my friend went on to say, God is a creator and a giver; he is wealthy. The Tirthankar is obviously not wealthy, he added, so how can he be a giver?

This was an extremely acute and interesting observation. To begin with, it pointed to the truly essential thing about Jain ritual culture: the asceticism of the object of worship. Jains worship ascetics. This book has been largely devoted to tracing the implications of that bedrock fact. But there is more, for the remark was revealing in another way. It is highly significant that my friend did not use the word Hindu in formulating his suggested comparison. This shows us that, to an insider's sensibility, Hinduism is not necessarily the right entity with which to compare Jain traditions; more logical, to my friend at least, would be the Vaisnavas.[1] He almost certainly had in mind the Pustimarg, a Vaisnava sect that is extremely influential in Rajasthan and has many followers within the general merchant class to which Jains belong.

If we follow my friend's advice - that is, if we forget about Hinduism and concentrate on the Pustimarg and its ritual culture - then we make an interesting discovery. It is probably true that many of the elaborations and flourishes of major Jain pujas have been influenced by Vaisnava patterns. At a deeper level, however, the ritual culture of the Pustimarg is very different from that of the Jains; in a sense, it is Jain ritual culture precisely inverted.

The Pustimarg was, in effect, invented as a ritual culture. According to the sect's own account of its origin (Barz 1976: 22-29; Bennett 1983: 152-53), a bent arm made of black stone miraculously appeared out of the ground on the top of Mt. Govardhan in Braj in 1410 C.E. This object was in fact (or was later held to be) a portion of an image of Krsna as Sri Govardhannathji,[2] but because the image was discovered on Nag Pancmi day (a snake festival), the local people worshiped it with milk as snakes are worshiped. In compliance with instructions received from Krsna in a vision, Vallabhacarya - the founder of the Pustimarg - went to Braj in 1494 and revealed the image's true identity. He then established proper procedures for its regular worship (known as seva), which have been central to the sect's praxis ever since. The image, now at Nathdvara, is the sect's physical epicenter. In the same year, Krsna also revealed a conversion formula to Vallabhacarya. It expresses one of the sect's core ideas: that all that the devotee possesses - mind, body, and wealth (man, tan, dhan) - should be offered to Krsna before use; in this way the soul can be cleansed of faults (dosas) and redeemed.

If we compare the ritual culture of the Pustimarg to the cult of the Tirthankars, its most striking feature is the strong emphasis it places on exchanges between worshiper and worshiped. Readers will recall that worshipers do not engage in transactions of any kind with the Tirthankars. The Pustimarg reverses this. If much of the actual content of Jain ritual culture is shaped by the transactional absence of the object of worship, in the Pustimarg Krsna is seen as present to the highest degree and thus can engage in exchanges. If Jain worship is transaction-ally null, worship in the Pustimarg is transactionally dense. This contrast is most clearly seen in ritual transactions in the medium of food.

The Jain and Pustimarg traditions take opposite views of the whole matter of food and eating. While feasting certainly plays a role in Jain life (especially on such auspicious occasions as marriage ceremonies), in the final analysis - as we know - food has a bad reputation in the Jain world; it is the basis of bodily existence, and thus a primary ingredient of bondage. It is precisely because of the spiritual hazards of eating that fasting is so central to both lay and monastic religious practice among Jains. A Jaipur Svetambar friend once remarked to me, only half ironically, that (as she put it in English) "In Jainism you're not supposed to eat." An Ahmedabad friend, with no intention of irony at all, said to me that one should eat with tears in one's eyes for the creatures that had to die that one might eat.

It is in this context that the meaning of food offerings in Jain ritual has to be understood. Food is dangerous, poisonous stuff; it is the world of bondage in concentrated form. Thus, in rites of worship of the Tirthankars, the offering of food is interpreted not as a gift of nourishment but as a symbolic renunciation of eating. But far from being spiritually hazardous, food is a powerful positive value in the Pustimarg. Here the very concept of nourishment, radically devalued in Jainism, is central to the relationship between worshiper and deity. The term Pustimarg means the "road" or "path" (marg) of pusti. The latter term carries the meanings of "nourishment," "strengthening," or "support," and in this context it refers to Krsna's grace (anugraha) that nourishes and supports the devotee (Barz 1976: 86).

This idea is manifested in a food-exalting ritual culture. Food offered to Krsna is called bhog, "enjoyment." Krsna "enjoys" the food offering and, through his enjoyment, transforms it. The recovered offering becomes his prasad, his grace, by which devotees are "nourished" (Bennett 1990: 199; also Toomey 1990: 167-68). The Pustimarg's alimentary emphasis is vividly expressed in the festival of Annakuta, the "mountain of food" (Bennett 1983: 295-307; 1990: 199-200). Occurring on the second day of Divali, it commemorates the famous episode in which the people of Braj ceased giving sacrifice to Indra and started worshiping Mt. Govardhan instead. They made a mountain of food as high as Mt. Govardhan, and Krsna, assuming the form of the mountain, ate it all.[3] Worshipers give their own mountains of food symbolizing their overflowing devotion; Krsna is "both receiver and redistributor, the repository of an overflowing store of devotion and the source of boundless grace" (ibid.: 200).

The idealized personae of worshipers are also very different in Jainism and the Pustimarg. The Jain worshiper becomes Indra or Indrani. These regal divinities Support and admire the Tirthankar, and even bathe the infant Tirthankar lovingly. It is obvious, in fact, that many human worshipers feel their contact with Tirthankar images to be truly intimate, and a feeling of devotional closeness between worshiper and object of worship is unquestionably an important dimension of the ritual experience of Jains. Such intimacy, however, is challenged by its symbolic and ideational context, for the relationship between Indras and Indranis and the Tirthankar cannot, in the end, be described as intimate. Rather, the kings and queens of heaven acknowledge a superior sovereignty, the spiritual kingship of he who is a victor (jina) over attachments and aversions. And, as we have seen, the Jain emphasis on asceticism decisively separates worshiper from worshiped in the final analysis. The connection between worshiper and worshiped ranges from metaphorical to analogical; it cannot be tangible or substantial. Closure between worshiper and the Tirthankar is brought about only by a tightening of metaphor into analogy; what results is resemblance, not contact, and the worshiper becomes a world renouncer in imitation of the object of his or her devotion.

The Pustimarg stresses intimacy. Here the connection between worshiper and worshiped is not metaphorical but, within the world of the ritual, "real." This tradition recognizes four principal emotional attitudes (bhavs) that the devotee can assume in his or her relationship with Krsna: that of servant to master, friend to friend, parent to child, and lover to beloved (Barz 1976: 87-91; Bennett 1983: 141-42).[4] The servant-master relationship, with its implications of rigid hierarchy, is downplayed as inconsistent with the desired intimacy between devotee and deity. Of the other emotions, the most important is that of parent to child (vatsalya) (Barz 1976: 88; Bennett 1983: 214), and in ritual the worshiper's favored role is that of Yasoda, Krsna's foster mother (Bennett 1983: 249; Toomey 1990: 167-68). The food offering is full of mother's love-as-nourishment; what returns is Krsna's "nourishing grace."

The key point is that Krsna, in contrast to the Tirthankar, is a highly transactional being. Vallabhacarya taught that souls are burdened with faults or impurities, and that these must be cleaned away by offering all that one has to Krsna - mind, body, and wealth (Barz 1976: 16-20).[5] Krsna himself would accomplish this, for only he "could remove the impurities which darkened the soul" (Bennett 1983: 88). The agency of this transformation was Vallabhacarya (and his successors), who was an incarnation of Krsna appearing precisely for this purpose (ibid.: 89). In this role, Vallabhacarya was associated with Agni (the Vedic god of fire) and the sacrificial fire that "burns away" impurities (ibid.: 93-94). Thus, the first step toward redemption is a transaction; in effect, the offerer gives himself, and a purified self is returned.

Having been thus purified, initiates are "fit" to approach Lord Krsna more directly. Now the transactional gateway between deity and devotee opens widely; intimate transactions, tending toward complete con-substantiation, become possible. Food offerings are the highest ritual expression of this intimacy. From a worldly (laukik) point of view, fine foods are given in abundance, and the remnants of Krsna's meal are eaten by devotees. From a spiritual (alaukik) standpoint - which is the perspective of realized devotees - the transaction is emotional. The offered food embodies the devotee's feelings of love; Krsna's "enjoyment" infuses the offerings with his "bliss" (ananda), which is returned to devotees as his prasad (Bennett 1983: 246-61).[6] The transaction thus actualizes the devotee's primordial identity with Krsna, which is one of the tenets of Vallabhacarya's theology of suddhadvaita (Barz 1976: 56-79).

The ritual cultures of the Jains and the Pustimarg are true opposites. Krsna takes and enjoys mountains of food. In his liberated condition, the Tirthankar - "eatingless" in his very nature - takes and enjoys nothing. The Pustimargi devotee gives everything to Lord Krsna - his mind, body, and wealth - and then keeps giving. The Jain worshiper gives, but gives nothing to the Tirthankar; what he gives, he "gives away" in an act of symbolic renunciation.[7] Lord Krsna is a giver, a bestower of overflowing grace. The Tirthankar gives nothing, and can give nothing; the benefits the worshiper receives he generates himself. All this is consistent with a basic soteriological difference. The Pustimarg asserts that redemption (uddhar) cannot be achieved without Krsna's grace (ibid.: 1976: 60), whereas the Jains say that liberation can only be achieved on one's own.[8]

We may note finally that Krsna's ritual persona seems to utilize a different image of kingship than we see in the case of the Tirthankar. The Tirthankar is a royal figure: He could become an earthly emperor, but chooses the path of a spiritual sovereign instead. The emphasis is on spiritual conquest, his victory over attachments and aversions. In Krsna's case the accent is on royal generosity. While it is true that the Pustimarg strongly downplays hierarchy between worshiper and worshiped, Krsna's role nevertheless seems to reflect, if only in part, an image of the king as the focus of a redistributive network (see Bennett 1983: 268-307). In Jain tradition, the attribute of regal generosity is shifted away from the Tirthankar and assigned to the gods instead.[9]

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