Worshipping the Ideal King: On the Social Implications of Jaina Conversion Stories (3)

Posted: 01.03.2016
Updated on: 03.03.2016

Part 3:

2.2 The Conversion of the Merchant Banārasīdās

A brief glance at the description of the 'conversion' of the seventeenth century merchant and mystic Banārasīdās from Śaivism (the religion of the kings) to Jainism (the religion of his ancestors) in the Ardhakathānaka shall, finally, help to illustrate the pervasiveness of conceptions like those implicit in the Śālibhadracarita. There are two episodes in this famous so-called first Indian 'autobiography' which relate to this point.[195] The first episode shows Banārasī unsuccessfully trying to finance his love for courtesans/prostitutes by asking Śiva for miraculous intervention:[196]

Episode 1

Having recognized the ultimate worthlessness of material wealth, in his youth Banārasī was only concerned with poetry, gambling and courtesans instead of working in the family business and to earn his own money. This was against the advice of his father, who said: "Give up your foolish pursuit of learning, since learning is only for brāhmaṇs and bards. A merchant's son should tend shop. Do not forget that a man who is too studious has to beg for his food".[197] Banārasī, however, who lived on the earnings of his father, continued to follow his passions despite a disgusting skin-disease, which he caught as a consequence of his sinful activities. Instead of working, he tried to make up for the enormous cost of his lifestyle by worshipping Śiva and praying for his miraculous intervention. First he sought the advice of a saṃnyāsin, who made a fool of him with a 'magic mantra' whose daily recitation would supposedly turn into a source of great riches. Because this did not work, Banārasī realised: "My greed had led me to grief".[198] Later, a false yogi gave him a small conch-shell with an assortment of articles used in the ritual worship of a deity and assured him that the conch-shell was the true image of Lord Śiva himself. He who worshipped it would surely attain Śiva's divine abode: "I religiously carried the conch-shell idol with me... A shell for an idol, I, too, had become an empty shell, a living example of a devotee who was one with his god!"[199]

Episode 2

In 1605 king Akbar breathed his last in Agra. People suddenly felt orphaned and insecure without their ruler. Terror raged everywhere. The hearts of men trembled with apprehension. Their faces became drained of colour. When he heard of Akbar's demise, Banārasī was sitting on a flight of stairs in his house. The news of his death came as a sharp and sudden blow. It made him shake with violent, uncontrollable agitation. He reeled, and losing his balance, fell down the stairs in a faint. His head hit a stone floor and began to bleed profusely, turning the courtyard red.[200]

Ten days later, Akbar's eldest son had been enthroned as Sultan Jahangir and the situation in Agra returned to normal. One day, soon after these events, Banārasī went alone to his room under the roof-top of the house and sat down to think and reflect. "'I have been an ardent devotee of Śiva,' I said to myself, 'but when I fell down the stairs and was seriously hurt, Śiva did not come to my aid' – This thought nagged me constantly and made me neglect my daily ritual to Śiva. My heart was no longer in it, and one day I simply put the Śiva-conch away".[201] My father was glad to hear the news. "Perhaps this is a sign that my son is undergoing a real change for the better," he happily remarked, "there is yet hope for the future of the family. And, truly, a remarkable change was coming over me. I was like a man transformed. My mind was turning to moral and righteous thoughts. I sincerely began trying to become a religious man in the true sense of the word".[202]

The elements of this 'autobiographic' narrative can be interpreted in similar ways as those of the Śālibhadracarita. The identification with royal virtues and indulgence in aristocratic pastimes, such as enjoying courtesans, poems, and generally not working, brought Banārasīdās the king's disease. And the worship of Śiva, the god of the kings, had transformed him "in an empty shell, a living example of a devotee who was one with his god".[203] The illusory state which led him to neglect his own worldly and religious interests (symbolized by his father, wife, and Jainism) lasted as long as the life of Akbar, the king. Only when the king died and terror and violence erupted did Banārasī 'fall on his head' and realised his misidentification: "when I fell down the stairs and was seriously hurt, Śiva did not come to my aid".[204]

The narrative is carefully constructed and uses most of the conventional devices of 'Jain rhetoric': the generation of insight via retrospection, the deconstruction of illusion through juxtaposition with the reality of violence and pain, the motif of disguise, the parallelism between kingship and Śaivism, etc. The dominant idea is here, as in the Śālibhadracarita, the gradual process of conversion, by turning away from the social influence of worldly kings towards the Jinas – the true kings – and to the inner soul. The secondary, beneficial material effects of this 'religious' strategy in business and social life is demonstrated in the remainder of the Ardhakathānaka.

On another level the AK can be read not as an autobiography, but as an application of the theory of the fourteen stages of the Jain path of purification (guṇasthāna) as laid out in Nemicandra's Gommaṭasāra, which impressed Banārasīdās greatly and prompted his conversion from Śvetāmbara ritual culture to Digambara philosophy and his engagement in the mystical Adyātma circle in Āgrā.[205] Characterizations of the Ardhakathānaka as the first "personal history" in Indian literature generally overlook this important feature.[206]  In the final section we will now look at the way in which conversion stories, such as these, which are not mythological miracle stories but reality-near accounts, or any historical narratives, may effect real changes amongst the audience of Jain sermons.

3 The Conversion Process as a Social Drama

Medieval Jain conversion stories have a predominately didactic purpose and are still used by today's ascetics to motivate their audience to translate some of the general strategies for non-violent action, whose benevolent effects for an improvement of one's life, rebirth, and future salvation are demonstrated in the texts, into their everyday life. Story-telling, in concordance with the general Jain attitude, does not put any direct pressure upon the listener to convert to Jainism. The audience is always free to choose, and to draw its own conclusions. Jain ascetics, nevertheless, use rhetorical devices in order to narrow down interpretational options, to defamiliarize and to confront the audience with paradoxical meanings in order to trigger effects of insight and behavioural change. The prime rhetorical device is the plot itself, which invariably involves a description of often violent external and internal conflicts which end in renunciations. These stories about conflicts convince through the narration of practical examples, close to real-life situations, that non-violence might be a viable practical strategy for anybody who is confronted with similar situations, as the heroes of the narratives are.

More important than the rhetorical devices of narratives are, however, the implicit social strategies of ascetics who are aiming to 'attract' (not: 'to convert') following through long-term strategies, ideally culminating in the administration of vows and eventual initiation in a monastic order. Conversion is perceived as a gradual process over a long period. The seeds for the gradual process of adaptation of Jainism are intentionally sown by the ascetics through the dissemination of popular stories with only minimal religious content. The preparatory process ideally ends with the official conversion to Jainism through the acceptance of the śrāvaka vratas and concludes with the monastic initiation, dīkṣā, and the induction in the systematic study of the scriptures, āgama, beginning with monastic rules and regulations. There is, in other words, a hierarchical "correlation between types of scriptures and types of personalities".[207] Jain stories are seen by their authors merely as the points of entry into the process of 'purification', as outlined by the guṇasthāna model of the fourteen stages of purification, and its corresponding classification of the ideal social hierarchy of laity, mendicants, and arhats.

The process of individual 'conversion' is, as a rule, a consequence of processes of cumulative interaction between the Jain ascetics and their literature with their wider social environment. To be 'born as a Jain' might facilitate access to information about Jainism, but, as we can still observe today, there is no principle difference between the process of conversion of a 'non-Jain' and a 'born Jain', who might suddenly gain an insight into the truth of Jainism, quite distinct from a mere nominal adherence to Jain-principles.

P. S. Jaini[208] summarized the main features of this process of the 'first awakening', saṃvega, from the point of view of Jain scholasticism, which explains this process in terms of the internal functions of the suppression of karman, etc., for the individuals concerned.[209] Jainism's attempt to explain its own impact onto a 'receptive soul 'in terms of Jain ontology inevitably leads into paradox, as Jaini does not fail to note.[210]

From an observers' point of view, it is possible to generate further information by investigating the effective conditions of acceptability of Jainism – representing one ideological system amongst many – and the methods of its dissemination and incorporation through a series of public rituals and conversion experiences.[211] An external observer can achieve this, for instance, (a) through the investigation of the rhetoric of public speech and textual argument, which the ascetics employ in order to disseminate the Jain doctrine as medium of self-attribution, and (b) in taking into account evidence of actual conversion experiences.

Victor Turner regarded the latter point as crucial. It is not enough, he maintained, to investigate only the linguistic and or psychological processes involved in conversion but it is necessary to additionally investigate the way in which narratives and other genres of cultural performance are dialectically interrelated with wider social processes.[212] Turner is particularly interested in the role which narratives play as forms of 'redressive action' in the context of certain situations of social conflict which he calls 'social dramas'. I see Turner's insights as fundamental for the analysis of the social implications of the role of narratives within the conversion process, and will use the concept of 'social drama' as context in which the presentation of a 'narrative drama' may elicit pragmatic effects. Turner observes that situations of social crisis 'within groups of persons who share values and interests and who have an alleged common history', reveal typical sequential patterns of conflict evolution and resolution. These situational patterns or 'social dramas' he investigated in terms of a developmental model comprising four stages:

(1) breach,

(2) crisis,

(3) redress,

(4) reintegration or recognition of schisms

Social dramas usually start with an unintentional or calculated breach of a norm as an expression of deeper divisions of interests. Violations of norms inevitably lead to a crisis within a group. If the crisis is big enough it will lead to the formation of factions (which may coincide with what Turner calls 'dominant cleavages') and eventually generate pressure to take sides. According to Turner, it is the moment of crisis which exposes the pattern of factional struggles, and makes visible 'basic social structures' as well as 'real' common interests and power. In order to limit any further spread of the social crisis 'redressive action' is taken. This may include for instance advice, informal or formal arbitration, or ritual (often: sacrifice). Rebellions and revolutions are also counted as forms of redressive action which might help solving the crisis. As a result of either the success or the failure of redressive action either a reintegration of the group materialises or recognition of irreparable breach, which in turn leads to schism.[213] The main form of 'redressive action' in the so called 'liminal phase' are narratives, speeches and rituals, which all serve to negotiate a consensual social definition of the conflict, thereby providing it "with a rhetoric, a mode of emplotment and a meaning".[214] Politeness strategies are also forms of 'redressive action', as Brown and Levinson have stressed.[215]

For our purpose, the most interesting aspect of this well-known model concerns the intrinsic relationship between conflict and redressive action. In fact, without a conflict at hand, narratives and rhetorical references to a common history etc. would not have much pragmatic relevance. But under these exceptional conditions, they play an important role as limiting devices in the face of threatening social entropy. Redressive action is thus socially relevant only under conditions of crisis.

The same, I argue, is the case with Jain conversion stories, whose social effectiveness is predicated on the experience of conflict and suffering on the part of individual members of the audience. Between hearing the first Jain story and actual experiences of insight and expression of religious commitment in reaction to a psychological crisis may be a long period of 'incubation', a fact on which the Jain method of teaching in form of stories plays deliberately. From an external observer's point of view, one can distinguish four stages in Jain models of the long-term conversion process, here represented by the authoritative summary of P. S. Jaini,[216] that are similar to Turner's model of the social drama:

(1) preparation and incubation,

(2) experience of conflict,

(3) insight, and

(4) renunciation.[217]

(1) The logical beginning of the process of conversion is the dissemination of general information about Jain principles and practices through Jain narrative literature (oral and written). This first stage has to prepare the ground for everything that follows. Listening to a public narration of a Jain story (either by Jain ascetics or laity) is the most attractive, and deliberately indirect, way in which such knowledge can be acquired by members of the general public, who initially may enjoy the surface plot itself more than the moral drawn at the end. The daily sermons, pravacana, of Jain ascetics, and the reading of Jain books are other sources of information, which, however, appeal to a more selected audience. The knowledge conveyed does not necessarily have to be complete or of any particular interest to the individuals concerned. The aim of public story-telling is merely to generate a general awareness of hiṃsā as a problem, while at same time offering a visible demonstration of its solution embodied in the way of life of the narrating mendicants themselves. The stage of preparation and incubation is characteristically informal, but, from the mendicants' point of view, serves as a 'seed' for all further developments.

(2) In the first stage, Jainism is experienced by the listeners as a mere set of external ideas and practices, which in the long run leave the individual personally unaffected. The actual internalisation of these ideas into the personality happens only in connection with unexpected, externally induced destabilising experiences of conflict and violence. This fact is invariably mentioned by Jain ascetics as fundamental for the initial conversion experience. The examples of Jain conversion stories above illustrate this point. Doctrinally, insight into the truth of Jainism can be experienced (a) indirectly, through the word of the Jina (and the ascetics), and (b) directly, after disenchant ment through experiences of conflict, loss, and suffering, which often function as an impetus for a experiences of insight or conversion:

Actually a very wide range of experiences, such as the loss of a beloved one, or the sight of extreme suffering, can serve as 'instruction', exerting a profoundly awakening effect upon the receptive soul.[218]

Thus, in retrospective (and only then!), violence and conflict appear to have been played a positive role in being instrumental for triggering experiences of insight into the truth of the Jain principles. What experiences of violence and suffering may initially provoke is the desire and need for understanding their causes. In such a situation, half-forgotten Jain stories about similar experiences in the lives of cultural heroes and their paradigmatic realisation of the truth of the Jain theory of karman and of the soteriological value of non-violence may come to mind, and might trigger sudden feelings of an intrinsic connection between the abstract teachings of Jainism and personal experiences. This, at least, is the theory underlying the practices of contemporary Jain mendicants. The necessity of a merging of doctrine and experience is stressed, amongst others, by Ācārya Tulsī who asserts that Jainism teaches "that a real must be posited as what it is felt to be".[219] With Dilthey, it can be said that conversion stories may be instrumental in transforming the somewhat amorphous lived experience (Erlebnis) of the listener into reflected experience (Erfahrung) interpreted in the light of Jain doctrine.[220]

Because the experience of conflict and suffering is considered potentially instrumental for conversion in Jain literature, as is the severing of social links at the moment of initiation, the word of the Jina and of his disciples imply an element of violence as well; as Ruegg[221] posited, who coined the term 'salvific violence' regarding Buddhist doctrine. It is a carefully calculated form of violence to end all violence, intended to destroy the common sense view of, and attachment to, reality in order to generate insight into 'the' truth of the transcendental point of view.[222]

(3) According to both Jain scriptures and contemporary mendicants, connecting knowledge and experience might evoke temporary experiences of a direct discriminating insight, samyag-darśana, into the true nature of jīva as being different from ajīva. This experience marks the 'awakening' or 'conversion', pratibodha, and the redirection of the dominant orientation from the body and outward influences toward the inner soul, svabhava.[223] However, none of the Jain mendicants I interviewed ever claimed to have experienced their soul directly, only a handful of lay followers of the modern Jain mystics Śrīmad Rājacandra, Kānjī Svāmī and A.M. Paṭel.[224]

(4) An insight into the true nature of the soul is ideally followed by a longing for further instruction, and the desire for a retrospection of one's past life in terms of the learned principles. Teaching and selfanalysis in conjunction with further experiences of violence, death and suffering, strengthens the feeling of disenchantment with the world and creates internal conflict (dogmatically: between ātman and karman) whose resolution necessitates acts of progressive renunciation:[225]

He may at this point still lack the strength required for renunciation; nevertheless, he will never again be drawn to the world as he once was. Thus he leads a seemingly normal life, acting out ordinary societal roles, but is subject to terrific internal conflicts which must sooner or later bring him to some act of renunciation, either partial (taking the layman's vows) or complete (taking the vows of a monk).[226]

The experience of perpetual internal conflict at this stage is the result of the long-term influence of the ascetics, who know that they can influence particular individuals which suffer a personal crisis, and indoctrinate them with explanatory models.[227] The effect of Jain stories is, according to Jain doctrine, predicated on the presence of certain external 'activating' conditions,[228] which can be empirically investigated. Of particular significance are experiences of death faciletation the realisation of the transitoriness of life, as conversion stories also attempt to show. Experiences alone, however, are not sufficient for the resolution to gradually renounce the world and to ask for initiation. Only the combination of negative experiences ('crisis') and the knowledge and acceptance of meaningful interpretations ('redressive action') plus further consultation of the ascetics are seen to be capable to motivate actual renunciations.[229]

It does not come as a surprise, then, that the motif of taking vows and promising to perform specific religious practices is prevalent throughout Jain literature, which, in fact, is primarily concerned with illustrating and triggering the benevolent effects of vow-taking and behavioural behavioral change, whatever the surface plot of a narrative might be. Jain literature as a whole, can thus be interpreted as a rhetorical device, intentionally constructed by ascetics and devout Jain laymen to transform individual practice in the desired direction of the implementation of Jain principles. In the same way as Jain cosmology and poetic fiction, the genres of Jain history, even 'plain' chronologies, are shaped by the imperatives of religious pragmatics. In the long run, Jain literature and social practice should feed back into each other, in the sense that the retrospective interpretations of history and the depicted acts of insight, renunciation, observing vows and final liberation, which constitute the religious core of all Jain narratives, are simultaneously the ultimate intended outcome of the act of telling these stories. Through the admission of vows, ascetics command an enormous influence on their followers. In this way, given proper conditions, it might appear as if "life, after all, is as much an imitation of art as the reverse."[230]


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TŚPC2 Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra by Hemacandra. Tr. by Helen M. Johnson as The Lives of Sixty-three Illustrious Persons (6 Vols.). Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1931–1962.

UD  The Uvāsagadasāo or the Religious Profession of the Uvāsaga Expounded in Ten Lectures being the Seventh Aṅga of the Jains. Tr. from the Original Prakrit with Copies and Notes by A. F. Hoernle, Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1885– 1890.

Utt1 Uttarajjhayaṇāṇi (Mūlapāṭha, Saṃkṣipta Chāyā, Hindī Anuvāda,  Tulanātmaka Ṭippaṇa). Vācanā-Pramukha: Ācārya Tulsī. Saṃpādaka &  Vivecaka: Ācārya Mahāprajña. Tṛtīya Saṃskaraṇ. Lāḍnūṃ: Jaina Viśva Bhāratī, 1967/2000.

Utt2  Uttarajjhāyā (Uttarādhyayana-Sūtra). Tr. Hermann Jacobi. Sacred Books of the East, 45. Oxford: Clarendon, 1895: 1–232.

VH  The Vasudevahiṇḍī. An Authentic Jain Version of the Bṛhatkathā. With Selected Translations Compared to the Bṛhatkathāślokasaṃṅgraha, Kathāsaritsāgara, Bṛhatkathāmañjari and some Important Jaina Works, Including the Unpublished Majjhimakhaṇṣa, and with extensive Notes, Introduction and Appendices, by Jagdish Chandra Jain. L. D. Series, 59. Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology, 1977.

VC  Vikramacarita. See Röll, Der Vikramacarita.

Viy.  Viyāhapannatti (Bhagavaī). See Deleu, Viyāhapannatti.

YC Yaśastilakacampū by Somadeva. See Handiqui, Yaśastilaka and Indian Culture.

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