Jain Modernities, Jain Meditation and Jain Minority Politics Jain Studies at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, 2015

Posted: 28.04.2016
Updated on: 02.10.2016

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


The contributions with a focus on Jainism at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Atlanta on November 21-25, 2015 were framed in different academic fields, ranging from Indology to Religious Studies to Cultural Anthropology.[1] Presentations related to Jain Studies were spread over the entire four days of the AAR conference, with the meeting of the Jain Studies Group as the highlight. John Cort (Denison University) and Lisa Owen (University of North Texas) organized this session with the theme of 'Jain Modernities'. This guiding theme was also found in most of the other presentations with a focus on Jain Studies. Six were part of sessions sponsored by other units within the AAR, and five papers were presented at the pre-conference of the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM) on November 20.

The DANAM session was entitled 'Jain Contemplative Praxis: Meditation, Mantra, and Mindfulness'. The first presenter, Tillo Detige (Ghent University) titled his presentation 'Calling upon the (Un)responsive? Ritual Veneration as Contemplative Praxis in Digambara Jainism'. He pointed to the importance of miracleworking deceased Jain ascetics for the daily ritual practice of Digambara lay people. Building on Lawrence Babb's Absent Lord (1996), Detige addressed the seemingly paradoxical situation of Jain lay people in devotional interaction with spiritually released and thus interactively absent Jinas. He suggested that the conceptual distinction between interactive ritual and self-reflective meditation should be dissolved into a continuum of contemplative ritual praxes.

In a similar way, Ellen Gough (Emory University) addressed established scholarly categories in her paper 'Integrating Meditation on Maṇḍalas with the Jain Path to Liberation in the 10th-12th Centuries'. She questioned the distinction between mundane and trans-mundane goals of medieval Jain maṇḍala rituals. According to her findings medieval maṇḍala rituals demonstrate that they always employed soteriological concepts, and that both this-worldly and other-worldly goals were inseparably linked in ritual practice.

Sherry Fohr (Converse College) in her presentation 'Jain Narratives and Contemplative Praxis' also questioned the demarcation between mundane and transmundane spheres of religiosity in her discussion of the various contexts in which the Namokar Mantra is recited by contemporary Jains. She showed that Jains refer to the same ritual technique of reciting the most important mantra for various spiritual needs, ranging from the urge for spiritual salvation to the healing of physical ailments and pleas for protection against danger.


Layman performing abhiṣeka, Śrī Agravāla Digambara Jaina Baḍā
Mandira, Motī Kaṭarā, Agra, 25 November 2014. (Photo: Tillo Detige)

Even more radical in questioning existing paradigms was Christopher Miller (University of California, Davis) in his paper 'Contemplating Jinas: The Ecological Implications of Jainism's Elemental Meditation'. He linked the intellectual reflection of Āgamic texts with the analysis of self-experiments in Jain meditation, and then argued that this can lead to a vision of a better world without consumerism and pollution.

The last speaker of the session, Jeffery D. Long (Elizabethtown College), discussed Jain meditation as part of the development of Jain yoga in the modern period. In his 'Reflections on Jain Yoga from Yaśovijaya to Ācārya Tulsī', he came to the conclusion that modern Jain yoga must be analysed as analogous to Hindu and Buddhist movements of the same period, and thus can be seen as a process of engagement with society and its issues instead of being an example of world escape.

Six more Jain Studies related presentations were hosted by AAR sessions with comparative themes. Ellen Gough's second talk was given in the session 'Proclaiming Power: The Ritual Uses of Flags in South Asia'. On the basis of recent ethnographic research in Jaipur, Gough introduced the audience to the local Digambara 'Festival of Eight Days' (Aṣṭāhnikā Parva), on the occasion of Kārttika Pūrṇimā, the full moon day in October/November. Digambara neighbourhoods performed rituals of Indradhvaja Maṇḍalas. According to Gough, this veneration of 'Indra's Flags' can be taken as a vestige of a former pan-Indic Festival of Indra dating from the late Vedic period. While royal support of the community was usually a crucial theme of this and similar rituals, the contemporary Jain ritual instead points to the active role of wealthy merchants in sponsoring and representing the community. Her research illuminated a local variation that has hardly been noticed in the scholarly interpretation of similar rituals.

The historical perspective on Digambara Jain ritual practice was also the subject of Tillo Detige's AAR presentation, 'Absence, Agency, and Immanence: The Ritual Veneration of Deceased Ascetics as a Technology of the Self in Digambara Jainism', which was held in the session on 'Tomb and Mortuary Relic Worship in South Asia'. He pointed to the importance of funerary monuments in the Digambara Jain tradition, and their historical contexts as cremation sites. The contemporary ritual practice of veneration includes occasional visits for darśana and annual fairs on the ascetics' death anniversaries. Connecting with his first presentation at the DANAM Conference, he suggested that these practices should be interpreted as transformative, meditative processes, since they focus on the virtues of exemplary ascetics to construct soteriologically meaningful knowledge, even though it is still embodied. As such, they form a 'technology of the self', not so different from the veneration of ritually unresponsive Jinas, but in a continuum between the unreleased worshipper and the final goal of salvation.

The issue of death rituals was also broached in the session 'What Are Near Death Experiences? Social Movement, Contested Category'. Anne Vallely (University of Ottawa) presented her findings on sallekhanā/santhārā, entitled 'Messengers of Moksha: Jainism and the Near Death Experience'. This was planned as a joint presentation with her co-researcher Kamini Gogri (University of Mumbai), who could not attend the AAR Meeting. The paper explored the phenomenon of death and dying as it is experienced among Jains in India from several overlapping perspectives. 1) She examined several well-documented ethnographic examples of planned, idealized and ritualized sallekhanā/santhārā deaths with regard to spiritual implications of Near Death Experience (NDE) within Jainism. 2) She analysed and compared differences in end-of-life narratives of Jains undergoing sallekhanā/santhārā as well as end-of-life narratives of Jains nearing non-ritualized death (whether at home or in hospital settings). 3) She discussed the cultural imaginings and discourses that surround the dying experience, especially that of sallekhanā/santhārā, and linked them to two crucial questions. First, how is dying conceptualized by the living within Jainism—a tradition that emphasizes self-reliance and aloneness in all matters of the soul? Second, when elements of the soul's innate divine qualities begin to manifest during the purificatory process of sallekhanā/santhārā, as Jains claim, how are they experienced and conceptualized and how do they differ with regard to lay people's and ascetics' understanding of the dying process?

Vallely's second presentation was hosted by the session 'Theorizing Spirit Possession in South Asia'. On the basis of recent ethnographic research, Vallely explored the healing role of spirit possession within a Śvetāmbara Jain community in Mumbai. In her paper 'Negotiating with Worldliness: A Jain Spirit Medium and the Healing Power of the Goddess', she introduced a Jain medium known as 'Vimal Aunti' who channels her mother goddess for the well-being of those who come to seek her help. Connecting to her presentation on sallekhanā/santhārā, Vallely raised important questions with regard to the rhetoric of aloneness for which Jainism is renowned. In contrast to that, her case study showed that many Jains understand themselves to be completely enmeshed in a tangle of conscious life.  For them spirit possession is one means through which Jains can navigate the animate world. Moreover, the Jain spirit medium reinterprets the sufferings of her clients on the transpersonal level of demons, the evil eye, and the anger of the ancestors. According to these concepts, healing takes place through reconciliation of these externalized? emotions.

Jeremy Saul (College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand) presented 'When a Celibate Male God Occupies a Female Body: A Native Theory of Spirit Possession' in the same session. His paper was part of a larger project studying possession by Hanumān or Bālājī in northwestern India. In addition to discussing several Hindu versions of Bālājī, he presented material on Babosa (also known as Bālājī Babosa), a new deity promoted by a small group of Marwari Jains based in the Delhi area. Babosa so far is exclusively channelled by one Marwari Jain woman. He was originally a Marwari Jain boy born near Salasar in Rajasthan about a century ago. As a child he performed many miracles before his sudden death at the age of 17. He was worshipped as a deified ancestor by the family until the 1990s, when, through a woman medium in the family, he started to serve a wider public. Saul's analysis of this new cult shows how it simultaneously borrows from and distinguishes itself from two regionally very important possession cults focused on the Hindu deities Salasar Bālājī and Mehaṃdīpur Bālājī.

Another tool for reflecting about existence in saṃsāra was introduced by Aleksandra Gordeeva (Yale University) in her examination of how three medieval dramas approached a common theme in different ways. Her paper 'Religion and Literary Theory in Jain and Hindu Dramas' was hosted by the session 'The Religions in Sanskrit Drama: A City, a Story, a Lesson'. She focused on three Sanskrit plays that had the popular motif of a moral test of the king at the heart of their plots: the Hindu play Caṇḍakauśika (Fierce Kauśika) of the tenthcentury playwright Kṣemīśvara, the Satyahariścandra (Truthful Hariścandra) of the twelfth-century Jain monk Rāmacandra, and the Karuṇāvajrāyudha (Compassionate Vajrāyudha) of the thirteenth-century Jain monk Bālacandra. Whereas the antagonism between the sage and the king was accentuated in the Hindu play to show that dharma is ultimately victorious over ritual, the Jain plays rendered the moral test of the king as a malicious trick by jealous deities. The tricks are thus the evil foundation of a moral test that reflects the nature of saṃsāra: pain after pain caused by delusion, a conclusion which according to Gordeeva was meant to evoke the feelings of detachment and renunciation in the audience. In  the session 'Cosmopolitan Modes of Religious Literature in South Asia: Modeling Local and Global', Sarah Pierce Taylor (University of Pennsylvania and Mount Holyoke College) presented a paper 'Jinasena's Pārśvābhyudaya and the Making of Jain Cosmopolitanism'. She focused on reading Jinasēna's Pārśvābhyudaya as embodying a signal moment of the ninth century when the archive of Jain materials radically thickened, as Deccani Digambara Jains fully embraced Sanskrit as an avenue to belong in the court of King Amōghavarṣa. Through a poetic device called samasyāpūrti, the Pārśvābhyudaya incorporates one to three lines of Kāḷidāsa's Mēghadūta (The Cloud Messenger) within each verse of Jinasēna's composition in order to narrate the story of the twenty-third Tīrthaṅkara Pārśvanātha. Jinasēna's text takes its premise, which is not supplied in the poem itself, from a previous life of the Jina Pārśva when he was born as Marubhūti. His literary creation can be taken as an example of the various genres of Jain Sanskrit writing in Amōghavarṣa's court—in particular, grammar and kāvya—that were the very genres that pre-modern courts throughout South Asia produced in what Sheldon Pollock has called the 'Sanskrit cosmopolis'. Building on that phrase, Taylor established the idea that many of the writers acquired access to power through the use of Sanskrit to participate in and reproduce an imagined community in which Sanskrit was meaningful. Thus, rather than examining the various forms of repetition and participation of Sanskrit literary culture on the local level, Taylor pointed to the undeniable 'translocal' quality of Sanskrit. At the same time she demonstrated the situated, local forces that led writers to discover a powerful tool in Sanskrit writing, as in the case of Jinasēna in Amōghavarṣa's court.

The diversity of (re)interpretations of already existing themes and values was also a core subject of the Jain Studies Group's session on 'Jain Modernities'.

Next was M. Whitney Kelting's (Northeastern University) paper 'The Shifting Terrain of Jain Modernity and Gendered Religious Practices'. Based on over two decades of research in a Śvetāmbara Jain congregation in Pune, a period coincident with the liberalization of the Indian economy, her study examined the ways that modernity has shaped Jain discourses on gender. Kelting argued that for Jains, as in many groups, religion has become a fertile ground for gender negotiations. She introduced two Jain practices as particularly instructive of the ways modernity marks modified gender performances of religious subjects among Jains: financial donations to religious institutions, and to specifically Jain social organizations. In both examples, modernity has shaped gender roles in surprising ways that seem to contradict the assumptions of many scholars that modernity leads to increased gender equality. In Kelting's case studies women's social lives have grown increasingly dependent on their husband's time and interest in spending time with her or with mixed-gender social groups. Genderspecific women's and men's groups have declined in social importance. Modernization has thus increased male domination through notions of democratization and anti-tradition instead of supporting female emancipation or independence, a value which is usually connected with modernization in the West.

Andrea Luithle-Hardenberg (Tübingen University) presented 'Ascetic Child Initiations among the Jains: Defending Religious Freedom and Minority Rights of Śvetāmbar Jains'. Based on ethnographic data as well as historical and contemporary sources, she discussed the controversial practice of bāl dīkṣā among the Śvetāmbara Jains in Western India. Approximately 20% of the contemporary Śvetāmbara ascetics have been initiated as minors (bāl munis and -sādhvīs). The life histories of bāl munis and bāl sādhvīs very often entail aspects of protest against parental guidance, the legal authority of the state, the globalized affluence of their community, and challenges from the Hindu majority. Her paper showed that Jain monks who were ordained in their early youth usually become outstanding community leaders. Many of the most prominent ācāryas defend child initiations as a crucial aspect of their fundamental religious rights within the secular state of India. Their arguments are also supported by a wide variety of doctrinal texts, and disseminated in print media. Moreover, ascetic leaders repeatedly support child initiations in court cases. This Śvetāmbara defence of the seemingly anti-modern practice of child initiation must be considered in direct correlation with the successful efforts of the Jains to legally recognize and defend their minority status within a BJP ruled country.

In her second contribution for the AAR meeting, Anne Vallely discussed the issue of 'Jain Food and Modernity: The Eclipse of Metaphysics and Rise of Identity Politics'. She referred to a very recent event of November 1, 2015, in Mumbai, when Muni Hansratna Vijayji Maharaj Saheb (a.k.a. 'Pujya Shri') ended a very long fast. The heroic fast called Gunaratna Samvatsar Tap required him to fast for 407 of 480 days. This fast had not been undertaken since Mahavira's time. The event of the fast's conclusion drew a crowd of 50,000 from throughout the country, although mainly from Maharashtra. Vallely argued that this clearly shows that fasting is the most heroic of religious deeds among contemporary Jains. In enacting the transcendence of worldliness, it denotes the triumph of all that is good, pure and eternal over all that is corrupt, impure and transient. The body of the fasting hero transformed through vrats can hardly be conceived as an organic entity anymore. It becomes a translucent envelope for the powerful, radiant soul, and all who honour its splendour are blessed. Moreover, Vallely argued that the timeless dimension of this particular instance of extreme fasting had a tremendous impact in the contemporary political arena. Among the throngs seeking the blessing of Muni Pujya Shri was the BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis. He is the same minister who was also in the centre of the Mumbai meat ban controversy during Paryushan in the fall of 2015. Fadnavis' efforts on behalf of the Jain community during Paryushan were recognized when Muni Pujya Shri broke his fast, as Fadnavis was invited as the guest of honour. Thus, Vallely argued, renunciation of food is a central medium through which Jains wield not only spiritual but also political power.

In the last presentation of the Jain Studies session Tine Vekemans (University of Ghent) called our attention to the meaning of 'modernity', and the place of 'the digital' in it. Her paper 'Jain Digital Modernities: (Re) presenting Jainism in New Media' was influenced by Arjun Appadurai's notion of modernity. He stressed the importance of the collective imagination as the main constituent of modernity in his work Modernity at Large. Modernity in this interpretation is a concept and a feeling, conceptualized into being and propelled forward by our thinking. Vekemans is focusing in her Ph.D. research on 'the rise of ICT' (Information and Communications Technology) and its impact on Jainism. She argued that the exploration of Jainism online shows how (part of) the Jain diaspora is in a key position to influencing new articulations of 'Jainism' not only indirectly—through informing the Jain diaspora—but also directly, as they use ICT to present their 'locally grown' representations of Jainism and thus provide content, information and inspiration to a global Jain audience. This means that diasporic online Jainism has an influence in South Asia. Through statistics, she established the prominent position of diaspora Jains in Jain digital modernities. Only about 5% of Jains live outside India, but more than half of the websites she could find concerning Jainism are hosted outside India. She linked her findings to some cautionary findings with regard to the 'eccentricities of the internet', including the possible discrepancies between producer intention and user experience of web pages with religious contents. To determine if people practicing forms of online religion are in fact conducting religious activities and having religious experiences, we must consider that statements of purpose do not simply translate into patterns of reception and use. In the end, Vekemans pointed to the crucial need for field research to supplement the analysis of websites. As we can only rely on the testimonies of users or the opinions of potential users confronted with the content under question, the researchers of online religion are pushed back into the offline field in order to fine-tune their findings.

All in all, Vekeman's conclusion could hold for the entire trend of research among Jain Studies at the AAR meeting as reflected by the large number of exciting presentations. The papers presented in Atlanta show the many ways that scholars of the Jains are paying close attention to the voices of the Jains themselves, thus shaping a critical body of scholarship that honours the canons of both the Jains and the academic study of religion.


Andrea Luithle-Hardenberg is a lecturer in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Asia-Orient-Institute, University of Tübingen. Her PhD thesis from the Free University Berlin, Die Reise zum Ursprung. Die Pilgerschaft der Shvetambara-Jaina zum Berg Shatrunjaya in Gujarat, Indien ("The journey to the origins: the pilgrimage of Shvetambara-Jaina to Mt. Shatrunjaya in Gujarat, India") establishes the importance of this particular pilgrimage for the collective memory and the identity of the Jains. At present she is co-editing the forthcoming volume: "Co-operation and Competition, Conflict and Contribution: The Jain community, British Rule and Jainological Scholarship from the 18th to early 20th century."



“Śivācārya Samavasaraṇa,” Indore 30.3.2015 (Photo: Peter Flügel)

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