Old Voices, New Visions: Jains in the History of Early Modern India at the AAS

Posted: 08.05.2017
Updated on: 15.05.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


The panel, 'Old Voices, New Visions:  Reinterpreting Jain Perspectives in Early Modern India', convened at the annual conference of the Association for Asian Studies in Honolulu, Hawai'i on 1 April 2011.[1] The organizers of the panel, Columbia University graduate students Dipti Khera (Art History) and Audrey Truschke (Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies), had two goals: first, 'to nuance the modern understanding of particular historical events and cultural formations during this period according to the often overlooked perspectives of commentators within Jain traditions'; second, 'to reconsider the place of Jains and their literary productions in modern scholarship and, accordingly, in India's cultural past'.[2]

PhD student Steven M. Vose (University of Pennsylvania), author of this report, led with a paper on the fourteenth-century Kharatara Gaccha monk, Jinaprabhasūri, who in several ways established the paradigm for dialogue between Jains and Muslim imperial powers.  Highlighting a portion of his dissertation research, his paper, 'Genres of Power:  The Nexus of Politics and Devotion in the Oeuvre of Jinaprabhasūri', examined the monk's works of belles lettres (kāvya) to understand a possible setting for their performance, namely, the court of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq. Following clues from Jinaprabhasūri's Vividhatīrthakalpa (Guide to Various Pilgrimage Places), which suggest that the author's poetic talents were the main means by which he gained the sultan's favor, Vose looked for compositions that satisfied the requirements of courtly poetry.  Finding three extraordinary examples in the monk's oeuvre—a 'picture poem' (citra-kāvya) and two multiple-language hymns (i.e. Sanskrit, the various Prakrits, Apabhraṃśa, and combinations thereof)—he traced the history of these genres to other courtly settings, in which Brahmin and Buddhist poets composed such works to gain the title of 'jewel of the court'. Jinaprabhasūri may have dedicated several works, including a Persian hymn equating Ādinātha to Allah, to the Tughluq king, linking his intellectual career to the Delhi court.

Jinaprabhasūri's relationship with the sultan resulted in the issuance of royal edicts protecting Jain pilgrimage sites and the establishment of a quarter in Delhi complete with a new temple to house an image of Mahāvīra returned from the sultān's treasury. Vose's reading shows that Jinaprabhasūri used his poetic skill to usher in a new period of prosperity for the Jains in Sultanate India.

Audrey Truschke then presented the paper, 'Setting the Record Wrong:  A Jain Vision of Mughal Conquests', an examination of Tapā Gaccha monk Padmasāgara's 1589 Jagadgurukāvya (Poem on the Teacher of the World), a eulogy of the famous Hīravijayasūri and the first Sanskrit work to discuss the Mughal conquest of India. Truschke's interest lies in the meaning of the glaring differences between this account and the established Indo-Persian sources. She argues that Padmasāgara's writing 'crafted a political vision in which history is not constituted by a set of unchangeable facts but rather by a range of potential social and cultural implications that can be best realized through literature'.

Padmasāgara's narrative collapses time and events, presenting a seamless description of the Mughal conquest of India, leaving out the Sur Interregnum and even the figure of Babur altogether. He sees the Mughals not as Turks from Central Asia as the Persian sources do, but as an 'Indian dynasty'; their homeland in Kabul is part of the heartland (madhyadeśa) of India. Padmasāgara portrayed the Mughals as strong rulers, Truschke argues, to link 'the strength of the empire with its protection of India's traditions'.

Truschke finds productive avenues for reading the Jagadgurukāvya in recent scholarship that 'trace[s] the construction of historical memory in premodern India [to see] how events are told and retold in different literary and social contexts'. The result is a deft study of  'historical sensibilities' to '[recover] not what we judge to be accurate reports, but rather what Indians perceived to be relevant narratives of prior times'. The reading strategy she adopts 'helps reconstruct how [Padmasāgara] and his contemporaries conceptualized the dialectic between past events and literary possibilities as open to fashioning culturally relevant narratives'.

Christine Chojnacki  (University of Lyon) presented the paper, 'Jain Reinterpretations of Classical Mahākāvyas in the Seventeenth Century', co-authored with Basile Leclère (University of Lyon), who was unable to attend the conference. Versified epic poems (mahākāvya) became the preferred method of eulogizing famous and important Tapā Gaccha monks in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Focusing on two works by Meghavijaya, the Devānandamahākāvya (Epic of Devānanda) and the Digvijayamahākāvya (Epic of the World Conquest), the authors demonstrate that Jain poets of this period mastered the classical conventions of the genre while also pushing it in new directions.

Chojnacki and Leclère argue that the figure of the monk as the hero of the narrative 'implies a change in the content and a re-appropriation of the themes of the kāvya in a religious perspective'. To meld the figures of monk and hero, Meghavijaya resorts to the classical language of the king, in this case, of the fourfold Jain community  (saṅgha). However, he exceeds the classical bounds of mahākāvya by describing not one but two digvijayas (conquest of the directions) in one text.  First, the 'archetype' in Mahāvīra's conquest of saṃsāra; second, that of the monk-hero of the story. However, rather than follow the classical model in which the king tours each direction from east to north over the course of one year, the monkhero tours India over three, going out from Gujarat, the center of the Śvetāmbara Jain world. The presenters aver that this awkwardness is evidence of historical realism, pushing the genre to do an unprecedented kind of representational work.

Finally, the authors inquire into the motivations behind the specific innovations of using the mahākāvya genre to tell the lives of important monks. Noting that the Kharatara Gaccha did not glorify its monks through kāvya, they speculate that the genre relates to the political dominance of the Tapā Gaccha, and conclude that these works were written for an educated lay audience to place 'the masters of the Tapā lineage [at] the same rank as Hindu kings', thus facilitating 'the expansion of [Jainism] in their realms'.

Dipti Khera anchored the panel with the paper, 'Writing, Singing, and Listening about Places: Jains Visualizing Urban Locales in Eighteenth Century Rajasthan',  an examination of the 'gajal', a poetic form employed to describe the cities of eighteenth-century western India on the circuit  of  the Kharatara Gaccha's monastic wanderings.  Departing from the Jain tradition of composing on the sacred geography of India, monk-poets instead adapted aspects of Indo-Persian topographical ghazals to evoke urban landscapes. The gajals mixed Persian with local vernacular languages—Gujarati, Rajasthani, Khari Boli, Awadhi, and Brajbhasha—which leads Khera to place the gajal within the rekhtā genre, 'a literary idiom [practiced] across the circles of Sufis, Mughals, Nirgun Sants, Sikh authors, Krishna bhaktas, and court poets in Rajasthan'. Khera argues that the gajal was not meant to 'represent urban centers "realistically", but rather [to serve] as a topos around which a variety of information—historical, ethnographic, and spatial— could be fused'. The manuscript tradition attests that these popular poems were foundational in 'crafting the regional memory of cities in eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury India'. Khera locates these compositions in a broader network of sources to trace 'interrelated visual and literary practices of artists and poets...across the domains of regional courts, religious institutions, merchants, and early British agents, that mediated topographical imaginings, urban memory, and [the] changing territoriality of the city in early modern and early colonial India'.

Looking at 'circulations beyond concerns of religiosity', Khera questions the Jain-ness of this literary form.  As a possible answer, she connects this new literary form to the lay Jain practice of sending vijñaptipatras—long, painted scrolls—to high-ranking monks to invite them to spend the rainy season in their city. These scrolls depict both visually and textually the markets, lakes, palaces, and temples of the prospective host city.  The poetic and visual modes of depicting urban space thus find their impetus in a key ritualized interaction between mendicants and laity. Gajals 'provide a window onto the overlapping social spaces for literary culture in early modern India', leading Khera to conclude, 'Jain monk-poets articulated a Jain identity more as a social category...than an exclusive[ly] religious marker'. In short, gajals described the life of urban Jain merchant society, in which mendicants participated as both religious and community leaders.

Discussant John E. Cort (Denison University) remarked that the papers' attention to historical contexts and differences among mendicant lineages demonstrated just how far Jain Studies has progressed over the past thirty years. While the papers show Jain literary cultures were 'in constant dialogue with broader South Asian literary cultures', still 'the flow of influences appears to move more into the Jain literary world than out from it'. Problematizing the concept of 'open boundaries', he remarked that they appear not to be open equally in all directions.

In sum, the panel succeeded in bringing Śvetāmbara Jain literature of the early modern era (however broadly defined!) into conversation with both the literary conventions and historical realities of the period.  The subjects of each of the papers evince a Jain tradition deeply engaged in the broader literary cultures and historical trends of the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries, the very period in which modern historiography has deemed that the tradition 'turned inward'  and disengaged from Indian history and culture.  As each of the papers focuses on Jains during periods of hegemony for Islamicate cultures and polities, the panel succeeded most of all in raising the question of how Jain perspectives may help to write more nuanced chapters in the otherwise embattled historiography of what is too often thought to be a contest between two traditions.

Steven M. Vose is a Ph.D. student in the Department of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently writing a dissertation on the life and works of Jinaprabhasūri in connection with the political and religious concerns of fourteenth-century Śvetāmbara Jains.

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CoJS Newsletter • March 2012 • Issue 7