The Theater of Renunciation: Religion and Pleasure in Medieval Gujarat

Published: 30.05.2018

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London

Śvetāmbara canonical and commentarial literature prohibits Jain mendicants from engaging with dance, drama, and other forms of aesthetic activity and enjoins laypeople to abstain from sensual pleasures.[1]These activities stir up emotions and passions and infringe on monastic and lay discipline. However, Śvetāmbara sources describe the dancing of devotees and professionals at celebrations of the Jina's kalyāṇakas, during the rites of worship, and at other festive events.[2] Gods and laypeople often express their devotion (bhakti) to the Jina and mendicants through artistic expression.

The incongruity between the rejection of aesthetic activities and their pervasive presence in Jain literature raises the following questions: How did Jains conceive of artistic expression? In what ways did they negotiate the tension between pleasure and restraint? What do conceptions of aesthetic activities tell us about Jains' inter-sectarian relationships and religious identities? This report on a dissertation entitled "The Theater of Renunciation: Religion and Pleasure in Medieval Gujarat" offers an example of how Jain mendicants tackled this inherent controversy and argues that despite the criticism of aesthetic pleasure in ancient and medieval literature, Jains recognized sensual activities such as dance and drama as efficacious devotional practices from the early centuries of the Common Era. The tension between aesthetic pleasure and the Jain principle of detachment reflects larger processes within the Jain fold, that is, the necessity to negotiate the requirement of lay support and royal patronage, to adhere to canonical injunctions, and to respect the authority of mendicant leaders. The controversy over aesthetic experience highlights this complex relationship.

The report on my thesis focuses on the Rāyapaseṇiyasutta,[3] a Śvetāmbara canonical text, in which a performance organized by the god Sūriyābha for Mahāvīra displays the interweaving of sensual pleasure, ritual, and devotion. It, next, considers the implications of a medieval debate between Kharatara mendicants, particularly Jinadatta (1075-1154) and Jinapāla (thirteenth century), and the Jain monk and court poet Rāmacandra (1093-1174), a disciple of Hemacandra (1088-1172), through the study of their works about the nature of temple rites.

The Rāyapaseṇiya already provides a particularly elaborate model of worshipping the Jina and mendicants with supreme opulence, splendor, preeminence (deviḍḍhi, devajui, devāṇubhāva), and thirty-two dancedramas (naṭṭavihi).[4] In it, the god Sūriyābha travels to Jambūdvīpa in order to pay homage to Mahāvīra. The thirty-two dance-dramas, performed by young gods and goddesses produced out of Sūriyābha's body, should be understood as a complex phenomenon that represents a ritual, an aesthetic spectacle that evokes the erotic (siṃgāra) emotion,[5] and a devotional (bhatti) expression.[6] The thirty-one dramatic dances are largely aesthetic and mimetic, and only the final element in Sūriyābha's performance consists of the adaptation of Mahāvīra's life story from his past births to liberation. This reenactment of the Jina's biography is one of the earliest accounts of what Haribhadra later describes as a dharmic drama (Pañcāśakaprakaraṇa v. 9.11) to be performed at the celebration of the Jinas' kalyāṇakas and other festivals (yātrās) in imitation of Indra and other gods (deviṃdādiaṇugiti) (Pañcāśakaprakaraṇa vv. 9.30-37). Sūriyābha's spectacle is deliberately designed to offer sensual pleasure. It endorses artistic expression and pleasurable experience as an efficacious devotional practice, thereby creating a model ritual for laypeople who temporally transform into gods and goddesses during the worship of the Jina.[7]

Musicians. Kumāravihāra Temple, Tharāḍ. Photo: Aleksandra Restifo, December 2016.

Haribhadra's limitation of artistic expression to the singing of the Jina's virtues that evokes a desire for liberation (saṃvega) and to dharmic dramas during festival processions curtails the element of sensual pleasure in devotional worship (Pañcāśakaprakaraṇa vv. 9.9-11).[8] Building upon Haribhadra's injunctions, elevenththirteenth-century Kharatara monks developed extensive arguments against a number of devotional and aesthetic practices in temples.[9] The Kharatara reaction to aesthetic activities in temples can be construed as a response to the increasing interest in drama in Gujarat and Rajasthan.[10] For instance, in his Gaṇadharasārdhaśataka (vv. 6568), Jinadatta likens the city of Aṇahilavāḍ, in which Jineśvara arrives to establish the system of temporary lodgings (vasahi) for mendicants, to a play through the literary device of double entendre, suggesting that the city turned into a drama. However, the Kharatara critique also appears to be a means of encouraging devotees to construct new temples (vihiceī) called āyayaṇas ("abode" for the Jina, not monks) and establishing the authority of Kharatara mendicant leaders (Carcarī v. 15).

While in his Upadeśarasāyanarāsa and Carcarī,[11] Jinadatta proscribes inappropriate singing, watching plays, performing dance-dramas, playing games, or engaging in other amusements that do not aim to evoke the sentiment of detachment (Upadeśarasāyanarāsa v. 37), he concedes that following the example of gods, a layperson can arrange a dance on the occasion of the Jina's kalyāṇaka with the permission of a true mendicant (Upadeśarasāyanarāsa v. 32). Jinapāla (1235) further explains that in light of the danger posed by the presence of female dancers in the temple, Kharatara monks forbade devotees to invite them. And they did so in opposition to the canonical texts, which did not prohibit it (āgamāniṣiddham api). Monks reasoned that the performance of a skilled and beautiful female dancer would cause young laymen to grow lax about their religious responsibilities, such as giving donations, and to stray away from dharma (Upadeśarasāyanarāsa v. 32; see also vv. 33, 34).

In regulating the performance of aesthetic activities in temples, the Kharatara leaders put their authority not only above the āgamas, but also above other contemporaneous monks, including Hemacandra and Rāmacandra. Hemacandra includes watching dances and dramas in the list of careless acts (pramādācaraṇa) that must be avoided (Yogaśāstra vv. 3.78ff.), but he also recommends that wealthy laypeople build temples and arrange plays and musical performances in them (Yogaśāstra v. 3.120). However, the main advocate of aesthetic pleasure should be considered his disciple Rāmacandra, the author of a poem dedicated to the Pārśvanātha temple commissioned by King Kumārapāla. Rāmacandra's Kumāravihāraśataka paints a picture of a space meant for both ritual and devotional purposes as well as aesthetic and sensual pleasures. Rāmacandra depicts nighttime and sensual dances, music, and plays as key components of temple life.[12] The poet celebrates the very sensual pleasures, which temple rites offer to devotees, that the Kharataras critique. Thus, the attitude to artistic expression grew to constitute a sectarian identity.

The notion that aesthetic performance is an appropriate mediation of devotion for the Jina and mendicants goes back to the Rāyapaseṇiyasutta, where the god's spectacle is embedded in the Jina worship, which is said to bring about great fruit (mahāphala).[13] This idea is continually reaffirmed through stories and accounts ranging from that of Indra's majestic performances for the Jina to that of the minister Vastupāla's arranging of a dance before the image of Ādinātha.[14] These literary examples of devotional expression and direct injunctions to arrange aesthetic dance-dramas during festival celebrations in other sources provide models, worthy of emulation, for lay support and royal patronage. The Kharatara attempts to regulate this practice and restrict the performance of dance-drama to solely didactic plays and songs that focus on the Jina's virtues represent yet another technique to denounce the temples of sedentary monks (anāyatana) and inspire Jains to build new correct (vidhi) temples (āyatanas). The Kharataras, who claimed that they were being faithful to the word of the āgamas in their reshaping of Jain orthopraxy, placed their authority to guard over devotees' conduct still higher than the āgamas and thus resolved the tension between the ideal of restraint of sense organs and sensual pleasures. This tension lies at the heart of Jain culture and is rooted in a larger complex relationship, one between monastic imperatives and mendicant dependence on lay support.

Aleksandra Restifo is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She has degrees from SOAS (MA, 2012) and Hyderabad Central University (MA, 2009). Her research on Jainism lies at the intersection of literature, aesthetic practices, and mendicant culture.


Primary Sources

Āyāraṃga, Bhagavaī. Nāyādhammakahāo, Paṇhāvāgaraṇāi, Rāyapaseṇiya, Sūyagadaṃga, Uttarajjhayaṇa in Āgamasuttāṇi Saṭīkam. Edited by Muni Dīparatnasāgara. Ahmadābād: Āgama Ārādhanā Kendra, 2000.

Carcarī and Upadeśarasāyanarāsa in Three Apabhraṃśa Works of Jinadattasūri, with Commentaries. GOS 37. Edited by Lālcandra Bhagavāndās Gāndhī. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1927.

Caupaṇṇamahāpurisacariya. Edited by Amṛtlāl Mohanlāl Bhojak. Ahmadābād: Prākṛta Grantha  Pariṣad,  2006.

Gaṇadharasārdhaśataka. Edited by Muni Kāṃtisāgar. With a short commentary by Padmamaṃdiragaṇi. Surata: Śrījinadattasūrijñānabhaṃḍāra, 1955.

Harivaṃśapurāṇa. Edited with Hindi translation by Pannālāl Jain. Naī Dillī: Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha, 2003.

Kappasutta. Edited with Hindi translation by Mahopādhyāya Vinayasāgar. English translation by Mukund Lath. Jaipur: Prakrit Bharati, 1977.

Kumāravihāraśataka. Edited by Muni Ratnabodhivijaya. Mumbaī: Śrī Jinaśāsana Ārādhanā Trust, 2002.

Pañcāśakaprakaraṇa. Edited by Sāgarmal Jain and Kamleśkumār Jain. Hindi translation by Dīnānāth Śarmā. Vārāṇasī: Pārśvanātha Vidyāpīṭha, 1997.

Tiloyapaṇṇattī. Edited by A.N. Upadhye and Hiralal Jain. Hindi translation by Balchandra. Śolāpur: Jaina Saṃskṛti Saṃrakṣaka Saṃgha, 1956.

Uvāsagadasāo. The Uvāsagadasāo or Religious Profession of an Uvāsaga Expounded in Ten Lectures, Being the Seventh Anga of the Jains, edited and translated by A. F. Rudolf Hoernle. With Sanskrit commentary by Abhayadeva. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1890.

Vasantavilāsamahākāvya. Edited by Chimanlal D. Dalal. GOS 7. Baroda: Central Library, 1917.

Yogaśāstra of Hemacandra: A Twelfth Century Handbook of Śvetāmbara Jainism. Translated by Olle Qvarnström. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Secondary Sources

Chojnacki, Christine & Basile Leclère. 2012. "Interpreting New Literary Forms in Jain Medieval Literature: The Vibudhānanda Play in Śīlāṅka's Novel Caupaṇṇamahāpurisacariya." In Jaina Studies: Proceedings of the DOT 2010 Panel in Marburg, Germany, edited by Jayandra Soni. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 167-200.

Cort, John E. 2002. "Bhakti in the Early Jain Tradition: Understanding Devotional Religion in South Asia." History of Religions 42: 59-86.

Dundas, Paul. 2008. "The Uses of Narratives: Jineśvara Sūri's Kathākoṣaprakaraṇa as Polemical Text." In Jaina Studies: Papers of the 12th World Sanskrit Conference, edited by Collette Caillat and Nalini Balbir. Volume 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 101-115.

Flügel, Peter. 2017. "Jaina Afterlife Beliefs and Funerary Practices." In The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying, edited by Christopher M. Moreman. Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 119-132.

Granoff, Phyllis. 1992. "Jinaprabhasūri and Jinadattasūri: Two Studies from the Śvetāmbara Jain Tradition." In Speaking of Monks: Religious Biography in India and China, edited by Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1-96.

Jain, Jagdish Chandra. 1947. Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons (With Commentaries): An Administrative, Economic, Social and Geographical Survey of Ancient India Based on the Jain Canons. Bombay: New Book Company.

Leclère, Basile. 2010. "Performance of Sanskrit Theater in Medieval Gujarat and Rajasthan (From the 11th to the 13th century)." In Indisches Theater: Text, Theorie, Praxis, herausgegeben von Karin Steiner & Heidrun Brückner. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 27-62.

Leclère, Basile. 2013. Le théâtre de l'Inde médiévale entre tradition et innovation: le Moharājaparājaya de Yaśaḥpāla. Amöneburg: Indica et Tibetica.


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CoJS Newsletter • March 2018 • Issue 13
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