Western Perceptions Of Jainism ► [02] Misconceptions, Achievements and Current Expectations

Posted: 30.05.2005

It is possible from the internal evidence to piece together an idea of what most educated westerners knew of Jainism as Mr. Gandhi spoke. Most would know very little, those who knew even a little would be confused and sometimes downright mistaken. If known at all people thought of it as a heterodoxy or reform of Hinduism or as a sect of Buddhism. Scholars and missionaries specialising in India would be aware of the impressive saga of western "discovery" (like Columbus discovering a continent already there) of Jaina religion, practice and culture. In the century before Chicago 1893, say from 1793 onwards, westerners knew very little about Jainism. Again, most knew nothing. The main source of knowledge among the educated elite had been the confused stories brought back by Alexander's armies, by mediaeval travelers like Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, then by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English voyagers, from 1498 to the latest returning East Indian fleet. In these accounts we can with latter-day wisdom pick out unmistakably Jaina features. Alexander met possessionless, naked, wise persons (Gymnosophists); sramanas (Garmanes, Pramnae, etc.) who could not be coerced by him and who tried to show him the vacuousness of his harmful way of life. [6]


The material probably goes back through for instance Plutarch and Strabo and others to Megasthenes lost book (E. A. Schwanbeck's very reliable reconstruction) Megastheni Indica (Bonn 1846, Amsterdam, 1966) assembles scattered fragments in works accessible to most western scholars in the eighteenth century. Most of them were translated into English by I. W. McCrindle in five volumes published from 1877 to 1901 and reproduced by R. C. Majumdar The Classical Accounts of India, Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1960.


But even in the first part of the nineteenth century when H. T. Colebrook was doing his pioneer work, the Jainas were confused with Hindus and Buddhists and looked upon as "heretical" of "reformed" or "Younger" in relationship with them. [7]


Asiatic Researches volume 9, 1807, pages 287-322, and other articles. Republished in the three volume collected works by his son, T. E. Colebrooke in the 1870's. By the 1840s books like Rev. Stevenson's translations of The Kalpa-Sutra and Naval Tattva and the beautiful publications of the American Mission Press at Bombay were reaching the west and dispelling some of the misunderstandings.


In an epic of academic adventure a group of German philologists assisted by able Indian, British and french scholars proved the independence, antiquity and importance of Jainism. A world-wide witness to these discoveries which went on until two World Wars ended the efflorescence of the European University is provided by Dr. Herman Jacobi's two volumes of Jaina scriptures published in Max Mueller's Sacred Books of the East series in 1884 and 1895. [8]


Jaina Sutras Part I: The Acaranga- and Kalpa-Sutras and Part II The Uttaradhyayana and Sutrakrtanga-Sutra, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Reissued by Motilal Banarasidass for UNESCO at Delhi, 1964. The series got into every self-respecting library of College or City in the English-speaking world.


It is also probable that western perceptions of Jainism were at this time influenced by studies and reports sent home by missionaries, mainly British and American, who were working in Gujarat and Bombay. In addition travelers continued to tell of white-robed pilgrims, soul-inspiring temples and bird hospitals.

Having briefly looked back from 1893 to 1993, let us look onwards form there towards the present to select some work illustrative of the development of western perceptions of Jainism during the ensuing century. In the world of scholarship the epic of Jaina language and philological studies was continued. The riddle of the relationship of the various Indian languages and the languages used by Jaina writers in each era of Indian civilization was solved. Manuscript after manuscript was rediscovered, edited, collated and translated. Brilliant histories of the literatures were produced and due place given again and again to Jaina pioneering and leadership. By the late 1970s the world's most outstanding and successful scholar in the field was himself a Jaina who had made himself fully cognizant and adept with western as well as traditional method and thought. [9]


Professor Padmanabh S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification. Berkeley: University of California Press and Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 1979, is a brilliant book not only regarding every aspect of Jainism but exemplary as a paradigm of the genre, He has studied and taught in India, Sri Lanka, Britain and North America, as well as elsewhere.


Important as were developments inside Jainology, especially in language, literature, philosophy, logic and historical thought, there were a number of new factors which brought Jaina teachings into a whole new and larger context. The consequences have not yet been properly worked out and Jainism academically still remains a happy hunting ground for philologists and textual scholars. The first of these is a complete reorientation for the study of the History of Indian religions. The paradigms in academic use here to fore were laid down in the early nineteenth century by missionaries, East India Company officials and the Pandits who were working with them. The subject-matter of their discourse and narratology were inevitably, colonialists and Hindu. We must admire their work and use it appropriately, taking into account new and revisionist factors. The discoveries in archaeology alone demand a recognition of the sheer antiquity of Jainism and its achievement in each stage of history of at least three millennia. In the seven decades since 1922 the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization stretching from the Himalayas to Gujarat and reaching back from the second millennium before the Common Era into the distant past, that is, long before the appearance of so-called Aryans and "Indo-Germanic" languages, has revolutionized the history of India religions. A number of art motifs associated with two thousand years of Jaina iconography such as naked ascetics meditating standing, sacred trees, the bringing together of opposites, figures of animals such as bulls, elephants and Snakes, and other emblems especially associated with the twenty-four Tirthankaras, "ford-makers," of Jaina tradition, are found in very old strata of the Indus Valley civilization. Then during the early first millennium before the Common Era, perhaps earlier, as literature in the "Indo-Germanic" languages in India emerges, we meet naked, wandering homeless ones coming into the story. Then we find various epic, narratives and characters appearing in both "Hindu" and Jaina sources. All these things make one think of a continuity of Jainism with the remotest India past as well as an independent and two-way interdependent heritage with both "Hinduism" and later with "Buddhism." Furthermore, our best scientific guides tell us that humans originated in Africa and they draw attention to a continuity of human pigmentation between parts of Africa, South India and onwards to Melanesia. They also indicate a relationship between the languages of the Indus Valley civilization people and the people of the south India. We must not get lost in a mist and morass of speculation because important links in the evidence are missing, so such things are impossible to prove, but it is feasible to contend that Jainism is a living witness to the primordial religion of humanity or at least retains reminders of it. It is not like a fossil fish, a coelocanth, found swimming in today's waters; Jainism retains fundamental vestiges of "humanity's primeval youth" but at each stage has adapted itself superbly to new conditions.

Share this page on:



Encyclopaedia Of Jainism, edited by Nagendra Kr. Singh., New Delhi, Anmol, 2001, 30 volumes, 8089 p., ISBN 81-261-0691-3.