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Part 1: Jain Reform Movement

Introduction to the Series

Sramana tradition (Jainism and Buddhism) and Brahmanical or Vedic tradition are the two most ancient religious traditions of India. Jaina tradition prior to Mahavira was known as niggantha tradition and Mahavira was known as nigganthanataputta (Jnatrikas – clan of Mahavira).  The term ‘Niggantha’ means one who has untied the knot. Later on when this tradition got its final organized form, Mahavira was called Jina (the conqueror) by his followers and hence the followers were called Jaina. The Philosophy and religion of the Jaina tradition are known as Jaina darsana and Jaina dharma respectively.

Mahavira has formally organized the community (sangha) into four divisions – Sramana, Sramani, Sravaka and Sravika.  The monastic order of monks and nuns, occupied the central position with the lay followers at its periphery. The Jaina religion spread from its birth-place in eastern India, particularly Magadha, towards south and west.  Hence, the increasing contacts of monks with the laity forced monks to formulate sravakacara for them.

As an individual does not choose one’s language but is born in a certain linguistic community so also a child does not invent its own religion but is born in a religious community. Religious life has dual aspects – personal and social or institutional; an inner and an outer. The institutional aspect provides a stable background while the inner aspect provides vitality and spirit. When outer conformity and obedience to the external institutional authority becomes rigid and oppressive, it destroys the vitality and the freedom of spirit which is the essence of religious life. In such a situation, the individual is likely to protest against the authority.

The present series of articles proposes to undertake an inquiry into the Jaina Reform Movement, especially after the advent of the Islamists and Europeans till the twentieth century.  According to S. B. Deo and P. S. Jaini, Lonkasaha is the first Jaina reformer.  The main reform introduced by him in the 15th century was rejection of image-worship and this has finally given rise to a major sect known as Sthanakawasi. Since then there have been many reformers both in the Svetambara and Digambara sects.

Jain Tradition: An Introduction

Jaina religion is at least 2600 years ancient if counted from Mahavira’s era. According to the tradition he was the twenty-fourth tirthankara in the lineage of Rsabhadeva who was the first tirthankara of this time cycle (avasarpini kala). “According to the tradition preserved in the scriptures Jaina religion is eternal and it has been revealed again and again in each cyclic period of the world by innumerable tirthankaras.”[1] Even though we leave the traditional account as mythological that puts Rsabhadeva, some millions of years back, some archaeological evidences available to us, show that he was a historical figure. “It is often said that there is a reference to Lord Rsabha in the Vedic literature and regarded him as the lord of lords.”[2] “Modern archaeological excavations, however, may provide some clues to the historicity of the Rikhava’s biography, his period, his achievements and teachings.”[3] Historians infer Rikhava’s period as 6500 B.C. “This conclusion is further strengthened by the fact that the Indus civilization has seals with images of a meditating person who according to Jaina traditional lore represents something akin to ‘historical’ Rikhava.”[4] “Rsabhadeva as a king is supposed to be the harbinger of human civilization. He inaugurated the karma-bhumi (age of action), founded the social order, family system, institution of marriage, of law and order and justice, and of state and government, taught to mankind the cultivation of land, different arts and crafts, reading, writing and arithmetic and built villages, towns and cities. In short, he pioneered the different human activities as they were then understood and indulged in.”[5] After having guided the people he left his worldly activities to lead a life of penance and austerity. He then attained supreme knowledge (kevala-jnana), preached religion to people, established the sangha (four-fold community) and achieved nirvana (moksa). According to the traditional account, the religion he preached was “pancayamadhamma.” His successor Ajitanatha reduced the five precepts to four by incorporating the vow of celibacy into the vow of non-possession. Thus the history of Jainism can be divided into three periods- pre-Mahavira, Mahavira period and post-Mahavira period.

Pre – Mahavira Period

No historical evidences of twenty-one Tirthankaras (from second to the twenty second) are available to us, except from Kalpa Sutra, the Jaina agama, which mentions the names of those tirthankaras. “The Kalpa Sutra ascribed to Bhadrabahu (3rd century B.C.) shows the early stages of the development of Jainism when the tradition of four Tirthankaras or jinas was cherished by the Jaina community. The four jinas, whose life history is presented in Kalpa Sutra, are Rsabhadatta, Aristanemi, Parsvanatha and Mahavira. Both in Jainism and Buddhism the numbers gradually increased from four to seven and from seven to twenty-four tirthankaras. The tradition of twenty-four tirthankaras became well established among the jainas in about the first or second century A. D.”[6]

Kosambi points that the Buddhist tradition has established the tradition of 24 Buddhas. Even in the Vedic tradition Vaisnavism accepted 24 names of Visnu during the pauranic period.

Parsvanatha is regarded as the twenty-third tirthankara and some literary and archaeological evidences related to him are available. He is supposed to have lived in the 9th century B.C. “Almost all modern scholars agree to the historicity of Parsvanatha and his successor Mahavira.”[7]

Prior to Mahavira this sramana tradition was known as nirgrantha or niggantha tradition. “It might have risen earlier in Jainism, as the Nirgranthas were never spoken of, in Buddhist writings as a newly risen sect nor was Nataputta referred to as their founder. Accordingly, the Nirgranthas were probably, an old sect at the time of Buddha and Nataputta only a reformer of the Jaina church which might have been founded earlier by Parsvanatha.”[8] Parsvanatha propounded to his followers the caturyama dharma – ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), and aparigraha (non-possession). This path was followed until the arrival of this era. “Religion advocated by Mahavira was not a creation of his own. The only thing he did was the organization of moral and disciplinary aspects of the then existing Jaina church. That he stood for a stricter code of discipline of the body and of the mind is evident from his inclusion of the fifth vow of celibacy to the aggregate of four vows of Parsva.”[9] Thus he reformed the caturyama dharma (four vows) of Parsva into pancayama dharma by giving Brahmacarya the autonomous fourth position and aparigraha the fifth position.

He then preached his pancayama dhamma to the people after having attained supreme knowledge at the age of 42. For the rest of his life he relentlessly moved around North-India. Mahavira had organized the samgha, i.e. four fold order of monks, nuns, lay followers male and female and preached his doctrines till his death at the age of 72. He had eleven ganadharas who spread his message.

Mahavira and His Contemporaries

Mahavira’s teachings were a natural reaction against the rituals followed by Brahmanism and its various orthodox schools. Among the non- Vedic traditions his opponents were Ajivika Gosala, Gautama Buddha, Ajit Kesakambalin, Pakuddha Kaccayana, Sanjay Belatiputta and Purana Kassapa. They all had rejected the authority of Vedas and had their own philosophies different from that of Mahavira.

1] Ajivaka Gosala held the view that everything depends on fate. “Pleasure and misery, final beatitude and temporal pleasure and pain are not caused by the souls themselves nor by others; but the individual souls experience them, it is destiny which solely works.”[10] Mahavira opposed Gosala arguing that each individual by his own efforts (purushartha) can attain liberation.

2] The Buddha propounded the philosophy of flux and said that each moment, that is, the real is changing like the flame of fire and that nothing is permanent. But opposing this view Mahavira, as an atmavadin propounded the view that changes in the dravya occur from the point of view of paryaya (modifications) and yet the dravya           itself is dhrauya (permanent) like gold modified into ring or necklace. Hence Mahavira propounds the philosophy of Parinaminitya (permanence through modification).

3] Ajita Kesakambalin, Mahavira’s another contemporary, propounded the view that there is no such thing as this world or the next. “After death the elements constituting the body return to the elements of the nature.”[11] Mahavira’s view was that the soul transmigrates in any of the four gatis according to the karmas which he has performed in this and the previous lives.

4] Pakudha Kaccayana, one more contemporary of Mahavira held the view “that seven things, viz, earth, water, fire, air, ease, pain and the soul are neither made nor commanded to be made, are not created and are of a permanent existence. There is nothing-called slayer or the slain. When one with a sharp sword cleaves a head in twain to one thereby deprives another of life, a sword has only penetrated into the interval between seven elementary substances.”[12]

5] Sanjay Belathiputta’s main thesis was that “no one is capable of knowing the absolute truth. Truth is beyond human comprehension. All theories ranging from the existence or non-existence of god to any ‘reality’ are just the theories. Consequently, he surmised: Let us not even debate the existence of god or of any other perceived reality.”[13] Mahavira held that once all the ghati karmas are annihilated, human beings are capable of knowing the absolute truth.

6] Purana Kassapa, the sixth contemporary of Mahavira, believed that “conduct, virtuous or otherwise, had no effect on soul’s transmigration and all karmas must come to fruition. He questioned the efficacy of any human act to escape its consequences.”[14] Mahavira argued that with ahimsa, samyama and tapa one can fructify one’s karmas and attain liberation.

Mahavira tried to dissolve the conflict between the contradictory viewpoints through the medium of Anekantavada. He held that the views propounded by his contemporaries were one sided (ekanta), hence not fully true but only partially true. “Lord Mahavira propounded the independence of the spirit and the possibility of its attaining the highest status of Paramatman. From this point of view, a new sanctity came to be attached to life. It was no more human life alone which was too sacred to be destroyed; even the so-called lower forms of life deserve to be protected against indiscriminate destruction. The tendency to violence proceeds from a feeling of resentment against any deed or opinion, which appears to be opposed to one’s own. Mahavira, under the system of Anekanta explained that the so-called differences or opposites were merely the various aspects of a single truth, which is always many-sided. Sanity demands that instead of getting upset by the differences, one should try to resolve them by attempting a proper synthesis.”[15]

Lord Mahavira discusses in great details each doubt raised by 11 scholarly Brahmins and cleared their doubts and convinced of the truth logically. They then became his disciples and later on the Ganadharas. The eleven ganadharas and their doubts are: – “1] Indrabhuti –his doubt regarding the existence of the soul; 2] Agnibhuti – his doubt regarding the karmas; 3] Vayubhuti – his doubt whether the body itself is the jiva or whether it is different    from the jiva; 4] Vyakta- his doubt whether the five material elements are real or unreal; 5]Sudharma- his doubt whether the jiva will be of the same kind or different in the next birth; 6] Mandita-his doubt regarding bondage; 7] Mauryaputra- his doubt regarding the existence of bondage.; 8] Akampita- his doubt whether hell is real; 9] Achalabhrata- his doubt regarding the existence of punya and papa;10]Metarya-his doubt regarding the existence of the other world; 11] Prabhas-his doubt regarding Moksa.”[16]

The doubts were of crucial nature and Mahavira by means of convincing arguments and logical discussions, cleared, their doubts and as a result they became his disciples. One can, therefore, say that knowledge precedes faith; one can doubt (sanka) and reach a state of doubtlessness (nihsankita).

Post – Mahavira Period

After the nirvana of Mahavira in 527 B.C., Gautama ganadhara became the leader of the Samgha. The teachings of Mahavira thus passed through the eleven ganadharas, the last kevali Jambuswami and thereafter for another 150 years through the memory of five srutakevalis- Prabhava, Sayyanabhava, Sambutivijaya, Yasobhadhra and Bhadrabahu. During the leadership of Bhadrabahu, the Jaina Sangha was split apart by famine. After Mahavira’s nirvana “the internal history of Jainism is characterized by schismatic tendencies, growing complexity in the church organization, gradual decline in the volume and substance of the original canon, development of religious dogmas, and a shift in the centre of gravity of the new brotherhood which spread slowly to the west and south of Magadha its original home.”[17]

The great twelve-year famine in Magadha, in the 3rd century B.C. resulted in split of the Jaina sangha into two; Swetambara and Digambara, never to be united. Under the leadership of Bhadrabahu, many monks migrated to South India while some others stayed in Magadha under the leadership of Sthulabhadra.

Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, a devout Jaina also left along with Bhadrabahu leaving behind the kingdom to his son Bindusara. “The Jainas thus began slowly to move away from Magadha, becoming established in various cities along the two great caravan routes; one of these led North West, towards Delhi and Mathura thence South and West through Saurashtra and into Gujarat, while the others followed the East coast Southward into Kalinga (modern Orissa), finally reaching even to the Dravidian lands around Madras and Mysore.”[18]

The Jainas were fortunate enough to get patronage from some important royal houses and kingdoms, which helped them sustain in the then existing conditions. Chandragupta’s great grandson, Samprati who was a ruler of Ujjain favored Jainism. He did everything to spread Jainism far and wide. An ardent supporter of Jaina religion, he opened food houses for monks, freely gave them clothing and shelter, sent soldiers in guise of monks so that monks are safe while journeying. He initiated festivals related to some events in the lives of Tirthankaras such as pancakalyanakas and asked his feudatories to join and spread Jaina religion. “As for the north – west, a major Sramana center seems to have developed in Mathura between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D.”[19] It was here that the second council for finalizing the agamas was held. From here the settlers moved to Vallabhi in Saurashtra. “Many Jaina migrants continued to pass Mathura, tending especially to settle in or around the city of Saurashtra; it was here that their canons were first put into written form.”[20] It was only in the 4th century A.D. that under the leadership of Devardhigani, the Swetambara canons were finalized, codified and written down. On the other hand the Digambaras held the view that 683 years after the nirvana of Mahavira canons were lost. They believe in Satkhandagama, the agama substitute literature written by Puspadanta and Bhutbali. They gained knowledge from Dharasena the monk, who lived in Girnar in Gujarat around the 4th century A.D. and who knew a few fractions of the second Purva.

Thus from Mahavira’s times (600 B.C. to 400 A.D.) Jainism became a well-organized institutional religion, with its major sects having their own canonical literature, beliefs, conduct, and rituals. Though traditionally it is believed that there are no philosophical differences between the two sects yet it is a matter which requires further research.

Major differences between the Swetambara and Digambara sects are:

  • Nudity: – The Digambaras are very strict about parigraha as they include “clothes” and also “begging pot” under parigraha. They, therefore, believe that salvation can be achieved only after complete renunciation of all forms of parigraha including clothes and even begging pot.
  • Scriptures: – According to the Digambaras, the original canons survived only 683 years after Mahavira’s nirvana. They believe in Satkhandagama, written by Puspadanta and Bhutabali who received a fragmented knowledge of the part of fifth Purva. They even refute the Swetambara agamas, which were finalized and written down in the 4th century A.D. Thus the oral tradition of passing knowledge carried down for almost 1000 years after Mahavira, that is, until 4thD. took the form of a written tradition when both Satkhandagama and Swetambara agamas were written down.
  • Liberation of Women: – The Digambaras are very strict with regard to the issue of women liberation. Following the strict principle of aparigraha, they hold that since a female cannot remain naked liberation is not possible for women. For the same reason, the Digambaras hold that– the 20th tirthankara Mallinatha was a male, and not Malli a female, as held by the Swetambaras. The Swetambaras, however, do not have any such restrictions for females and even for the males.

“Thus the two schools adhering to two different views and having two different approaches crystallized in course of time and assumed the form of Jinkalpa and Sthavirakalpa.”[21]

In Iconographic representations, “It is noticeable that the images of Jaina tirthankaras with clothing and drapery date from the Gupta times. This development sharpened the distinction of the Swetambara from the orthodox who were designated as Digambaras. Thus it was in the Gupta period that the hitherto nebulous distinction between the Jinakalpa and sthavirakalpa crystallized into the division of Digambara and Swetambara.”[22]

Intake of food by Kevali: – The Digambaras believe that when a person becomes Kevali, he does not require food and water as he acquires lomaahara (food and water acquired by skin through the atmosphere around). The Swetambaras however think that even a kevala jnani requires taking food and water and this in no ways affects his omniscience.

Though Digambaras are very advanced in their philosophy, their strict adherence to and conservative attitude towards nudity, non-possession of begging pot, non-liberation of women and food suggest that too much emphasis is laid on external rules and overt behaviour. Such extreme renunciations raises the issue whether and to what extent biological activities like eating and civilized behaviour like dress constitutes an obstruction for attaining spiritual heights. The Swetambaras, though are liberal in the above views are equally rigid in their code in day-to-day excessive rituals and ceremonies.

[1] K.C. Jain ,Lord Mahavira and His Times, p.1.

[2] Ibid., p.3.

[3]Vastupala Parikh, Jainism and New Spirituality, p.163.

[4]Ibid. , p. 164.

[5] Jyoti Prasad Jain ,Religion and the Culture of the Jainas, p.12.

[6] K. C. Jain, Op.cit. , pp.4-5.

[7]Ibid. , p.4.

[8]Ibid. , p.5.

[9]S.B.Deo, History of Jaina Monachism, p. 72.

[10]Amulyachandra Sen, Schools and Sects in Jaina literature, p.5.

[11]Ibid. , p.23.

[12]Ibid. ,p.19.



[15] Hiralal Jain,Jaina Tradition In Indian thought, p. 8.

[16] Acharya Vijaya Bhuvanbhanusuri, Ganadharavada, pp.4-5.

[17]  Jyoti Prasad Jain, Op.cit., p. 21.

[18] P.S. Jaini, The Jaina Path Of Purification, p. 278.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.,p . 279

[21] Muni Uttam Kamal Jain, Jain Sects and Schools, p. 40..


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