Jainism Today


As has been mentioned, Jains declined in numbers after the medieval period. In some ways this strengthened Jainism for it produced tight-knit communities of Jains with common interests and a devotion to the faith reinforced by their closeness within the group. In the early nineteenth century we must speak of communities, rather than of a single Jain community, for within the wider structure of the Jain religion Jainism provided, and indeed still provides, for a number of sometimes overlapping allegiances. Besides the broad division between the Svetambara, strongest in western India, and the Digambara, mainly in the south, there is the Sthanakvasi sect (within the Svetambara division) which rejects the worship of images. The Terapanthi, an offshoot of the Sthanakvasi, dates from 1760 and has become a well- organized and active movement. The Svetambara, more than the Digambara, have always shown a tendency to form groupings around particular teachers and their successors. Allegiance to a particular temple often can run parallel to family or caste allegiance. We must be honest about the fact that, as in any live and active organization, religious or secular, differences of opinion can arise within the broad unity of the Jain faith.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we can pick out certain mainstreams of development. With the growth of modern communications there has been a notable development of all- India federations of various sorts. Secondly, Jain scholarship, education and writing have broadened out at all levels, whether simple aids for children or learned editions of the sacred texts and university theses on Jain topics. Thirdly, Jains have become much more conscious of the wider public: without seeking to count heads of converts like many religions, Jains have become concerned to spread knowledge of the Jain religion and to encourage adherence to its principles. Parallel to this there has been a growing (though still small) interest by scholars and others in the West and by non-Jains in India. Lastly, for the first time in Jain history, Jainism has been carried to Africa, Europe and North America, where Jain communities have settled and flourished.

Jains have a long association with finance and commerce and many were well placed to play a leading role in the economic development of modern India. There was an influx to the big commercial and manufacturing centers of Bombay and Calcutta in the nineteenth century. Development was not without its traumas: when Jain businessmen first became involved in the cotton industry in Ahmedabad they were criticized by co-religionists fearful of the harm to tiny living beings implicit in the operation of the great new machines. The reputation of Jain businessmen for honesty and fair dealing, together with a simple way of life, stood them in good stead and many prospered exceedingly.

Prosperity reinforced the traditional Jain devotion to charitable causes. The building of temples, some of great beauty and richness like the great white marble edifice to the fifteenth Tirthankara erected in Ahmedabad in 1848 by a prominent businessman, went ahead in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Educational institutions have been endowed and publishing of religious works supported. Peculiarly Jain institutions, the refuges for sick animals are maintained. Generosity to Jain causes, by people of all income groups, is a major Jain characteristic, but generosity is not confined to Jain causes alone.

Let us now pick up a few, only a few, examples of the prominent people who have been particularly concerned with the promotion of Jain faith and principles over the past century.

In 1893, a 'World Parliament of Religions' was held in the United States and the organizer sought a Jain representative. The invitation went to Acharya Atmaramji but as a monk it was not possible for him to travel so the task of being the Acharya's representative and the first Jain to explain his religion to a major overseas gathering fell to Sri Virchand Gandhi, Honorary Secretary of the Jain Association of India. His lectures in the U.S.A. earned him a silver medal from the Parliament of Religions for his scholarly oratory. He received other honors and a philosophical society named after him was established. Going on to England he continued his lecturing (he gave 535 lectures in all). One of his students was Herbert Warren who became secretary of the Jain Literature Society founded with Virchand Gandhi's help. Herbert Warren wrote two successful books on Jainism explaining the subject in a straightforward up-to-date way. Virchand Gandhi died at the very early age of thirty-seven.

Another learned layman was Champat Ray Jain, a barrister by profession. Fluent in Hindi, Urdu and English, he studied the Christian and Muslim religions and claimed that their message was essentially the same as that of Jainism. He published a dozen books in the 1920s and '30s, including The Key of Knowledge, Jain Law, and What is Jainism? In his writings and lectures he explained religion in twentieth century terms, using the concepts of modern psychology and science.

Srimad Rajchandra is especially remembered as the spiritual mentor of Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma, though not himself a Jain, was deeply influenced by Jain doctrines, particularly non-violence. Rajchandra wrote many books, with emphasis on the soul and its purification. He died young but his work survives in a number of religious centers or foundations established by his followers.

The monastic order has known many who have made significant contributions to Jain learning and Jain religion in the past century. Acharya Vallbhvijay Suri was born in 1870 and lived to be 84. The shock of losing both his parents as a child turned him to spiritual quests and at the age of seventeen he became a monk as a disciple of the famous Atmaramji. It was the dying wish of his teacher that Vallabhvijay should devote himself to the establishment of educational institutions. It is for this work that he is especially remembered. In his long life he established schools and colleges. Mahavir Jain Vidhyalaya, founded under his guidance to provide university hostels and religious education, and help with higher education for poorer students, now has seven branches and has produced very many graduates. Acharya Vallabhvijay was a simple and effective preacher, free from sectarian bias, with a love for people of all faiths and a devotion to his native land and the cause of its independence.

The Terapanthi sect, which, like the Sthanakvasi from which it separated in the eighteenth century, does not worship images, has a single spiritual leader or Acharya. In 1936 his position passed to twenty-one year old Acharya Tulsi. It was an inspired choice, for this young man was to transform the Terapanthi. He has traveled to almost every part of India. He has shown particular concern for education and preaching, putting emphasis on study, research and writing by Terapanthi monks, and by nuns as well. The Jain Vishva Bharati which emerged from his work is an institution for higher education in the Jain field. The Anuvrata Movement which he initiated in 1949 works for moral uplift, honesty and a non-violent, non-exploitive society: some of its members are non-Jains. In 1980, he introduced another innovation with the initiation of the first of a new order of 'lay nuns' and 'lay monks', shramani and shramana. Whilst dedicated to the life of nuns and monks, they are dispensed from the prohibitions on traveling in vehicles and on eating with lay people (and cooking for, themselves if essential) as well as from certain toilet rules incumbent on the full-fledged mendicant.

Kanji Swami was originally a Sthanakvasi but after much searching found that the Digambara sect best answered his spiritual needs. He is known for his work on Kunda-Kunda, a great south Indian Jain writer probably of the third or the fourth century A. D. A movement which he started in 1934, which stresses inward thought rather than external ritual, attracted followers who hold him in great reverence.

Another distinguished scholar was Vijay Dharma Suri (1868- 1922) who wrote many books on Jain philosophy and ethics in Sanskrit, Gujarati and Hindi, edited texts and inscriptions, started an important series of published texts, the Yashovijaya Jaina Granthamala (named after the seventeenth- century scholar Yashovijaya), established schools and corresponded with many Indian and European scholars.

The list could go on for pages! Let us end by mentioning Ratnachandraji Maharaj who completed in 1932 the publication of a four-volume dictionary of Ardhamagadhi, the language of the ancient Jain scriptures, with explanations in Sanskrit, Gujarati, Hindi and English.

One important development in recent decades has been the publication of good modern editions, often with translations into modern languages, of the sacred books of Jainism, thus making the scriptures, formerly restricted to monks, available to a wider public. Ray Dhanpati Simha Bahadur initiated the printing of Jain Agama texts in the 1880s. The Sacred Books of the Jains series, started by Kumar Devendra Prasad Jain, published from 1917 various Digambara texts with English translations and commentary. Baharatiya Jnanpith, of Varanasi, engages in research and publication, and a steady stream of publications comes

from the L.D. Institute of Indology in Ahmedabad. The L. D. Institute is building up an important Jain manuscript collection in original and microfilm. There is, in fact, a great deal of publishing in India in the Jain field, ranging from children's books to university theses on specialized topics, from commercial publishers as well as from Jain institutions. The quality is very varied: magnificent (and often expensive) books on Jain art or works of serious advanced scholarship can be seen alongside amateurish (but certainly sincere) little pamphlets. Periodicals of one sort and another have proliferated since 1857: over 120 titles can be counted, including in English the Jain Journal (Calcutta) and The Jain, trilingual in English, Gujarati and Hindi (published by Jain Samaj Europe). Five universities in India have professors of Jain studies and a new institution in Delhi may well become the major center in this field.

The challenge from both Muslim and Christian missionary effort towards the end of the nineteenth century was one factor behind the establishment of a number of nationwide Jain institutions, but they also enable Jains to face the challenges of the modern world in a united way. The All- India Digambara Jain Conference first met in 1893. A similar Svetambara organization dates from 1903 and a united meeting of 700 Svetambara monks was held in 1934 to reaffirm the traditional rules. The Sthanakvasi held their first national conference in 1906 and took an important step in 1952 when they recognized Atmaranji Sadadi as the single chief Acharya (religious leader) of the sect: his present successor is Acharya Anandarushi. A wider dimension was given to Jain unity with the formation in 1899 of the Jain Young Men's Association which became in 1910 the All-India Jain Association. In 1973 the 2500th anniversary of Mahavira's moksa was the occasion for widespread celebrations and marked the new resurgent spirit of Jainism. Emigration from India has led to Jain communities emerging in East Africa, Europe and North America. Jain temples have been set up in Mombassa and Nairobi, and the first in Europe will be in Leicester. In North America various Jain associations have come together in a single federation.

Western interest in Jainism is growing, though slowly. Much work has been done by Western scholars since Major Colin Mackenzie published his 'Account of the Jains' in the journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1807. The Germans were to become the most active in the field of Jain research. A landmark was the publication in 1884 of the first two volumes of Jain Sutras, translated into English by Hermann Jacobi. It would not be appropriate here to give a long catalogue of names, but it would include English, German, French, Italian and even Japanese scholars. Although good general accounts of the Jain religion have long been available in French and German, no such work by an English writer has been published except Mrs. Sinclair Stevenson's The Heart of Jainism (1915), a sympathetic book but colored by a strong Christian missionary outlook. At a more popular level, knowledge of Jainism and the Jains is filtering only very slowly into Western consciousness. Within the Jain community there is a desire to make the principles of Jainism known to a wider world and this cannot do anything but good.

There is no doubt that now, in the late twentieth century, Jainism is in a healthy state. The great pilgrimage centers are popular, religious practices and ceremonies attract large numbers, charity towards Jain cause is generous. Jainism has spread beyond the bounds of India and the ambitious Jain Center in Leicester is an example to all.



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