Status of Jainism in India



By Dr. Vilas A. Sangave

Since Jainism spread all over India in ancient times, the Jainas possess a long and continuous history of their own. It is, threfore, worthwhile to see the status or high position enjoyed by Jainism in relation to other religions and the important  Jaina political personalities like rulers, ministers, generals, etc. in different parts of India during the ancient and medieval times.

1. Jainism in East India

(A) In Bihar : In the political history of India in ancient times, East India figured more prominently than any other part of India. From the middle of the seventh century B. C. the kingdom of Magadha, the modern South Bihar, had assumed the position of the recognised political centre of India. As Lord Mahavira happened to belong to this part of the country, we find that many kings, chiefs and masses gave their full support to Jainism.

(i) The Saisunaga Dynasty : King Chetaka, the most eminent amongst Lichchhavi princes and the ruler of Vaisali, the capital of Videha, was as great patron of Jainism. He gave his sister, princess Trisala, in marriage to Siddhartha, to whom Lord Mahavira was born. As king Chetak was related to Lord Mahavira and as Lichchhavis are often mentioned in the Jaina literature, it is supposed that practically all Lichchhavis were the followers of Jaina religion.

In the Saisunaga dynasty (642-413 B. C.), Bimbisara or Srenika and Ajatasatru of Kunika were the two important kings who extended their full support to the Jaina religion. Both Bimbisara and his son Ajatasatru were the near relatives of Lord Mahavira, in whose contact they frequently came, and hence the Jainas believe that they did belong to the Jaina religion for a considerable period in their life-time.

(ii) The Nanda Dynasty : The Nandas (413-322 B. C.) who were the successors of Saisunagas in Magadha, were, according to the inscriptions of king Kharavela of Kalinga, the followers of the Jaina faith because the inscriptions speak of king Nanda I who led a conquering expedition into Kalinga and carried of an idol of Adi-Jina, that is, the first Jaina Tirthankara Lord Adinatha or Rsabhanatha. Dr. Vincent Smith in his 'Early History of India' also mentions that the Nandas were Jainas.

(iii) The Maurya Dynasty : The Jaina tradition, which is ancient in origin and is referred to in subsequent ages down to the present day as well-known and authentic, asserts that Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, turned Jaina and that he abdicated the throne, joined the Jaina migration led by Acharya Bhadrabhahu to the South, became the chief disciple of Bhadrabahu, by entering the ascetic order of Jaina monks and died in a Jaina way (i.e., by observing the vow sallekhana or peaceful death) as Shravan-belgola after leading a life of Jaina ascetic for twelve years. This tradition is now accepted as true by famous historians B. L. Rice and Vincent Smith. Regarding the early faith of Emperor Asoka it is maintained by some historians that he professed Jainism before his conversion to Buddhism.  The famous edicts  of Asoka are said to reveal this fact. Further, according to Ain-i-Akbari, Emperor Asoka was responsible for introducing Jainism into Kashmir and this is confirmed by the Rajatarangini, the famous work depicting the history of Kashmir. Many other reasons are also given support of this contention. 

Emperor Samprati, the grand son and successor of Asoka, is regarded the Jaina Asoka for his eminent patronage, and efforts in spreading Jaina religion in east India.

(B) In Orissa : Like Magadha, the kingdom of Kalinga or Orissa had been a Jaina stronghold from the very beginning. It is asserted that Jainism made its way to south India through Kalinga only. Lord Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, visited Kalinga and preached Jainism to the people, who already belonged to the Jaina Sangha, as organised by Parsvanatha, the 23rd Tirthankara. It is worth mention that in the second century B. C. Kalinga was the centre of a powerful empire ruled over Kharavela and that he was one of the greatest royal patrons of Jaina faith. It is further contended that even after Jainism lost the royal patronage it continued for a long time as a dominant religion and that this is testified by the famous Chinese Pilgrim Hiuen Tsang (269 A. D.) when he says that in Kalinga "among the un-believers the most numerous are the Nirgranthas (i.e., Jainas)."

(C) In Bengal : Jainism had its influence in Bengal also. Hiuen Tsang states that in Pundravardhana and Samatata, that is, in Western and Eastern Bengal, the naked ascetics called nirgranthaas are most numerous. Even now Jaina relics, inscriptions, idols, etc., are found in different parts of Bengal. Even the name 'Vardhamana' is given to one district in Bengal. In this connection it has been pointed out that the indigenous people of western Bengal known as 'Saraka' are the Hinduised remnants of the early Jaina people. Again, in some parts of Bengal Jaina idols are worshipped as the idols of Hindu deity Bhairava. In short, the influence of Jaina religion on the customs, manners and religions of Bengal is very much visible even at present.

2. Jainism in South India

(A) In Karnataka : It is now an undisputed fact that Jainism entered into Karnataka and south India during the days of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya when Bhadrabahu, the distinguished leader of Jainas and the last of Jaina saints known as Sruta-kevalis, after predicting twelve years famine in north India, led the migration of the Jaina Sangha to the South. Thus it is stated that the Jaina history of the South commences from the 3rd Century B. C. as according to all Jaina authors the death of Acharya Bhadrabahu took place in 297 B. C. at Shravanabelagola. But in this connection it is strongly asserted from further historical researches that this Bhadrabahu tradition is the starting point of a revival and not the commencement of the Jaina activities in south India and hence regard that Bhadrabahu was in fact the rejuvenator of Jainism in south India. In this regard it is argued that if south India would have been void of Jainas before Bhadrabahgu reached there, it is least conceivable that an Acharya of Bhadrabahu's status would have led the Jaina sangha to such a country and for the mere sake of dharma-raksa, that is, protection of religion. Again, in this relation various archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence are brought forwarded to prove the antiquity of the Jainas in south India and it is asserted that Jainism had reached south India long before Srutakevali Bhadrabahu. 

 In any case Jainism prevailed in south India in 3rd Century B.C. and it continued as a popular faith for more than one thousand years of the Christian Era and it is significant to note that up to the 14th century A. D. Jainism played and important role in the history of south India.

(i) The Kadamba Ruleres : The Kadamba rulers of Banavasi (from the 3rd to the 6th Century A. D.) were essentially Brahmanical in religion. Yet the royal Kadamba family gave a few monarchs who were devout Jainas, and who were responsible for the gradual process of Jaina religion in Karnataka. Eventually Jaina religion became a popular religion in the Kadamba Empire.

(ii) The Ganga Rulers : The  Ganga Rulers (350 to 999 A. D.) of Talakad in Karnataka patronised Jaina religion to a great extent. In fact the Ganga kingdom itself was a virtual creation of the famous Jaina saint Acharya Simhanandi and naturally practically al Ganaga monarchs championed the cause of Jainism.

(iii) The Chalukya Rulers : During the reign of Chalukya Rulers of Badami in Karnataka (500 to 757 A. D.), the Jaina religion was more prominent and many Jaina Acharyas were patronised by Chalukya kings including Pudakesi II.

(iv) The Rasutrakuta Rulers : Many of the Rastrakuta emperors and their feudatories and officers were staunch Jainas and hence the period of Rastrakutas of Malakheda in Karnataka (757 to 973 A. D.) is considered as the most glorious and flourishing period in the history of Jainism in the Deccan.

(v) The Western Chalukya Rulers : From the 10th to the 12th Century A. D. the Western Chalukya rulers of Kalyani in Karnataka regained their ascendancy after the fall of the Rastrakutaas and preferred to show the same liberal attitude to Jainism which the Kadamas, the Gangas and the Rastrakutas had shown.

(vi) The Hoyasala Rulers : The Hoyasala rulers during their reign from 1006 to 1345 A. D. over their kingdom of Halebid in Karnataka did strongly extend their support to Jaina religion. In fact like the earlier Ganga kingdom, the Hoyasala kingdom in the 11th century also owed its creation to a Jaina saint by name Acharya Sudatta. Further it has been specifically reported that many of the Hoyasala kings and their General extended their patronage to Jainism and that they very carefully looked after the interests of the Jainas

(vii) Kalachuris of Kalyani : In addition to these major dynasties and their rulers it has been emphasised that the Kalachuri rulers (from 1156 to 1183 A. D.) of Kalyan were Jainas and naturally in their time Jainism was the state religion.

(viii) Minor Rulers : On the same lines the Alupa kings of Tuluva (i.e. modern South Kanara district of Karnataka) showed leanings towards Jainism and the inscriptions reveal that Jainism was patronised by these Alupa kings. Further, Jainism was the state religion of the minor states of Punnata, of the Santaras, the early Changalvas, and the Kongalvas, as testified by their inscriptions. Similarly, the Ratts of Saudati and Belgaum and the Silaharas of Kolhapur were Jainas by religion.

Thus from early ages various royal families came forward as champions of Jainism and it is no wonder if their example was followed by their feudatories.

(B) In Andhra and Tamilnadu : In the far South, Tamilnadu disclosed traces of Jaina domination almost everywhere and on many a roadside, a stone image of Tirthankara may be seen either standing or sitting cross-legged. From the ancient and important sangama literature and other archeological and epigraphic sources it is evident that Jainism flourished in the Tamil country from the earlier times intelligible with our present means. Jaina epigraphs have been discovered in Anantpur, Bellary, Cuddapah, Guntur, Krishna, Kurnool, Nellore, North Arcot, South Kanara, and Vizagapattam districts of former Madras Province. These Jaina epigraphs and other Jaina relics clearly indicate the larger vogue that Jainism once had in that part of the country.

Thus the whole of south India comprising the Deccan, Karnataka, Andhra and Tamilnadu was a great stronghold of Jainas, especially Digambaras Jainas, for more than one thousand years. Apart from the provincial capitals, Shravanabelgola in Karnataka was the centre of their activities and it occupies the same position even up to the present day. Jainism, however, began to decline in south India from the 12th century due to the growing importance of Srivaisnvism and Virasaivism.

3. Jainism in West India : Jainism had very close relation with western India, that is, Gujrat and Kathiawar, where we find the largest concentration of the Jainas at present. Here on the Mount Girnar in Junagarh district, Lord Neminatha, the 22nd Tirthankara of the Jainas, attained salvation. Here in the council of Jaina ascetics held at Valabhi in the year 993 after Lord Mahavira that is, in 466 A. D. the  Jaina canon was, for the first time reduced to writing. Just as south India is the stronghold of Digambaras Jainas, similarly, west India is the centre of activities of Swetambar Jainas.

Regarding the migration of Jainas to these parts of India, it is thought that the migrations must have taken place by 300 B. C. from Eastern India. In this connection the Cambridge History of India has give the following conclusion :

"From the facts that the Jainas tell us something about the reigns of Chandragupta Maurya and his son Bindusara but at the same time they have practically nothing to tell about the reigns of Asoka and his successors in East India and that the division of the Jaina Church into two great sects of the Digambaras and Swetambars had probably begun after the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. It is concluded that the Jainas were probably already  at this time, i.e., 300 B. C., gradually losing their position in the kingdom Maghada, and that  they had begun their migration towards the western part of India, where they settled and where they have retained their settlements to the present day."

(A) In Gujarat : Jainism flourished in Gujarat during the days of Rastrakuta monarchs, many of whom were devout Jainas, and it received a further fillip at the hands of that veteran Jaina ruler Vanaraja of Chavada family. About 1100 A. D., Jainism gained a great ascendancy when the Chalukya king Siddharaja and his successor Kumarpala openly professed Jainism and encouraged the literary and temple building activities of the Jainas.

During the days of Baghelas in the 13th century A. D. Jainism received patronage through the hands of Vastupala and Tejapala, the two famous Jaina ministers of the time. They were responsible for constructing the beautiful temple cities at Satrunjaya, Girnar and Abu.

Afterwards even though Jainism did not receive the royal patronage as before, still it continued to hold its position and the numerical and financial strength of Jainas gave their religion a place of honour which is acknowledge even to this day.

(B) In Maharashtra : As in Gujrat, in the region of Maharashtra also the Jaina religion had settled and flourished from ancient time. In Jaina religion the siddha-ksetras, that is, the places from where Jaina saints and great souls had attained salvation, are considered sacred and ancient places of veneration and such siddha-ksetras are found at as many as four places in  Maharashtra, that is, at Gajapantah (Dist. Nasik), Mangitungi (Dist. Khandesh), Kunthalagiri (Distt. Osmanabad) and Muktagiri (Dist. Amroati). In this connection it is worthwhile to note that such a siddhakestra is not there in the entire area of south India. Further, it is evident from ancient Prakrit Jaina literature that Lord Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, had visited the Marathavada region of Maharashtra during his religious propagation tour of different parts of India. Moreover, in Jaina religion the mountain-caves and cave-temples are considered more ancient and sacred and in northern India such Jaina caves are found only in Udaygiri and Khandagiri hills in Orissa. But in Maharashtra such ancient cave-temples, in developed forms, are found at Ellora (Dist. Aurangabad), Ter (Distt. Osmanabad), Anjaneri (Distt. Nasik) and at many other places in the interior areas. In this respect it is asserted from recent archaeological researches that out of total number of Jaina caves and cave-temples in India, Maharashtra has got the largest number, that is more than 75 percent. Again, it is pertinent to note that from ancient times the seats of respected Bhattarkas, that is, religious heads, and their mathas, that is, monasteries were located at different places in Maharashtra like Kolhapur and Nandini in Western region, Latur in Marathavada region and Karanja and Nagpur in Vidarbha region in Maharashtra. Similarly it is quite clear from literary evidences that from ancient times most renowned and influential Jaina saints like Acharya Samantabhadra, Virsena, Jinasena and Somadeva were intimately connected with Maharashtra also and had composed their sacred works and literary masterpieces in this region. Furthermore, it is remarkable to find that before the advent of Muslim rule in Maharashtra, continuously from the 3rd century A. D., the powerful ruling dynasties like the Satavahanas of Paithan, Chalukyas of Kalyan, Rastrakutas of Malakhed, Yadavas of Devagiri and Silaharas of Kolhapur and Konkan had extended their royal patronage, in a large measure to Jaina religion.

As a result we find that the Jainas and the Jaina religion had a prestigious position in Maharashtra during the ancient and medieval periods. The same position is continued to the present day and in this regard it is pertinent to note that the largest proportion of Jaina population in India today is found in Maharashtra. According to 1981 Census of India, out of the total Jaina population of 32, 06, 038 in India, the largest number of Jainas, viz., 9, 39, 392 are in Maharashtra and next to Maharashtra the population of Jainas in other states is Rajasthan (6, 24, 317), Gujarat (4, 67, 768), Madhya Pradesh (4, 44, 490), Karnataka (2, 97, 974), Uttar Pradesh (1, 41, 549) and Delhi (73, 917). It means that out of total Jaina population in India the largest, that is, 29.3 percent Jainas are in Maharashtra followed by 19.5 percent in Rajasthan, 14.6 percent in Gujarat and 13.9 percent in Madhya Pradesh. In other words, as many as 43.9 percent of the total Jainas in India are concentrated in Western India comprising the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. It is thus evident that western India is the stronghold of Jaina religion.

4. Jainism in North India : When by 300 B. C. the migration of Jainas began from eastern India to different parts of the country, one of their branches was firmly established in north India from the middle of the second century B. C. and was settled in the Mathura region. What Sravanbelagola was to the Jainas of south, Mathura, in the old kingdom of Surasenas, was to the Jainas of North. the numerous inscriptions excavated in this city tell us about a widespread and firmly established Jaina religion, strongly supported by pious lay devotees and very zealous in the consecration and worship of images and shrines dedicated to Lord Mahavira and his predecessors. As these inscriptions range from the 2nd century B.C. to the 5th A. D. It is clear that Mathura was a stronghold of Jainas for nearly a thousand years.

Another centre of Jaina activities in the North was Ujjayini. It was the capital of Maurya Emperor Samprati who was the Jaina Asoka. Since we find several reference to Ujjayini in the Jaina literature, it seems that the city might have played and important role in the history of Jaina religion.

The archaeological and other evidences brought to light from different parts of north and central India establish close relations of various rulers with Jainism. During the Mohammedan  period Jainism could not get the royal and popular support as it used to receive before but it succeeded in holding its own without much trouble. Jainas even could secure some concessions for their holy places and practices from the liberal minded Mughal emperors like Akbar the Great and Jahangir.  

It is recorded that emperor Akbar was very favorably inclined towards the Jaina religion. In the 1583 A. D. he made animal slaughter during the paryusana days a capital offence throughout his vast empire. This tolerant policy of the Great Moghal was revoked by his successor Jahangir. A deputation of the Jainas which visited Jahangir in 1610 A. D. was able to secure a new imperial firman or rescript under which the slaughter of animals was again prohibited during the days of paryusana.

During the Mohammedan period, however, the Jainas particularly increased in the native States of Rajputana, where they came to occupy many important offices under the state as generals and ministers. In this connection Col. Tod remarks that:

"The officers of the state and revenue are chiefly of the Jaina laity. The Chief Magistrate and assessors of Justice in Udaipur and most of the towns of Rajasthan, are of this sect. Many of the ancient cities where this religion  was fostered, have inscriptions which evince their prosperity in these countries, wherewith their own history is interwoven. In fine, the necrological records of the Jainas bear witness to their having occupied a distinguished place in Rajput society; and the privileges they still enjoy, prove that they are not overlooked." (Vide Col. Tod, J. : Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Vol. II, pp. 603-605).



Source : Article from "Aspects of Jaina Religion" By Dr. Vilas A. Sangave


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