A Jain perspective on food, fasting and liberation

Non-violence as a core philosophy and a vegetarian diet as one of its outcomes are the two most well-known aspects of the Jain community. Practicing Jains from all sects and subsects are strict vegetarians. Jains who are engaged in any kind of active spiritual pursuit will even avoid vegetables which grow underground and animal-derived foods such as honey or dairy products.

Though exact diet may vary, vegetarianism is often an object of asserting social and traditional identity for Jains.

An overview of changing attitudes towards food
Ancient Indians, including the Vedic people, ate animals and animal products. From a historical perspective, the relationship of the Vedic people with the natural world including animals have been guided by a pastoral lifestyle. For example, cattle have been praised from the earliest Vedas and have over time gathered more strict ritual significance. On the other hand, animal sacrifice is a component of early Vedic practices. There are also specific merits associated with sharing food and especially the sanctified meat of sacrificed animals. Food was ritualized and also associated with celebrations. Eventually, access to such foods and sacrificial material also determined one’s place in society. The priestly brahmins, by their authority over diet and rituals, commanded some social and material clout.

Not all Vedic brahmins were priests. Many brahmins were simply scholars, others were renunciants who lived in huts outside society and performed fire rituals, and there were wandering ascetics similar to sramanas who forsook all belongings except some simple clothing and a few personal items such as a begging bowl or articles of religious use. The renunciant brahmins would often gather food by begging or from the forest.

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Over time, various ethnic and religious groups became vegetarian and vegetarianism became a matter of spiritual purity even amongst laypeople. Through much of history, sramana religions such as Jainism and Buddhism has played a role in this transition.

In contemporary India, many cultural groups including some categories of brahmins and a vast majority of other people do eat different kinds of non-vegetarian food. However, much of the staple food for even non-vegetarians is essentially plant matter. The idea of having a portion of meat as the central item and some small portions of sides to accompany that is a relatively young idea in India; it is limited to small groups of people. There still are more vegetarians in India than in all other countries, combined.

Sramana opposition to the brahmin view of castes
Early indigenous literature from both sramana and brahmin schools explicitly recognized the many shared or comparable features and concepts, but also clearly identified each other as rival philosophical systems. Sramana religions opposed the priestly brahmins and the Vedic caste system.

Over time, the caste system is thought to have become somewhat established along the lines of birth. Unlike brahmins, the sramanas allowed renunciates from all castes. Sudras and those outside the caste system had much more agency under the sramanas.

In the Jain worldview, there is no creator-god and animal sacrifices have negative consequences. Souls, however, are potentially divine, possessing singular knowledge and capable of attaining liberation from a cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. For the sramanas, aspects like birth, gods, society, wealth or anything outside one’s own agency cannot meaningfully hinder spiritual access as long as the philosophies and ethics are followed properly. For Jains in particular, diet is one major indication of such ethical excellence.

The philosophies behind Jain food
Food mostly has no ritual significance for a Jain. It is viewed merely as the physical materials needed to sustain one’s own body. These materials are thought to contain souls within them. In fact, Jain thinkers speak of souls at different stages of growth not only in various categories of animals, but also in plants, in microscopic life-forms and in physical substances in their natural state, such as water and earth.

Thus, all beings who acquire food directly or indirectly cause fear, damage and death to other beings. This is problematic from a Jain perspective because violence of any kind is thought to bind the soul to existence. However, because of realistic limitations, the Jain worldview allows the minimal violence that is inevitably committed towards some plants and microbes. In any case, from the Jain perspective, violence towards animals and higher beings for food can be avoided.

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Amongst the sramanas, there are many injunctions related to food and eating which goes beyond a mere list of permissible edibles. Ascetics in particular are ideally expected consume cooked food and water that has been boiled and strained by laypeople and given willingly. The food is also to be ideally gathered from leftovers and from multiple houses to prevent shortages; this also prevents any undue favour or attachment towards any particular household. Food must never be eaten after sunset to ensure that it is not contaminated with small beings. Some of these rules also set sramanas apart from Vedic ascetics, who often either begged for, gathered or cooked their own food, and some of whom ate after sunset.

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Of all the various impulses that cause a soul to be ensnared in the world, the desire to consume and more specifically the desire to eat are thought to be amongst most primal ones. This aspect of life is often a cause for philosophical, mythical and social concern to Jains. Hence, the Jain diet looks to restrict rather than prescribe how one should gather food and what one should eat.

Mythical indicators of historical diets
In the earliest available Jain literature which trickles down from a few centuries before the common era, the regulations for being a Jain ascetic or layperson were less strict. Over time, the regulations became more specific. Manuals about suitable food and elaborate protocols for laypeople as well as ascetics seem to be present from at least the 11th century CE onwards.

Despite some scholarly controversy around early Jain diets, the primary and only surviving view of Jain food is characterized by strict frugal vegetarianism and a preoccupation with removing microbes.

Jain mythologies threaded around the subject of food exemplify the Jain diet and often serve as cautionary tales against the consumption of animals and animal products. There are tales where eating meat leads to cannibalism and descriptions of hells for such sins. There are tales of how both real and metaphorical hungers can persist in a soul over many lifetimes. There are tales around Jain figures being given suitable food by virtuous laypeople. Even Jain sects are divided on the subject of whether an enlightened human being still has the need to eat or not.

The sramanas often morally distinguished themselves from brahmins on the basis of the more rigorous non-violence contained within their own food practices. Historically, the Jains and Buddhists were often responsible for stopping animal sacrifice and restricting animal slaughter. Jains in particular are critical of even Buddhist diet, where the strictness of vegetarianism varies by sect, geographical region and the state of being a layperson or an ascetic.

A Jain view of fasting
In Jainism, instead of food, fasting takes on a magical or ritualistic aspect. The elaborate rules about food merely ensure that one has a system to gradually eat as little as one can; not eating prevents new violences and entanglements.

The Jain focus on fasting becomes clearer when one looks at the examples and reasoning provided within Jain literature. Mahavira himself is said to have fasted for extraordinarily long periods, and fasting is a critical part of Jain spiritual pursuit. Jain festivals incorporate fasting as a central element as does all of Jain mythology.

Meditative fasting itself is said to generate inner spiritual heat, which quickens the process ripening and dissolution of existing bondages of the soul. Often, the merit of various good actions are measured by scaling them against the merit one would acquire by fasting for a number of days.

Even amongst contemporary Jain laypeople, frequent or occasional fasting is very common as a part of tradition, spiritual practice and routine life.

Food and the spread of Jainism
Compared to other religions, Jain ethical and dietary regulations seem intimidating to many. Over time, this perception has taken a toll on its popularity. Moreover, the broader reach of Jainism has been relatively restricted because Jain ascetics have historically been limited in their wandering on foot and teaching only in those regions where suitable edibles are available. Jain ascetics often prefer fasting or even starvation to death over unfit food or drink.

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Through Jain history, the spread of Jainism has been closely related with the flourish of lay patrons of Jainism. This was clearly critical to Jains; there are anecdotes and myths which indicate the dedication of kings and traders towards fostering a suitable laity so that Jain monks, who are epitomes of dedication to the Jain ideal, can travel and preach. This is markedly different from the category of food myths in other religions where proper food may be made available by some divine or miraculous agency.

The exact rules and vows of gathering food have slight variations, but ascetics from all sects depend on suitable food given specifically by virtuous laypeople. These laypeople are usually understood to be people from within the Jain community or in some cases it may include anyone who meets certain ethical criteria. The conflation of ethics, diet and the qualification of laypeople eventually has had the effect of creating social hierarchy that mirrors the brahmin worldview.

A sramana view of diet and caste
Though the sramanas philosophically opposed the brahmin view of castes, the actual relationship between the sramanas and Hindu society is quite nuanced and is entangled with food practices.

The sramanas from Mahavira and Buddha’s time onwards often describe society in brahmin terms. Prominent sramana leaders of the time are said to have come primarily from the kshatriya and secondarily from amongst brahmins themselves. In fact, anecdotes and historical figures of converted brahmins are plentiful. These reflect the rivalry between the brahmins and other upper classes and the inner dissonance amongst brahmins themselves in Vedic society.

The earliest extant Jain literature often appeals to good sramanas and brahmins to adhere to ethics and a meditative life. Similarly, in sramana mythology, Hindu gods often attend to the sramana teachers and assist them in different ways. There are heavens reserved for non-believers who adhere to certain ethical precepts even with certain faults in worldview. This ultimately indicates a willingness on the part of the sramana to accommodate both faith and individuals from the very social order that they denounced and questioned.

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Thus, while the sramanas do question the basis of social hierarchy and order, they do tacitly agree that people following the most ethical actions have the highest place in society and thus a social order exists on that basis.

In case of Jains, this distinction is codified through diet. There is a sharp disapproval of those who cause injury to living beings and consume meat and animal products, often on the broad basis of profession. As a result, a strong social and cultural overlap is found with the brahmins who also often exalt vegetarianism. On the other hand, it also creates a shared disdain amongst Jains and Hindu brahmins about lower castes who work with animal products or consume meat, fish and eggs.

A softer world
This worldview should be understood in the context that despite clarifying a basis for social order and outlining indications of moral virtue, ethical instructions in the sramana system ultimately clearly exalt human beings. According to sramanas, all human beings are to be treated with thoughtful kindness, and no violence, direct or indirect, is to be allowed and ultimately any human has a greater chance of liberation than other beings.

Jain ascetics depend on Jain laypeople and Jain laypeople depend on non-Jains. This dependence is also encoded through the ambiguous indirect violence that is inevitably associated with food and eating.

Since Jain ascetics are advised to not ask for anything, including food, the Jain laity are expected to offer food to ascetics on their own. The laity are also expected to understand the strict codes of how food should be prepared, what food can be given to ascetics, under what conditions and how.

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The violence in the act of cooking and its mild consequence is shifted from the ascetic to the layperson, and more specifically to the women who cook the food. Similarly, Jain laity are not expected to pursue agriculture and the slight consequence for the violence of tilling soil or for harvesting produce is shifted to non-Jain peasants.

In the Jain view of society, both non-Jains who provide food as well as Jain laywomen who actually maintain the kitchen take a philosophical backseat.

Women, food and Jainism
The role of women in many Indic cultures have been a subject of tumult and controversy throughout history and it remains so in the present day. By Mahavira and Buddha’s time, the social position of women had become somewhat unfavourable, and their access to philosophy and religion was often restricted. Compared to Vedic society, women within the sramana traditions had more agency and equality. Irrespective, Jain mythology has a somewhat secondary place for women, especially in the area of asceticism.

However, women play a culturally significant role. Especially in contemporary Jain society, women are the keepers of the lay rituals, and often perform fasts and follow festivals and penances more rigorously than men do. This is especially true because of traditional division of gender roles, where Jain women are able to stay home and pursue the faith more deeply.

Jain women are also expected to know how to prepare food in accordance with the Jain tenets. These skills, familiarity with tradition and the depth of their religious devotion are often thought of as indicators of the piety of the entire family.

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In each Jain family, therefore, it is usually the women who are responsible for the preservation of the Jain practice and identity through the agencies of food, festivals and fasting. Significantly, the cooked, permissible food that is given by a layperson to the ascetic is also controlled by the women in a household. This particular food, as we discussed briefly earlier, is a critical link in Jain society.

Thus, it may be said that Jain women are the keepers of Jain culture in general and uphold the grammar of food in particular, which is turn is critical to the Jain understanding of social order.

Contemporary conflicts with other communities
In India in general, food is still entangled with religion, society and politics in a way that lies far outside its value as the mere source of physical nourishment.

Historically, the sramanas are responsible for getting suitable non-violence and food-related enforcements through the agency of patron kings and states. For example, Buddhist philosophies led Ashoka to implement benevolent rules for all animals and plants in his kingdom, and Jains played a hand in tempering Akbar’s treatment towards animals and for getting animal slaughter banned in certain areas during certain holy periods.

While the sramanas are understood to have caused a certain balancing of food habits in the subcontinent, their approaches do not always translate easily during contemporary times. Recently, Jains have played a role in some controversial bans and obstructions to the food eaten by non-Jains. These sramana practices and efforts often stem from philosophical grounds of compassion towards animals or sometimes from a sense of moral righteousness. Ritual sacredness of animals or even an affront against other identity groups do not usually drive these ideas. Irrespective of intentions, the social and political implications cannot be ignored.

Often, affordable meat and eggs are a rich source of protein and nourishment for the poorest segments of Indian society. More significantly, specific foods contain historically significant cultural value for most groups of people. Interference with such matters entails cultural and social overreach. This is problematic not only from a non-Jain view, but also from a Jain perspective which recommends against violence in thought, speech and action; forcible imposition of one’s worldview on other people is quite outside the Jain way of life. Moreover, the disdain towards meat eaters sometimes has led to controversial social behaviours, such as the ostracization of non-vegetarians by some Jain societies.

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Another source of oddly specific misunderstandings stems from some of the overlaps of the Jain and the vegan diet. This is a superficial similarity, and the motivations, methods, outcomes, pragmatic considerations and the sociocultural fits for both diets are different. It is unfair to both communities to yoke them together casually.

Despite these problematic issues, the Jain approach to food resonates deeply with large-scale problems of today.

Food, environment and Jainism
In Jain philosophy, there are elements that indicate ecological understanding, but it is not appropriate to posit that Jainism and contemporary scientific or political environmentalism as essentially the same.

The scientific views and sensitive political interests seek to gracefully preserve the world while Jain ethics seek to gracefully liberate an individual from the world. The behavioural outcomes of both views, however, converge favourably. Many progressive contemporary Jains find a natural alliance with activists who work on ecological issues or those who promote sustainable lifestyles.

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Contemporary crises of food and agricultural practices include severely faulty distribution, wastage and an immense ecological as well as individual impact. India is a contributor, but many practices by affluent nations highlight the problems with heavy agriculture and industry. For example, the mechanized meat and agriculture industries especially as established in many affluent nations are thought to be amongst the leading causes of climate change which in turn is considered to be the greatest ecological crisis facing the world today.

These industries, whether built around plant or animal matter, are exceedingly cruel towards animals, which are killed either because they are considered pests or because they are considered objects of harvest. Monocultures and systematic animal farming also eventually have negative effects on society. Moreover, meat-heavy diets are observed to have negative effects on individual health.

There are many progressive Jains who draw from their cultural sensitization and work on local and sustainable food and agriculture and oppose potentially hazardous practices like genetic modification of food by corporations, industrial farming and especially the animal product and meat industries.

A meaningful meal
Jainism, however, is not just about its restrictions, dietary or otherwise. It has a rich inner philosophy, a sophisticated way of viewing the world and significant practical outcomes driven by its ethical system. Even looking at contemporary society without the explanations offered by Jainism, it is not difficult to understand that excesses of various kinds are the root of private and social troubles. Even leading secular thinkers today harp on the the seemingly religious notes of thoughtfulness, restraint and ethical actions that avoid causing suffering to others.

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The soul and its liberation and their relationships with food are matters of faith, of private experience, of religious practice and of contemplative debate. However, one perspective to consider is that thoughtful eating may free a person from economic pressures fuelled by excess or expensive food, from the negative ecological effects of heavy agriculture and from the poor health created by unbalanced diets and synthetic eatables.

Little can be said of liberation from this world, but policies of the plate may be a key factor to liberation within this world.


Text and images: Anveshan
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The ancient roots of Jainism

Jainism and Buddhism are not offshoots or versions of Hinduism. They are not even protest movements or heretical groups that developed on the basis of opposing Hinduism. Both of them are the living versions of what in India was once famous as the sramana tradition.

To understand this, we must understand that the terms Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are reasonably contemporary, but the traditions they represent are multiple and their histories span thousands of years.

The many things that are Hinduism
Hinduism in particular has come to include all kinds of belief and practice systems, often from entirely different groups of people with different ethnic and social histories. These often meld into each other on the basis of shared concepts and the constant revisioning, reinterpretation and inclusive expansion of the Hindu literature and philosophy. The dominant voice of Hinduism, however, has often come from the brahminical tradition. The brahmins in particular are often viewed as a priestly class who were and still are considered by many as the custodians of the Vedic religion and the systems derived from it. This thread of faith is traced both traditionally and historically to the Vedas, which are considered the oldest Hindu texts. The Vedic people are thought to have slowly migrated into India over a long period from the north-west.

Over time, through a process of churning and assimilation of local cultures, there formed the currently recognizable mix of the six major branches of ‘orthodox’ Hindu philosophy and significantly different ideas. These include various kinds of Shaiva, Shakta and other forms of god and goddess worship, animistic beliefs and other systems of belief, faith and philosophical positions. Each category has an entire gamut of sects and subsects.

The sramanas
The term ‘sramana‘ comes from the word ‘sram‘ or ‘labour’, and means ‘someone who performs labour’. The term is thought to indicate someone who depends on their own hard work for attaining their spiritual goal. The sramanas represented a collection of thinkers, the common features amongst whom include the questioning of ideas about social order, divinity and the cosmos. All of them also had a focus on contemplative living and individual thought, speech and action in relation to a world with underlying principles. Sramana teachers are noted for their renunciation of Vedic society and the authority of the Vedas. Vedic commentators describe sramanas as ‘nastika’ or ‘non-believers’.

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Sramanas were characterized by their groups of ascetics who lived and studied together as an order. The sramanas also had very austere lives with strict ethical codes for both ascetics as well lay followers. Most notably, all sramana schools were mostly non-theistic, or at best, had secondary and tertiary places for gods and cosmic beings. Early Buddhist literature identifies six sramana schools; new schools usually formed around charismatic teachers. Some of the sramana schools such as Buddhism were younger than what we may call Hinduism, but there may have been many older traditions.

Blurry beginnings
One of the sramana sects, in particular, has traditionally claimed a pre-Vedic, indigenous antiquity. The early Buddhists knew them as the nirgranthas and we know them as the Jains. During Buddha’s time, Mahavira was the teacher who championed the nirgrantha ascetics. Parsvanath, the nirgrantha teacher preceding Mahavira, is also considered historical, though the number of years that passed between Parsvanath and Mahavira is debated. Archaeological evidence for pre-Vedic sramanas in particular is bleak, but it is clear that the Indian subcontinent had several well-settled civilizations, tribes and communities with rich cultures well before the semi-nomadic, pastoral Vedic migrants began to move in.

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The motifs in nirgrantha mythology also indicate an ancient past. The first teacher and spiritual leader of the community, Adinath or Rishabhdev, is thought to have taught people, amongst other things, the concepts of agriculture, animal husbandry, settlements, marriage and families. One may ignore the literal aspects of the mythology, but it indicates that the community may hark from a time when people were beginning to settle down. It is also interesting to note that while the mythological Adinath teaches people to settle down and the historical Mahavira teaches people to renounce society, there are connecting motifs between their teachings such as attention towards all aspects of nature, non-violence towards all beings and ethical rigour in all actions.

On the basis of the remarkable differences between the Vedic and the sramana philosophies, the presence of poorly-understood pre-Vedic cultures in general and various indications within mythology, many historians agree that the sramana tradition is indeed indigenous and pre-Vedic, though the exact origins and early history are not known and cannot be established from existing evidence.

Jainism today
Traditionally, the highest teachers of Jainism who attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death are thought to have conquered the world and their own selves, and are known as ‘jina’ or ‘victor’. The term ‘Jain’ comes from the word ‘jina’.

The current view of the Jain philosophy holds that there is no creator-god, the universe is uncreated, eternal and cyclical. All beings are dependent on each other, and have potentially divine souls who can attain liberation on the basis of the ethical quality of their own actions. Truth is thought to have multiple perspectives, and is thought to be only partially comprehensible to ordinary beings. The view of some kind of a singular truth or kevalgyan is thought to be restricted to liberated beings. The path to liberation is thought comprise of the right vision, the right knowledge and the right conduct. Conduct in the form of thought, speech and action is thought to have a real as well as spiritual outcome, measured by karma. A being is liberated when they are able to rid themselves of all karma.

The ethics for being a Jain are thought to be well-codified in the five precepts of ahinsa or non-violence, aparigraha or restrained consumption, asteya or non-stealing, satya or truth and brahmacharya or sexual restraint. Ethical instructions also go into specific details of thoughtful conduct, such as how to treat food or waste. The Jain thinkers also have their own categorization of beings in the world, from microorganisms to plants to animals and humans. Behaviours of and towards each category is also outlined. Meditative contemplation in general and towards all aspects of one’s life is emphasized for a fruitful pursuit of these ethics.

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The culture and external trappings of contemporary Jain tradition incorporates many elements that the inner, ripened philosophy of it denounces. These include rituals, idol-worship, chants, temples, unquestioned obedience of scriptures and any form of symbolic or superstitious activity. As the Jain way of life spread and gained converts, it had to incorporate existing ways of the converted community by recasting them through a Jain worldview. For example, the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have Jain versions which take focus away from divine and semi-divine entities and try to depict the characters as human beings and posit the Jain ideals as the highest goals of life.

There are several sects and subsects of Jainism today, all of which share a majority of beliefs, including the innermost philosophies and ethical principles. The differences are over technical, mythological, historical, interpretive and other issues, none of which indicate a large departure from the fundamental basis of the Jain way of life. Once a major community, Jains today account for only a minuscule fraction of India’s population of more than 1.2 billion. Jainism is now recognized as a minority religion in India.


Text and images: Anveshan
The cover image of this article is taken from Wikimedia Commons, based on an image by Anish Shah. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
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Brahmi: the mother of all Indic scripts

A message for all
Jain lore holds that when Mahavira attained enlightenment, he did not speak right away. He gave his first sermon after more than two months of silence[1][2]. To hear the Jina speak, not only humans, but all beings assembled in a specially created hall, which included lakes for the aquatic creatures. The message was understood by each in their own language[4][5][6].

A beautiful tale, it perhaps brings out the deep relationship between knowledge and language, and the glory of speaking in a way that everyone understands.

It is perhaps no surprise that Mahavira most likely spoke and preached in Ardha-magadhi, which is often thought to be one of the most commonly spoken languages of the time. Mahavira was championing not just the essence and the truth of life, but also the language and the way in which it is shared amongst people[7][8][9][10][11][12].

Access to language is critical to not only the relationship between thinkers and laypeople, but also to the lives and professions of lay individuals, and eventually to the fabric of the society they are in.

Language and script
Languages and scripts are not the same thing. Languages are spoken and each language may have subgroups, such as dialects. Many languages today can be written down, and the writing system is known as the script. One language may be written in multiple scripts, and one script may be used to write multiple languages. The origins of language in particular can be difficult to trace because language mostly requires no physical medium. Scripts have physical evidence to back them up, but written material represents a very small part of all language. Moreover, only a tiny fraction of that material has been recovered and read so far. This is especially true the further we go back in history; the earliest languages that we know of had no scripts to begin with. Nonetheless, both are critical to our understanding of both the past as well as the present moment.

Common tongues
To understand society in any context, historical or otherwise, It is, therefore, important to understand the common tongues and the social direction the keepers of those languages may have encouraged.

In ancient India, Sanskrit was an important language. Though its roots are not known, it has existed for thousands of years in Vedic and later in Classical forms. In contemporary popular culture, Sanskrit is sometimes understood to be the mother of all languages and the major tongue spoken by a majority of ancient Indians[14]. This, however, is not an entirely accurate view[13].

Sanskrit was the language of Vedic rituals and learning, and in certain stretches of history, it was most likely restricted to the priestly and scholarly classes. While the answers to the natural queries that people have about their place in the world were derived from the Vedas, the Vedas and these answers themselves were captured in Sanskrit. Since everyone didn’t follow Sanskrit, large parts of the population faced a kind of philosophical vacuum. This was naturally filled by thinkers and leaders who spoke in more familiar languages[12][13][14].

Large parts of the population in the subcontinent spoke various dialects, each of which have their own histories and characteristics. These dialects are collectively known by contemporary scholars as Prakrit, or ‘natural language’. It is no surprise that the earliest Jains and Buddhists not only spoke and preached, but also composed their literature in various Prakrits. Like Sanskrit, the origins of Prakrit are unknown, and their early evolution is not well-understood.

The preference of Prakrits over Sanskrit amongst the earliest Jains indicate a step away from the conversations centred around gods, rituals and priests to conversations centred around people, nature and one’s own actions.

Coupled with the relative philosophical simplicity of Jain and Buddhist ideas, the immediate connection created with large masses of people through preachings in easy language was critical for these traditions to succeed[3][12][15][16][18].

Traditions of knowledge
The connection that Jains in particular have with language runs deeper than the initial common ground that the ascetics shared on the basis of a common tongue. This connection stems from the very philosophical depths of Jainism, that is the pursuit of liberation and a potentially absolute truth: Jain thinkers attach the highest importance to categorizing, recording, and teaching the various philosophies and ethics about the world.

Jain philosophy is often simplified and explained for laypeople. These documents have extremely meticulous instructions regarding how one can live a non-violent life. There are instructions for all aspects of life, including food, agriculture and even the handling of waste. Each such instruction on ethics was eventually formalized, composed and later written down into collected works. Jains emphasize learning and correct knowledge in general and they also commend learning truths that one obtains through spiritual practice.

Jains look at Mahavira for ethical ideals. His quest for truth and his life of teaching are Jain ideals as well. Mahavira is known to have been a strict disciplinarian. The Jain preoccupation with categorizing knowledge, writing and education are reflective of Mahavira’s systematic approach to enlightenment.

Even the ideal of Jain asceticism is mainly built around knowledge and conduct rather than belief and ritual[3][12][15][16]. However, despite the Jain tradition of learning, the earliest surviving Jain documents are from hundreds of years after Mahavira.

An ancient writing system
The lack of early writing is not entirely to be ascribed to negligence or historical losses of any kind. The reason is that Indian culture hinged heavily on oral traditions of knowledge which were passed down through generations. Language wasn’t written down for a long time[19][21]. It is, however, significant that the earliest writings found in the Indian subcontinent are in Prakrit and not in Sanskrit[22].

This indicates that not only did Jain and Buddhist leaders have a great agency over society of the time, but it also means that by the time Sanskrit began to be written down, scripts were already ripened on the basis of writing local dialects. The language of the Vedic gentry would eventually come to stand on the scripts championed by their rivals, the Jains and the Buddhists.

The script in which earliest Jain documents are found is known to have existed for a very long time in the subcontinent, and its origins are not agreed on. It may have existed since before the 5th century BCE, though the early dates are not well-settled. More concrete evidence is available from the 3rd century BCE onwards. Connections to Aramic and the Indus Script have been proposed by various scholars, though the exact relationships, and the proportion of influences are unclear[21][23][24].

In any case, the script survived from ancient times till hundreds of years later. Known as Brahmi, it is the earliest deciphered script found in the subcontinent. The earliest epigraphic references to the Jains, such as the 7th pillar edict of Ashoka or the inscription at Hathigumpha are also in Brahmi[25].

Written by each in their own language
Evidences for early regional variants of Brahmi are as early as the evidence for Brahmi itself[26][27]. Over hundreds of years, Brahmi developed subfamilies, each with their own subgroups and variants, each of which often corresponds to geographical regions and to local languages or dialects.

Prakrit written in Brahmi are amongst the earliest deciphered texts that can be found in India. By comparison, written evidence for Sanskrit is found much later. Sanskrit was mainly an oral language, and the prime Sanskrit text, the Vedas, were probably not written down for several hundreds of years. It is interesting to note that some of the earliest written Sanskrit material, like for example the 1st century CE inscription at Junagadh by Rudradaman, is written in Brahmi or in scripts derived from Brahmi.

The Brahmi family-tree
Topological representation of the partial, condensed tree


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Click to expand this image

Access to language and script are key to social mobility
Brahmi, however, is primarily associated with the Prakrit languages. This is an important insight into ancient Indian society; those who wrote in Prakrits must have been witnessing and possibly influencing common society closely.

Classical scriptures such as Sanskrit are orally taught and must be memorized permanently; this takes a long time. It may become limited to only those who dedicatedly learn such material. By comparison, material written in a common language using a common script is easier to transmit. In this way, people who would otherwise be caught up in daily life get access to philosophical literature more easily, which in turn has the effect of altering the way they live their lives.

In this light, the role Mahavira, Buddha, and Jains and Buddhists in general becomes clearer. That the Jain and Buddhist ways of life took hold in the subcontinent evident in the prominent threads of non-violence and systematic vegetarianism that India has today.

Rich legacies
The legacy, however, is not just in the way many people think and live in India—it is also within the language and script themselves. All contemporary Indic writing systems, in the north, east, west and south, as well as many other Asian writing systems are traced back to Brahmi. The descendents of Brahmi include Devanagari, Tamil, Tibetan, and Thai[29][30]. All these scripts and the languages written using them were nourished and patronized by Jain and Buddhist ascetics.

The earliest writing system for Tamil, for example, is thought to be indicated in some Jain works as ‘Damili’. Damili is thought to be a reference to the Tamil-Brahmi system. Inscriptions found on cave-temples also indicated a close early relationship between Tamil-Brahmi, Jain religious writing, and proto-Tamil[32][33][34][35].

Similarly, some of the earliest preserved writing in Kannada are Jain religious works. In parallel, the writing system in Kannada is derived from Brahmi. Moreover, most of early Kannada literature in general were composed by Jains. The three gems of Kannada poetry, Pampa, Ranna and Ponna were all Jains[36][37][38].

Jain writing, however, does not exclude Sanskrit. One of the most important Jain documents, the Tattvartha Sutra is also the first Jain scripture to be written in Sanskrit. This is the most important scripture considered canon by all sects of Jains. Its author, Umasvati, is often described as the first Jain author in Sanskrit[39]. However, anecdotes about later Jain authors such as Siddhasena Divakara reveal another side.

In one such account, Siddhasena Divakara is either exiled or instructed to penance for twelve years for offering to translate all Jain literature to Sanskrit. This account is found much later after Siddhasena’s time. The story may or may not have a basis in an actual event, but it does indicate that there existed at some point a marked difference and rivalry between the Sanskrit and Prakrit traditions[31]. In any case, Sanskrit eventually got integrated into the Jain sphere.

As younger languages emerged, Jain thinkers pioneered them as well. For example, one Banarasidas has many works in one dialect of Hindi[37]. These are considered to be amongst the important early works in the language. Hemachandra, an important Jain ascetic and teacher in the 12th century CE, is considered a seminal figure in the development of both the Rajasthani and Gujarati languages[37][40].

It is significant to note that a number of languages have deeper roots in local dialects rather than Sanskrit. Moreover, even the ones which essentially have a base in Sanskrit borrow very heavily from Prakrits and also have several post-Sanskrit components, all of which continue to have influences of non-Vedic traditions including Jainism well into the late medieval era.

Amongst existing languages, on the basis of literary evidence, it may be said that Jain thinkers and scribes influenced Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Telugu, Oriya, Hindi, Gujarati, and Rajasthani language and literature directly or indirectly[28][37][41]. If one extends support from parallel evidence, like the extant script systems or archaeological finds, then it may be said that Jainism must have influenced practically every major linguistic-cultural thread in India in some way, though the exact mechanics of these influences may not always be clearly established.

A wealth of words
Jains continue to remain pioneers of learning and language even today. The Koba library in Gujarat contains more than 200,000 manuscripts from all across India from the early medieval era onwards. Padamsagar Suri ji, a Jain ascetic and the mentor at Koba started this vast collection through his own hands-on effort where he walked around the country and collected manuscripts as he encountered them. Many of these are rare, and many more are yet untranslated. The documents are preserved in air-tight vaults and are restored using non-violent techniques in line with Jain ideals.

The relationship of languages, scripts, societies and various Jain and Buddhist pioneers is fundamental to understanding the history of the subcontinent, and more broadly, to understanding how ideas and knowledge can have deep and wide impacts not only by the force of their content, but also by the force of the messenger and the medium.


Text and diagram: Anveshan
The cover image of this article is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
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A festival of forgiveness

Monsoons in India are traditionally understood to be the four months of rain that visits this subtropical part of the world.

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A country which has relied through history on its rich flora and agriculture, the monsoons are a time of plenty. Over a long and rich history, plenitude became festivity, eventually interwoven with religious and cultural practices.

The small, loosely knit community of Jains celebrate this season in a slightly different way.

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One of the ideals of the Jain tradition is restrained appetite – material, gastronomic, and otherwise.

A cornerstone of the Jain tradition is the awareness of the delicate interdependence of all things in this world, summarized in their motto, “parasparopagraho jivanam“. To conduct oneself well in the context of the interconnected nature of reality, Jains are encouraged to follow non-violence and forgiveness.

During Paryushana this year, we spoke to a number of Jains and visited a number of places to understand the spirit of the festival.

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We met Arinjay Jain, 37, and Rachna Jain, 36, who said that during Paryushana they try to work on restraint and on their willpower to go beyond their senses so that they can focus on meditation and prayer.

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Within Jain asceticism, the conduct of non-violence is taken to meticulous detail. Some Jain ascetics carry brooms to brush aside small creatures which may be on the ground ahead of them.

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The traditional Jain understanding is that during the monsoons, as life flourishes, the soil also is alive with innumerable small creatures. The Jain ascetics, who otherwise travel place to place to avoid attachment, stay rooted in a single location to avoid killing all these organisms in the soil as they walk. This period is referred to as chaturmasa or chaumasa, which literally means “four months”.

Through these four months, all sects of Jainism have a number of days at a stretch set aside for a festival known as Paryushana. While many other festivals during this time are often the celebration of life in its richness, Paryushana focuses on the subtler nuance of the simple acts of day-to-day existence. It is also designed to bring awareness to the balance of the present moment.

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The word “paryushana” means “coming together from all directions”. The festival is devoted to the multifaceted contemplation of one’s life. This is further consolidated through rituals which reflect on one’s actions in the canvas of the world. Not only are the conscious errors taken into account, but emphasis is also given on all the consequences that one may not be aware of.

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Inevitable suffering, for example, is caused to others by mere existence, even through the acts of eating, breathing, walking, and so on. The ideal is to strive to rise above these causes and consequences, towards liberation or moksha. Akshat Jain, a student and a very profound 13 year old said “After moksha, you can be free. You are free from pain, but you also have to give up happiness.”

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Since forgiveness is not asked of the universe or from a creator-god but from one’s friends, family, and from actual living beings, in general, the significance of forgiveness as a first step to the Jain ideals of conduct cannot be overstated. Only through forgiveness can the cycle of violence be realistically ceased, and building on this idea, a few rituals are conducted by adherents during Paryushana.

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During Paryushana, the holy scriptures which reinforce the Jain ideals are read.

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Cleansing and self-control, two key ideas to the Jain way of life, are discussed not only in theory, but are also practiced actively during this time. Adherents often fast during Paryushana. This not only has a personal benefit of resting and cleansing the body, but also serves as a reminder in the greater act of renewing the vows of Jain ethics. The fast itself is strict, and those who are fasting often live on only small amounts of water for several days at a stretch.

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There is a ritual called pratikamana, where one remembers and seeks forgiveness from even the smallest creatures one may have hurt through the course of walking in the conducting day-to-day life.

While pratikamana can be practiced daily, weekly, or at other frequencies, many Jains have a custom of practicing pratikamana at least during Paryushana.

Pratikamana that is practiced during Paryushana can be rigorous; the participants stay in the same spot for the duration and do not take breaks to go the bathroom or to drink water. Many of the participants would have fasted all day.

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These ideals and the importance of awareness and forgiveness in striving towards them are not isolated and individuals have converged on similar conclusions in other parts of the world.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu set up the Truth and Reconciliation Project (TRP). Started after apartheid was abolished in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Project was a court-like process of hearings. In that space, victims expressed their anguish and share their stories with the people who were at the root of their sufferings. Some of those who were responsible for these violations of human rights were given amnesty for their crimes, but everyone was made to face the atrocities that they had committed.

image12This image is edited from the original owned by Elke Wetzig (Elya) and is subject to CC BY-SA 3.0

A statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “I hope that the work of the commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering. We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”

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On the subject, Neelam Lalwani, a 46 year old wedding planner, said “Paryushana is temporary, but the subconscious mind is always working, so constant reflection is important; it affects your whole life. Forgiveness takes a lot, but it helps.”

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Forgiveness and the Jain ideal of ahinsa or non-violence are closely related. In some ways, forgiveness is the ultimate practice of ahinsa, and something that many people find difficult to practice. However, the young Prerna Bhandari, a 13 year old student, seems to have a clear view on the subject. “If anyone hurts you, it doesn’t mean you have to hurt them back,” she explains. She loves animals, and adds “ahinsa is important— not killing animals— tigers are almost extinct, and we have to save them.”

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The abstract ideal is captured well in the customary prayer that is recited during this festival:

Khamemi savve jiva
Savve jiva khamantu me
Mitti me savva bhooesu
Veram majjham na kenvi
Michchhami dukkadam

Translated, the ethical ideal remains as clear:

“I forgive all living beings.
May all souls forgive me,
I am in friendly terms with all,
I have no animosity toward any soul.
May all my faults be dissolved.”

Adherents of the festival often say michchhami dukkadam or uttam kshama. When said to another person, by itself, each of these two phrases is understood to encapsulate the idea of begging forgiveness for any misdeeds committed knowingly or unknowingly. It is used as a bridge to seek forgiveness of each other.

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True to its spirit, Paryushana, unlike many other festivals, does not end with an excess of expression, but in quietness. Over a long and rich history, plentitude became festivity, but to the Jains, it is a festival of restraint. The rain is no longer just flourish and life, but it is catharsis, both from the past and for the future.


Text: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Sweta Daga, Simar Kohli and Dhruva Ghosh




From one family to another

Diksha, in India, refers to the ceremony of formal initiation into a tradition. In Jainism, diksha is the ceremony through which a lay person becomes an ascetic, and adopts several vows which they are expected to follow throughout the course of their subsequent lives.

Amar Shah, his wife Bina and their two children, Romal and Binal all took diksha together in Andheri West, Bombay in early May. The event transpired with immense fanfare, over a week, during which the family were shuttled between Pujas at different venues, wore extravagant clothes that were changed for every ceremony and had an audience of thousands while they gave up everything they owned. We followed the Shah family through some of the tender, tired and ecstatic moments of their journey towards renunciation.

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Amar and Bina prepare to dissolve their family and to adopt the ascetic tradition within Jainism. We were unfamiliar with such proceedings, and, being granted access to such a private gathering, We watched on curiously.

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Amar Shah helps his daughter Binal put on her ornamental crown. This is their last week together, as a family, after which they renounce all ties and barely see each other again.

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Romal and Binal, who are twenty and eighteen years old respectively, share a calm moment at home, between functions. Binal listens to her brother practicing for his stage performance. This is the last time he will be playing.

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Binal sits with her close friends and cousins as she has her mehendi done. The atmosphere around her is jovial as the teenagers discuss the latest Bollywood films. She stays quiet, a bit withdrawn, listening to the chatter and gently smiling the entire time.

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In a room downstairs, Romal’s cousins bring him chocolate cake which they try to feed him. Expecting him to relish a large last indulgence, we watch as he takes a tiny nibble and then no more. He tells us that he no longer desires to do things to merely appease his senses.

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Amar and Bina get ready for a mid-day ceremony. Tensions run high for their immediate family, who are under a lot of pressure to make sure that all the events run smoothly. However they, the diksharthis, remain islands of calmness in that storm.

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During the four kilometer long procession, the varghoda, musicians in colourful costumes set the tone with vigorous drumbeats. Close to thirty bullock carts, carrying the diksharthis and their family, follow.

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Romal Shah throwing his wealth, symbolized by bundles of rice, into the crowd. There is a tussle to grab the little packages being thrown off the procession. The parade brings traffic in Andheri to a near-standstill.

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Binal listens to her best friend, Anjali, just before walking to the stage. Through the week, Anjali has been right by Binal’s side. She seems to know what Binal is going to ask for even before it is said out loud.

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Binal and Bina bow towards Muni Tirthabhadra who is on stage.

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Amar Shah dances with ecstatic abandon on stage just before his mundan which is a ceremonial tonsuring. He needs to be held by a muni, so that he doesn’t lose balance.

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Bina Shah pays her respects to one of the elderly sadhvis. Bina will leave for her mundan ceremony, where her head will tonsured and he will be given her white robes.

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In their finery, Amar and Bina Shah greet the audience. The strength of the community is evident; to participate in the event, Jains from all over Bombay have gathered for the week, braving the merciless Bombay summer. The time has finally come for the diksharthis to formally join the faith and start their new lives as ascetics.


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju