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’Art & Soul

Of salvation and redemption through principles of Jainism

The questions raised in a volume on devout Jains and Jainism force you to think about your own life

Of salvation and redemption through principles of Jainism

(From left) Image of Rishabhanath; first among the tirthankaras, Rajasthan; 11th-12th century. Museum Rietberg, Zurich; Series of stone steps leading to the shrine of Bahubali Shravanabelgola, Karnataka; Installation of brass lotus flowers. Hall of the Jain cosmos.

Right perception, Right knowledge, and Right behaviour
That is the path to Liberation
Tattvarthasutra, Jain text of 1st/2nd century CE

…the exhibition does not intend to define what exactly Jainism is in terms of essentialisation, but rather tries to explore how and why Jainism is
perceived as meaningful today and how this meaning may be manifest in the works of art on display.

from the catalogue, Being Jain

BN Goswamy

There is a stunning view — in fact more than one — in the Being Jain: Art and Culture of an Indian Religion book (on which I write this short piece), of a long, seemingly unending series of stone steps cut into a rocky mountain-side — an escarpment? — that leads up to the famed Jain centre of Shravanabelgola, with its colossal image of Bahubali in Karnataka. One sees pilgrims struggling up these steps, not necessarily in large groups, for everyone walks at his or her own pace: some are stopping to catch their breath, others wait for their companions to catch up, still others anxiously look up, evidently to judge how much more remains to be done yet. As I see it, this is the way this book — I am reluctant to call it a catalogue, for it is that but it is also more than that — approaches the theme to which it is devoted: step by step, asking us to catch our breath at times, but also beckoning us to keep at it. When I was in Zurich last year at the Museum Rietberg, I knew, mostly through occasional conversations with Johannes Beltz, the scholar/administrator who is the principal person behind this enterprise, that an exhibition on the theme was in the offing, but I certainly was not prepared, either for the approach it takes, or for all that it contains. The exhibition has just concluded.

Ajmer, Rajasthan; Digambara (‘clad in space’) sadhu, speaking to an audience.

We all know something — a fair amount in fact — about the Jain faith: the 24 tirthankaras — literally ‘those who will take us across the ford of existence’, and lead us to salvation — the foremost of them being Mahavira, somewhat senior to the Buddha in respect of time and, historically, the founder of the Jain faith. We know about the eight auspicious signs, the ashta-mangalas — throne, swastika, handprint, hooked knot, vase of jewels, water flask, pair of fishes, lidded bowl — symbols invoked on ceremonial occasions; some of us may even be able to recall the 14 auspicious dreams that the mother of Mahavira used to dream as she was expecting him — an elephant; a bull; a lion; Shri, the goddess of wealth; garlands of fragrant flowers; the moon; the sun; a large flag; a golden jar; a lake brimming with lotuses; the milky sea; a celestial palace; a heap of jewels; bright smokeless flame. We also know something about the great art that was inspired by Jainism — the temples at Mt Abu, the Ranakpur complex, the caves at Ellora, colossal images like that of Gommateshvara Bahubali at Shravanabelgola, refined figures of the tirthankaras, work in marble that looks as if done by ivory-carvers, exquisite manuscripts like those of the Kalpasutra of Devasa-no Pado — and, of course, about the rigours of penance and self-mortification that great munis of the past and the present undertake; in the community the sense of discipline, of ethical concerns. The list is endless.

The simple food bowl of a Jain monk or sadhavi.

In many ways, this work takes all of that for granted, even when it keeps referring to these and other things where appropriate. There is, in the volume, a measure of art and snippets of life as lived by devout Jains, both monks and laity. What it concentrates on, however, is to communicate the essence of Jain teachings, and way of life, from behind the veil of sharply phrased questions aimed at the reader. Inside little boxes throughout the volume, are inserted questions: ‘Do you eat meat’? ‘Do you own something you could never part with? ‘Have you ever caught yourself having unfounded prejudices?’; ‘Do you have a role model?’; ‘Is there a person in your life you wish you had never met?’; ‘Do you believe in after-life?’ Embedding these direct but sometimes troubling questions under our skins, things take off in the direction of philosophy at times, but it is all put simply, concisely. These and other similar questions force — or is it persuade? — you to think about your own life even as you learn something about Jains and Jainism. We are reminded, subtly, about what we owe to Jainism — reducing oral knowledge to the written form, for instance; the great congregations at Pataliputra and Valabhi and Mathura from which ideas kept emerging in a steady stream; the range of abstract, speculative thought that centered on the nature of time and of space — but it is all presented in a manner as if it is nothing that is coming from some obscure, antiquated world of the remote past, but is related directly to our present.

In the prefatory note in the book, it is stated that ‘Jainism holds radical views regarding ethical questions; it is even, perhaps, unique among the world’s religions in its radicalism. The core values of this religion include the total abdication of violence, respect for nature and all forms of life, tolerance, and the acceptance of the fact that there is always more than one perspective on truth.’ Slowly, thoughtfully, the volume leads us into this world. Not that it recommends everyone to turn a nirgrantha — ‘free of ties’ — but at least to look within while bringing into the reader’s reach some superb images drawn from art and, of course, from life.

I hope no one, while going through the volume, will miss, towards the end (pages 152-153) a startling photograph of rich green algae covering the surface of water in a pond. Chaotic but beautiful. ‘Do you believe in an afterlife?’, incidentally, is the boxed question on the page.

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