Wandering women and the 24th sage

The Peaceful Liberators - Riches and Renunciation
February 2, 1996

These two books deal with the Indian religion, Jainism - the first with its art; the second with the lives of lay Jains in the western Indian city of Jaipur in the 1980s.

The handsome volume edited by Pratapaditya Pal is the catalogue for an exhibition that has toured in the United States but which is currently in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is an introduction to the art of Jainism, the Indian religion whose final form is associated with the name of the teacher Mahavira. The historicity of Mahavira seems certain (he lived in the 6th century bc and is mentioned in surviving Buddhist texts where he appears as an adversary of the Buddha), but he is also acknowledged by Jains as the last in a line of 24 sages, whose historical existence is less clear. These 24 sages are known collectively as the tirthankaras ("ford-crossers" - those who have crossed from the physical world, to that of moksha or liberation), or individually as jinas ("victors"); it is their images of stark and restrained beauty that dominate the catalogue.

The philosophical system fashioned by Mahavira is based on ideas of the accumulation of karma during life, the inevitability of rebirth, the desire to escape from the round of rebirth, and the means of doing so through the shedding of bad karma by the strict disciplines of asceticism and nonviolence. It is one of the most ancient religions in the subcontinent, though today its adherents, despite their influence, number no more than six million. Jainism has, however, grown alongside the other Indian religions, and has shared elements with Buddhism and Hinduism and perhaps even with Indian Islam.

Compared with the cosmic exploits of Hindu Shiva or the esoteric speculations of Tantric Buddhism, Jainism can seem lacking in vibrancy both in its teachings and in its artistic accomplishments; this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue certainly dispel any concerns on the artistic front.

Six introductory chapters provide basic information on Jainism, its philosophy, history, art, cult and pilgrimage practices. This section is followed by the catalogue entries for the exhibits themselves. Of special interest are the large paintings on cloth - some are icons of famous pilgrimage places, while others are plans of the cosmos, or are diagrams used in meditation. I had hoped for more discussion of the Jain communities of Karnataka and of the importance of Jainism in the Tamil country in the first millennium ad, and its decline.

Nevertheless, this book will be an important source of information, though some catalogue entries are too descriptive. Inevitably in a multi-authored volume, the standard of research varies. There are also some unfortunate bibliographical and typographical errors. But while the final word on Jain art is yet to be written, this publication has opened up the subject to the general public and provided a potent stimulus for further study.

James Laidlaw's book is altogether different, being a study of lay Jain belief and practice as recorded in Jaipur during the 1980s. It is part ethnographical record and part anthropological theory, and makes illuminating reading. His basic premise is the apparent impossibility of living "real Jainism" (except as a renouncer) and the dichotomy between the life of the rich, male-dominated merchant families who are the main benefactors of Jainism, and that of the possessionless, mostly female, and wandering renouncers who are the preceptors of modern Jainism among the Shvetambara and especially among the two sects he studied, the Khartar Gacch and the Tapa Gacch. This dichotomy is not, however, seen among the Jains as illogical and this book explains how the impossible is possible - or as Laidlaw happily comments at the end of chapter 4, "One way to express how it is that devout Jains live with and by their impossible ideals, is that it is a matter of situating themselves, and of constantly renegotiating their position, between the real really and the really real."

Although the morbidly fascinating renouncers with their lives of extreme nonattachment appear throughout this book, the main subject of Laidlaw's fieldwork was the lay Jain community, especially the fabulously wealthy gem merchant families of Jaipur. Of special interest is Laidlaw's insistence that ahimsa, the word made famous by Gandhi and the central tenet of Jainism, means something more than nonviolence with an emphasis on vegetarianism. He shows that ahimsa embodies fundamental notions about the avoidance of life and the desirability of eventual nonaction. All action is considered morally dangerous and must be avoided. Here is the impossibility of Jainism.

Occasionally the anthropological theory relating Jainism to the world is less interesting than the intriguing ethnographic work, but on the whole this is a fascinating book of substance.

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper, department of oriental antiquities, British Museum. The Jain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum closes on February 18.

The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India

Editor - Pratapaditya Pal
ISBN - 0 500 01650 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £45.00
Pages - 9

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