Going by the legends, if there was a great Jain teacher in 877 BC, then Jainism is a much older religion than Buddhism. But is it also older than Hinduism itself?
No religion is subject to as many myths as Jainism. At school we were taught – in textbooks influenced by British historians – that Jainism and Buddhism were contemporaneous revolts against Brahmin-dominated Hinduism. The religions had largely disappeared from India after Hinduism reasserted itself and though Buddhism had flourished in East Asia, Jainism remained restricted to a small number of followers in north India. The religions were founded around the same time, we were taught, and the Buddha and Mahavir were contemporaries. But Buddhism had spread around the world because Emperor Ashoka, horrified by the slaughter that accompanied the battle of Kalinga, abandoned Hinduism to convert to Buddhism and sent monks abroad to seek converts.
I was on my way to Shravanabelagola, near Bangalore, when I wondered: how did the history books we read at school explain away Bahubali? As you may know, Shravanabelagola is famous for the giant monolithic statue of Bahubali that is 57 feet high. Carved from a single slab of granite, the statue stands on a hill and is one of the most famous sites of Jain pilgrimage in the world. Some years ago, a survey conducted to identify India’s greatest wonders ranked the statue at number one. Such is its magnificence that people from all communities, not just Jains, come from far and wide to see it.
But here’s the problem; according to Jain legend, Bahubali lived many centuries before Mahavir. So how can he be the subject of Jain veneration if Jainism was only founded by Mahavir over a thousand years later? And here’s another problem; if Jainism remained a small-time religion whose adherents were concentrated in the areas where we find the most Jains today (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, etc.), then why was such an important Jain monument located in faraway Karnataka? And why were there more ancient Jain temples in Karnataka than there were ancient Hindu temples?
At this stage, I must make a confession: I was born a Jain. Or, at the very least, a sort of Jain. My parents were agnostics so there were no religious texts or idols in our home. But my relatives were more pious and when I heard them discuss our religion I discovered that contrary to what the history books said, Jains did not regard Mahavir as the founder of Jainism but as the last of 24 Tirthankars. That meant there were 23 great Jain teachers before him. So how could he possibly have founded Jainism?
As I grew older, I moved away from the agnostic beliefs of my parents and reclaimed my Hindu and Jain identities. But were the two identities the same? Was Jainism really no more than a non-Brahmanical form of Hinduism?
Before I set off for Shravanabelagola, I read up on the subject. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out that the school history texts seriously misrepresented Jainism.
Yes, Mahavir and the Buddha were contemporaries. The exact dates are the subject of some dispute and some Jains claim that Mahavir predated the Buddha by a century while others say he actually outlived the Buddha by seven years. But Buddhist texts refer to Jainism as a flourishing religion that already existed long before the Buddha began preaching.
When it comes to the Tirthankars who preceded Mahavir, there is historical evidence of the existence of Parsvanath (or Purvasnath or Parsva – there are many variations on the name) around 877 BC, or much before the Buddha. But Parsvanath was only the 23rd Tirthankar. So there must have been 22 before him. This is where historical and religious figures differ. Historians say they cannot prove the historicity of any Tirthankar before Parsvanath. Jains say that this is because few records survive from that era. Indian historians have difficulty proving the existence of anybody who lived before 877 BC.
Without getting into the merits of this argument, what is clear is this: if there was a great Jain teacher in 877 BC, then all the stuff in the history text books about Jainism and Buddhism being simultaneous revolts against Brahmanism is rubbish. Jainism is a much older religion than Buddhism.
But is it also older than Hinduism itself? That’s where the debates get heated. The argument is complicated by the fact that the term ‘Hinduism’ itself is a largely colonial construct used to describe several religious traditions that flourished in India since Vedic times. There is no mention of the word ‘Hindu’ in the Rig Veda. And yet most of us would date the beginnings of Hinduism to the Vedas.
On the other hand, some Hindus claim that the Indus Valley Civilisation also had Hindu elements. They point to the image of a god-like figure surrounded by animals who they say is Shiva in his Pashupati avatar. And indeed, the Jains make similar claims about the Indus Valley. They say that the reigning deity was Rishabh whose symbol, the bull, is closely associated with Indus Valley seals.
I don’t want to enter into the controversy about the religion of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which existed several thousand years before the birth of Christ. But Jains believe that the real dispute is whether Jainism predated Hinduism. All the stuff in the text books that treats Jainism and Buddhism as contemporaneous religions is rubbish. Jains regard Rishabh (or Adinath) as the first Tirthankar and the founder of the religion, many many centuries before Mahavir was born.
The importance of Shravanabelagola for Jains is that the monolithic statue of Bahubali pays tribute to Rishabh because Bahubali was his son. We know that Shravanabelagola was the centre of Jain pilgrimage long before the statue was built in the tenth century AD because over three centuries before Christ, the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta retired here and became a monk. There is a hill at the site with a temple dedicated to Chandragupta, and his footprints along with those of his guru Bhadrabahu, the monk who helped spread Jainism in south India, are still imprinted here.
Which, of course leads to the question: if Chandragupta was a Jain then what was his grandson, Ashoka? Did Ashoka convert to Buddhism from Hinduism as we are told? Or was he a Jain who converted? There is still no clear answer to the question.
But anyone visiting Shravanabelagola may wonder about Jainism and south India. The text books treat Jainism as a north Indian religion. But the truth is that Jainism was one of the most popular religions in Karnataka and Andhra for many centuries. Eventually the Jains converted to Hinduism but thousands of Jain artefacts have been recovered by archeologists from digs in South India.
I find the historical enigmas fascinating and so I went to Shravanabelagola as somebody who was curious about Indian history and not just as a Jain. (For the record, most Gujarati Jains like myself are Shvetambars while the Shravanabelagola tradition is Digambar – a sort of Catholic-Protestant divide within Jainism). And I wanted to admire the sheer beauty of the statue. It is a sobering thought that around 500 years before Michelangelo created his David, Indian craftsmen had created a statue that is much more beautiful and far more impressive.
It is easy to get to Shravanabelagola. I took a car from my hotel, the ITC Windsor, and though they told me it would take three hours to get there, we did the journey in under two hours. The road is very good and the scenery is beautiful with paddy fields and palm trees. Shravanabelagola itself is clean and (at least when I went) not full of the thronging crowds, screaming children and obnoxious touts that characterise many Indian temples.
You have to walk up the hill to get to the statue and though this sounds daunting at first because there are 650 stone steps, I found that even though I am hardly in peak physical condition, I could do the climb in 20 to 30 minutes. (It takes about 10 minutes on the way down). You can’t wear shoes so most people wear socks. And if you are very old or very lazy, they will carry you up the steps on a palanquin.
Once you get to the top of the hill and the statue finally comes into view, the sight is quite unforgettable. There are small temples dedicated to various Tirthankars but the ambience is not overly religions. A priest will offer to do the aarti for you but many of the people who were up there were clearly not Jains (my guide told me that only 10 per cent of visitors are Jains). It is worth going just to see the statue for its amazing artistry and its attention to detail.
Of course, if you are a Jain, it may hold a special significance for you. Though, in my view, the same should hold true for all most Indians. To my mind, just as the great religions that came out of the Middle East (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) share a tradition, the four great religions that came from our sub-continent (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism) have much in common.
Either way, you should go. Bangalore is a fun city, the drive is easy and wonderful and the statue reminds us of the artistic genius of our ancestors. Long before the European Renaissance and long before the great structures of the medieval era – such as the Taj Mahal – were created, India had a cultural heritage that was the envy of the world.
From HT Brunch, September 15
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