By John Guy
The exhibition presents before Western audiences the remarkable
artistic achievement of Jainism and its contribution to world
religion. The principal themes which found expression in the art of
Jainism are presented, notably the role of the Jina image, the
significance of the deities, the ritual and narrative role of the
illustrated text, and the Jain cosmology as seen through
cosmological paintings. The place of pilgrimage in the Jain
tradition is illustrated through monumental pilgrimage
There is much in the historical development of Jain art which has parallels in the religious art of both Hinduism and Buddhism, but there are other aspects, particularly in relation to the role of the image in worship, which diverge fundamentally from the other traditional Indian religions. In the exhibition, stress is placed on the unique contribution of Jainism to the Indian religious and artistic tradition.
Jainism grew out of the teachings of a series of historical teachers who became "enlightened" and hence liberated beings, the most recent being Mahavira (c. 599-527 BC), the 24th Jina, a near contemporary of the Buddha Sakyamuni. The historicity of Mahavira's immediate predecessor, Parsvanatha, is widely accepted, and he is believed to have lived in the 7th-6th century BC. The existence of the preceding 22 Jinas remains beyond historical verification but is embedded in the Jain pantheon, together forming the 24 Jinas of this particular age. At the heart of Jain teachings is the committment to non-violence (ahminsa) to all living creatures, including insect and plant life. A natural consequence of this philosophy is strict vegetarianism and a tendancy to go into occupations which do not interfere with nature, such as trade, commerce, and banking.
This commitment to living in harmony with nature is witnessed in a 15th century Jain Yatra painting in which the artist is celebrating nature in all its forms.
The life of the Jain laity is guided by what is known as The Three Jewels: right knowledge; right faith; and right conduct. Meritorious "right" conduct include the "giving away" of a part of one's wealth, in keeping with the other key principle of Jainism, aparigraha or non-possession. This principle guides the life and behaviour of the laity, and is a strict principle of those who choose the ascetic path of renunciation in their quest to become a jina.
This philantrophy can take many forms, and some are prescribed: these include endowing the making of images; erecting and supporting the renovation of temples; and commissioning of holy books. Over the centuries this has led to a large and sustained production of Jain religious art, a rich selection of which is presented in this exhibition. What is perhaps most remarkable about this exhibition is the variety of regional styles and iconographic diversity to be seen, when associated with a religion that is popularly seen as only having 24 largely indistinguishable tirthankara images (Fig. 1).
Early Jain theologians certainly opposed the worship of images and in all probability it was pressure from lay followers who generated the demand and pressure for actual images to assist in meditation and worship, or, more accurately in the Jain context, to serve as a "model" of behaviour for those venturing along the moksha marg, the path to enlightment.
The Jina image
The creation of the Jina image is among the earliest recorded figurative representations in Indian art. Inscriptional references from the 3rd century BC record the worship of Jina images. Archaeological evidence makes it clear that images were in demand from an early period: certainly image worship was well established in the Kushan period (1st-3rd century AD). Inscriptions from this period record that monks were encouraging members of the laity to commission images of the Jinas, possibly following the Buddhist practice of performing meritorious acts. Inscribed sculptures survive from both Mathura and Allichatra recording this patronage, much of which was undertaken by female laity and nuns. For example, an inscribed 2nd century Jina image in the exhibition was commissioned by a female lay devotee named Datta on the advice of her teacher and installed in AD 157 at the Vodva stupa, Kankali Tila, Mathura. An early text the Padmacarita of AD 473 extols the merits of building Jina-bhavanas (image houses) and installing images of Jina, though this practice was not uni- versally welcomed by all early Jain teachers. These dissenting voices were troubled by the inherent contradiction between image worship and Jain orthodox teachings: the Jina is a liberated soul, freed of its material body and resides in the celestial abode, represented as the heavenly assembly hall (samavasarana). As such the Jina is no longer of this world and is incapable of being represented. It could be argued that the truest representation of a Jina is the representation as a silhouette out-out, a positive void.
It is a magical diagram yantra of a perfected being or siddha.
Despite this professed "emptiness" of images of the Jina, they nonetheless are designed following strict iconographic (i.e. symbolic) and iconometric systems. The latter system prescribes the measurements and proportions of images. It is the strict observance of these conventions, laid down in sastras (technical manuals) which account for the remarkable degree of uniformity in Jain images. It is prescribed in Hindu silpa
sastras that an image (painted or sculptured, citra or murti) must have an inner life force, prana. Although not required theologically, Jain images often display this quality of inner breath or life. The strict rules of measurement and proportion are clearly illustrated by the 12th C. seated Santinatha from the V&A (Fig. 1). This remarkable large-scale, solid-cast image depicts the 16th Jina enthroned on a jewelled cushion and surrounded by celestial attendants. He sits in a yogic meditation posture, with his hands gently resting, one on the other.
Iconometric drawings used by artists in the preparation of Jina images reveal the standardization of the meditating Jina. Identification of a particular Jina is only made through the cognizant mark usually depicted on the base of the image. The standardization of Jina images is such that most Jinas cannot otherwise be distinguished.
Although all Jinas are of equal standing in Jainism, it is clear from the ratio of extant images of different Jinas that some attracted greater devotion than others. Santinatha is an obvious example, much venerated both by monks (as the preserver of Jainism at a time when it was in danger of extinction) and by the laity who turn to him as the Jina most associated with averting calamities and ensuring calm in the world - as his name suggests: santi = "peace", natha = "lord". Only two Jinas are physically distinguishable from the other 22 without the aid of their cognazant marks, namely Rishabbanatha, the first Jina, recognizable by his uncut hair, and Parsvanatha, the 23rd tirtankara, always represented with a cobra canopy.
Jainism has a second theological difficulty with image worship. The Jinas were intended to serve as reminders to the faithful of the possibility of liberation; i.e., they served as role models for both the Jain laity, guiding their ethical code of living, and for the aspirant Jina, providing inspiration and a reminder that spiritual liberation is an attainable goal. As a detached soul, removed from this world, the Jina is incapable of responding to a devotee's prayers or requests. This inability to be interventionist, to respond to the prayers and offerings from the faithful, sets Jina images apart from both all Hindu and most Buddhist deities, who can be called upon to ritually correct approaches by a devotee.
Yakshas and yakshis
For any religion to fulfil the emotional needs of its followers as a popular religion, an element of divine intercession seems a necessary ingredient. Jainism got around this difficulty by granting various subordinate deities, nature-spirits especially (eg. yakshas and yakshis), the power to grant boons and favours to the faithful. Yakshas and yakshis are typically depicted in composite images as subordinate figures, smaller in scale, attending the Jina. Their rise to the status of semi-autonomous deities, represented as independent images, was probably linked to this role as spiritual benefactors.
The interventionist role of sudsidiary deities in Jainism is well illustrated by the goddess Ambika, the yakshi of the Jina Neminatha (Fig. 3). An evocation to Ambika makes clear the protective role of the godess:
"May Ambika, of golden complexion
riding on a lion and accompanied by her sons..
protect the Jaina sangha from obstacles"
These benevolent deities had assumed an important position in the Jain cosmology, fulfilling a strong social need which was beyond the gift of the Jinas. In this their role differed fundamentally from that of the Jina images.
It is clear that the minority religions such as Jainism and Buddhism were unable to ignore the deep-rooted popularity of certain folk deities. This pattern of borrowing of deities from one religion to another, followed by their gradual assimilation, is very charactiristic of the early centuries AD. Either through a conscious obliteration or simply loss from folk memory, the common ancestory of many rival deities was in time no longer acknowledged. Other borrowings from the Brahmanical pantheon illustrate the Pan- Indian nature of early religious imagery in India, with deities being appropriated from rival faiths. The very popular sarawati, Goddess of Knowledge and Learning, a much beloved godess worshipped by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike.
There is another aspect of Jain ritual practice which was of great importance from at least the early centuries AD. This relates to the use of mantras and other sacred diagrams. This practice finds its earliest recorded expression in Jain art in the ayaga- pata stone of the early Kushan period (1st - 3rd century AD). It is apparent that these ritual diagrams were the origin of many later cosmological depictions, including the highly schematic rendering of the Jain celestial realm, samavarana to be found in many of the sculptures and paintings in the exhibition.
The codes of behaviour laid down for Jain laity, monks, and nuns feature as the subjects for many of the illustrated manuscripts in the exhibition, most notably from Kalpasutra and Uttaradhyayanasutra manuscripts (Fig. 4)
The 121 examples of Jain art in the exhibition are fully illustrated and described in the catalogue: P. Pal (editor) The Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India, distributed in hardback edition by Thames & Hudson. A paperback edition will be available at the exhibition.
To mark the opening of the exhibition, the Victoria & Albert Museum has organized the International Symposium, Jainism religion, Ritual and Art, 24-25 November. Keynote address is by Professor Padmanabh Jaini, University of California, Berkeley, and speakers include Dr Pratapditya Pal, Professor Paul Dundas, and Dr John Cort.
For a detailed programme
for credit card enrolment/bookings
John Guy is Deputy Curator of the Indian & SouthEast Asian
Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (also co-curator of the exhibition and co-author of the catalogue)