After almost 50 years, Jain culture returns to the Rietberg Museum in a major exhibition that offers a new take on the religion. On display from the museum’s own collection, and on loan from India, are lavishly illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, paintings and carvings that reveal Jain ideas and ideals that evolved over many centuries. The exhibition also examines contemporary practices among this small but economically influential religious community that is found around the world, yet is hardly known outside India.

Hardly any religion formulates ethical values more rigorously than Jainism. Until today, absolute non-violence, renunciation of possessions and universal tolerance are the guiding principles of this religion originating in India. This exhibition aims to provide insights into the teachings, rituals and practice of Jainism through selected works of art and invites visitors to engage with the topic of sustainability. Interviews, films, and the ‘And you? The Game of Questions’ are intended to encourage visitors to change perspectives and dare to explore new paths.

The exhibition is an introduction to a religion which currently has about five million followers worldwide. Outside India, Jainism is largely unknown; unlike Buddhism, which emerged around the same time, it was never embraced by Western followers. In six chapters, the exhibition presents the fundamental beliefs of Jainism, its influence on daily life and religious practice, and features works of art created to illustrate and promote those beliefs. Visitors are encouraged to engage with the essential principles of Jainism, such as non-violence towards all living beings, sustainability and tolerance of other opinions and ways of life.

Pratapaditya Pal, in his introduction in The Peaceful Liberators, Jain Art from India (1995) explains that the faith’s name derives from the word jin, meaning conqueror, or liberator. Jains believe that an immortal and indestructible soul (jiva) resides within every living entity, no matter how small. Passions such as greed and hatred render the soul vulnerable to the effects of former deeds (karma), which cause the soul to suffer by being subject to repeated rebirth. Such suffering is believed to cease only with the chain of rebirth is broken.

The final goal of a Jain, like that of a Hindu or Buddhist, is to sever the chain of rebirth and achieve a state of liberation known as kaivalya, moksha, or nirvana. This is accomplished through rigorous devotion to ascetic practices and the elimination of human passions and attachments. While liberation is possible only for those who as monks or nuns have renounced the world, wealthy Jain merchant families have been the mainstay of the religious community throughout history, supporting monks and donating temples and images. Although the renouncers are an important part of the Jain community most Jains are laypersons who follow the ideal of well-being rather than seeking complete liberation.

Jains believe in a group of 24 Jinas (tirthtankara), who ford the gap between samsara and liberation. The twenty-third Jina, Parshvanatha, who is thought to have been a historical figure and lived in the 8th century BC, founded a Jain community based on renunciation of the world. Mahavira, the twenty-fourth and last Jina to appear in this age, is traditionally thought to have lived from 599 to 527 BC and was thought to have been an elder contemporary of the Buddha. Jainism encourages personal meditation, following a strict ethical code, and practicing ahimsa, or non-violence, and kindness toward every living creature

The major centres of Jainism are located in India, mainly in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in western India, Madhya Pradesh in central India, Maharashtra in the Deccan, and Karnataka in the south. Jain temples became quite magnificent structures in the Middle Ages. Particularly well-known are the temples of gleaming white marble in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Over time, there came to be two primary sects in Jainism: the Shvetambaras, whose monks wear white robes, and the Digambaras, whose monks reject all possessions, including clothing. Artists clearly identify the figure’s affiliation, and represent the Jinas in one of only two positions: seated in meditation, or standing in the kayotsarga (body abandonment) pose. The latter is a visualisation of the Jina’s liberation from human attachments and emotion.

The legends contained in the epic Sanskrit text The Mahabharata were adapted by Jain poets to produce their own accounts situating the events within the ‘Jain Universal History’, which deals with the lives of the Jinas, the Cakravarins and the nine groups of Baladevas, Vasudevas, and Prati-vasudevas. The stories in the Jain Mahabharata are not limited to those of the Pandavas and the Kauravas families as in the Hindu version, they also include the biography of Krishna, who Jains consider to the ninth Vasudeva, the biography of the 22nd Jina, Neminatha, and a version of another popular South Asian narrative known as the Brhatkatha.

Based on the latest findings in the history of art and religion; at the same time, it also presents results from field research and interviews with practicing Jains from all over the world. This study bridges history and the present by talking about migration, the Jain diaspora, but also about important issues such as ecology and non-violence. About 200 masterpieces of Jain art are on display, from sculptures, ritual objects, large-scale textile paintings, illustrated manuscripts, and sacred texts to utilitarian objects used by monks. The artworks come mostly from the collection of the Museum Rietberg, but also from Indian museums and private collections. The oldest artworks were created almost 2,000 years ago with the most recent on show coming from the 20th century.

The exhibition is complemented in the Park-Villa Rieter by Being the Jina: The Kalpasutra. Here, the legends of Jina Mahavira and Jain saints are retold through pictures, stories and an animated film. In addition to the artworks, five short films are being shown in two locations and deal with the ritual practices of the Jains, the production of manuscripts and their use, temples, pilgrimages and the everyday life of Jain ascetics in India. Portraits and interviews allow insights into very personal life stories. These can also be accessed via the museum’s website and the link shown here in our digital-active edition is for the animation.

A separate area in the exhibition gives the opportunity to approach these questions in a playful way. ‘And You? The Game of Questions’ is based on the game Snakes and Ladders, which originated in India and also plays a role in Jainism as a teaching tool. The large-scale game in the exhibition combines analogue game elements with a web-based app that allows visitors to ask their own questions.

Being Jain: Art and Culture of an Indian Religion aims to do more than just look at the way of life and attitude of Jains and provides an exploration of physical objects. It also wants to address the challenges of our time. Do Jain concepts such as tolerance and non-violence offer answers to our questions?

Until 30 April, Rietberg Museum, Zuirch, rietberg.ch The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, CHF 39