The Jain faith is currently the subject of an exhibition of Jain art at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in Louisiana and explores the religion which has been continuously practised in India since at least the 6th century BC. Non-violence, a respect for all living beings, and the belief in the existence of a permanent soul whose true nature is obscured by accumulated karma are core principles of the faith. Jainism encourages personal meditation, following a strict ethical code along with the practice of ahimsa, non-violence, and kindness toward every living creature.
One of India’s Three Classical Religions
Jainism constitutes one of India’s three classical religions, the others being Buddhism and Hinduism. Though older than Buddhism by a generation, Jainism has much in common with it. Both arose and were first spread in northeastern India. Both aim to lead their followers away from the painful cycle of endless rebirths (samsara) and toward the liberation from all suffering (nirvana). Both also rejected many of the practices and ideas of early Hinduism, particularly the religion’s ritual sacrifice of animals, preaching instead a doctrine of non-violence. Today, the commitment to an ethic that regards all living entities as inviolate continues to be at the heart of Jain practice and belief.
The goal of ending the cycles of rebirth is accomplished in the Jain faith through rigorous devotion to ascetic practices and the elimination of human passions and attachments. By severing the chain of rebirth, the believer can achieve a state of liberation known as kaivalya, moksha, or nirvana.
The Meaning of Jina
The faith’s name derives from the word jina, meaning conqueror, or liberator. Each Jina is also known as a tirthankara, or ‘forder’, who fords the gulf between samsara and liberation. The twenty-third Jina, Parshvanatha, who is thought to have lived in the 7th 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, but some scholars believe he was a contemporary of the Buddha in the early 5th century BC.
Most Jains are laypersons who follow the ideal of well-being rather than seeking complete liberation. This path incorporates the ‘three jewels’, the three fundamental tenets for a Jain: right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct. 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.
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. Particularly well-known are the white-marble temples found in Rajasthan.
The Emergence of two Primary Sects
Over time, two primary sects emerged in Jainism: the Svetambara, whose monks wear white robes, and the Digambara, whose monks reject all possessions, including clothing. When craftsmen created representations of the jinas, they clearly identify the figure’s affiliation, and the figures are represented 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.
In NOMA’s exhibition, the works of Jain art were created over a period of more than 1,500 years (2nd to the 19th centuries) and include sculptures, paintings, and manuscripts from the collection of Dr Siddharth Bhansali. These works aim to illuminate iconographic and stylistic change, as well as regional variations.
Jinas, despite having achieved liberation from the world in which we live, are believed to be accessible to humans as objects of devotion. Thus many worship images of the Jinas and believe that they can be found in different sacred spaces throughout the universe. They are found as religious sculptures, or created as part of the architecture in temples to be worshipped.
Illuminated Manuscripts in Jain Art
Their life stories are told in illuminated manuscripts and other Jain art and the places where they are revered are portrayed in detailed pilgrimage maps and diagrams of the vast Jain cosmos. These diagrams afford a glimpse of a complex universe of multiple continents and encircling oceans, whose outermost reaches harbour temples containing images of the Jinas. The study, recitation and veneration of sacred scriptures are a primary religious focus of the Jains. Important sermons, canonical texts and commentaries were transmitted orally long before being committed to writing. Exactly when Jain texts began to be illustrated is uncertain; the oldest surviving examples date from around the 10th-11th century, but many state that they were copied from earlier texts that presumably were decaying.
The earliest Jain illuminated manuscripts are inscribed and painted on prepared palm-leaves and bound with cords passing through holes in the folios. The folios are encased in wooden covers that are often decorated with religious or historical themes. Book covers continued to be made in later centuries.
After the introduction of paper into western India from Iran around the 12th century, Jain texts were increasingly written on this new and more versatile medium. The use of paper permitted larger compositions and a greater variety of decorative devices and borders, although the format of the palm-leaf manuscript was retained. By the end of the 14th century, deluxe manuscripts were produced on paper, brilliantly adorned with gold, silver, crimson and a rich ultramarine derived from imported lapis lazuli.
The major centres of Jain manuscript production were Ahmedabad and Patan in Gujarat. Other centres included Jaisalmer, Gwalior and Delhi. The patrons were mainly Svetambara Jains, who considered the commissioning of illustrated books and their donation to Jain temple libraries (bhandars) to be an important merit-making activity.
Uniqueness of Jain Art
Dr Phyllis Granoff, the Lex Hixon Professor of World Religions at Yale University commented on an earlier exhibition of Jainism at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York: ‘Although akin to Buddhist and Hindu forms, Jain art is unique. The images of the Jinas are meant to convey their invincible strength and infinite knowledge.
These powerful images are the visual counterparts of one poet’s metaphor that the Jina could no more be moved by the passions than the cosmic Mount Meru could be shaken by a breeze. Some images, made from highly reflective stone or metal, or surrounded by circles of flames, vividly depict the brilliance of the knowledge of the Jina, which illumines the entire universe, and the heat of his asceticism that burns away all sin.’
The Victoria and Albert Museum, along with the Institute of Jainology and King’s College London, created the JAINpedia project in 2012, to digitise Jain manuscripts and Jain art in the UK. The database went online later that year and provides information in English, Hindi and Gujarati.
The British Library is also involved in the project, as the library contains some of the most important Jain manuscripts and artefacts outside of the Indian sub-continent – and holds significant holdings of Jain material in a number of South Asian languages, (Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi and Gujarati), including several illuminated manuscripts, as well as rare palm-leaf manuscripts.
Treasures held at the British Library exemplifying Jain religious and artistic heritage include illuminated manuscripts of Jain religious texts such as the Kalpasutra, narrative works such as the Sripalakatha, a Jain invitation scroll and rare palm-leaf manuscripts from western India. From the collections of Prints & Drawings, paintings on cloth depicting Jain diagrams of the universe, as well as numerous images from the rich photographic collections, gathered by British explorers and scholars during the late 18th century and early 19th centuries.
• The Pursuit of Salvation: Jain Art from India, New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana, noma.org
• For more information on JAINpedia, visit jainpedia.org
• You can find the Institute of Jainology at jainology.org
WATCH Beauty and Enlightenment: Looking at Jain Art Phyllis Granoff, Lex Hixon Professor of World Religions, Yale University Professor Granoff produced by the San Diego Museum of Art
WATCH Conserving and Studying the Jain Shrine at the Nelson Atkins Museum