Video: The Tradition of Manuscripts in Jainism
Hello. My name is Mehool Sanghrajka. I am here to talk to you a little bit about the tradition of manuscripts in Jainism. I am the Director of Education of the Institute of Jainology and work to promote the Jain religion in schools and universities. Today I what I would like to do is to tell you a little bit about the importance that manuscripts play in this faith.
Jain manuscripts have had a very long history. A lot of them were composed from about 500 BC onwards. However, they were largely limited to the monastic community. And it was only in the late 19th century when European scholars started to take an interest in them and translate them that they started to become more widely available and published. In fact, the study of Jain manuscripts is probably no more than 150 years old. It's a very young science. The manuscripts themselves are thought to have been written by the disciples and the heads of Jain monastic communities over that period of time and they tell a long history of the Jain tradition as well as the social and economic developments within India in the time that they were written. It is only now that scholars are beginning to unravel the dating of them and this is beginning to paint a picture of how the Jain tradition developed within the wider Hindu and Buddhist traditions that existed in India at the time.
I personally come from the Sthanakvasi sect of Jainism which is probably the equivalent to the Protestant movement in Christianity and so the focus of the sect is around study and education and therefore the manuscripts have tended to be far more important than idol worship or the building of temples. And it is perhaps for that reason that I have taken a strong interest in the subject and have spent probably the last ten years studying Jain manuscripts, completing a doctorate last year.
The manuscripts in themselves are very interesting in that now they have become translated, they provide access for people like me who although are of Indian origins, don't have the language and the necessary cultural background to actually understand them in their own language and therefore they have started to provide access for people like me but also people in India who otherwise wouldn't have had access to these and would have relied on stories and tales to understand the religion.
The earliest manuscript, Acaranga Sutra, which is perhaps my favourite, is possibly the words of Mahavira himself and is very different from the remainder that have come much further down. The book shows a time when India was perhaps a largely forested country with agricultural economies just beginning and a largely nomadic way of life. And it's in this sort of setting and environment that the Jain religion seems to have developed and begun. So the ideals of nomadic wandering and lonely asceticism and a life of penance and meditation which are very similar to what the Buddha himself did, seem to have evolved. And the book paints a colourful life of how this sort of idealistic society would have lived in that era. Looking at it now in translation and in the way that it's presented in modern society, it seems from a very different time and a very different era. Understanding that within the background of Indian history and the political movements of the time, it shows how Mahavira actually fought against the movements at the time of destroying large scale forestation and building large scale townships and for the green environment and for preserving life and those things again resonate in a lot of the movements today where we seem to have gone full circle and they have started to look at similar things around sustainability and green living.
They also are very colourful, a lot of them are handwritten and illustrated with vivid graphics and in themselves they are sacred objects but they are also objects of art and show a great skill. A lot of that skill was lost in the Middle Ages and it's only recently that through scholarly work that we have begun to discover that many of them are actually wonderful poems that were recited and memorised and passed down through an oral tradition that lasted for almost a thousand years. In fact it is quite incredible that if you think of one thousand years of oral tradition and then another 1500 years of a written tradition that we have a book that could actually contain the words of Mahavira himself. And every time I read that it always fascinates me that these could be the actual things that he might have said rather than people's interpretations of them.
One big difference in religion today from religion at the time of Mahavira is that we have religious institutions today and religion tends to be far more institutionalised and formalised. In those days religion was basically about people and personalities and people followed individual personalities rather than a religious tradition.
So this manuscript here you see is from a book called the Uttaradhyayana Sutra and parts of it are believed to have been the teachings of Mahavira in his last 24 hours before he attained nirvana. And in this he, through stories and discourses, explains a wide range of philosophies and ethics of the Jain tradition and is perhaps the closest thing that Jainism has to the Christian bible.
Next to that here we have the Kalpa Sutra. Now the Kalpa Sutra has become very important for the lay tradition because it depicts the life of Mahavira and is used during the holy festival of Paryushana to read about his life and about his teachings and about the things that he did in his life as an example to how we should perhaps lead ours. And most of the books, the Kalpa Sutra books, are illustrated with his birth, the dreams that his mother had before he was born and various things from his life that show an example of how perhaps we should lead ours.