Template Of A Community Identity
Ranjeeta Dutta
IDENTITY, COMMUNITY AND STATE: THE JAINS UNDER THE MUGHALS by Shalin Jain Primus Books, New Delhi, 2018, 403 pp., 1095
July 2018, volume 42, No 7

The histories of bhakti and sufi traditions have dominated the study of religious developments in the medieval and early modern period in the South Asian region.  Consequently, the presence of other religious communities is hardly recognized and research on them remains somewhat marginalized. The book under review is a much-needed intervention in the historical scholarship of religious studies of the pre-colonial period. Based on wide ranging sources, mostly unexplored till date, the work highlights the developments within the Jaina community, the development of the community identity and its interactions with the Mughal imperial authority in northern India especially in the Mughal provinces of Ajmer, Awadh, Allahabad, Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Lahore and Malwa.

Though the mercantile community in the Mughal period was mostly Jaina, it is contended here that the analysis of the community and consolidation of its identity should not be based merely upon economics of trade and commerce but also focus on the social and political processes of state formation. It is further argued that such an analysis will inspire a nuanced social approach and highlight the fact that the Jaina community at no point of time was homogeneous. It is emphasized that although the idea of community implied a shared set of beliefs and a symbolic unity, the presence of dissent, conflict, and dynamic relationships between the Jaina religious functionaries and laity also underscored the notion of a community. In this context, the book discusses various Jaina ideologies and religious institutions that competed and contested with each other. Fresh insights on the functioning of a plural society in the medieval and early modern period with a vibrant space for diverse textual and ecclesiastical traditions and religious practice have been provided in the book.

The Mughal-Jaina relationship forms one of the crucial themes of inquiry in this work. Situated in a multicultural and multi-ethnic social milieu, Jain rightly avers that the relationship between the Jaina community and the Mughal state was complex. The pragmatics of governance based on maintaining a social balance with different religious communities determined the attitudes of the Mughal rulers, viz., Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Jain provides an alternate reading of various evidences used by other scholars, especially from the Mughal farmans (imperial court orders). Right from 1578 CE, when Akbar included the Jainas in the discussions in his Ibadat Khana to the farmans of Aurangzeb around 1658 CE that favoured the leader of the Jain community, namely Seth Shantidas Jauhari of Ahmedabad, the Mughal rulers patronized the Jain community, its temples and centres of pilgrimage and negotiated with the religious community through its established leadership, clearly, to win their support in legitimizing their rule. In fact, it is demonstrated here that the Mughals accommodated various Jaina sects, their respective ascetic leaders and independent powerful Jaina mercantile groups. Thus the negotiations with the sacred and secular Jain power groups helped to maintain the Mughal power balance in every region, locality and areas of interaction. The success of this political strategy is attested by various Jaina sources, like the Ardhakathanak, the famous seventeenth century autobiography of Banarsidas, (a prominent Jaina trader). This text described the ubiquitous nature of the Mughal influence. However, Jain cautions against overemphasis on the centralized nature of the imperial authority. According to him, ‘The Jain community-formation and day-to-day engagements­—religious, social and political—clearly establish that parallel to the “political authority” of the Mughal state, an “autonomous authority” of the socio-religious communities was developing… In the bargain for socio-politico cohesiveness and “peace for all” (Sulh-i-Kul), the Mughal state had to ensure a certain degree of autonomy for each community’ (pp. 22-23). In addition, the book tells us that a mere analysis of the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ policies, as the case may be, of the Mughal emperors produces a narrow vision of the community. We are told that theological debates, the relation between the ascetic and mercantile elites with the rest of the followers and interactions of the multiple identities within the community, response to other religious groups and the politics of the time as reflected in the Jaina hagiographies and other genres of the Jaina textual tradition are crucial and relevant in understanding the history of the community.

The book is divided into eight chapters, and hence is an exhaustive treatment of the history of the Jainas. The introdution presents a detailed historiographical analysis that rightly states that scholarship on the Jainas have mainly concentrated either on the Mughal-Jaina relationships or been restricted to Jainology. The survey of various genres of primary sources is useful. We are initiated into a hitherto unexplored category of sources for constructing the social history of the Jainas, the vigyaptipatras, letters written by the monks and laity primarily in Sanskrit for specific purposes during the sacred Jaina festival, paryushan. ‘The Jain Religious Community in Medieval India’ focuses upon the formation of the Jaina community, its various sectarian affiliations, the sanghas and gacchas and the ideological contests amongst them. The case studies of the Tapa, Khartar, Sagar and Lonka gacchas and their conflicts and competing claims for patronage are elaborated upon to demonstrate the role of various religious functionaries in generating not only competing identities but also holding the community together.  While discussing the textual tradition of the community, this chapter also discusses the interaction with the ruling class, especially that of the Delhi sultanate, hence forming a backdrop to the interface with the Mughal state.

‘Social Moorings and Formations’ discusses the overlapping caste identity of the Jainas in relation to the Vaishya/Baniya and Rajputs. The example of Oswals is discussed to highlight the latter’s claim to a Rajput origin in spite of being a Jaina. Further, issues of property and inheritance and the standing of women as laity and monks are touched upon. ‘The Urban Jain Community, Commercial Mobility and Diaspora’ discusses the urban social base of the Jaina mercantile community, their role in the commerce and trading diaspora and their mobility across the various frontiers. ‘The Jain Community and The Mughal State Till 1605’ and ‘Jains and the Mughal State After 1605’ focus on the Mughal-Jaina interface, wherein the former discusses the patronage extended by Akbar to the Jain ascetics, namely Acharya Hiravijay Suri of Gujarat and Mantri Karamchandra Bacchawat of Bikaner; and the latter discusses the Mughal-Jaina communication with Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. It is in the later phase, chapter six informs us that there were some tensions, with the two banishment orders of Jahangir. Further it is stated that the policies of Shah Jahan, Murad Baksh and Aurangzeb were in continuation with the Mughal policies of maintaining religious harmony in order to legitimize its power base. The role of the Jain merchants as powerful representatives of the Jaina community dominating the sanghas is highlighted and the examples of Seth Shantidas Jauhari of Ahmedabad and Virji Vohra of Surat and their oblique relationship with the imperial officials are discussed in this context. On the basis of the biographies of both these famous Jain mercantilists, it is argued here that despite their eminent position within the Jaina community, they did not attempt to nor could influence the affairs of the state.

The last two chapters deal with issues of the community and its organization of religious and institutional activities. ‘The Notions of Religiosity and Piety Amongst the Jains’ discusses Jaina pilgrimage centres, temples, festivals and rituals and the institutionalization of philanthropy and education. ‘The “Self” and the “Other”: The Jaina Imagery in Contemporary Perceptions’ discusses the self perception of the Jainas as articulated in their literary sources as well as the sense of the community in European travellers’ accounts which acknowledged the idea of nonviolence and trading acumen of the Jaina merchants.

Undoubtedly an important work, this book has certain problems in the conceptualization of the Jaina community. Describing the Jainas as a ‘minority’ and the Mughal monarchy as representing another ‘minority’ is anachronistic. The term ‘minority’ is not a value free term and its provenance lies in the modern day politics. Although the author disagrees with the idea of syncretism, reference to the Mughal attempts to maintain the composite culture that supposedly characterized the medieval and early modern society needs to be revisited. Undoubtedly the society during the Mughal period was pluralistic with numerous communities present but the notion of harmony was different from the modern worldview. Negotiations, accommodations and transactional interface defined the relationships within and outside the community. The author transposes the modern idea of religious harmony to a past, and thereby attributes too much significance to the Jaina community and the Mughal state in maintaining a social equilibrium.

In contrast, the various bhakti sects with their respective agenda of social protest against the caste and class hierarchy are seen as somewhat disruptive for the Mughal authority. Jainism with no such consciousness due to its doctrine of nonviolence was supposedly seen as suitable for legitimizing the state authority. However, this understanding stands in contradiction to the author’s own presentation of the cases of tensions within the Jaina community over theological interpretations and control of religious institutions and pilgrimage centres. In addition we are provided with several instances of tension between the Mughals and Jainas in the book, whatever may be the nature and consequences of these stressful relationships. It would be worthwhile to explore in detail the Jaina interface with the various bhakti sects, especially Vaishnavism that was particularly prejudiced towards the Jainas. Besides, the interaction between the socio-religious context and theological principles needs to be analysed, as the latter is sensitive to the former. For example, the discussion on the principle of nonviolence does not investigate the effects a milieu has on the idea. Religious norms are always dynamic and should be seen as significant for the consolidation of the community identities. Such a work long overdue indeed forms a template for future research on the history of Jainism.


Ranjeeta Dutta teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Book News              Book News

Surdas: Poet, Singer, Saint by John Stratton Hawley  focuses on not the Surdas we all think we know—the poet of Krishna’s childhood, the disciple of Vallabhacarya, but on a Surdas who emerges from the early manuscripts where his poems were first collected. They reveal quite another Sur: a poet of extraordinary range, a man who never abandoned his sense of personal struggle, a saint devoted to singing. Hawley paints a very different portrait. In a new 100-page chapter written especially for this revised edition, we have a chance to see how a visual tradition developed—and to see it in glorious colour.

Primus Books, 2018, pp. 375, R1395.00


Review Details

Reviewer name: Ranjeeta Dutta
Author name: Shalin Jain
Book Year: 2018
Publisher Name: Primus Books, New Delhi
Book Price: 1095
Book Pages: 403