History, Travel

Pillars of Faith

When I returned from my visit to India earlier this year, a colleague requested me to compile a slideshow of my trip and present it at work before a meeting. “Five minutes should be good”, he said. That was a challenge. I can usually speak on a single slide for five minutes, so compressing the many places I visited and the people I met in a five-minute slideshow was a challenge. I nevertheless compiled the slideshow (ten minutes) and as I expected, when I came to some Jain temples that I had visited, none of my non-Indian colleagues had heard of Jainism. While Buddhism has made inroads into the West and is now reasonably well-known, its contemporary religion, Jainism, is not well-known outside India.

An advantage of growing up in India is that one is exposed to several religions at a young age. I counted Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis among my classmates and friends. Interestingly, the various sub-sects amongst these religions were also represented. We grew up naturally respecting and accepting each other’s religions and now when I think of it, we never really paid attention to someone’s faith. It perhaps manifested in the choice of food but that was about it. I attended a Jesuit school, so my Christian classmates had to attend Catechism class, the rest of us studied “Moral Science”. There was nothing scientific about the subject but every lesson ended with a sappy moral.

My informal introduction to Jainism came from my neighbors and classmates. My grandparents lived in a building that was owned by a Jain trust and was in close proximity to a Jain temple. The Jains I knew were a close-knit group who were staunchly vegetarian and seemed to run financially successful businesses. Their weddings which were celebrated in the auditorium of the Jain school adjacent to my grandparents’ house were lavish affairs.

My formal introduction to Jainism came via my Social and Cultural History textbook in High School. It provided a good primer on the history and philosophy of various religions including Jainism. I learned that Jainism was founded by Vardhamana, who was born into a royal family in a small kingdom in what is now the modern state of Bihar. His date of birth is said to be 599 BCE, though some sources say he was born a little later, around 540 BCE. At the age of thirty, he renounced his kingdom, and after living an austere life and meditating for 12 years attained the knowledge of the path of freedom from bondage and illness that all sentient beings are subject to.

He was then given the name of Mahavira Jina – Mahavira (great spiritual hero) Jina (the conqueror). Similar to Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism also believes in the doctrine of Karma, rebirth, and transmigration of the soul. However, unlike the concept of the unchanging Atman and Brahman in Hinduism, it does not recognize the existence of a single supreme being. Karma in Jainism is autonomous. Our actions decide our future births, there is no supreme being or god keeping score and deciding our fate after death. Having attained enlightenment, Mahavira spent the rest of his life preaching his way of liberation. A key philosophy in Jainism is that of ahimsa or “non-violence”. Bad karma can be avoided by practicing non-violence. Jains are vegetarians for this reason. In fact, root vegetables are not eaten as the act of digging these vegetables could harm insects and worms that live in the soil.

During my last trip to India, I made a trip with my dad to Karkala, the place where he grew up. My dad’s main intention was to visit the Venkataramana temple. This region was ruled by dynasties that subscribed to the Jain religion. In fact, the land for the Venkatramana temple was donated by a local Jain ruler in the 15th century. These Jain rulers also constructed temples and monoliths that have withstood the passage of time. As we planned our trip, my cousin Bakin and I decided to visit these temples. Since we were going to be there for a short time and the temples tend to close in the afternoon, I went on the web, found contact numbers for the priests, and called them up to ascertain the timings of the temple.

The Manastamba outside the Gomateshwara Temple, Karkala

Jain tradition holds that Mahavira is not the founder of the religion but is one in a long lineage of “Tirthankaras” who are born to show the path of liberation. Literally meaning “ford maker” a Tirthankara reveals the passage across the ocean of the eternal cycle of births and deaths. Mahavira was the 24th in the current age. Unlike Abrahamic religions, the concept of time in Indic religions spans billions of years. Following this philosophy, the Jain tradition holds that there have been infinite cosmological cycles of time and hence an infinite number of Tirthankaras.

The Gomateshwara at Karkala. (Picture Credit: Bakin Nayak)

Perhaps the most iconic relics of Jainism are the monolithic statues of Gomateshwara constructed in the southern state of Karnataka. The most famous of them is located in Shravanabelagola. Standing at about 57 feet, it is a freestanding statue carved out of a single piece of granite. Karkala is home to the second tallest Gomateshwara statue. Gomateshwara also known as Bahubali (one with strong shoulders) was the son of the first Tirthankara (of the present age), Rishabadeva. The Gomateshwara statue in Karkala stands atop a hill and was consecrated in 1432. Carved out of a single block of granite, the statue stands atop a pedestal. A “manasthamba” (from the Sanskrit words “mana” mind, “stamba” pillar) stands at the entrance of the temple. A statue of a Yaksha (benevolent spirits that serve as attendants to deities) adorns the top of the pillar. Smaller statues of various Tirthankaras are housed in what I would loosely describe as a “mandapam” (pavilion) that is located behind the statue. All these are enclosed by a compound. I’ve looked up the etymology of “Gomateshwara” on the web and I’ve not found any hits. ChatGPT claims that it comes from “Go” (cow) and Ishwara (Lord). In Bahubali’s case, it alludes to his renunciation of worldly desires similar to a cow that grazes peacefully without desire for any material possessions. I’m not sure how accurate this is!

Idols of the various Tirthankaras

I had originally read the story of Bahubali in an Amar Chitra Katha comic. Literally translating to “Immortal stories in pictures”, this series of comics was my introduction to the history as well as religious and cultural traditions of India. The story goes that when the first Tirthankara – Rishabadeva renounced his kingdom, he divided it among all his sons. His eldest son, Bharata, spurred on by ambition conquered all the lands. He then turned his attention to the other kingdoms ruled by his brothers and sought sovereignty over them. Realizing that a war amongst brothers was fratricidal, his brothers with the exception of one – Bahubali surrendered their kingdoms to him. Bharata marched with his army to meet Bahubali in battle. The ministers on either side, conferred and decided that since this was not a battle to fight injustice, there was no point spilling innocent blood. Instead, the brothers met in a series of competitions, and Bahubali won all those easily. Overcome by anger, Bharata tried to kill Bahubali by unfair means but Bahubali was unaffected. He had a revelation at that moment though. He realized that greed and desire for material objects lead to hatred and misery. He renounced his kingdom on the battlefield and became an ascetic, meditating until he attained liberation. Bahubali was a Digambara (sky-clad) monk. The Digambara sect differs from the Svetambara (white-clad) in terms of religious iconography, temples, dress code, and the acceptance of female nuns amongst other things.

View of the Gomata betta (Gomata Hill) from the Chaturamukha Basadi

So austere was Bahubali’s meditation and so still his form in his implacable pursuit of liberation that vines grew around his legs and snakes inhabited the anthills around him. The statue of Bahubali at Karkala depicts vines creeping around his legs and arms. Having renounced everything, he is shorn of clothes. The statue has come to symbolize non-violence and renunciation. Every twelve years, the statue is anointed with what is considered to be an auspicious mixture made of many ingredients including milk, water, sugarcane juice, sandalwood, and saffron paste. This ceremony is called “Mahamastabhisheka”. My maternal grandmother was religious and had made pilgrimages to various sites in India, including those in the Himalayas. As a young boy, I recall her recounting her trip to one of these ceremonies in Sharavanabelagola when she was very young. Looking back, this must have been in the 1920s. I wish I had talked to her about her experiences, that was a different era when travel was still difficult and the journeys fraught with danger.

Chaturamukha Basadi, a late sixteenth-century Jain temple in Karkala

Jainism is said to have come to the south with Mahavira himself. Jain rulers ruled parts of coastal and interior Karnataka. Karkala was a regional capital and hence has a fair concentration of Jain temples. After visiting the statue of Bahubali, we visited the Chaturamukha (four-faced) Basadi (temple) which is very close to the statue of Gomateshwara. The temple was built in the late 16th century and is constructed with granite. The temple has four entrances that lead to the sanctum sanctorum. It houses life-size statues of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Tirthankaras and smaller statues of all 24 Tirthankaras. The temple was fairly deserted when we visited in the afternoon and the priest took some time to show us intricate carvings and sculptures.

Stone Tablet at Chaturamukha Basadi

The exterior of the temple has some carvings from the pantheon of Hindu gods while the interior is dedicated to the Jain Tirthankaras. A pillared corridor leads around the temple. A stone tablet stands at the entrance of the temple with a script which I presume is old Kannada. Sadly, I could not read it. The landscape of India is dotted with thousands of such temples of antiquity. Unfortunately, there is very little in terms of information regarding the architecture, history, and significance of the place at each of these sites. The Archaeological Survey of India has a small board that provides a very brief description of the temple. Local guides are available at the larger forts and palaces but I suspect temples attract the believers and not the curious.

A Pranala (discharge outlet) that drains liquids used for the ritual purification of idols

Our last stop on the Jain temple tour was the Saavira Kambada Basadi in Moodabidri. Literally translated to “Thousand Pillar Temple”, this temple was built in the mid-fifteenth century. Unlike Karkala, this temple is not built on a hill. It no doubt stood out prominently at the time of its construction and the centuries that followed. Today, however, the temple stands at the end of a street that is flanked on either side by houses. The temple is enclosed by a high wall and two tall wooden doors open into a courtyard to reveal the majestic temple. The temple’s construction was initiated by a ruler but it was built upon successively in stages. The temple is probably thronged by devotees during festivals, but on that Monday afternoon the temple was quiet, save for a few tourists.

Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidre

As with other Jain temples, a majestic Mahastamba stands at the entrance of the temple. The unique architectural feature of this temple is the plethora of pillars with no two pillars being alike. These pillars are intricately carved with figures of guardian deities, musicians, flowers, animals, and birds. As I perambulated around the temple, admiring the pillars I met a priest and requested him to tell me a little bit about the history of the temple. He said that the temple was dedicated to Chandranatha, the eight Thirtanakara. After the initial construction, the temple was further extended by contributions from a group of wealthy merchants. The Manastamba was built later by a queen. “It is called the Thousand Pillar Temple,” he said “but I’ve personally never counted the number of pillars.” I would’ve liked to have talked to the priest further but he was obviously busy and he slowly made his way to the temple.

As part of our cultural history course in high school, we had to identify monuments and temples based on their pictures. Given the vast sweep of Indian history, these were limited to the more famous forts, temples, mosques, and stupas. We learned some elements of architecture but they were dry concepts. A visit to such sites would have brought theory and archaic history to life. However, I’m glad to have studied whatever I did. It was a decent platform to pique my curiosity and the advent of the internet has made it so much easier to explore everything that I had studied in greater depth.

The many pillars of the temple

A few facets of my trip stood out to me. The land for the temple that my dad frequented as a young boy and still holds in reverence was donated by a Jain king. There are obviously elements of syncretism when it comes to the Indic religions. The first Tirthankara – Rishabadeva also reputedly finds mention in the Vedas as Rishaba (bull) and there is speculation that Shiva and Rishabadeva originate from the same source. The Jain Thirankaras are shown in yogic poses. Bahubali in the steadfast mountain pose, so still that creepers wrapped themselves around him. My political history textbook had a sizable chapter on Chandragupta Maurya. A contemporary of Alexander, he is acknowledged to be the first great Indian ruler. The term “Hindu” did not exist then (it was coined by the Persians to identify Indians) and Chandragupta was an adherent of the Vedic religion: Sanathana Dharma (Eternal Law). After a detailed history of the conquests, the chapter ended by mentioning that he converted to Jainism at the end of his life. Jain tradition has it that Chandragupta is said to have relinquished his kingdom and then moved South and settled close to Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. After living an austere life as a monk, he is said to have starved himself to death following the Jain practice of Sallekhana.

Lotus flowers, symbols of purity and enlightenment

Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, and under his political patronage, Buddhism spread widely in India as well as outside India. Those must have been very interesting times to live in. Three burgeoning religions – Buddhism, Jainism, and the Ajiviks jostled for mind space with the existing Vedic religion and its various philosophies. Religions no doubt spread with political patronage but I’m sure there was introspection amongst people and many passionate debates. While the Ajaviks died out, Buddhism went on to hold sway over large swathes of India. Over time, its influence on India waned but it found roots outside India. Jainism continued to thrive but I’m not sure to what extent it held sway over India. Today there are approximately 4.5 million Jains in India, a little less than 0.5% of the population. Even though Jainism pre-dates Buddhism, it did not spread outside India. It is an austere religion that probably did not appeal to lay people and restrictions on monks who could only travel on foot and not by ship or other modes of transport are said to have limited its reach.

The austere practices are still followed by Jains in India. Fasting is a common practice, with fasts lasting from a day to several days. Sallekhana, the last vow taken by Chandragupta involves a gradual reduction in the intake of food and liquids leading to a slow death by starvation. Suketu Mehta, in his book on Mumbai: “Maximum City” writes of an extremely wealthy Jain family that renounces their wealth and takes vows of ascetics, eschewing all comforts and modern conveniences, wandering for alms and living on whatever food is given to them. This is meant to be their path to salvation.

Faith takes different forms and manifests itself in the form of magnificent statues, impressive temples, intricate sculptures, acts of charity, and pilgrimage. However, the act of turning inwards, shunning external pleasures, and mastering one’s senses is probably the most personal of these and indeed the most difficult. To me, this stands tall amongst the various pillars of faith.

4 thoughts on “Pillars of Faith

  1. Amazing topic for you to have taken up…I myself sat thru several sessions about Teerthankara’s and their parallelism to Meditative practices and Samadhi. Interstingly all 24 teertankaras took mahasamadhi on a mountain currently in Jarkhand and each chose a specific tree to meditate under for their Moksha. I will share with you the book once it is released.

    Another noteworthy history is that all Teertankara’s mother’s knew when they were carrying that the child would be a saintly person and most mother’s prayed to Lord Indra. So, there is a religious inclination to the Jain philosophy too unlike what is told these days…..

  2. Thanks, Naren, I look forward to that recommendation! There are certainly parallels between the life of the Buddha and Mahavira and from the perspective of meditation, I’m sure Yoga affected these religions and practices. Regarding the religious aspect, I suspect a couple of things come into play. One is that these religions did not accept the primacy of the Vedas and were called “Nastik” which today has come to mean atheistic but that was not the original meaning. Secondly, Indra does figure in Buddhism too which probably meant that the Puranic gods had still not made their advent, and Indra, Agni, Varuna, etc. still held sway.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the blog. Having been to all these places a long time ago, your writeup revived some long-list memories. I also loved the timeless pictures taken by Bakin.

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