Nov 25, 2009

Early Jain Tradition in the West

Early Jain Tradition in the West

-Dr. Bhuvanendra Kumar

The Early accounts of contact between Jainism and the West, dating back to the time of King Chandragupt and Alexander in 3rd Century B.C.E. have been hitherto not studied in detail. Historians and scholars have not made an earnest attempt at it, which may unravel yet unknown Indo-Greek historical contacts and culture. Marret mentions that there is a Jain tradition that Jain monks traveled as far west as modern Austria and there is nothing inherently improbable about this.(1)

The Greek geographer Starbo, who wrote in 1st Century B.C.E., drawing frequently from the records of Megasthesenes and Onesikritos, states that from a place in India, a king named Pandion, or according to others, Poros, sent presents and ambassadors to Agustus Caesar, accompanied by a Sophist, who committed himself to the flames at Athens, like Kalanos.(2) Nikolaos Dam Askenos adds to it, ‘At Antioch near Daphne (Antakieh), he met with ambassadors from India, who were sent to Augustus Caesar. The letter was written in Greek upon skin; the import of this was that Poros was the writer; that although he was a sovereign of six hundred kings, he nevertheless esteemed the friendship of Caesar highly. The Ambassadors were accompanied by the person, who burnt himself to death at Athens. On his tomb was this inscription- ‘Here lies Zarmanochegas (a variation of Sraman), an Indian, a native of Bargose (modern Bharoch), having immortalized himself according to his custom.’(3) These accounts rightly indicate that Sophists, the naked monks, the naked monks from the country of Chandragupt, himself a devoted Jain by faith, were sent, alongwith ambassadors and presents, to Athens. The naked monks, who practice monastic prescriptions of nudity, austerity, meditation and sallekhana rite, are primarily distinguished only in Jain monastic order, and therefore, were undoubtfully Jain ascetics.

The Greeks used the word Gymnosophist or sophist to the naked meditative ascetics, whom they saw and admired, upon their arrival in India. The term Digambar, according to Britannica Encyclopedia (4) refers to the Greek word Gymnosophist, used already by Megasthenes, applies very aptly to the Nigganths (Naked Jain monks)(5). The Digambars having continued to exist from ancient times down to the present leads to conclude that Gymnosophists, to whom the Greeks found in Western India, were Jains. Nearchos, the Chief Commander of Alexander’s fleet, gives an account of the sophists, who, according to him,were occupied in study of nature. Women studied philosophy with tehm, and all led an austere life. Kalonos was a Gymnosophist. In 326 B.C.E. in the month of November, Alexander crossed Indus and camped at Taxila(6), (Modern Islamabad in Pakistan), where he encountered naked monks.

Megasthenes identifies two distinctive kinds of philosophers in India: Brachmanes (Brahmins) and Garmanes (Sramans)(7). Of the Sramans, Megasthenes says, are ‘Hylobioi, who live in the forests and subsist on leaves and wild fruits; the kings hold communication with them by messengers, concerning the causes of things, and through them worship and supplicate the divinity. The other applies philosophy to study the nature of man; dwell in the community, not the forest and subsist upon food given and everyone (shows) hospitality. They cure diseases by diet, rather than by medical remedies.

Both practice self-denial; they are enchanters and diviners. And women study philosophy with them.(8)

The dwellers of the forest (Hylobioi) and the dwellers in the community type in Jain monasticism are called Jinkalp and Sthavirkalp respectively, governed by rules and regulations of life. Accordingly, a Jinkalp lives in the forest; his life ruled and regulated by seclusion and he cares more for his soul rather than giving sermons to enlighten others. The Sthavirkalp’s life, on the contrary, is shaped by rules and contingencies that arise due to manifold needs of living and propagating religion. Kleitarchos speaks of the philosophers called Pramnai (Buddhist), contentious and fond of arguments, as opposed to Brahmins.(9) Thus this confirms that these Sramans were naked Jain monks.

Onesikritos, who accompanied Alexander on his march to the East, says that he was sent to converse with these wise men, because Alexander had heard that they went about naked, practiced mortification of the body, and were held in heist honor; that, when invited, they did not go to other persons, but command others to come to them if they wished to participate in their exercise or their conversation.(9) He found fifteen of them, at a distance of twenty stadia from the camp of the city, attending to austerities and meditation postures. He went to one of the sophists, Kalanos, who was lying on a boulder. Onesikritos addressed him, and told him that he had been sent by the king for purpose of listening to his wisdom, and he was to give an account of it, and, if there was no objection, he was ready to listen to his discourse.(10)

Historians agree that Kalanos accompanied Alexander beyond the boundaries of India. On the way Kalanos fell seek at a place called Pasargadai. Being down with disease for the first time in his life, Kalanos put himself to death at the age of 73 years, despite the entreaties by the king. He laid down upon, and covering himself up. Was burned to death.(11)

The Indian equivalent of Greek writing of the name kalanos, is Kalyan. The accounts of monk Kalyan, as presented by the Greek writer, therefore falls into the category of Sthavirkalp, who propagate religion. Monk Kalyan thus traveled with Alexander to the west to propagate religion and bring enlightment to the people. His voluntary death, Sallekhana rite, of which there are hundreds of inscriptional and literary references in Jain religion, conclusively confirms that jain monks were not only sent to Athens by King Poros, but they also accompanied king Alexander during 300 B.C.E.

1. Dr. Paul Marret, ‘Jainism and the Western World’ in The Jain, July 1988 page 47
2. A. V. William Jackson, History of India 1907, Vol. IX page 3
3. Ibid, Page 66-67
4. Britanica Encyclopedia XI edition, Vol. XV page 128
5. Ibid, Page 26
6. A. V. William Jackson, History of India 1907, Vol. IX page 48
7. Ibid, page 50-51
8. Ibid, page 64
9. Ibid, page 54
10. Ibid, page 55-56
11. Ibid, page 59-60

The author is scholar of ancient and medieval history of Jains and Jainism, and editor and publisher of Jinamanjari, a half-yearly research magazine on Jainology published from Canada
(This article is a part of the article ‘Early Traditions in the West’ published in the book ‘Canadian Studies in Jainism’ published by Jain Humanities Press, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada)

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