Jain Remains of Ancient Bengal

by Shubha Majumder | 2017 | 61,684 words

This page relates ‘Historical Development of Jainism’ of the study on the Jain Remains of Ancient Bengal based on the fields of Geography, Archaeology, Art and Iconography. Jainism represents a way of life incorporating non-violence and approaches religion from humanitarian viewpoint. Ancient Bengal comprises modern West Bengal and the Republic of Bangladesh, Eastern India. Here, Jainism was allowed to flourish from the pre-Christian times up until the 10th century CE, along with Buddhism.

The history of Jainism is a history of a long struggle. It made its way into the religious life of India having overcome the tremendous pressure of its rival creed Buddhism as well as the strongly survived orthodox Brahmanism. However, this religious ideology was widely popularized all over the Indian sub-continent. The spread of Jainism was more a case of successive migration than of continuous expansion. In spite of the mechanical scheme visible in the traditional account of the different migrations, said to be caused by a famine of 12 years” duration, we find them confirmed by other evidence, and the tradition agrees with all the historical facts of the spread of this religion. The wandering of Mahāvīra gives us a fair idea of the original extent of Jainism.

The middle and the lower Ganga valleys, particularly the region comprising the modern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh constituted the earliest strongholds of Jainism in India. According to the ancient literary sources, Candragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, was a follower of Jainism and Jain monks were frequently seen and mentioned within the empire of Candragupta not only by Indians, but by Greek historians as well (Jain 2010: 422). Around 300 BCE, a great famine[1] of twelve years took place in Bihar, during the time of Candragupta Maurya. As a result of this, the earliest groups of Jain migrants moved to south-east, south and west. According to the Śvetāmbara tradition, the dreadful famine in Magadha drove the monks as far as “the sea-coast” and this evidence has been correlated with the famous inscription of King Khāravela (Jayaswal & Banerji 1933/1983: 7189). Here, Jainism took firm root and flourished for a long period and it also influenced the adjoining regions like coastal Bengal as well as its immediate hinterland.

The early development of Jainism is also apparent from the Mathurā region. Here, the most important site is Kankali Tila. Several excavations as well as explorations at this site and its adjoining areas exhibit that Jainism strongly flourished in this region prior to the beginning of the Christian Era. Numerous Jain stone sculptures, votive tablets and other architectural members recorded from the Mathurā region contain small dedicatory inscriptions assignable to the first two centuries of the Christian Era (Smith 1901; Vogel 1910: 41-3 & 66-82; Bhattacharya 1974: xiv-xv; Ghatage 1980: 418; Pal 1994: 16).

According to Jain tradition, Samprati, the grandson of Aśoka, was also a great follower and patron of Jainism (Bhattacharya 1974: xiv, Ghatage 1980: op.cit.,) who constructed a good number of Jain monuments in Western India, especially Rajasthan and Gujarat (Shah 1939: 293-94). The early development of Jainism in Western India (Maharashtra region) is attested by the Junāgarh inscription of the grandson of Jayadāman, belonging to the 2nd century CE. This inscription mentioned that Jain monks as having attained perfect knowledge and free from old age and death, words distinctly suggestive of Jain dogma (Bhattacharya 1974: xv; Ghatage 1980: op.cit.,). This inscription is found in a cave, one of a group near the town, which appears to have been used by Jain monks as is indicated by the depiction of Jain symbols like the Svastika, Bhadrāsana and others (Ghatage 1980: 419).

The penetration of Jainism in South India is associated with the migration of the Digambaras. The problem is complicated by the nature of the evidence, which is insufficient to lead to any definite conclusion. According to the Digambara tradition, the great famine of Magadha caused Bhadrabāhu to seek shelter in the south, along with his royal disciple Candragupta Maurya and large numbers of lay followers of Jainism, resulting in the establishment of a Digambara community in the Mysore territory with Śravaṇa Belagola as its centre. The Śvetāmbara tradition, however, makes the migration proceed from Ujjayinī in Mālwā (Ghatage 1980: op.cit.,). Several inscriptions from Śravaṇa Belagola region (Jain 2010: 423-5) directly or indirectly support the Digambara Jain tradition. Though there are different views about the extension of Jainism in South India, however, the route of this migration is suggested to be along the western coast, from Gujarat through Maharashtra to Karnataka and thence to the countries of the extreme south, which appears quite probable (Ghatage 1980: op.cit.,).

Viśākha Muni, the immediate disciple of Bhadrabāhu, travelled further south to the Cola and the Pāṇḍya lands and propagated Jainism. The earlier existence of Jainism in the Tamil region is attested by the presence of 1st century BCE Jain rock-cut caves (Jain 2010: 440).

Footnotes and references:


Such famines are possible during this period as known from some very early inscriptions. The Mahāsthāna stone plaque inscription (Bhandarkar 1984: 83-91) found in the Bogra District of Bangladesh records as endowment to the pañcavargīya Buddhist monks. The Sohgaura copperplate inscription (Jayaswal 1984: 2) found in Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh records a provision of grains and fodders during famines.

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