Jain Remains of Ancient Bengal

by Shubha Majumder | 2017 | 147,217 words

This page relates ‘Jainism in Ancient Bengal’ 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.

Chronologically, we can visualize the development of Jain ideology in ancient Bengal roughly into two segments, i.e. the early phase that started from the pre-Mauryan period to the seven-eight century CE and the second phase, from the post-Gupta period onwards up to the thirteen century CE i.e., the period which witnessed the rise of local ruling powers/authorities. The early phase of development has been conceived on the basis of literary sources, since there are very few archaeological records.

The Hatighumpha inscription of Khāravela (Pl.I.A) contains an indirect reference to the establishment of Jainism in ancient Bengal during the 4th century BCE (Jayaswal and Banerji 1983: 71-89). The inscription records that king Khāravela was a great devotee of Jainism and he had brought back an image of the Jina of Kaliṅga which had been taken away by Nanda. This Nanda ruler was evidently a king of the Nanda dynasty who ruled over Gangaridai or Gandaridai and the Prasioi, mentioned by the Greek writers. According to the Greek and Latin writers, around the time of Alexander’s invasion, Gangaridai was a powerful nation ruling over the territory about the mouths of the Ganges, and either formed a dual monarchy with the Prasioi or otherwise closely associated with them on equal terms in a common cause against the foreign invader. The Nanda king who carried the Jain image from Kaliṅga may be taken as the ruler of the lower Gangetic Delta, and the carrying away of the Jain image to preserve it with care undoubtedly shows a leaning for Jainism either on the part of the king, or of the people, or, perhaps both. Khāravela himself was a Jina, and his own action shows how much the king yearned for the possession of a sacred image of a sect to which he was attached, and it would not be unreasonable to take the same view about the Nanda king. It may, of course, be argued that if the Nanda king in question had a very extensive territory outside ancient Bengal, his own religious feeling might not have reflected that of Bengal. However, as Gangaridai were the people of Bengal, primarily, and Kaliṅga was adjacent to this region, the view that the carrying away of the Jain image by the king of Gangaridai indicates the Jain influence in ancient Bengal has a great degree of probability (Majaumar 1968: 134-5).

Some Buddhist canonical texts also bear direct or indirect allusions to the spread of Jainism in the different parts of ancient Bengal from the 3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE. The Divyāvadāna (1959: 277) refers to a legend which records that Puṇḍravardhana in North Bengal had a stronghold of Jainism and Ājīvika faith at the time of Aśoka. The legend refers to lay followers (upāsaka) of Jainism/Nirgrantha in the city of Puṇḍravardhananagara (modern Mahāsthānagarh, District Bogra, Bangladesh) had tinted a picture representing Buddha falling at the feet of Nirgrantha, and on hearing this Aśoka massacred 18,000 Ājīvika of Puṇḍravardhana on a single day (Majumdar 1968: 135). However, it is very difficult to believe the authenticity of this legend though, we may assume on the basis of this legend that Jainism was flourishing in the northern part of ancient Bengal during the third century BCE.

According to the Bṛhat Kathākośa, composed by Hariṣeṇa in AD 931, the Jain preceptor and saint, Bhadravāhu, reputed as the spiritual guide of Maurya emperor Chandragupta, the grandfather of Asoka, was born in Devikoṭa in North Bengal, also known as Koṭīvarṣa, identified with modern Bangarh in West Dinajpur district (Upadhye 1943. Sen 1942: 106). Excavations at Bangarh also suggest that the region was a thriving habitation during the Mauryan period (Goswami 1948: 184; IAR 2009-2010 155-8). Though these traditions help to fill up the gap with respect to the state of Jainism in this region since the time of Mahāvīra down to the time of the Mauryans yet, there are no sufficient archaeological relics of this period which can corroborate such literary traditions. However, since tradition records Bhadravāhu, a great saint of Jainism, as belonging to Bengal, it becomes easy for us to presume that Jainism was firmly established in the northern part of ancient Bengal.

This view is further strengthened by the statement in the Kalpa Sūtra that Godasa, a disciple of Bhadravāhu, founded a school named after himself as Godasa-gaṇa. In the course of time, this school was divided into four śākhās. These branches were known as Tāmraliptikā, Koṭivariṣīyā, Puṇḍravardhanīyā and Karvāṭīyā (Jacobi 1884:79). The two branches Koṭivariṣīyā and Puṇḍravardhanīyā undoubtedly had their base in North Bengal associated with ancient Koṭivarṣa and Puṇḍravardhana regions respectively. Locations of these two different branches in North Bengal indicate considerable Jain concentration in the area. Another branch Tāmraliptikā is identified with the ancient port-city Tāmraliptīya, which comprised modern Tamluk on the Rupnarayaṇa in the Midnapur district. Among the four, three i.e., Koṭivarṣa, Puṇḍravardhana and Tāmralipta developed as important unban centres from about third century BCE. The identification of Karvāṭīyā has not yet definitely been determined, it may doubtless be placed somewhere in ancient Bengal. It evidently shows that these places of ancient Bengal had already gained fame as noted centres of Jainism, so as to lend their names to important branches of the followers of this faith.

The story of the popularity of Jainism in Bengal during the third -second centuries BCE cannot be substantiated on the basis of archaeological materials. However, recently a Jain votive plaque in terracotta, showing the sacred wheel and the tri-ratna flanked by what appears to be a goose reminding us of the symbolic motifs of Jain Āyagapaṭṭas, has been found from Farakka, District Murshidabad. It is attributed to the Maurya-Sunga period. Such archaeological discovery indicates the presence of Jainism in ancient Bengal during the pre-Christian era.

We may, therefore, reasonably assume that by the first century CE Jainism was firmly established in different parts of ancient Bengal, including the Rāḍha region. An inscription discovered from Mathura and presently in the Indian Museum, Kolkata, records the erection of a Jain image in the year 62 at the request of a Jain monk who was an inhabitant of Rārā (Bandyopadhyaya 1909: 239-40) . This Rārā is most probably identical to Rāḍha, a well-known variant of Rāḍha (Majumdar 1984: 127) and the date is to be referred to in the Kuṣāṇa era and therefore, equivalent to about 150 CE (Bandyopadhyaya 1915: 72).

More important, however, is the discovery of a terracotta Naigameṣa[1] figure from the Kuṣāṇa level at Mangalkot, district Burdwan. It suggests the possibility of penetration of Jainism at the folk level and people might have worshipped Naigameṣa as a protector of children. In this context, it is necessary to mention about a recent discovery from the same site of a terracotta sealing depicting a goat-faced female figure with a short inscription (Pl.I.B). This figure is akin to a female Naigameṣa, also a very popular deity among the Jain community during the Kuṣāṇa period. Notably, till today Naigameṣa sculptures have been found from Mathura, Achichchhatra, Vaisali, Kumrahar and other sites both in stone and terracotta, however, this is for the first time a Naigameṣa figure is found depicted on a sealing. This find suggests that from the Kuṣāṇa period onwards the mercantile community rose in numbers in this part of Rāḍha Bengal and they were followers of Jainism.

Interestingly, there is indirect evidence regarding the movement of Jain followers or Nirgranthas from Orissa towards Pataliputra through the Rāḍha tract. The text Daṭhāvaṃśa mentions a king of Kaliṅga who converted to Buddhism from Jainism and he expelled the Nirgranthas from Kaliṅga. This group took shelter in the court of King Pāṇḍu of Pāṭaliputra (Jash 1989: 89). On the basis of this textual evidence we can assume that during the early centuries of the Christian era the Jain followers were passing through the Rāḍha tract. It is not unwise to think that some of the Jain monks or Nirgranthas settled down in this region and were responsible for the popularity of this creed in the region and subsequently traders patronized this religion and established different Jain religious centres.

It is also assumed that during the early medieval period Jainism was popular in the Kumāriparvata region and this was possible because of the movements of several Jain monks from the Southern Bengal region. Most probably they belonged to the Tāmraliptikā branch.

Footnotes and references:


Naigameṣa is represented in the Jain religious art, as a male figure, with the head of a ram or an antelope or a goat (Bhattacharya 1939/1974: 133). The god with his various names is mentioned in the Kalpa-Sūtra, Nemināthacarita and Antagaḍadasāo. He is primarily the captain of the foot forces of Indra, at whose command; he transferred the embryo of Mahāvīra from the body of the Brāhmaṇī Devanandā to the womb of Kṣatriyāṇī Triśalā. Hence, he acquired the power of granting the boon of child-birth. Thus find him, in literature, connected with the procreation of children. He is known to have two aspects, one beneficent another malevolent (Bhattacharya 1939/1974: 133-34). In course of time, he became popular among both male and female forms. These figures are generally characterized by an animal-face with goat-like features and long dangling ears having either pierced holes or slit marks. Their mouth is indicated by a deep-cut slit just below a hooked nose. These features are observed in the Naigameṣa figures found from the excavation at Vaisali. (Agrawala 1947-48: 134-6). Kumrahar excavation also supplied a dozen of such figures in terracotta both male and female from Kuṣāṇa and Gupta period which are very much similar with the Vaisali specimens (Misra 1975: 126). This type of clay figurines, both male and female were found from Achichchhatra excavation which are dated between 450 CE to 650 CE. (Agrawala ibid: 134-136).

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