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Literature » History

Conferences Inspired Reforms
By Mr. John Cort

John Cort analyses the Jain Shvetambara Conference in 1915, demonstrating how reforms were made in the community.

When we look at Jainism not as an essentialised, timeless ideal but rather as it has been embodied and defined by Jain communities and individuals over time, we discover that the unitive, static definition of Jainism starts to dissolve. In this essay I will investigate one particular historical moment in the early twentieth century when the Shvetambara Murtipujak Jain community of western India was engaged in such process of defining itself.

I will focus my discussion on the reform movement upon a lay conference held in 1915 in Sujangadh, near Bikaner. The principal vehicle for reform among the laity was the Jain Shvetambara Conference, founded in 1902 and based among the then recent and wealthy Jain immigrants to Bombay. There was a similar organisation for the Sthanakvasis: the All India Shvetambara Sthanakvasi conference also base in Bombay, founded four years later in 1906. The Digambaras were slightly earlier off the block, with the Bharatvarsiya Digambara Jain Mahasabha founded in 1893 and headquartered in Khurai in central India, and the smaller regionally focused Daksin Maharastra Jain Sabha founded in 1899. The Delhi-based Bharat Jain Mahamandal, or All India Jain Association founded in 1899 attempted to provide a non-sectarian platform. The Jain Shavetambara Conference in 1905 established a monthly magazine in English language, the Jain Swetamber Conference Herald, and held large conferences every year or two from 1902 into the 1920s, then less frequently thereafter. These conferences were attended by thousands of lay Jains and went on for three or four days. Later these conferences also saw separate meetings for women and youth. In the 1920s enthusiasm for the conferences started to wane, and a consensus arose that there was no real need for such large and expensive conferences to be held annually.

These conferences reflected the traditional leadership style of the Jain community. In particular, we can see the traditional western India style of merchant leadership reflected, in which the most prestigious and honourable merchant-princes (abrudar, pratisthit seths) assumed a moral leadership of the meetings, based on their being leaders of the traditional collective institutions known as mahajans. The mahajans were responsible for the regulation of behaviour like establishing and maintaining production standards in many trades, regulating relationship among trades, pressuring members to uphold business agreements, helping mitigate the effects of business failures, setting holidays, ostracising members who violated social norms (especially in terms of marriage and food-exchange), and collecting for sacred institutions such as temples and animal shelters (panjrapols). Advocating or resisting socio-religious change was obviously well within the purview of the mahajans.

The leadership of each conference, therefore, consisted of the leading seths of the host city. Donations from these seths were essential for holding the conferences, and the lists of the donors and amounts were published in the conference report, or in the Conference Herald if there was no published report. The local seths organised the committees that ran the conference. The committees at the fourth conference in Patan in 1905 were: Reception, Correspondence, Mandap (which organised the pavilions and other physical structures), Food (Bhojan), Recording Transcript (Uttara), Accounts (Hisab) and Fund. Each of these committees was headed by a leading Patan seth. The president of the Reception Committee was the wealthiest Patan Jain seth then resident in Bombay, and the chief secretary of the committee was the head of the Nagarseth family, the traditional Jain 'mayor' of Patan.

We do not have actual transcripts of the conferences, but the written reports indicate that there was little public debate or dispute at the meetings. Instead, they were held in a highly ritualised form of public rhetoric. The ritual nature of the meetings in further indicated by the fact that the dates were set by astrologers (jyotis). Speeches (bhasan) opened with mangalacharan, the recitation of Jain auspicious verses (mangalik). Sermons (pravacan) were delivered by leading Jain sadhus. Speeches were made both by the participating leading Jains, and also by other important Hindu leaders such as the Maharashtrian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak who addressed the Third Conference in Baroda in 1904. Representatives of the princely government too delivered addresses when the conference was held in a princely state. Resolutions were introduced then approved, presumably after little substantive debate. The written reports of the conferences consist largely of transcripts of the important speeches and copies of the resolutions.

I will focus upon the resolutions approved at the ninth conference at Sujangadh from 27-29 January 1915, since that is the only conference for which I have a full set of resolutions available. The first four resolutions expressed the situation of the Jains as loyal and thankful participants of the British Empire. The first resolution was a pledge of loyalty to the Emperor George V, the second a note of sympathy to the Victory Hardinge on the recent death of his wife and son. The third was a resolution of thanks to the Maharaja of Bikaner, in whose state the conference was held. The fourth resolution thanked the Viceroy for his positive response to an active campaign that had been espoused in the resolutions of earlier conferences for the removal of a moral insult (asatna) at Mount Abu (many Europeans who came there during the summer season did not remove their shoes when they visited the Jain temples of Dilwara). The fifth resolution supported the ultimately unsuccessful campaign for at least two Jain holidays to be listed as public holidays.

The remaining ten resolutions all pertained to social and ritual matters within the Jain community itself. They called for greater support for educational institutions, in particular: (6) religious, (7) general, (8) commercial and (9) women's education.

The tenth called for financial and other support to Jain libraries, a task called at other conference the restoration of books (pustakoddhar or pustak-uddhar). The preservation of texts and supporting the work of preparing and publishing critical editions was central to the reform efforts. The reformers assumed that the contemporary debased practices ran counter to textual norms, and so the study and publication of those textual norms would contribute to the spread of reformed practices. The eleventh resolution was related to this, calling the propagation (pracar) of Jain literature through the support of publication schemes.

The twelfth resolution appointed a special committee to draw up a constitution for a conference within six months to ensure the orderly continuation of the reform efforts. The thirteenth resolution was in response to the official censuses of India, which seemed to indicate that the Jain population as a percentage of the total Indian population was shrinking. This resolution called for positive steps to reverse this trend, such as reconversion, education, increasing medical knowledge and financial aid for lower and middle class Jains. The fourteenth resolution called for the restoration and rebuilding of old temples (jinroddhar).

The fifteenth and final resolution dealt with a wide array of harmful customs practised by Jains. These were non-Jain customs violating either the Jain ethical principle of ahimsa or else the Jain merchant principles of social restraint and decorum. Among these customs were child marriage, marriage of young women to old men, second marriage when the first wife was still alive, singing of bawdy songs, the use of fireworks at weddings, dancing by prostitutes at weddings, special meals or excessive mourning and breast-beating at the time of death, and the worship of and belief in non-Jain deities. Other harmful customs enumerated at other conferences included the observance of non-Jain festivals such as Holi, Sitala Poojan, Satyanarayan, Somvar vrat, Muharram, and the performance of Lakshmi Poojan on Divali; paying a bride-prices, using non-Jain wedding rites, conspicuous consumption and wearing bangles made of elephant ivory. As a result of the efforts of the Conference and other reform-minded organisations, many of these practices have largely disappeared from contemporary Shvetambara Murtipujak Jain life. in some cases, however, such as the use of non-Jain wedding rites and the observance of Lakshmi Pooja on Divali, the reformers met with little or no success.

John Cort is Professor of Religion at Denison University, Ohio, USA. The above essay is extracted from his Roop Lal Jain lecture in Toronto, 1994. He is a member of the advisory board of Jain Sprit and a prolific scholar of Jainism.

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Source: Jain Spirit
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