Contribution of Jainism to Indian Culture

Contribution of Jainism to Indian Culture

It is evident that Jainism is an ancient religion of India and that right from hoary antiquity to the present day it has continued to flourish, along with other religions, in different parts of India. Jainas, the followers of Jainism, are, therefore, found all over India from ancient times. The Jainas are also known everywhere for the strict observance of their religious practices in their daily lives. That is why Jainism could survive in India for the last so many centuries. The Jainas, in this way, succeeded in continuing to exist as devout followers of a distinct religion in India.

But this is not the only distinguishing feature of Jainas in India. In fact, the most outstanding characteristic of Jainas in India is their very impressive record of contributions to Indian culture. In comparison with the limited and small population of Jainas. the achievements of Jainas in enriching the various aspects of Indian culture are really great.


Perhaps the most creditable contribution of Jainas is in the field of languages and literature. It is quite evidence that right from the Vedic period two different currents of thought and ways of life known as (a) Brahman culture and (b) Sramana culture are prevalent in India The Sramana culture is mainly represented by the Jainas and the Buddhists and of them the Jainas were the first to propagate that culture. That is why from ancient times we have the Sramana literature besides the Brahmanic literature. The characteristic features of the Sramana literature are as follows: It disregards the system of castes and Asramas; its heroes are, as a rule, not Gods and Rule, but kings or merchants or even Sudras. The subjects of poetry taken up by it are not Brahmanic myths and legends, but popular tales: fairy stories, fables and parables. It likes to insist on the misery and sufferings of samsara and it teaches a morality of compassion and ahimsa, quite distinct from the ethics of Brahmanism with its ideals of the great sacrificers and generous supporter of the priests, and of strict adherence to the caste system.

The authors of this Sramana literature have contributed enormously to the religious, ethical, poetical, and scientific literature of ancient India. A close examination of the vast religious literature of the Jainas has been made by M. Winternitz in his ‘History of Indian Literature’. In this masterly survey of ancient Indian literature, M. Winternitz has asserted that the Jainas were foremost in composing various kinds of narrative literature like puranas, charitras, kathas, prabandhas, etc. Besides a very extensive body of poetical narratives, the non-canonical literature of the Jainas consists of an immense number of commentaries and independent works on dogma, ethics. and monastic discipline. They also composed legends of saints and works on ecclesiastical history. As fond of story-telling, the Jainas were good story-tellers themselves, and have preserved for us numerous Indian tales that otherwise would have been lost. Kavyas and mahakavyas too, of renowned merit have been composed by Jaina poets. Lyrical and didactic poetry are also well represented in the literature of the Jainas.

Apart from these, the most valuable contributions have been made by the Jainas to the Indian scientific and technical literature on various subjects like logic, philosophy, poetics, grammar, lexicography, astronomy, astrology, geography, mathematics and medicine. The Jainas have paid special attention to the arthasastra (or politics) which is considered to be “a worldly science” par excellence. Thus there is hardly any branch of science that has not been ably treated by the Jainas.

The literature of the Jainas is also very important from the point of view of the history of Indian languages for the Jainas always took care that their writings were accessible even to the masses of the people. Hence the canonical writings and the earliest commentaries are written in Prakrit dialects and at a later period Sanskrit and various modern Indian languages were used by the Jainas. That is why it is not an exaggeration when the famous Indologist H.H. Wilson says that every province of Hindustan can produce Jaina compositions either in Sanskrit or in its vernacular idioms. It is an established fact that the Jainas have enriched various regional languages and especially Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.

Regarding the Jaina contribution to Kannada literature, the great Kannada scholar R. Narasimhacharya has given his considered opinion in the following terms: “The earliest cultivators of the Kannada language were Jainas. The oldest works of any extent and value that have come down to us are all from the pen of the Jainas. The period of the Jainas’ predominance in the literary field may justly be called the ‘Augustan Age of Kannada Literature’. Jaina authors in Kannada are far more numerous than in Tamil. To name only a few, we have Pampa, Ponna, Ranna, Gunavarman, Nagachandra, Nayasena, Nagavarman, Aggala, Nemichandra, Janna, Andayya, Bandhuvarma and Medhura, whose works are admired as excellent specimens of poetical composition. It is only in Kannada that we have a Ramayana and a Bharata based on the Jaina tradition in addition to those based on Brahmanical tradition. Besides kavyas written by Jaina authors, we have numerous works by them dialing with subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, prosody, mathematics, astrology, medicine, veterinary science, cookery and so forth. In all the number of Jaina authors in Kannada is nearly two hundred”.

As the Jainas have produced their vast literature in these languages from very ancient times, they have certainly played a very important part in the development of the different languages of India. The medium of sacred writings and preachings of the Brahmins has all along been Sanskrit and that of the Buddha’s Pali. But the Jainas alone utilized the prevailing languages of the different places, besides Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsha, for their religious propagation as well as for the preservation of knowledge. It is thus quite evident that the Jainas occupy an important position in the history of the literature and civilization of India.


Along with literature the Jainas have always contributed considerably to the development of the arts in the country The Jainas have taxed their mite to enhance the glory of India in several branches of arts. Compared with their number their contributions appear to be very imposing and distinctive.


It must be remembered that Jainism did not create a special architecture of its own, for wherever the Jainas went they adopted the local building traditions For example, while in Northern India the Jainas followed the Vaisnava cult in building in southern India they adhered to the Dravidian type. The stupas of the Jainas are indistinguishable in form from those of the Buddhists, and a Jaina curvilinear steeple is identical in outline with that of a Brahmanical temple.

Even though the Jainas have not evolved a distinct style of architecture, yet it must be said to their credit that they have produced numerous and finest specimens of architecture in different parts of the country. In this regard it is quite clear that more than any other religion in India the Jainas have displayed their intense love of the picturesque while selecting the sites for the construction of their sacred buildings like temples, temple cities, cave temples, stupas, pillars and towers. They have erected their temples either on lonely hill-tops or in deep and secluded valleys.


As the Jaina religion considers construction of temples as a meritorious act, the Jainas have constructed an unusually larger number of temples throughout India. Nearly 90 percent of Jaina temples are the gifts of single wealthy individuals and as such the Jaina temples are distinguished for elaborate details and exquisite finish.

Of these innumerable Jaina temples, the two marble temples at Mount Abu in Rajasthan are considered as the most notable contributions of the Jainas in the domain of architecture. The two temples are famous as unsurpassed models of Western or Gujarati style of architecture which is characterized by a free use of columns carved with all imaginable richness, strut brackets, and exquisite marble ceilings with cusped pendants. The temples are known for the beauty and delicacy of the carving and for the richness of the design. As Cousens remarks:

“The amount of beautiful ornamental detail spread over these temples in the minutely carved decoration of ceilings, pillars, door ways, panels and niches is simply marvelous; the crisp, thin, translucent, shell-like treatment of the marble surpasses anything seen elsewhere and some of the designs are veritable dreams of beauty. The work is so delicate that an ordinary chiseling would have been disastrous. It is said that much of it was produced by scrapping the marble away, and that the masons were paid by the amount of marble dust so removed.”

Again, the Jaina temple at Ranakpur in Mewar, a part of Rajasthan (which was built in 1440 A.D.), is the most complex and extensive Jaina temple in India and the most complete for the ritual of the sect. The temple covers altogether about 48,000 sq. feet of ground and on the merits of its design, the notable art-historian Dr. Fergusson remarks that:

“The immense number of parts in the building, and their general smallness, prevents its laying claim to anything like architectural grandeur: but their variety, their beauty of detail – no two pillars in the whole building being exactly alike – the grace with which they are arranged, the tasteful admixture of domes of different heights with flat ceilings, and mode in which the light is introduced. combine to produce an excellent effect. Indeed I know of no other building in India, of the same class that leaves so pleasing an impression, or affords so many hints for the graceful arrangements of columns in an interior”.

The other temples of such superb character are (i) the temple of Parsvanatha at Khajuraho in Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, (ii) the temple at Lakkundi in North Karnataka, (iii) the temple known as Jinanathapura Basadi near Sravana-belagola in South Karnataka, (iv) Seth Hathisinghi’s temple at Ahmedabad. and (v) The temple known as Hose Vasadi at Mudabidri in South Kanara District of Karnataka.

As regards the spread of beautiful Jaina temples in India it may be noted that the number of such temples in India was considerably reduced during the Muslim period because the structure of Jaina temple was such that it could easily be converted into a mosque. The light columnar style of the Jaina temples not only supplied materials more easily adopted to the purposes of Muslims, but furnished hints of which the Muslim architects were not slow to avail themselves. A mosque obtained in this way was, for convenience and beauty, unsurpassed by anything the Muslims afterwards erected from their own original designs. Thus the great mosques of Ajmer, Delhi, Kanauj and Ahmedabad are merely reconstruction on the temples of Hindus and Jainas.


Further, the grouping together of their temples into what may be called ‘Cities of Temples’ is a peculiarity which the Jainas have practiced to a greater extent than the followers of any other religion in India. Such notable temple cities are found, among other places, at (i) Satrunjaya or Palitana in Gujarat, (ii) Girnar in Gujarat. (iii) Sammed-Shikhara in Bihar (iv) Sonagiri in Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, (v) Muktagiri in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, (vi) Kunthalgiri in Marathwada, Maharashtra, (vii) Sravana-belagola in Hassan District, Karnataka and (viii) Mudabidri in South Kanara District, Karnataka.


Again, the Jainas also like the Buddhists, built several cave-temples cut in rocks from the early times. But in dimensions, the Jaina cave temples were smaller than the Buddhist ones because the Jaina religion gave prominence to individualistic and not to congregational ritual. The most numerous cave-temples are in Udayagiri and Khandagiri Hills in Orissa. The picturesqueness of their forms, the character of their sculptures, and the architectural details combined with their great antiquity render them one of the most important groups of caves in India. These and those of Junagadh in Gujarat belong to the second century B.C. while the others are of a later date of which the important ones are found at (i) Aihole and Badami in Bijapur District (Karnataka), (ii) Ankai and Patana in Khandesh District (Maharashtra), (iii) Ellora and Oosmanabad in Marathwada (Maharashtra), (iv) Chamar Lena near Nasik City (Maharashtra), and (v) Kalugumalai in Tinnevelly District (Tamilnadu).


Like the Buddhists, Jainas also erected stupas in honor of their saints, with their accessories of stone railings, decorated gateways, stone umbrellas, elaborate carved pillars and abundant statues. Early examples of these have been discovered in the Kankali mound near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, and they are supposed to belong to the first century B.C.

Mana-stambhas or Pillars

Another remarkable contribution of the Jainas in the field of architecture is the creation of many stambhas or pillars of pleasing design and singular grace which are found attached to many of their temples. In connection with these manastambhas, as they are popularly called, the famous authority on Jaina architecture, Dr. James Fergusson, states that it may be owing to the iconoclastic propensities of the Muslims that these pillars are not found so frequently where they have held sway, as in the remoter parts of India; but, whether for this cause or not, they seem to be more frequent in south India than in any other part of India. Dr. James Fergusson further suggests that there may be some connection between these Jaina stambhas and the obelisks of the Egyptians. Regarding these Jaina pillars in the South Kanara District of Karnataka, the research scholar Mr. Walhouse has remarked that “the whole capital and canopy are a wonder of light, elegant, highly decorated stone work, and nothing can surpass the stately grace of these beautiful pillars whose proportions and adaptation to surrounding scenery are always perfect, and whose richness of decoration, never offends.” According to another eminent authority on Indian Architecture, Dr. Vincent Smith, in the whole range of Indian Art there is nothing perhaps equal to these pillars in the Kanara District for good taste.