Review: Bahubali; 63 Insights into Jainism by Devdutt Pattanaik
A new book offers a good entry point into the religion for those who are curious about Jain cosmology, customs, and philosophy
Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book Bahubali: 63 Insights into Jainism is a sincere attempt to give lay readers an introduction to the Jain world view and practices through information gleaned from scriptures, literature, art, architecture, mythology, and academic research. The book offers a good entry point for those who are curious about Jain cosmology, customs related to food and fasting, and philosophical concepts like ahimsa (non-violence), aparigraha (non-hoarding), anekantavada (many-sidedness of truth), and syadvada (non-absolutism).
The Bahubali of the title is not connected to SS Rajamouli’s film Baahubali: The Beginning (2015). He is the son of Rishabh, a tirthankar (a being liberated from the cycle of birth and death who serves as a teacher for other beings) whom Jains look up to. The story goes that when Rishabh, who was a king, chose the path of renunciation and divided his kingdom among his 100 sons, 98 of them decided to follow in his footsteps and become monks. The two who were left behind were Bharat and Bahubali. The latter was stronger, but found the idea of hitting his brother reprehensible. As a warrior, he could not lower his raised hand. Instead of striking Bharat, he plucked out his hair and became a monk.
Though his name features in the title, the book is not really about Bahubali. It is about the path that he followed. He chose to wage a war with his ego rather than with his brother. He makes a substantial appearance in the introductory chapter and is mentioned in passing later on.
Pattanaik seems to have devoted a lot of his energies towards understanding a faith that he has not inherited. This is something to be appreciated, especially at a time when more and more people are either clinging to their own identities defensively or giving up religion completely under the assumption that it has nothing meaningful to offer in the contemporary age.
The book takes readers to Jain sacred sites such Ranakpur and Samanar-malai, and paints fleeting word-pictures of other important sites such as Palitana and Shravanabelagola. He demystifies practices such as Sallekhana, for instance, which is often misinterpreted as suicide. He also gives readers a flavour of intra-community sectarian differences within Jainism by writing about Shwetambars, Digambars, Sthanakvasis, Deravasis, Terapanthis, Oswals, and other groups.
“Not many people know much about Jainism, and often confuse it with Hinduism and Buddhism,” he writes. While this explains the rationale behind writing this book, readers might wonder about the significance of the number 63 in the title. He explains, “Because that’s the number of great illustrious beings (Maha/Shalaka-purush) who come into existence in each era of human civilization as per Jain lore.” Therefore, this book is a collection of 63 mini-essays.
It must take intellectual humility for the author to acknowledge that the book presents his “subjective understanding”, and “does not refer to all the sources or all the versions of a tale”. He does list out a number of sources in the book’s bibliography. It includes scholars such as Padmanabh Jaini, Pankaj Jain, Paul Dundas, Eva De Clercq, John E Cort, Naomi Appleton, Christopher Austin, Leonard Zwilling, and Michael Sweet. This seems to indicate that the book is based largely on secondary texts rather than primary sources.
That said, I, born and raised a Jain, found this book a rewarding read. It brought back memories of stories I heard as a child, and long train journeys with my parents to pilgrim towns all over Rajasthan and Gujarat. It also made me resume going to the nearby derasar (temple). It provided explanations for histories and customs I knew little about, and offered a comparative framework to look at Jainism in relation to Hinduism and Buddhism. The concept of karma, for instance, is common to all three but is understood differently in each context. Indra and Brahma too appear in the mythology of all three but have different functions.
Readers who are not Jain might find it fascinating to explore Jain versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharat that Pattanaik refers to. In the Jain Ramayana, the vaanar are not monkeys but tribes carrying flags with the emblem of a monkey; likewise, the rakshasas are not demons but guardians of forests. The book also draws attention to Krishna’s cousin Neminath, who walked out of his own wedding because he could not bear to hear the cries of animals being slaughtered for the feast. This man became a monk and later a tirthankar.
Though Pattanaik does make references to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, these are relatively scarce. This is quite understandable because religions originating in the same geographical region perhaps tend to have more in common in terms of beliefs and practices.
While I knew that Jains make up less than one per cent of India’s population, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the community has “a literacy rate of over 90 per cent” and contributes to “a quarter (speculated) of India’s income tax collection”. I was surprised too to learn from this book that Jain monks invented the game of snakes and ladders. I have seen them walking barefoot, receiving alms, and giving teachings. I have never thought of them in connection with games.
Portions of the book that refer to attacks on Jain temples and Jain monks by Muslim warlords from Central Asia and Shaivites and Vaishnavites in India made me uncomfortable because reading about atrocities in the past can bring up feelings of resentment. It seems futile to hold people who are alive today responsible for what their ancestors might have done. When religion and politics come together, things can get ugly. It is more beneficial to practise restraint.
Apart from hinting at how Jainism can contribute to dialogues around ecology and consumption, Pattanaik has included an essay on queerness, especially as petitions for marriage equality before the Supreme Court of India included one by a Jain couple – Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta. This is not the first time that Pattanaik has brought Jainism into the conversation about queerness. In the past, he wrote the introduction to a 2017 book called I Am Divine So Are You: How Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism affirm the dignity of queer identities and sexualities, edited by Jerry Johnson.
In sum, even if this isn’t the definitive book on Jainism, it is worth reading. Of course, no book can claim to be the final word, especially as Jain thought itself highlights the foolishness of such a narrow, self-righteous enterprise. As Pattanaik states, “Read this book in the spirit of curiosity, not combat, as advised by Jain sages.” I would add: Read it without assuming that Jainism arose as a reaction to Hinduism, or that Jainism is a subset of Hinduism. These frames can be limiting. Holding on to them deprives the individual of clear-sightedness.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.