Divinity in Jainism

My attention has turned to the characterization of the gods in Jainism. Alongside working my way through the key primary sources, I have been trying to locate any secondary works that deal with the nature of the gods in Jain traditions, but this search has merely served to highlight a general reluctance to acknowledge the existence of the gods at all. On a recent trip to Oxford I ordered up two books –  Harisatya Bhattacharyya’s Divinity in Jainism (Madras 1925) and P. Ajay Kothari’s The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (Jaipur 2000) – and on my return to Edinburgh I tracked down Robert J. Zydenbos’ pamphlet The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (the 1992 Roop Lal Jain Lecture, published by the University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies in 1993). So what did I learn from these three works with almost identical titles?

Bhattacharyya’s work is one of comparative theology, trying to read a notion of divinity into the Jain concept of a perfected soul. It is clearly an attempt to find a notion of God comparable to the Christian one. The book contains nothing at all about the gods (devas).

Kothari’s book also spends a lot of time on the idea of the perfected soul as a god, and thus the potential of all humans to become gods, an idea he also finds in Buddhism. Thus while Chapter 2 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Hinduism’ is about Vedic and Upanishadic gods, Chapter 3 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Buddhism’ is about buddhahood and nirvana as a form of divinity and the Buddha’s rejection of the notion of an all-powerful creator god. There is a very short discussion of the devas in a section entitled ‘Celestial beings (non-divine beings)’. The Buddha is lauded as the supreme deity. In Chapters 4 and 5, on the Jain concept of divinity, Kothari does give some attention to the different types of deity, but once again the focus is on moksha as the supreme divinity and the role of karma in impeding divinity.

Zydenbos’ lecture immediately acknowledges this bias towards finding a notion of divinity in Jainism that allows it to make comparisons with (and even claims to superiority over) Christian notions of God. He also acknowledges the fact that many Westerners assume there are no gods in Jainism, yet in India Jains are commonly found worshipping gods as much as (and often the same gods as) their Hindu neighbours. Against this backdrop Zydenbos makes a number of useful observations about the role of various deities, including the yakṣas and yakṣīs that become the attendant deities of the jinas (several of which are shared with the Hindu pantheon).

There is obviously more to be done to explore the role of the deities in general – and of specific named deities – in the Jain traditions. My next stop will be J.P. Sharma’s Jaina Yakshas (Meerut 1989), which I hope will help shed a little more light on these important deities. Meanwhile onwards with the Bhagavatī Sūtra, which is revealing some interesting material on Indra (Sakka)…


5 thoughts on “Divinity in Jainism

  1. Vish

    Fascinating. It would be interesting to look at conceptions of Krsna in the Jaina Harivamsa or the Pandava Purana. I know some of the Pandava Purana is publicly available, but I’m not sure how much of it is. I only read some of Jaini’s translation, and that was not complete.

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Many thanks for your comment. I agree that the Jain Puranas would be very interesting to look at and i hope to get to them in due course. Actually I am not currently including Krishna in my research into deities but James will be exploring his characterisation when he starts to look at the epic characters.

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