Jainism in the Gupta period


By Lucas den Boer

At our January workshop, we had two talks on various aspects of Jainism in the Gupta period. First, Andrew Ollett (Harvard) focussed on the Jaina languages. Beginning with a theoretical analysis, Ollett questioned several common assumptions about the character and history of the Prakrit languages that were used by the Jainas, i.e. Ardhamāgadhī, Mahārāṣṭrī, and Śaurasenī. He argued that the historical boundaries between these languages were fluid, and that our ideas of their differences are largely based on the reification of Prakrit varieties by 19th century scholars. These Prakrit languages were not continuous with demotic speech. Moreover, unlike the Buddhists, the Jainas didn’t have their own grammars for their Prakrit variants. This might explain why Jaina authors frequently go back to more archaic forms, which challenges the idea of a linear development of the Middle Indic languages. Ollett’s theoretical reflections were linked to his account of the history of Prakrit as described in his recent publication Languages of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India, which is available for download from the University of California Press.

In the second half of the workshop, Paul Dundas addressed the social situation of the Jainas under the Guptas, focussing on the means by which the Jain renunciant community was supported. For this goal, he discussed the term ‘akṣayanīvī’, used in Haribhadra Yākinīputra’s Ṣoḍaśakaprakaraṇa, which refers to a permanent endowment for monks. By presenting several epigraphical and non-epigraphical sources from the Gupta period that mention such endowments and the ‘use’ (upabhoga) of these endowments, Dundas threw some new light on the dating of the domestication of Jaina mendicant life. In the last part of his talk, he discussed a story from the Āvaśyakacūrṇi, in which Gautama feeds some ascetics on Mount Aṣṭāpada with his magical powers. Pointing out the parallels with a story form the Mahābhārata in which the Sun enables Yudiṣṭhura to feed Brahmins in the forest, Dundas tentatively suggested that the story about Gautama might be a reworking of the story in the Mahābhārata. The background to the questions that Dundas raised during the workshop can be found in his earlier study on the social status of the Jains under the Guptas (“Floods, Taxes, and a Stone Cow: A Jain Apocalyptic Account of the Gupta Period.” South Asian Studies 30, no. 2 (2014): 230-244, doi:10.1080/02666030.2014.962341).