‘The affection of a good person is like an elderlyman. Both start slowly and hesitantly.’
The stories collected in this volume reflect the rich tradition of medieval Jain storytelling between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, form simple folk tales and lives of famous monks to sophisticated narratives of rebirth. They describe the ways in which a path to peace and bliss can be found, either by renouncing the world or by following Jain ethics of non-violence, honesty, moderation and fidelity. Here are stories depicting the painful consequences when a loved one chooses life as a monk, the triumph of Jain women who win over their husbands to their religion, or the rewards of a simple act of piety. The volume ends with an account of vice and virtue, which depicts the thieving and destructive passions lurking in the forest of life, ready to rob the unsuspecting traveller of reason and virtue.
Phyllis Granoff’s translation preserves the flavour of the original tales. In her Introduction, she discusses Jain doctrine and belief, the Jains’ preservation of medieval Indian stories, and the themes and sources of individual tales.
Phyllis Granoff received a Ph. D from Harvard University in Sanskrit and Indian Studies and Fine Arts in 1973. She teaches Sanskrit and Indian Religions at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her first book, Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedanta: Sri Harsa’s Khandanakhandakhadya, was first published by D. Reidel in 1978. She has written extensively on Jain literature, particularly Jain religious biographies. In 1992 she published Speaking of Monks: Religious Biography in India and China, co-authored with her husband Koichi Shinohara (Mosaic Press). She has also translated a collection of short stories by Bihutibhushan Bandopadhyaya from Bengali to English. She currently edits the Journal of Indian Philosophy and continues to work on traditional and modern India literature.
Blessed One, how can I make my way safely through the forest that is the cycle of rebirths? And once I cross the forest, where will I be?’ The monk replied, ‘Listen. There are two forests; one is the forest that exists outside us, the tangle of our thoughts and desires. Let me use the forest that exists in nature as a parable to teach you of that other, equally treacherous forest. Imagine there was a merchant, who wanted to go from one city to another. He announces to all and sundry, “ I seek someone to accompany me to the city such and such; I will make sure that no harm befalls him on the journey, as long as he follows my advice.” When they hear this announcement many merchants hasten to join him. Before they depart, the merchant describes to them the conditions of the road that they must travel. “My friends, my travelling companions!” he begins. “There are two paths to choose from; one is straight, but the other is somewhat tortuous. Believe it or not, it is other is easier to follow the crooked path; eventually it leads one onto the straight way and to the city we seek. The straight path is harder to travel. Although it leads to the goal more quickly, it is dangerous and arduous . For as soon as one enters the straight path there lie in wait for him terrifying creatures, lions and tigers, that obstruct his way to the city that is the object of his desires. They kill the person who steps off the path even for a moment, but they cannot harm the one who keeps to the right road…..”
‘Here is the explanation for the parable. The merchant is the Noble Jina, honoured by gods and anti-gods, the crest jewel of the universe. His proclamation is his crest jewel of the universe. His proclamation is his teaching of the Jain doctrine, through various techniques, telling stories that attract the listener to the Jain doctrine and turn the listener away from false doctrines; telling stories that cause the listener to feel disgust for worldly existence and delight in the religious life. The travellers are the souls who set out for the city of Liberation, making their way across the entire cycle of rebirths, which includes births in hell, as animals, humans and gods. The straight path is the way of the renunciate; the path that is slightly crooked is the way of the lay renunciation…. The city that is the object of the traveller’s desires is the city of peace, of final release, which is devoid of the torments of birth, old age, death, disease, grief and the like. The tigers and lions are the destructive passions such as lust, greed, delusion, and anger, all of which are obstructions to the attainment of Liberation.’
The stories and their themes
The stories in this collection will take you deep into a tangled forest, the hunt of wild beasts, savage tribes and merciless robbers. As we see in the quote, the forest is one of the Jain metaphors for the life we all lead. The dangers of the forest, here described as wild animals and in other accounts as violent thieves, are the passions that lie in wait for the unsuspecting traveller. They attack the traveller and rob him of the power to know things as they truly are and to lead a virtuous life. We all wander in this forest of transmigratory existence without direction, lost in the thick growth, unable to find our way out. For each of us, the forest is the sum total of all of our existences, for as the parable makes clear the Jains, like the Buddhists and Hindu, believe that we go from birth to birth in a beginningless cycle. The parable also teaches us that there is a way out of the terrifying forest that can lead us to a city of peace and bliss. To find that way we must heed the call of the Jina’s words. The way out of the forest is in fact twofold; the most direct way is to renounce the world, leaving behind all relationships, attachments and possessions, to become monks and nuns. For those who are unable to take this path, there is the way of the householder, who is taught how to live in accordance with the basic principles of Jain ethics, to guard against doing violence to living beings, to be honest and never to steal, and to be moderate in the accumulation of material possessions and faithful in marriage. As the parable teaches us, the ideal is that the lay life properly lived should ultimately lead to a life of renunciation.
The correct way of renunciation and the correct rules for behaviour wre, said to have been taught by a series of Jinas or ‘Conquerors’, most recently by Mahavira, who was an older contemporary of the Buddha. Although Jainism is a renunciatory religion, we see in the parable, and we shall see even more vivdly in the stories translated in this collection, that there is much that lay men and women can do to further their own religious quest, strenghten the Jain community and ensure the preservation of Jainism.
Early in their history the Jains spilit into two main groups, the Digambaras or ‘sky clad’, whose monks go naked, and the Svetambaras or ‘white robed’, whose monks wear robes of simple white cloth. White there are many points of difference between the sects, Svetambaras and Digambaras shared their love of stories, which they often used to teach ethical concepts and even to illustrate abstruse points of doctrine. Much of the richness of medieval Indian storytelling has come down to us because Jains so carefully preserved these stories. An account is told of a Jain monk who so loved to hear a Brahmin storyteller recite his tales. A pious Jain layman took pity on the monk and hired the Brahmin to come and recite his stories for him, so that he would no longer have to go to the trouble of donning a disguise.
Many of the stories Jains told are clearly recognizable as simple folk tales, while others are complicated and sophisticated narratives containing numerous characters who go through rebirth after rebirth in an intricate set of relationships. Some of these rebirth in an intricate set of relationship. Some of these rebirth narratives seem uniquely Jain, while others have parallels elsewhere, often in Buddhist story literature. The Jains also told their own versions of the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They made changes, some subtle and some not so subtle, to the familiar stories to make them conform more strictly, to the standards of Jain morality and to make them more suitable as didactic tools with which they might teach Jain doctrine.
The Jains also wrote about the lives of the Jinas and the famous monks in the monastic lineages. They recounted the glorious deeds of wealthy lay patrons, whose donations sustained the monks and nuns and built the magnificent temples, many of which are still in worship today. Medieval history writing in some parts of India, as it has come down to us, is virtually synonymous with the chronicles kept by Jain monks also collected stories told of important pilgrimage sites. Indeed there is almost no subject or theme about which the Jains did not of the elite and learned in ancient and medieval India, as well as in various vernaculars. They told them in poetry, in ornate prose and in simple colloquial language.
The sheer abundance and variety of medieval Jain story literature made the choice of stories my first challenge. I soon realized the futility of trying to make my selection ‘representative’; sample of Jain stories, I suspect, would fill a good-sized bookself. This left me with the inviting possibility of choosing my favourites. I soon abandoned that strategy, since some of my favourite stories turned out to be too long, too complicated or too allusive and therefore, I feared, to elusive for the general reader. I decided at last to translate stories that reflected a general theme or set of themes: monks and the women and children, the friends and relatives, whom they leave behind. I eventually indulged myself by adding a few stories here and there that pushed the boundaries I had set just a little farther than might be expected. These additional stories, I hoped, would enrich perspective on a given theme, often with a measure of humour.
There are some excellent accounts in English of Jain religious beliefs; Padmanabh Jaini and Paul Dundas have written lucid and engaging discussions of Jain belief and practice. Instead of providing here a short summary of Jain doctrine, which could not possibly do justice to its complex subject, I would like to let the stories I have selected speak for themselves. The Jainism they describe is richly textured. While the stories acknowledgment that renunciation of all family and social ties is important for religious development, we see that they also make room for a wide range of meritorious activities that have little to do, with monastic asceticism. Tending a temple garden, indeed financing the building of a temple and going world of these stories. In keeping with the general principle that all acts have appropriate consequences, these good deeds lead to abundant rewards. And so we see that in addition to the goal of Ultimate Release from transmigratory existence, which monks in the prescriptive texts are enjoined to seek, these stories make room for religious goals such as rebirth in heaven or even simpley a life of wealth and status, goals that are also open to lay men and women. In addition, in these medieval stories even the what we might expect these stories monks who renounce the world may still have consecrating religious images and temples, curing disease scrupulously to avoid in the texts that list rules for the knowledgeable in Jain doctrine that the monks themselves. In addition, the very act of renunciation itself is often not so clear-cut in these stories; in the cycle if rebirths the ties that behind mother and son, husband and wife may prove to be very tenacious indeed, as abandoned wives and mothers return in new births to torment the men who left them. In this and other ways the stories make us see some of the painful emotional consequences of the decision to renounce, particularly for those who are left behind.
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