Words and paintings

I am Nalini Balbir, the content director of Jainpedia, the academic consultant who is in charge of ensuring that what’s on the website is accurate, comprehensive and intellectually credible. I’d like to give you an overview of how I began studying Jainism and talk briefly about why manuscripts are so central to Jainpedia.

As a professor of Indian studies at the Sorbonne, my academic interests include not only Jainism but Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Theravada Buddhism, and Hindi languages and literature of the 20th century. Although I am fully involved with Jainpedia and have worked for some years with the Institute of Jainology and other institutions in the UK on Jain-related projects, my work in Jainism arose only towards the end of my undergraduate career.

Discovering Jain studies

My mixed French and Indian origins mean I have been familiar with Indian culture since my childhood, but Jainism was totally foreign to me until I started my studies in Indology. The Indian part of my family is Hindu and whenever they mentioned Jains it was not necessarily in very friendly terms…

At school in France, I focused on classical languages: Latin and Greek. By the time I reached university, Sanskrit came

The god Rama sits atop the monkey king Hanuman to fight the demon king Ravana in the Hindu epic Râmâyana.

The god Rama sits atop the monkey king Hanuman to fight the demon king Ravana in the Hindu epic Râmâyana.

into the picture, as a sister language of Latin and Greek. Comparative linguistics became a fascinating subject for me. But I found that I could not be interested in Sanskrit only for its grammar and words and so I started to study it systematically in order to read the texts. Evocative childhood memories of my father telling me lively stories involving jungles and armies of monkeys sparked an interest in reading the Hindu epic Râmâyana.

At this stage, I realized that what I wanted to do was to study something that would combine past and present, languages and literatures, religions and so on. Even though Indian culture was something with which I’d grown up, studying the diverse languages, cultures and religions of the subcontinent hadn’t really occurred to me before I began learning Sanskrit.

It so happened that one of my Sanskrit professors at the university was Colette Caillat (1921-2007), a renowned scholar of Jainism. She easily convinced me that Jainism was the field I was looking for, a rich one where much was yet to be discovered and done.

My first experience of Jain manuscripts

When I was in need of a topic for a PhD dissertation, Mme Caillat showed me the Catalogue of the Jain Manuscripts in Strasbourg (1975), which had recently been published by Candrabhal B. Tripathi (1929-1996). There she located one manuscript: a collection of eight stories in Sanskrit about giving alms to the Jain monk. This was marked as unpublished so we ordered photographs of it and of a few similar manuscripts.

I had never worked with manuscripts before. I had no choice but to read and transcribe. This is how it all started.

The following summer, I was sent to Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Sitting at my table at the L.D. Institute of Indology, an impressive library of manuscripts, I worked on my text. Going through the printed catalogues and the mass of catalogue cards in the library, I could trace additional manuscripts of the eight stories and even a manuscript of a Gujarati version. It finally emerged that what had initially seemed a rather modest collection of stories had actually been quite popular and had been the subject of several scholarly rewritings. My work became a critical edition and a comparative study of the various versions of the stories.

Working with other Jain scholars

Though I have spoken Hindi since childhood, while working towards my PhD I improved my knowledge of Sanskrit and Prakrit. I also learnt the skills of reading manuscripts and how to read Gujarati. In addition, I came to know a few important people who happened to be specialists in Jain manuscripts. They kindly transmitted their knowledge to me and became good friends: Candrabhal Tripathi and Kanubhai V. Sheth are among the most important. D.D. Malvania (1910-2000), H.C. Bhayani (1917-2000) and Prof. K. Bruhn are always thought of with respect and admiration.

Acharya Vijayashilacandrasuri, a Shvetambara monk and scholar from Gujarat, active and good-humoured

Acharya Vijayashilacandrasuri, a Shvetambara monk and scholar from Gujarat, active and good-humoured

Over the years, as my scholarly career progressed and my knowledge of Jainism deepened, my professional relations with Candrabhal Tripathi and Kanubhai V. Sheth became closer. Our association culminated in the Catalogue of the Jain Manuscripts of the British Library, V&A Museum and British Museum (published in 2006). This work took several years to finish and working on it proved to be a real experience and discovery.

Earlier I had worked on different manuscripts of the same text. Now I was working with many different manuscripts of so many different types of writing, such as stories, prayers and teachings of Jain doctrine. Embarking on such a task, I realised afresh the importance of the physical aspects of the document itself, such as the material of the manuscript, the calligraphy of the individual scribe and the skills of the painter. I was strongly reminded of how such aspects influence the way the words themselves and their content are received by new readers or listeners.

When one reads a printed text, one sees something complete. Reading the manuscripts, one realizes that texts can be transmitted as individual chapters. This makes a difference to the reader or listener.

The importance of the artwork

The London institutions hold especially rich collections of Jain manuscripts. In particular, they have an important number of manuscripts with colourful paintings. In our catalogue, we have tried to give an impression of this through colour plates and a CD.

Using the visual arts is a fundamental teaching method in the Jain tradition. In the days of restricted literacy, teachers would use paintings to help explain religious and philosophical ideas and stories. These paintings are often beautiful because they have to be attractive to the reader of the manuscripts. And those who could not read the texts could understand the ideas and be inspired by the beauty of the artwork.

Tortures and pleasures as depicted in an Uttarâdhyayana manuscript from the British Library

Tortures and pleasures as depicted in an Uttarâdhyayana manuscript from the British Library

One of the motives of the Jainpedia project is our desire to share this beauty with all those who visit the website. Our aim is to show these paintings in detail and to make the most of the information we give in the encyclopaedia articles by linking them closely with the images.

When Jain monks want to explain the Jain concept of the universe, they use language but without the colourful diagrams and illustrations how would all this be clear? Painting is as telling as words, if not more. This is the principle we want to apply in Jainpedia.

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2 Responses to “Words and paintings”

  1. navin nahar says:

    Its a devine job, i appriciate u from bottom of my heart, GOOD LUCk

  2. pradeep m. jain says:

    dear sister your hard work will definitly bear fruits one day.jainism is most unexplored and largly misunderstood religion in this world,actually it is way of living life without disturbing an form of of life.sooner the world discovers it,more this planet will survive.all the best.

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