Article: Jains and the Mughals

Jain relations with the Mughals began under the third emperor, Akbar. Jains from multiple Śvetāmbara sects, especially the Tapā-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha, visited the royal court for a variety of reasons. Jain leaders often gained political concessions from the imperial elite that advanced their religious and community interests. Some monks also participated in the cultural life of Akbar’s court, such as taking part in religious debates.

During the reign of Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, relations between Jains and the Mughal court became rocky and ceased altogether by the 1620s. Nonetheless, outside imperial circles, contacts between Jains and Muslims remained generally affable, and commercial dealings prospered. Persian influences from Mughal painting can also be detected in Jain art of this period, especially that produced in Gujarat.

Digambara Jains do not appear to have visited the imperial court or to have had direct contact with the Mughal elite. But Digambara thinkers were highly aware of the Mughals and responded to their growing imperial power in both material and literary ways.

Akbar and the Jains

This illustration from the 'Akbar-nāmah' shows the Emperor Akbar on a black horse, after his 1572 conquest of Surat in Gujarat. During Akbar's long reign, Jains were frequently prominent at court and were often able to advance Jain interests

Akbar enters Surat
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Mughal Emperor Akbar met members of three Śvetāmbara communities. The resulting encounters were highly varied and include:

  • political negotiations
  • religious debates
  • the bestowal of titles
  • the production of Sanskrit texts for the Mughals.

Modern historians have still not taken due notice of the diverse roles that Jains played at the Mughal court.

In the 1560s, Padmasundara of the Nāgapurīya Tapā-gaccha sect was the first Jain to visit the imperial court, then at Agra, in modern Uttar Pradesh. While there he crafted a treatise on Sanskrit aesthetic theory at the emperor’s request, titled Akbara-sāhi-śṛṅgāra-darpaṇaMirror of the Erotic for Emperor Akbar. There is little additional information regarding Padmasundara’s time at court, except that he left behind a small library upon his death. Akbar later gave the books to Hīravijaya-sūri of the Tapā-gaccha. After Padmasundara, no more Nāgapurīya mendicants appear to have pursued relations with the Mughals.

Following Gujarat‘s absorption into the Mughal Empire in the 1570s, Śvetāmbara Jains in the region built up cordial relations with the ruling power. The Tapā-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha both developed significant imperial connections during the 1580s to 1610s. Though they often performed similar functions or even worked together at court, the sects also competed for Mughal edicts granting control over Shatrunjaya, a contested pilgrimage site in Gujarat.

Jains generally celebrated their leaders’ close imperial ties and associated influence on Mughal rulers. Even so, there was some disquiet at the notion of Jain mendicants, who renounce worldly matters for spiritual progress, attending the court of an earthly king.

Akbar and his son Jahangir bestowed Sanskrit and Persian titles on members of both monastic lineages as marks of favour. Akbar also interfered with the ascetic ranks of both the Tapā-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha. He promoted ascetics to new positions – signified by titles, such as sūri – on several occasions. Members of the Jain community accepted the emperor’s active role, but they often insisted on having the current head of their sect perform the rituals necessary to fomally recognise the change in status.

Tapā-gaccha contacts

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. The monks are of the Digambara sect even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Each monk sits on a dais and holds a scripture in a scroll. The books

Preaching monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Members of the Tapā-gaccha cultivated extensive connections with the Mughal elite. After Hīravijaya-sūri established relations in 1582, Tapā-gaccha monks were continuously present at the imperial court for 30-odd years. They asked for numerous political concessions from the Mughals and also participated in court life. Tapā-gaccha writers generally lauded these fruitful ties but also sometimes felt uncomfortable with the idea of ascetic monks attending a worldly court.

Hīravijaya-sūri, the leader of the Tapā-gaccha, first met Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, in 1582. According to Sanskrit and Gujarati hagiographies, Akbar summoned Hīravijaya from Gujarat after hearing about the monk’s legendary wisdom and religious devotion. The Mughal takeover of Gujarat in 1572 to 1573 also provided political incentives for Jains from the region to build imperial relations. Hīravijaya travelled on foot to meet the Mughal king and remained at court for a few years along with several of his disciples.

While at court, Hīravijaya successfully asked the emperor to issue numerous farmāns – imperial decrees – promoting Jain interests. These included:

  • an end to animal slaughter during the annual festival of Paryuṣaṇ
  • a ban on fishing in a lake near Agra
  • the release of Gujarati prisoners.

Several Tapā-gaccha monks frequented the Mughal court during the following decades seeking similar political concessions. Sanskrit texts narrate the imperial experiences of certain prominent figures, including:

  • Bhānucandra
  • Vijayasena
  • Siddhicandra.

Kharatara-gaccha contacts

Jains of the Kharatara-gaccha sect were not as numerous at the Mughal court as Tapā-gaccha ascetics. However, their relations with the ruling elite were also largely agreeable, and they too gained political favours for the Jain faith.

In the 1580s Kharatara-gaccha followers began frequenting Akbar’s court. Successive leaders of the sect, Jinacandra and Jinasiṃha, both visited the Mughal king, along with powerful lay members such as Karmacandra, a minister of Bikaner in Rajasthan.

Although they were not as successful as their Tapā-gaccha counterparts, Kharatara-gaccha Jains sought comparable imperial orders. Similarly, they wrote about their experiences in Sanskrit and vernacular texts.

Impacts on Mughal court culture

Mughal Emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, and their ministers. Depicting a meeting that did not take place, the painting was created for Shah Jahan, on the right, about to receive a falcon from his grandfather Ak

Three Mughal emperors
Image by Asian Art Council: in memoriam Stanley Love © public domain

Jains participated in Mughal court culture in several ways during their 30-odd years of steady presence in the imperial centre. They championed policies that lessened violence against animals, taught the Mughals Indian religious practices and also explained Jain beliefs to the Mughal elite. Most of these events are known from Sanskrit and Gujarati materials, although Persian courtly works also occasionally refer to such practices.

Jain monks convinced both Akbar and Jahangir to enact policies promoting non-violence towards animals and to personally forgo hunting and eating meat on several occasions. Persian sources confirm these actions, although they do not always recognise Jains as being behind the policies.

Jains also introduced various Indian religious ideas to the Mughal emperors. The Tapā-gaccha monk Bhānucandra taught Akbar to recite the Sūrya-sahasranāmaA Thousand Names of the Sun. Bhānucandra’s biographer records that Brahmans provided this Sanskrit text to the Mughal king but could not explain its proper recitation. After learning it from Bhānucandra, Akbar repeated the work daily. Even European visitors to the court noted the emperor’s fondness for sun worship.

Jains also brought their own spiritual practices into the royal court. Tapā-gaccha monks occasionally performed the challenging mental feat of avadhāna – focusing on numerous things simultaneously. Fayzi, Akbar’s poet laureate, was particularly impressed when Nandivijaya demonstrated this technique before the imperial assembly. As a reward, Akbar gave Nandivijaya the Persian title of khūshfahm – ‘wise man’.

On one occasion, Kharatara-gaccha members designed an elaborate ceremony of 108 ritual baths to counteract an astrological curse on Akbar’s newborn granddaughter. Tapā-gaccha followers may also have assisted with the rite. The ritual involved Akbar and Prince Salim – later the Emperor Jahangir – presenting offerings to Jain idols.

Both Tapā and Kharatara leaders also attest that they explained Jain beliefs to the curious Mughals. In one instance, Hīravijaya is reported to have discussed the virtues of Jainism versus Islam with Abu al-Fazl, Akbar’s chief vizier. This is recounted in Devavimala’s Hīra-saubhāgyaHīravijaya’s Good Fortune – and includes one of the few formulations of Islamic beliefs in Sanskrit. In many texts, however, such meetings unfold quite formulaically, and authors rely on standard ways of describing meetings between political and spiritual leaders.

Mughal Persian texts generally omit detailed accounts of the time Jain monks spent at court. But the Ā’īn-i Akbarī, the appendix to Akbar’s major court history, counts among the learned men of the age the three Tapā-gaccha monks Hīravijaya, Vijayasena and Bhānucandra. In addition, Bada’uni, an unofficial historian of the period, attests that Jain monks had frequent access to the king.

Monotheistic debates

Jains participated in several theological debates with both Brahmans and Muslims at Akbar’s court. A major concern was whether Jains believed in God. If they were proven to be atheists, Jain monks would be expelled from court and potentially persecuted across the Mughal Empire. The Mughals were tolerant of beliefs different from their own, but they presumed that monotheism lay at the core of any legitimate religion.

The Tapā-gaccha tradition records several instances where Hīravijaya and Vijayasena explained Jain beliefs and successfully defended themselves against the politically charged accusation of atheism. Persian sources confirm that Akbar sponsored theological debates between members of different religious traditions, including Jains.

The Kharatara-gaccha faced similar challenges. Samayasundara even composed a text for the Mughals called Artha-ratnāvalīThe String of Jewels of Meaning – that was designed to show how Jain scriptures could be reliably interpreted to have multiple meanings.

Jain responses

Rai Sabha Chand, wearing Mughal dress, worships at a Śvetāmbara Jain shrine. The seated white figure may be Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina. The 17th-century picture demonstrates the interplay of Mughal artistic style and Jain art traditions.

Rai Sabha Chand worships at a shrine
Image by Gift of Diandra and Michael Douglas © public domain

Jain writers mostly lauded these fruitful ties between their religious leaders and the Mughal emperors but also occasionally felt uncomfortable with the idea of ascetic monks attending a worldly court.

In 1610, the Tapā-gaccha community in Agra sent an illustrated vijñapti-patra to Vijayasena requesting that he visit to instal an idol. The vijñapti-patra featured a lavish illustration of a Mughal court scene by the well-known Mughal painter Śālivāhana.

Titles given by the Mughal rulers were also claimed with pride. Siddhicandra reports that he received the Persian appellation jahāngīr-pasand – ‘Jahangir’s favourite’. Akbar called Hīravijaya jagad-guru – ‘Teacher of the World’ – the name by which he is often known in Jain works.

But Tapā-gaccha writers sometimes show anxiety about world-renouncing ascetics developing close ties to earthly wealth and power. To justify connections with the Mughals, they often invoke previous examples of relationships between monks and kings, such as:

In these stories, the mendicant acts as a protector or spiritual adviser to the monarch, who is awakened to Jain beliefs.

Jahangir and the Jains

Emperor Jahangir's tomb in Lahore, modern Pakistan. Jahangir's relations with his Jain subjects varied from favourable to hostile over his 22-year reign. By the time of his death in 1627, Jain political influence in the imperial court had ended.

Jahangir’s tomb
Image by Jugni © CC BY-SA 3.0

Emperor Jahangir had a more troubled relationship with Jain communities than his father, Akbar. Relations between the imperial court and Jains swung between amicable and antagonistic. But by the end of Jahangir’s reign Jains had fallen out of imperial favour.

Even as a prince, Jahangir violated his father’s orders restricting animal slaughter and pilgrimage taxes in Gujarat. After Jahangir ascended the throne in 1605, the leader of the Kharatara-gaccha, Jinasiṃha, foretold an early end to his rule. This prediction put the sect on rocky ground with the imperial court.

The Tapā-gaccha enjoyed a good rapport with Jahangir for several years. But, in the 1610s, Jahangir twice banned Jain mendicants from his court and populated centres across the empire.

A Śvetāmbara monk in the Tapā-gaccha tradition, Siddhicandra narrates the story of how Jahangir commanded him to marry despite his ascetic vows. Jain mendicants cannot marry and try to avoid the opposite sex, which Jahangir argued went against the nature of youth. The young monk refused to wed, even when threatened with being crushed to death by a mad elephant. Jahangir ultimately settled for merely banishing the stubborn ascetic, but he also forbade Śvetāmbara monks to enter cities throughout the Mughal kingdom.

In 1616, Jahangir issued an edict to Tapā-gaccha leaders promising them freedom to travel and worship as they liked. Members from both Tapā and Kharatara traditions take credit for convincing the emperor to withdraw his previous harsh dictate. Nonetheless, in 1618, Jahangir again exiled all Jains, probably for political reasons. There is little evidence that this order was enforced, but Jahangir has only negative things to say about Jains in his memoirs. By the close of Jahangir’s reign, relations between the central Mughal court and Jain ascetics had ceased.

Seventeenth-century connections

A formal portrait of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (ruled 1658–1707). Jains had little contact with the Mughal court during Aurangzeb's rule, although a few Jain ascetics gained imperial decrees favouring the Jain community.

Emperor Aurangzeb
Image by Edwin Binney 3rd Collection SDMA © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While Jain religious leaders fell out of imperial esteem under Emperor Jahangir, other types of interactions continued throughout the 17th century. Commerce remained a profitable arena for members of both faiths. Although the close links between individual Jains and the emperor were not revived under Jahangir’s successors, Jain writers continued to view the Mughals positively.

Trade connections flourished and so did political favours associated with business relationships. For instance, Shantidas Jhaveri sold jewels to members of the Mughal elite and obtained many farmāns that advanced his commercial and personal interests.

Occasionally, Jain merchants and political figures were forced to give money to Mughal activities. For example, Shantidas Jhaveri and Virji Vora financed the unsuccessful attempt of the governor of Gujarat, Murad Bakhsh, to seize the imperial throne from Shah Jahan in 1657.

A few Jain ascetics visited Aurangzeb’s court and received farmāns benefiting their communities. But they do not appear to have cultivated ongoing relationships.

Nevertheless, Jains wrote favourably about the Mughals, including Aurangzeb, in Sanskrit and vernacular languages throughout the 17th century. Several inscriptions at Shatrunjaya also describe the Mughals in complimentary terms. Jain artworks produced in Gujarat incorporated elements of Mughal painting styles during this period.

Digambaras during Mughal rule

Nude monks are shown with small cloths over their left forearms in this fragment from a Jain temple gateway. This relief may show Digambara monks making concessions to sensitivities about public nudity or may show ascetics of the obsolete Yāpanīya sect

Nude monks carrying cloths
Image by Brooklyn Museum © CC-BY-NC

Digambaras do not appear to have interacted directly with the imperial court, but they nonetheless wrote about the Mughals. Digambara ascetic practices were also impacted at times by Mughal sensibilities.

In the late 16th to 17th centuries, there was a substantial Digambara community in Agra, including dozens of temples and two bhaṭṭāraka seats. But the Akbar-nāmah, Akbar’s official court history, claims that Digambara Jains were unknown at the Mughal court. There is also no evidence that any Digambaras met later Mughal emperors.

Even without direct relations, Digambara authors show a high awareness of the Mughals in their literature. For example, Rāyamalla describes the Agra bazaar and praises the Mughals in his late 16th-century Jambū-svāmi-caritaActs of Jambū-svāmi. Writing in Hindi, Banārasīdās narrates how he was displaced as a child by Humayun’s army. He credits Akbar’s death in 1605 with largely prompting his devotion to a form of Digambara Jainism.

Digambaras also reflected on the effects of Islamicate rule more broadly during this period. For instance, written explanations of the bhaṭṭāraka institution began to emerge in the 16th century that justified mendicants donning robes under pressure from Islamic rulers. Full-fledged Digambara monks traditionally go naked, while bhaṭṭārakas wear clothing. Bhaṭṭārakas are known from at least the 14th century onwards, but the idea arises in the 16th century that this institution was developed largely in response to Islamic disapproval of public nudity.


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