On the Tantracization of Jain Ascetic Rituals
Podcast with Ellen Gough (5 April 2021).
Interviewed by Andie Alexander
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/on-the-tantracization-of-jain-ascetic-rituals/
Jainism, Tantra, Mantra, Tantracization, Categorization, Ritual
Andie Alexander (AA) 00:00
Hi, I’m Andie Alexander and joining me today is Dr. Ellen Gough, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Emory University. Professor Gough received her PhD in Asian religions from Yale University and her work focuses primarily on Jainism. In 2020, Professor Gough received a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship, which will allow her to do research on Jain festivals and astrology. Congratulations! But today, we are here to discuss your forthcoming book, Making a Mantra: Tantric Ritual and Renunciation on the Jain Path to Liberation (University of Chicago Press), which will be available in June 2021. Now, I believe that you have been a longtime and avid listener of The Religious Studies Project, but this is your first appearance on our podcast. So, we are very glad to have you here. Thank you so much for joining us!
Ellen Gough (EG) 00:48
Oh, yeah, thanks for having me. I’ll say I listened to this regularly when I was on the job market to get an understanding of the field of religious studies, and it was very helpful. So, thanks for what you do.
Well, we’re very glad to hear that. We are glad that it’s a useful resource to everyone. We are here today having our very first official podcast on Jainism, and so I’m hoping that before we get too far along in the conversation, you could give our listeners a little background on Jain studies as a field and the common or popular conversations and discourses taking place, especially with regard to tantra and mantra, because I know that these are two terms that you focus on in your book. And so, seeing sort of what’s already happening in the field before we dive in too deep with our discussions.
Right, sure. Yeah, I’ll start with Jainism. I guess to introduce the field of Jainism. It’s a big question. But what I can do is maybe tell my own story about how I learned about Jainism. I learned about Jainism first at the University of Wisconsin Madison in an intro course, Intro to South Asian Religions. And the course was trying to do a lot, you know, South Asian religions is huge topic. So, we only had, I think, one day on Jainism. And I think what I found is, it was introduced in a way that it’s often introduced in America, in that we learned about it in our section on renunciatory traditions. So typically, in an Intro to South Asians course, you start with the Vedas, you start with learning about these Brahmanical traditions that dominated in North India from 1200 BCE onwards, and that really focused on the power of the priestly caste, the Brahmins and the importance of the fire sacrifice that they performed, making offerings to the gods to maintain prosperity in the world. Okay, so that’s what you get, you know, intro, and then you have your section on renunciatory traditions that rejected these Brahmanical traditions, and you get an intro to Buddhism primarily. And I think Jainism often comes in there. And that’s what my experience was. Jainism, was introduced as a strictly ascetic tradition that rejected the Vedas, rejected Brahmanical authority in the same way Buddhists did, said, making these sacrifices to the gods is completely useless because it just ensures that you’re going to reincarnate over and over and over again and suffer. What you have to do is you have to escape the material world, you have to become a renunciant—you have to renounce the world, you have to take the vows of a mendicant, and in that way, Buddhism and Jainism are quite similar. And so that was my experience when I was taking this Intro to South Asian Religions is that’s how Jainism was introduced to me. And then we never really followed up later with what happened—whatever happened to Jainism. It was put in dialogue with Buddhism as Buddhism’s really strict other. Do you know the—I’m sure you know, the biography of the Buddha. I’m sure you read the biography of the Buddha.
Right. So often, in classrooms, people experience, students will experience Jains through the texts of other religious traditions. So, there’s this famous account in the story of the Buddha where he’s a prince and he leaves the palace and he tries all these meditational programs to try to achieve enlightenment. And the first one he does is he fasts hardcore, gets really skinny, becomes emaciated—there are famous sculptures of the Emaciated Buddha. And it’s often said, “Oh, well, that’s the Jain path. That’s the path of extreme austerities. The Buddha took the middle way, he rejected a path of extreme austerities. He rejected the path of extreme wealth, and he and he took the middle way.” So yeah, that’s what I would say that historically—of course, things are changing now—but historically, Jainism has been introduced in that way. It is very similar to Buddhism. It did emerge in the 5th century BCE in North India, the founder of Jainism was an ascetic like the Buddha, a contemporary of the Buddha, named Mahavira. And so, they did have very similar teachings. A key distinction, though, I should say, between Buddhism and Jainism is Jains believe in an eternal soul in a way—of course, Buddhists reject the idea of an eternal soul.
Jains believe that the universe is uncreated, and there are infinite number of souls in the universe. But they all are identical. And they all contain infinite knowledge, infinite bliss, infinite perception, and infinite power. And they’re in all types of living beings. So, Jains divide the universe into four types of birth placements. We got the gods, plants and animals of humans, and we have the hell beings. And we’re just cycling, which is reincarnated amongst all these different birth placements. Our souls are, and why are we doing that? Because of karma, which is, I mean, karma literally means action. But in the Jain perception of things, karma is a physical substance that attaches to your soul every time you act. So, as I’m talking now, as we’re doing this podcast, tons of karma is being attached to my soul. And it’s obscuring my infinite knowledge, infinite bliss, infinite power. I could be blissed out, but I’m not because I’m acting. There are different types of karma. Of course, there’s good karma, there’s bad karma. And if I do good things, hopefully, I’m getting some good karma right now, because I’m talking about Jainism. And that will maybe ensure that I have a better birth place. I have a really good birth placement right now as a human, but maybe I can become a God in my next life or something like that. But if I do, you know, violent acts, I will be reborn as hell being or something like this. But—so there are different types of karma—but the ultimate goal of Jainism, it’s to destroy all karma, so that you just become a pure soul, and you shoot to the top of the universe, where you will remain forever with all other liberated souls. You won’t merge into one, as some traditions maintain. You will remain distinct from other souls, but you will be blissed out you have infinite knowledge, infinite bliss, infinite power, and to just remain there forever. That’s the goal of Jains is to become a liberated soul.
So, in your book, you are looking at these terms, tantra and mantra and their connection to karma and the Jain path of liberation. Could you give us a little background on how these terms are typically understood within Jain studies and then tell us a little bit about where your work makes an intervention in those discourses?
In Intros to Jainism and studies of Jainism, this word tantra has not really been examined. the so-called tantric path to liberation, and the ascetic path to liberation, in scholarship, has been put in opposition to one another. I think that in popular discourse, tantra is often associated… Well, I ask my students, that’s when I’m introducing tantra in the classroom, I say, “What do you think of when you think of tantra?” And no one says anything. I want them to say sex, I want them to say, “oh, sex.” And I don’t know if they don’t say it because they don’t think of sex or they just don’t want to say sex to a professor. but it has been—you know, [inaudible] has eight-hour long tantric sex sessions and all this. In popular discourse, it has been associated with these antinomian activities.
Because of that, because Jainism has been posited as this strict ascetic path to liberation in which celibacy and becoming a monk is required for liberation, like putting in opposition to one another. I mean, tantra is such a problematic term. Where do I start with this? Probably one of the most contested categories in Asian religions, but basically, it comes from a category of texts. Tantras in Buddhism and Hinduism. There are tons of different categories of texts, genres of text, Sutras, Puranas, Vedas, etc. And in the tantras—these texts that emerged maybe from the 5th century CE, in the medieval period—they describe the beliefs and practices of various cults to deities that, like Jainism and Buddhism and ascetic traditions, rejects Brahmanical understandings of the proper way to act, reject the idea of Brahmanical purity and Brahmanical hierarchy, and posit a path to liberation, in which mantras destroy karma. So, you initiate into the tradition, you receive a mantra from your guru, you—at your initiation, this diagrammatic representation of your tradition, like a mandala, these geometric diagrams will be constructed. So, you initiate into the tradition. And then after you’re initiated into tradition, you can use the mantras that are imparted to you, upon your initiation, to continue to destroy the karma on a daily basis. And that’s the so-called tantric path to liberation. The foundation is mantras destroying karma, whereas the ascetic path to liberation, the Jaina path to liberation, has been posited as one of asceticism where you fast, you keep celibate, you perform very difficult acts of asceticism, study meditation in order to destroy karma. So that’s why studies of tantra often don’t mention Jainism. And studies of Jainism don’t often mention tantra in that way.
Given that sort of breakdown, how is your book, Making a Mantra, tackling those understandings and conversations?
So, when we actually look at the texts and practices of Jainism, we see that they use mantras a lot to destroy karma, in ways that have been deemed tantric in scholarship on tantra. Meaning they use, they are imparted—monks, nuns, mendicants in Jainism, are indeed imparted—mantras upon their initiation that are said to destroy karma, that are said to ensure liberation. They do construct these diagrams, these mandalas, upon their initiations, and they do regularly—monks, mendicants, laypeople—regularly use mantras in meditative practices, in ritual practices to destroy karma. So, when we look at the practices, they are performing the so-called tantric practices. And when I say, “tantric practices,” I mean, this specific type of initiation in which a mantra is imparted and a mandala is constructed, and then specific type of daily meditational practices that have been outlined by a bunch of smart scholars. The leader in the field of tantric studies right now is Alexis Sanderson, retired from Oxford. He’s trained a number of really brilliant, really prolific, brilliant students, who primarily focus on so-called Śaiva tantric traditions. And they and others have defined tantric meditation in a certain way. And there are a number of steps that are involved in tantric meditation, the first being the purification of the body, through the use of mantras, bhūtaśuddhi rites, where you place mantras on your body to purify your body, and then the use of mantras, to propitiate the God of your tantric tradition, be it Shiva, Buddha, Vishnu, and then also the deification of the body, again, via mantras. So, when we look at Jain texts, during this, so what to do? What to do about that?
I want to draw attention to a process in your own methodology for the book, where you talk about Catherine Bell’s use of ritualization. And you propose “tantracization” as a way to address the discrepancy that you see in these processes for the Jain path to liberation. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you understand that to work and the work it’s doing for you within this text but also in the field?
Yeah, absolutely. I use this term “tantracization”—I mean, I’ve seen other people use similar terms: “tantrification.” I use tantracization, as you say, because I want to engage with Catherine Bell’s idea of ritualization. I do it to complicate this category of tantra, as something that is coherent that you can point to. I want to make the shift that Bell makes toward the process of creating something that is tantric. So, if you want to define a category—let’s say you want to define the category tantra—you don’t want to start with something that’s already called tantric. You don’t want to start with a person who’s already called a tantric. You don’t want to start with a text that’s already called tantric. You want to start with something outside of the category and see how that thing changes when it interacts with the category, the process of them, I called tantracization. So that’s why Jainism is really ideal to use to assess this category of tantra because Jains have never been categorized as tantrics in the way that Śaivas, Vaiṣṇavas, Buddhists really have. So, what I do is—I also draw upon David Germano’s work. I think he’s coined this term, “non-traditional developmental history,” whereby the structuring component of research is not something you would typically start with, like a text or a time period, or a person, or religious tradition, or a concept such as modernity, or secularism, or tantra. But instead of the single ritual component. So, start with something random, like blue socks. If you want to understand the formation of tantra, or any other complicated category of analysis in religious studies, start with something completely removed with that, and see how it changes when it interacts with that category. So that’s what I’m trying to do with the tantracization. And through that process, we see that these practices involving mantras, that destroy karma, and lead a practitioner toward liberation, emerge naturally from the ascetic path to liberation, so we should not put them in opposition. When we look at a single ritual component—and in my book, I look at this litany, this 44-line litany of praises to ascetics who have achieved superhuman powers, like they have the ability to fly, they have clairvoyance, they have the ability to cure people with their bodily fluids, they have all sorts of superhuman powers that they’ve developed because our souls have infinite power. So, when you destroy some karma that’s blocking that infinite power, these superhuman powers emerge. So, there’s this litany in this text, the Ṣaṭkhaṅḍāgama, this Prakrit litany, the language of the Jain scriptures, that is just praises to these ascetics. And I use that as my focus throughout the book. And I look at how this praise that is initially not called a mantra, not using so-called tantric rites of meditation initiation, how it changes how its interpretation changes when it begins to be a mantra of initiation, a mantra that’s inscribed on these models that are used in tantric meditation. And that I think can help us understand what Jains are, and also can help us understand this category of tantra. Because if Jain ascetics, if celibate monks are performing these practices that have been named as tantric, that means that tantra can’t refer to antinomian rites, it can’t refer to sex and wine drinking, it also means that it can’t refer to a tradition as a whole. I would not call Jainism a tantric tradition. And that has been the language of the field. There are these tantric traditions—Śaiva Siddhānta, Pāñcarātra, various sects in Buddhism are tantric traditions as a whole. Instead, it has to only refer to ritual components, a certain way of using ritual components contextualized. I hope that makes sense. That’s what I’m trying to do with tantracization, look at the process by which a component that is not initially called tantric, then becomes tantric.
How does this focus on a single ritual component—and in this case, the appearance of this litany throughout Indian history—help us to create new questions and reach new insights in the study of Indian religious traditions?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think one way it can bring a new perspective is it shies away from this periodization of history, based on models of kingship, sometimes the history of India is written in terms of kingly patronage. So, we have the medieval period from the sixth century to the 13th century, that’s been called the so-called Śaiva age by Alexis Sanderson, the famous monograph length book chapter. Because it was in this period that kings adopted Śasvism and then promoted Śasvism—there’s a lot of truth in that. But then we get to the 13th century and we have the period of Muslim rule. And then we have 19th century when you have British rule, and we have engagements with colonial authorities and foreigners. And often when we think about the history of religions, we think in those terms, so when we’re analyzing our data, we think “oh, this is the Śaiva age, so this development of this ritual practice are merged because of Śasvism,” or “this development of this ritual practice or belief emerged because of, oh, Muslim rule,” or “this development emerged because of British rule.” And if we go beyond that and look at something else—again, outside of those categories, we don’t start the project with the colonial period, you don’t start the project with the Śaiva age. Then again, we can see how, while there’s a lot of truth—I’m not saying that the British and Europeans influence the formation of religions on the subcontinent—but we can also see other things that are happening. I can give an example. So, the Śaiva age has also been called the tantric age. This is the period where these tantric practices really, really flourished. But in Jainism, a lot of the manuals that outline these meditative rites, these initiatory rites, begin to be composed from the 13th century onwards, like at the end of the so-called tantric age. And I found that because I didn’t structure it, yeah, in terms of the tantric age. I structured in terms of this litany, and I’m starting to see my let me discuss a lot from 13th century onwards. And it seems to be the case that it’s in this period that there’s this fracturing of different mendicant communities. And they all were looking to gain lay patronage by projecting themselves as these powerful leaders of their communities. So, it’s in that period where we begin to see a lot of manuals to discuss how you impart the mantra to a monk, how the monk uses it in daily ritual, how all these monks defeat all their competing mendicant lineages, Jain mendicant manages, and then also non-mendicants. And so, we have a flourishing, I think, because of the fracturing of the Jain mendicant community, in this period, and their desire, not for kingly patronage necessarily, but for lay patronage, from wealthy Jain mendicants. It’s also important to note that Jains are peripatetic Jain monks—you gotta move every few days. So, you need a lot of temples where you can stay, you need a lot of lay people helping you out. And when you can develop this reputation for healing that comes with a mantra, for imparting of miracles that comes with the mantra, you gain a lay following. Same thing happens… So, we have this version from 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th century we have a bunch of these manuals. And then we also have a bunch of these manuals in the 20th and 21st century—there’s kind of a revival of this use of the mantra that I look at, in these meditative practices. And it seems to be the same thing that’s happening, there’s an increased splintering of mendicant lineages. And they’re using the mantra and these meditative practices to gain lay patronage. On the one hand, if we were looking at it through the framework of colonial rule, we think, “oh, there’s this sort of Protestantization of Jainism in the 19th, 20th, 21st century, so that that they rid themselves, there’s this focus there was this translation project in the 19th century of the early so-called canonical texts. We had important German scholars—Max Müller, [Johann Georg] Bühler—coming in translating the early canon that emphasized asceticism and trying to find a Bible. We’ve all read this—we’ve all read [Tomoko] Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions—so trying to model Jainism on Protestant Christianity. So that is a narrative that we could say, “So that means that there was this Protestantization of Jainism there are all these revivals.” And that is true in some sense, for example, in Digambara Jainism—so, there are two main sects of Jainism that I look at in the book. And I hope that’s a contribution because I’m trying to compare these two main sects—Digambara and Śvetāmbara—in a way that a lot of scholars don’t do often, scholars focus just on one set. Anyway, Digambaras are famous for having nude monks, they take the fifth vow of a monk is not possession, that means move your clothes. But in the medieval period, Digambara monks had begun to wear clothes. It was only in the late 19th century-early 20th century, scholars would argue, because of the influence of European scholars, focusing on the early texts which say you have to be nude, that they revived the tradition of nude mendicancy. So, in some ways that narrative is true that we do have these reforms because of the influence of European scholars. We do have an increased interest in these early canonical texts that are being—the Ācārāṅgasūtra, etc.—that are being translated by these European scholars. But at the same time, we have this revival of tantric practices, as well. So, I think that looking at this component, this mantra, allows us to maybe see some new ones that we wouldn’t if we were thinking of the history of Indian religiosity in terms of these time periods. That’s one way I think there’s a lot of value in this approach.
I think you’re right, it definitely gives you a different perspective in how you might approach just even beginning to look at different aspects, whether it’s rituals or what have you, because like you said, in looking for something almost entirely different, you discovered this overlay with tantra and tantric practices by looking at that litany.
For sure, for sure. Another method I use is starting in the present.
Can you say a little more about that?
Yeah, exactly. By framing your analysis in terms of this litany, I read tons of texts that I never would have read before, because I didn’t start with a text that I had heard of. I started with this litany. And I really—I incorporated… Another contribution, I hope my book makes is this incorporation of ethnographic research with textual studies with also the study of material culture. So often, I would—and John Cort has encouraged this—I would start in the present day with my litany, and see what Jains on the ground are doing with my litany, and ask these monks, who are trained and have a very specific curriculum they have to work through in order to be promoted through the ranks of mendicancy—I would ask monks, like, “What text should I be…, Where’s my litany? Where’s my litany? Where’s my litany?” And that just created, I think, a different project than I would have had if I would have maybe started with a text that had—there are a few texts—Jvālāmālinīkalpa and Bhairavapadmāvatīkalpa—these are the two medieval Jain texts that have been marked as the tantric texts in Jainism because they do promote these esoteric rites using mantras, placement of mantras on the body, worship of these mandalas, these diagrams, etc. What if I had started with those texts, I wouldn’t have found all these other texts that I found, but I started with a mantra. So, I found a bunch of unstudied texts and practices. So yeah, thanks for that question. That’s another reason why you should start with something kind of random.
That makes sense. I mean, I feel like this is a very sort of natural segue into what I want to ask you next, is how would your work and this sort of methodology, how would that apply to other areas of religious studies? And specifically, anyone working outside of Jain studies in particular? How would this work speak to them?
Yeah, I think one of the contributions is this approach that tries to—the so-called “non-traditional developmental history” of Germano—that tries to integrate ethnography and textual studies and material culture by looking at a single ritual component. That’s one thing. Another contribution I hope this book makes is the encouragement of the study of minority traditions. Because Jains are famously in minority tradition—they have been since the beginning. Right now, they’re less than 1% of the Indian population, maybe there are 8 million Jains in the world. But they have been on the Indian subcontinent, engaging in all of the developments on the Indian subcontinent from the 5th century BCE to the present day. So, if you want to have maybe a new understanding of the history of Indian religions, look through the eyes of a Jain, it’s just a little off. If you want an understanding of what the majority traditions are doing, don’t read the majority traditions, what they’re saying, read what the minority traditions are doing. If you want to study what Protestants are doing in the West, in the 19th century, something look at what the Mormons are saying, because they’re obviously picking up on what Protestants are doing. And they’re presenting a very different perspective. And I think that’s why the study of Jainism, in this case, really helps in terms of the category of tantra because there have been all sorts of debates about who developed tantra first—was it Buddhists, was it Śaivas; was it Buddhists, was it Śaivas? People are going back and forth. Let’s start with someone else. Let’s not think in terms of sectarian terms. Let’s think in terms of a ritual component and understand the history of tantric practices in that way. And then I can argue that emerges from asceticism. I’ll say one more thing. So, Steven Yeun is the main character in this drama about Korean-Americans, Minari. And he had this line in the [New York Times] interview where he says—and this is an inexact quote—that the Asian-American experience is always paying attention to what everyone else is doing, when no one’s really paying attention to you. And I don’t want to compare Jains to Asian-Americans, but at that moment, I thought, that’s Jainism. They are… they’re everywhere. And they are very perceptive. And they offer a different perspective, they do show up in majority texts. But they show up in maybe a Śaiva text, a philosophical text, but as a straw man. And there’s a very one-dimensional portrayal of Jainism in the majority texts. Whereas—I’m not saying that the majority traditions aren’t portrayed in a one-dimensional manner in Jain texts—but asking how they’re portrayed in Jain texts, I think is a helpful exercise. So that’s what I would say: study the minority traditions, study Native American traditions, if you want to study Protestantism in North Dakota, etc. Coming back, maybe this will bring this full circle because I said I was really listening to this podcast when I was on the job market. And you know, I’m doing all these practice interviews. And one of my mentors said, you know, what you should say, because people who study Jainism often have to be defensive. Like “why should we hire you, when you study this minority tradition?” And one person said, well, you should say it’s a bridge between Buddhism and Hinduism. And my response was, I don’t want Jainism to be a bridge necessarily, I want it to collapse the bridge so that we’re all swimming around in the waters below. If you look at from this outsider perspective, it’s a means by which you can see the construction of these religious categories, which we all know are quite artificial, but also rooted in reality.
Yeah. And I want to loop back to our earlier discussion of your own experiences learning about Jainism in the undergraduate classroom. Given what you’ve discussed, I think that this book will be a great resource for many faculty and many students, whether they’re teaching a survey of Asian religions course or specifically a course on Jainism. Is there a chapter in particular that you would recommend to someone looking to incorporate this text into their syllabus? And in what ways do you think that it would be particularly beneficial for students?
Yeah, I would hope that Chapter 5 of my book would be assigned in the classroom, because I think it’s really accessible. It’s all ethnography. It’s me sitting with this monk, that I owe so much to, Ācārya Nandighoṣasūri, and him explaining to me his daily ritual practice using this mantra and this mandala, on which the mantra is inscribed, this cloth, gorgeous, painted diagram. And I think that would be really accessible for students. And again, it’s rooted in the modern period. It’s not in this moment, in the 5th century BCE, and it shows precisely how tantric practices—these meditative practices—are intimately related to ascetic practices. It is a monk doing this. And I think that’s important to note, because often in Buddhist studies, it’s noted that there’s the tantric path to liberation and then there’s the monastic path to liberation, when you initiate into this practice of mantras, or you initiate as a monk. Now, monks can also initiate as tantrics, but it’s not the same initiation. And Jain monks get that initiation, the initiation into the ritual practice or mantras and the ascetic initiation at the same time. So that could be very useful. Another thing, though, is just the methodology in and of itself, I think should be applied to more undergraduate classes, is choosing a random thing, like a whole class on oṃ. Tell the history of Indian religions through oṃ, rather—and I would say that for… I work a lot at the Carlos Museum—I know you’re at Emory. So, at the Carlos Museum at Emory, and I’m curating an exhibit right now with my students on the avatars of Vishnu. And so, I’m thinking about duration of exhibits as well. I think that’s a way forward as well. I know Debra Diamond at the Smithsonian now is working on an exhibit on water. You know, start with something like that. Water in Indian religions. Rather than having a course on tantra, or a course on Jainism course on Hinduism, choose a component outside of that, and then get people in conversation with one another. I think that would work well with intro courses in general.
Oh, I think you’re absolutely right. And hopefully, this will be a way in which others doing any type of survey course or those thinking about survey courses they want to offer—this would give them a new way of thinking about that and approaching those discourses. Unfortunately, we are out of time, and I would love to keep talking about this. But hopefully, we’ll have you back again very soon. But thank you so much for joining me here today. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.
Yeah, great. Thanks for having me. This was fun.
Gough, Ellen and Andie Alexander. 2021. “On the Tantracization of Jain Ascetic Rituals”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 5 April 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 5 April 2021. Available at: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/on-the-tantracization-of-jain-ascetic-rituals/
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