Jainism one of the major Indian religions, Jainism is still a living religion in some parts of the subcontinent. Though Bengal was its cradle, its followers are hardly met within the area.

According to Jaina annals, twenty-four Tirthankaras, of whom the twenty-third, Parshvanatha, and the twenty-fourth, Mahavira, are historical figures, preached the tenets of the religion. The latter, a contemporary of Gautam Buddha, lived between 540 and 468 BC and Parsvanatha preceded him by about two hundred and fifty years. The Jaina tenets owe their origin to the teachings of Parsvanatha and Mahavira. The teaching of Parsvanatha is called Chaturayama. It outlines a four-fold path to salvation, i.e., kindness to all living beings, avoidance of telling lies, abjuration of theft and the possession of belongings. In the next step Mahavira added another. It was not to wear any dress. Thus the Jainas were divided into two sects. The followers of Parsvanatha are called xvetamvara, those who wear white clothes, while the followers of Mahavira are called Digamvara, which means nude (literally, the sky is the cover).

Bengal witnessed the advent of Jainism during the lifetime of mahavira who came to Radha (southern part of present West Bengal) to preach his tenets. It is believed that twenty-two out of the twenty-four Tirthankaras had attained their spiritual power in a mountainous region called Parexnath Pahad (Hill) in West Bengal. According to Bodhisattvavadanakalpalata, Jainism was a living religion in pundravardhana (northern Bengal) in the fourth century BC. The then leader of the Jaina temple was Bhadrabahu, a native of pundravardhana, who is credited with the compilation of a number of canons called Kalpasutra. After his departure one of his disciples, Godas by name, took over the charge of the Jaina church at Pundravardhana. His followers are called Godasgana. In course of its subsequent development, the sect of Godasgana was divided into four more sub-sects called Tamraliptikiya, Kotivarsiya, Pundravardhania and Dhasikharvatika. So it may be considered that the whole of Bengal came under the influence of the Jainas (the preachers of the Jaina tenets) by the 4th-3rd century BC.

Archaeological remains clearly testify that Jainism was a living religion in Bengal during the early historic period. alexander cunningham first discovered a Jaina image at Mahasthangarh (Mahasthangad) in 1879, which was later on moved to the varendra research museum, in 1912. It is worth mentioning here that hiuen-tsang, the 7th century Chinese pilgrim found numerous digamvara Jainas in Pundravardhana (northern Bengal) and samatata (southeastern Bengal). The other well-known archaeological remains are as follows: 1. Standing Mahavira, black basalt, 73.6cm height, bangladesh national museum, c 10th-11th century AD; 2. Standing Parsvanatha, black basalt, 60.9cm height, Dinajpur Museum, c 10th-11th century AD; 3. Standing Tirthankara, black basalt, 93.9cm height, Dinajpur Museum, c 9th-10th century AD; 4. Standing Shantinatha, black basalt, 65 cm height, Varendra Research Museum; 5. Standing Rsvanatha, black basalt, c 10th-11th century AD, collected from Medinipur; 6. Standing Parsvanatha, black basalt, c 11th century AD, collected from Bankura; 7. Standing Parsvanatha, black basalt, c 11th century AD, collected from 24 Parganas; 8. Seated Rsvanatha, black basalt, 99 cm height, Varendra Research Museum.

Vestiges of other remains have also been reported from Biharinath, Bahilara, Dharapath, Harmasra, Deulvirya, Pareshnath, Ambika Nagar, Chingry Devi, Barokala, Dhida and Kenduya of West Bengal. Some other fragmentary collections have also been made from paharpur and lalmai-mainamati. A fragmentary iconic representation is on display in the asutosh museum of Indian Art, Calcutta. It may have been collected from Faridpur. All these, however, prove that Jainism was in vogue throughout Bengal till 11th century AD.

Structural remains relating to Jaina centres of religious activities in Bengal are almost nil. The Gupta copperplates found at Paharpur (c 5th century AD) refers to a Jaina monastery in the village Vatagohali. In course of digging in 1980-81 at Paharpur, vestiges of earlier structures have been traced below the 8th-9th century level. Scholars believe that these earlier structures may be related to the Jaina monastery at Vatagohali. Two temples dedicated to the worship of Tirthankara are still to be seen at Satmatha of Bogra town and Bakshi Lane of Meherpur town. But architecturally they are of 19th century origin. According to the local people some merchants who hailed from Gujrat of India built these.

The Jainas of Bengal were the followers of the digamvara canon. It is evinced by the fact that all the images of the Tirthankaras found in Bengal are nude. In every piece, the Tirthankara is depicted in kayatsarga, otherwise known as the Samapadathanaka pose. In a few pieces their fellow Tirthankaras surrounds them. But not a single piece other than Tirthankara has yet been found. In this connection it may be pointed out that the Jainas of other regions of the subcontinent pay their homage, besides the Tirthankaras, to salak puruch, acharya, bahubali, yaksa-yaksi, chakravarti, basudeva, baladeva, shasana devi, dikpala, ksetrapala, navagraha, agni, nairit, brahma, shruti devi and harin-gomes. These facts prove that though Jainism was in vogue in Bengal in the early historic period, yet it never attained further elaboration in the country as it did elsewhere. [Gopal Krishna Das]

Bibliography PC Bagchi, 'Development of Religious Ideas' in RC Majumdar (ed), History of Bengal, Vol-1, Dacca, 1968 (2nd ed); AK Roy, A History of the Jainas, New Delhi, 1984.