Remarks on the History of Jaina Meditation

June, 2022 by Johannes Bronkhorst


The canonical texts of the Svetambara Jainas contain very little information about meditation. All important passages have been discussed else-where (Bronkhorst,1986: ch. 3), so that a brief restatement of the main results will be sufficient here.

The earliest road to liberation which is still discernible in the texts, esp. in the Ayaranga, is a direct response to the idea that suffering is the result of activity. The evil effects of activity are avoided by renouncing activity. In this way no new karman is bound by the soul, and karman that had already been bound is destroyed, as the Uttarjjhayana (29.37/1139) explains. Renouncing activity is done in a most radical way, culminating in motionlessness until death. Motionlessness of the mind is but one aspect of this, which receives but little attention in the old texts. One earealy passage (Uttarajjhayana 29.72/1174) speaks of ‘pure meditation’ (sukkajjhana, Skt. Sukla dhyana), which is entered when less than the time of muhurta is left of life. In this pure meditation only subtle activity initially remains; then-after the activities of mind, speech had body, including breathing, have been stopped – the monk is in pure meditation in which all activity has been cut off, and in which the last remains of karman are being destroyed. The ninth (or eighth) chapter of Ayaranga I indicates that meditation (Jhana, Skt. Dhyana) was not confined to the last moments before death. Mahavira is here said to meditate ‘’day and night”. He is said to meditate on objects in the external world.

Besides these few early passages there are more extensive descriptions in later classificatory texts. The nature of these texts brought it about that everything that can be covered by the term Jhana is enumerated here. This is much more than ‘meditation’ alone; also `thinking’ is covered by this term. The resulting enumeration contains four types of dhyana: (1) afflicted (atta, Skt. arta), (2) wrathful (rodda, Skt. raudra), (3) pious (dhamma, Skt. dharmrmya), and (4) pure (sukka, Skt. sukla). They are described as follows in the Thapariga (4.61-72/247), and almost identically in the Vijyahapannatti and Uvavaiya:

These four kinds of dhyana, however, came to be looked upon four types of meditation, enumerated among the different kinds of inner asceticism; so Viyahapappatti 25.7.217, 237f./580, 600f, and Uvavaiya, section 30. (The confusion is complete in Avassaya Sutta 4.23.4, where the monk is made to repent these types of dhyana; obviously the first two are such as should be repented, and these are no forms of meditation.) the later tradition, when looking for canonical guidance regarding meditation, was henceforth confronted with a list of four kinds of ‘meditation’, only the last one of which, viz. ‘pure meditation’, should properly be regarded as such.

2.The strange confusion described in section 1 was followed by an even more dramatic development. ‘Pure meditation’ came to be considered inaccessible in the present age (in this world). Sometimes this is stated explicitly, as for example in Hemacandra’s Purvas in order to reach the first two stages of pure meditation. The fourteen Purvas once constituted the twelfth Anga of the Jaina canon, but they were lost at early date. Already the Taltvartha Sutra (9.40; see Brokhorst, 1985: 176, 179f.) states that knowledge of the Purvas is a precondition for entering pure meditation. This means that already in the time between 150 and 350 C.E., pure meditation was considered no longer attainable in this world.

Such an early date finds support elsewhere. We have seen that the canonical description of the four dhyanas assigns four reflections (anupreksa) each to dharmya dhyana and sukla dhyana, in the following manner:

In dharmya dhyana:

(1) reflection on being alone (eganuppeha, Skt. ekatvanupreksa)

(2) reflection on transitoriness ( aniccanuppeha, Skt. aniryanupreksa)

(3) reflection on there being no refuge (asarananuppeha, Skt. asarananupreksa)

(4) reflection on birth and rebirth of living beings (samsaranuppeha, Skt. samsaranupreksa)

In sukla dhyana:

  1. Reflection on infinity (anamtavattiyanauppeha)
  2. Reflection on change (vipparinamanuppeha)
  3. Reflection on what is inauspicious (asubhanuppeha)
  4. Reflection on sin (avayanuppeha)

The Tattvartha Sutra (9.7) enumerates twelve reflections which includes the four reflections connected with dharmya dhyana, but not the four connected with sukla dhyana. Same list of reflections, in the same or slightly different order as in Tattvarth Sutra, sometime substituting bhavana for anupreksa, occurs in numerous other works, some of them late-canonical (Mahanisiha, Marapasamahi) or early non-canonical(Kundakurnda, Vattakera, Sivarya). But the four reflections of sukla dhyana are absent from all these lists. This supports the view that ‘pure meditaion’ was no longer considered to be attainable when these lists were made. (Interestingly, Sivarya’s Bhagavati-Aradhana (1705, 1710) describes all the twelve reflections as supports (alambana) of ‘pious meditation’ (dharmya dhyana).

The reasons why ‘pure meditaion’ came to be looked upon as no longer attainable in this world seem clear. It appears to be the almost unavoidable consequence of the gradual exaltation of the Jina, and of the state of liberation preached by him. A comparable development took place in Buddhism, where already early superhuman qualities came to be ascribed to Arhants (see Bareau, 1957) and release was postponed to next life

Whatever the reason why ‘pure meditation’ became excluded from actual practice, it is clear that all existing practice had henceforth to be assimilated to the descriptions of ‘pious meditation’. (‘Afflicted dhyana’ and ‘wrathful dhyana’ were, very understandably, considered bad forms of meditation.) This means that two historical developments – (1) the addition of ‘pious meditation’ under the heading ‘mediation’ (dhyana), and (2) the exclusion of ‘pure meditation’ from it – left later meditators with a canonical ‘description of meditation’ which was never meant for such a purpose.

3. It can cause no surprise that the practice of meditation has often been neglected in the subsequent history of Jainism. Yet Jainism never totally abandoned it. Adelheid Mette has recently (1987) drawn attention to a legend from the early post-canonical Avasyakacumi, in which Mahavira’s main disciple Gotama emphasizes the importance of control of thought (dhyananigraha) above outward signs of penance. This tendency persisted. A number of later Jaina works deal with meditation. But how did these later authors treat the subject? One option was to simply repeat the conical classification, thus simply ignoring the problem. Several authors, however, chose other solutions, such as the following:

  1. An obvious step to take was to drop afflicted (arta) and wrathful (raudra) dhyana from the canonical classification, and retain only pious (dharmya) and pure (sukla) dhyana. This is done in Virasen’s Dhavala on Satkhrndagama Sutra 5.4.26 (vol. 13, pp. 70-88). Another interesting feature of the description in the Dhavala is that the only difference between pious and pure meditation is stated to lie in the duration: short in the former, long in the latter (pp. 74-55). It is of course needless to point out that nothing in the canonical description of these two forms of meditation warrants such an idea.
  2. An extension of the canonical description is the four types of dhyana called pindastha, padastha, rupastha and rupatita. They are often looked upon as belonging under the fourth manifestation of dharma dhyana, ‘examination of forms’ (samsthanavicay). They are mentioned in a number of works, among them Yogindudeva’s Yogasara (v. 98) and Subhacandra’s Janarnava (ch. 37-40). The lengthy description of these forms of meditation in the Jananarnava shows that they consist in visualizing objects and mantras inside and outside body; the rupatta meditation, more particularly, has as object ‘the highest self’ (paramatman) which consists of consciousness and bliss (cidanandamaya) and is without form (amurta). The suspicion of influence from similar forms of Hindu meditation seems justified. We find the same four kinds of meditation mentioned and similarly described in a number of texts, among them the Kubjikamata Tantra ch. 17-19, the Malinivijyottara Tantra ch. 2 and 19, Abhinavagupta’s Tantraloka (10.241f.), the Navacarefvara Tantra (Mahaprajna, 1978: 9) and the Gurugita (vv. 119f.) Note that by adopting these forms of meditation the Jainas could interpret dharma dhyana as a form of real ‘meditation’, not of ‘thinking’ (see section 1, above).
  3. A far more drastic departure from the scriptures is made by Haribhadra in his Yogadrstisamuccaya, Haribhadra does not deny that what he writes goes beyond the scriptures.This [kind of Yoga] called ‘[Yoga of] competence’ is best; its means have been indicated in the scriptures [but] its range goes beyond them in matters of detail because of the abundance of energy. (y.5). The precise causes leading to the state called siddhi are not in their totality correctly understood by the Yogins from the scriptures alone. (v. 6). Haribhadra then proceeds to collect information on “this best form of Yoga” from “various works Yoga,” as he admits towards the end of this book (y. 207). The course of yoga which he describes consists of eight stages. These stages are said to correspond with the eight stages mentioned in works by other authors, among them Patanjali. All these stages cover of course far more than meditation alone, but even in the last stages nothing resembling the canonical descriptions of meditation shows up. Haribhadra’s break with tradition is complete in this respect.
  4. Hemacandra’s Yogasastra constitutes special case. Hemacandra describes traditional forms of meditation in chapters (prakasa) 7 to 11. He follows here to large extent earlier texts like, in particular, the Jananamava; this means that he includes forms of meditation such as pindastha, padastha, rupastha and rupauta. What makes Hemacandra special is his twelfth chapter. It begins with a verse which deserves to be quoted:What is learnt from the ocean of scriptures [and] from the mouth of the teacher has here been completely shown; now [however] the pure truth as it has been obtained through experience will be explained.From what follows in chapter 12 it is clear that something quite different from what precedes is introduced. Most noteworthy is Hemacandra’s insistence on not using constraint. If one exerts no restraint on the mind it will reach peace, not otherwise:Wherever the mind goes, don’t restrain it from [going] there; for what is restrained becomes, what is not restrained becomes peaceful.The mind is like an elephant in rut, which becomes stronger when restrained with effort, but comes to peace after satisfying its needs without restraint.Nothing could better illustrate the remarkability of Hemacandra’s views in the context of Jainism than the example of an elephant which must satisfy its sexual needs. Equally remarkable is verse 51, where Hemacandra expresses indifference concerning the question whether the result of these practices is liberation or not:It may be liberation or not, but it certainly is the highest bliss, in which all forms of happiness appear as if nothing.The editor of the Yogasastra, Muni Jambuvijaya, found very similar ideas, often expressed in virtually identical words, in a work entitled Amanaska Yoga, which is attributed to Gorkasa Natha. It seems therefore that Hemacandra again introduced new practices into the Jaina tradition, besides or perhaps rather instead of the traditional practices. These ‘traditional’ practices included in this case the additional made by such authors as Subhacandra.

4. These few examples must suffice to show that the history of Jaina meditation is not continuous. The canonical description came to be held authoritative was itself the result of scholastic activity which had little understanding for the practice of meditation. Those later authors who had a practical interest in meditation felt free to work independently from the canonical description, often borrowing elements from non-Jaina schools of meditation.

One of the reasons for this peculiar development was, as we have seen, the hand which people of greater scholastic than meditational capability had in the development and interpretation of the canonical texts. Another factor must have been the relatively minor role played by meditation in Jaina circles. It is true that every now and then there were individuals who had a strong interest in its practice and this might sometimes lead to some kind of ‘revival’ in a certain period and region, such as we seem to be witnessing today among the Terapanthis of northern India. But these individuals had to start almost from scratch, so to speak. They had to looks for a teacher, among the Jainas but perhaps more often elsewhere. They also had to decide in how far the canonical guidelines could be considered adequate. This led to the peculiar developments to which attention was drawn in the preceding pages.


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About Author

Johannes Bronkhorst

Johannes Bronkhorst is a Dutch Orientalist and Indologist, specializing in Buddhist studies and early Buddhism. He is emeritus professor at the University of Lausanne. Bronkhorst has concentrated on the history of Indian thought and published on a wide range of topics, including indigenous grammar and linguistics, the interaction between BrahmanismBuddhism, and Jainism and their philosophical schools and religious practices.

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