Tracing the Historic Foundations of ‘Sarak’ Identity

January, 2024 by Dr. Anupam Jash
sarak

The religious and ethnic identity of the Saraks:

 

There is a community, that may be found in several regions of India, including West Bengal and the neighbouring regions of Jharkhand. This community is known as ‘Sarak’ community which is a religious and ethnic minority of this area. Their effect cannot be ignored, despite the fact that they do not constitute a very large population.

Someone may have the misconception that the Saraks are a community or tradition that is unique to a certain location or area within Hinduism. Because Hinduism is such a complex religion, it is divided into numerous sects, sub-sects, and communities, each of which adheres to its own set of beliefs, rituals, and traditions. It may also be possible that the term “Saraks” refers to a certain community within Hinduism that is not well known or acknowledged by the majority of people. Their biases are more consistent with those held by Hindu religions due to the fact that they also worship Hindu deities. They belong to the Jativarna caste system that is practiced in Hinduism. They coexist peacefully with Hindus in their community. They are a very small minority in an area that is predominately inhabited by Hindu people; as a result, they have adopted many of the same religious customs as their neighbours. In addition to this, they are ignorant regarding the various religious affiliations that they genuinely hold.

Despite the fact that the Saraks have just been accepted into O.B.C. categories of Hinduism, the question of the religious roots of the Saraks as well as the nature of their modern religious affiliations has not been answered.

Information was gathered from knowledgeable people and leaders of the Sarak communities and other groups to determine the extent to which Jainism currently affects the Saraks’ way of life and culture. Although they would take part in the worship of other Hindu Gods and Goddesses, they would not honour the warrior deities Kali and Viswakarma. Do these rituals fundamentally represent a rejection of the Shakti worship and the use of force? Do these characteristics identify them as Jaina as opposed to Hindus? They do celebrate Hindu festivities with great zeal and enthusiasm.

But there is one thing that cannot be ignored. That is the gotra-name of the Saraks, the specific language they used in daily life, their eating habits, chosen vocations, taboos, and prejudices, are more typical of Jainism than Hinduism or other religions. For all these various reasons, it is believed that the Saraks belong to Jaina religion. They have been followers of some aspects of Jainism, such as vegetarianism, since ancient times, however, were isolated and separated from the main body of the Jain community in western, northern, and southern India and have been Hindu Bengalis ever since.

Etymology of the word Sarak:

The Saraks are an obscure ethnic community. The word ‘Sarak’ derives from the Sanskrit word Śrāvaka, from which we get the meanings of “respect” (śraddhā), “awareness” (viveka), and “work” (kriya). So, a Śrāvaka is someone who, by chance, is a hard worker who treats others with respect. The word for a listener in Sanskrit is Śrāvaka. This term is used in Jainism. In Jainism, a śrāvaka is any lay Jain so the term śrāvaka has been used for the Jain community itself (for example see Sarak and Sarawagi). Śrāvakācāras are the lay conduct outlined within the treaties by Śvetāmbara or Digambara mendicants. “In parallel to the prescriptive texts, Jain religious teachers have written a number of stories to illustrate vows in practice and produced a rich repertoire of characters”.

A śrāvaka in Jainism is a lay Jain. He is the hearer of discourses of monastics and scholars, Jain literature. In Jainism, the Jain community is made up of four sections: monks, nuns, śrāvakas (laymen) and śrāvikās (laywomen). The term śrāvaka has also been used as a shorthand for the community itself. For example, the Sarawagi are a Jain community originating in Rajasthan, and sometimes śrāvaka is the origin of surnames for Jain families. The long-isolated Jain community in East India is known as the Sarak. The conduct of a śrāvaka is governed by texts called śrāvakācāras, the best known of which is the Ratnakaranda śrāvakācāra of Samantabhadra. A śrāvaka rises spiritually through the eleven pratimas . After the eleventh step, he becomes a monk. Jains follow six obligatory duties known as āvashyakas: sāmāyika (practising serenity), chaturvimshati (praising the tirthankara), vandan (respecting teachers and monks), pratikramana (introspection), kāyotsarga (stillness), and pratyākhyana (renunciation).

monument

The History of the Saraks:

The Saraks are an ancient community in Jharkhand and Bengal. British anthropologist Edward Tuite Dalton noted that according to the Bhumij tradition in Singhbhum district, the Saraks were early settlers in the region. According to Santosh Kumar Kundu, the Saraks arrived from the northwestern region of India, presently in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. In the region between the rivers Barakar and Damodar, two democratic republics, Shikharbhum and Panchakot, flourished. Later they merged and came to be known as Shikharbhum, with the capital at Panchkot. According to Ramesh Chandra Majumder, the Jain scholar Bhadrabahu, the second Louhacharya and the author of Kalpa Sutra may have come from the Sarak community .

Jainism, whose founder Mahavira was born in the area of Vaisali and spent some of his religious career in Magadha and Champa, has its roots in eastern India. Champa is linked to Pārsvanātha, Mahavira’s predecessor in the lineage of Tirthankaras, and Eastern India is home to the most significant Jaina locale tied to the memory of Pārsvanātha, the Pareshnath Hill.

Jaina literature preserves oral histories in which it is said that Mahāvira travelled to Western Bengal but was met with hostility. Although Vanga is frequently mentioned in the Jaina canon, there is no evidence to suggest that he actually travelled east of the Ganges to the land of the Pundras. Nirgrantha was the term under which the Jaina community was known prior to the Gupta dynasty.

Thankfully, another set of Jaina tradition demonstrates that North Bengal and a region of lower Bengal had made significant contributions to the development of the Jaina religion well before the second century B.C. Bhadrabahu, who lived at the same time as Chandragupta Maurya, is credited with writing the Kalpasutra. Even if this credit is contested, there is no denying that the piece draws on ancient customs. After Bhadrabahu, the Jaina church is believed to have been divided, leading to the establishment of several separate educational institutions that maintained loose ties to one another. According to this tradition, Godása, a student of Bhadrabahu, is said to have established the Godāsa gana, a school that eventually grew to include four säkhas, three of which are known as the Tamraliptika, Kotivarshiya, and Pundravardhaniya.

The first is located in southern Bengal, while the other two are in northern Bengal and are both well-known tourist destinations. The Kalpasutra tradition was well established by the end of the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. 21, as evidenced by the huge number of school names found in inscriptions from that time periods. A Jaina monk from Radha area, is said to have requested the construction of a Jaina image in a Mathura inscription from the second century A.D.

There are references to the installation of statues of Jaina tirthankara Lord Pārsvanātha and other tirthankaras in several Gupta-era inscriptions, but none of these are from Bengal. A copper-plate from the city of Pāharpur dating back to the year 159 (478-79 A.D.) is the lone exception. It provides evidence that a Jaina vihara existed in the Vata-Gohala area, “which was presided over by the disciples and the disciples of disciples of the Nirgrantha acharya Guhanandin belonging to the Pancha-stupa section of Benares.” The Great Temple and Monastery, recently discovered in Paharpur, stood on the site of the vihara, which was thus founded in the 4th century A.D., if not earlier still.

Hiuen Tsang seems to imply that the Nirgranthas were the pre-eminent religious group over all of Bengal in the seventh century. This includes both northern and southern Bengal as well as eastern Bengal. The pilgrim says, “the Digambara Nirgranthas were very numerous” in reference to the heretics at Pundravardhana and Samatata.

The Nirgranthas, on the other hand, appear to have entirely vanished from Bengal in the succeeding century, with no mention of them in the countless inscriptions of the Palas and Senas. Only immigrants from Western India re-established the old faith in its new form, now known as Jainism, in various districts of North Bengal during the Muhammadan period.” The naked Nirgrantha ascetics had most likely merged in religious communities such as the Avadhutas, which had become well established in Bengal by the end of the Pala period.

The descendants of the Jaina lay people who lived in this region, notably in the eastern part of India, are known as Saraks. They are the direct disciples of the Nirgranthas or the Jaina Monks. They inhabited this region between the sixth century B.C. and the twelfth century AD. They established their own community predominately in the states of Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Orissa where they lived.

The Jaina Sarak community lost contact with mainstream of the Jaina community in the rest of India after its conquest by Ikhtiyar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji.

Now a days the Sarak peoples are concentrated in Purulia, Bankura and Burdwan district of West Bengal and Ranchi, Dumka and Giridih districts and Singhbhum region of Jharkhand. The Saraks belonging to most of Jharkhand and West Bengal are Bengali speakers while those living in historical Singhbhum region speak Hindi and Singhbhumi Odia. Educated Saraks speak fluent English.

In 2009, more than 165 Sarak Jains living in parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar visited the ancient Jain pilgrimage centre of Shravanabelagola. A special function to welcome the Sarak Jains was organised at Shravanabelagola.

In the official statistics, they are not taken into account as a distinct population group. The governments of India and West Bengal both have classified some of the Saraks under Other Backward Classes since 1994 but many of them have been in the General category from the beginning itself.

Religion-Ethnic Identity:

The Jain Sarak community is primarily Jain, and their religious practices follow both the Svetambara and the Digambara sect. They have established several Jain temples in the Bengal and Jharkhand region in past, and their community members actively participate in religious events and ceremonies. They are also proud of their ethnic identity and maintain their unique cultural practices and traditions. The characteristics of the Sarak communities are as follows:

  1. The Saraks adhere to a spiritual lifestyle.
  2. They probably don’t drink alcohol, eat fish or meat of any type, and follow a strict vegetarian diet, so that’s a good place to start.
  3. You won’t find any fur, wood, silk, or leather among their wardrobe selections.
  4. They have a naturally pristine demeanour, as evidenced by their frequent showers and spotless attire.
  5. They avoid immoral behaviour like stealing, decoying, robbing, etc., because of their commitment to nonviolence.
  6. They avoid any line of work that can involve them in or promote violence.
  7. Many Saraks from Talajuri and Senera village also claimed to be related to the Vaishyas. They gave the following explanations:
  8. They dress plainly and accessorize with commonplace items.
  9. They do not invest heavily in group meals or consuming alcohol together.
  10. They work in agriculture and are known for their extreme frugality.
  11. Women in particular are heavily interested in investing in money-landing businesses.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, we may say that the Jain Sarak community has made a significant contribution to the socio-economic development of West Bengal and adjacent areas of Jharkhand. They have established themselves as successful traders and have contributed to the growth of the local economy. Their strong religious and ethnic identity has helped them maintain their unique cultural practices and traditions.

Acknowledgement: Jain Journal (ISSN: 0021-4043) Vol. 61, Issue 2, July-September 2023

To read references of above article kindly visit:
https://jainworld.jainworld.com/JWEnglish/Magazines/Jain%20Journal%20July-Sep%202023%20Vol%2061%20No%202.pdf#page=38

(The author is thankful to Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) for awarding the Major Project Grant (F. No. 02/194/2022-23/ ICSSR/RP/MJ/ GEN Dated: 29-03-2023)

About Author

Dr. Anupam Jash is associate Professor of Philosophy, Bankura Christian College.

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