Meera Baindur: Geography and Place in Jaina Dharma: A Discussion on Jambudvipasamgrahani

Meera Baindur starts her session by explaining what interested her about Jaina philosophy, and explains how it is a philosophical system that doesn’t insist on rationality: non-human beings can attain moksa as well.

Dr Baindur doesn’t analyse the text and its controversies in detail but instead focuses on the implication on geography and cosmography in Indian thought. She covers two themes with her paper, the cultural geographical perspectives and the connection between liberation and place, hence connecting our middle world to the larger cosmic imagination of the Jainas.

It is important to know where we are, to know where we must go. Even if we are insignificant we must know of it for moksa. While talking about the Jaina geography and physical realities, she explains that the Jainas were concerned with measuring time and space and have particular measures and precise dimensions for each. They have categories for infinite numbers, finite numbers, etc, for specific mathematics. That they can extract and talk about it refers to the rationality behind the Jaina approach. For instance, the danda is used to measure the depth of the river. Each measurement is specifically meant for a particular thing to be measured.

To explain more on what the Jaina universe is Dr Baindur describes it as a bubble of bounded universe, or loka, which is a medium where souls can move in contrast to emptiness – aloka. Earlier representations of this were a boat or a disc and later as a cosmic person. Dr Baindur shows and speaks of these illustrations in detail, trying to bring to light how the Jaina universe was imagined. She asks us to think of the discus as a top linked axially flowing through different shapes. She points at how the base is bigger, like the universe might topple over otherwise. The middle range is a thin horizontal slice on the cosmos that is unimaginably spacious. The humans live on the innermost continent. She finds these descriptions are not like story narratives, like the description of the earth in the Mahabharata and other myths. For example, Shiva lives in the mountains of Kailash. Geography is always connected with a story, to make landscape narrative. Jaina descriptions are more secular. Landscape exists before the stories happen as opposed to the stories constructing the landscape. Counterweights and proportional sizes: Bharatvarsha refers to the Indian subcontinent. Kshetra or Varsha refers to land mass. The division of continents is symmetric. It has to be proportions and the ideas of the same pervading through the regions of the continent.

They say if there is a bharatavarsha then on the other side should be the Airavata, as if to balance out the regions. They suggest that the meru should be to the north, Dr Baindur suggests we should rethink the shape of the imagination of the Jaina. Imagining from the other shoes is interesting to Dr Baindur as she speculates why and how the Jaina talk about the Meru always being north.

The text names regions with certainty, with distances and directions and commentary. Haribadra Suri, who wrote this text, says that he does so for himself and others. Dr Baindur finds it interesting that he wrote it for himself. She suggests that it sounds like a humble attempt at trying to make sense for himself and perhaps try and teach it to others.

Place is central to Jaina thought, where one is matters for “nirvana possibility”, a word Dr Baindur decides to coin to describe moksha. Once the karma is shed the soul rises upwards, as if like the soul has attained an “escape velocity.” It reaches the end of the universe called siddha ksetra and hang there in perfect form where it is unconditional and independent of self pleasure. It is described as an inverted white disc, an inverted butterfly wing. Hence, moksha can be seen as place centric. Because karma is heavy, it would be dragged down to the naraka. Birth can be in any of the four gathis, but if the karma is dragging one as it gathered, there seems to be a three factor basis on how the karma is borne.

The presence of a tirthankara is essential for liberation. The Jaina cosmic wheel of time describes where one can attain karma, but the wheel suggests that every soul must have the experience of suffering before moksa. Dukha is essential to attain moksha. Keeping in mind this time factor, one imagines where he must be next to think of attaining moksa or liberation, to think of where to go next.

Report by: Pratyusha Nagavarapu
Photography: Karthik H.

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