Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Review: Open Boundaries; John E. Cort (Ed.)

In this collection of essays the contributing authors “seek to locate Jain materials in a more dynamic, reciprocal, and interactive relation to South Asian society" [1, p. 3]. These essays examine the Jains not in isolation, but rather in situations where they interact with “the larger non-Jain social, cultural, and intellectual world of South Asia" [1, p. 2]. The traditional boundaries of western categorization are explored within the confines of archaeology, philology, and epigraphy to expose the possible influence of Jainan thought on other South Asian cultures. In his introduction Cort posits that a “social group is never constructed in isolation, but rather is always a contextualized process, in which the sense of ‘self’ is in a dialogue, opposition, or dialectical relationship to a sense of what is ‘not-self’ or ‘other’" [1, pp. 2-3]. Here he demonstrates that there is neither a single Jain sense of self nor a single sense of other. Categories of self and other can be both contradictory and encompassing but form a fundamental dualism at the “heart of Jain ontology and soteriology" [1, p. 10]. Jainism should not be viewed as a ‘thing’ but as one style in a family of styles in South Asia, which can only be understood fully by understanding Jainism.

Explorations of the impact of Jainism on others includes Haribhdra and his juxtaposition of several forms of Yoga with key aspects of Jainism to provide a better understanding of issues under debate within the religious and philosophical communities of his time, the influence of Jain mantra experience into South Asian sanctified language, the importance of Hemacandra in the illustration and preservation of Indian literary theory, the skill of Tevar in his ‘skillfully poisonous parody’ still considered one of the great classics of the Tamil tradition and so on. All these essays seek to dissuade the reader from marginalizing Jains by demonstrating that they are a growing, changing, innovating, internally diverse religious group that has effected change in the historical circumstances and situations in which they have found themselves. As Davis says in his essay, “The challenging, borrowing, contradicting, polemicizing, appropriating, and modifying that goes on across religious boundaries, and even the constructing and subverting of these boundaries, are ongoing dynamic processes that give both form and content to the religious history of India" [1, p. 223].

Personally, I found the article by Babb on ritual culture to be the most fascinating in that he exposes the similarities of structures within Hindu and Jain ritual and posits as possible “deeper structure that is simply South Asian" [1, p. 161]. I found his idea of ‘transaction’ in ritual culture to be telling as to the nature of 'the sacred other.'

-Safari Bob

[1] Cort, J., E. (Ed.). (1998). Open Boundaries: Jain Communities and Cultures in Indian History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN: 0-7914-3786-8

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