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ocean of compassion

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Preface

My initial encounter with Pundit Haragovind ji’s Sri Mahavira Prarthana Satakam came as a result of my friendship with Shri Surendra Kumar Bothara of Jaipur. During the academic year 1990-91 I was residing in Jaipur while conducting research on popular Jainism. I was introduced to Shri Bothara by a mutual friend who knew of our common interests. Shri Bothara assisted me in my research in ways too numerous to mention here, and in the course of our many discussions of Jain matters, I came to know of Pundit Haragovind ji’s stuti and also something about the special relationship between him and the Bothara family. At that time, Shri Bothara was in the final stages of preparing his own Hindi translation of the stuti and commentary for publication, and he expressed interest in producing an English version as well. I felt then, and continue to believe, that there is much of interest to an English-reading public in both the stuti itself and the commentary, and I was happy indeed to assist Shri Bothara in this endeavour. My own role was minor; I served as a sounding-board in our many discussions of the text and provided a degree of editorial assistance.

Taking the stuti and the commentary as a unified document, it seems to me that one of its most interesting features is the manner in which Pundit Haragovind ji and his commentator explore the implications of a tension central to the Jain Dharma and the Jain sense of the sacred. This tension arises from two seemingly incompatible facts. The first is a fact of doctrine: the Jain insistence on a complete separation between the world and the ultimate locus of sacredness, the Vitaraga. The second is psychological: the yearning of men and women of a certain temperament for some kind of real spiritual connectedness with this selfsame figure. As we see in the stuti, this tension is creative, not destructive. The stuti is addressed to Lord Mahavira, although for the most part it lacks references singling out Mahavira from the other Tirthankaras. Largely, one might say, it addresses the Vitaraga generically. And who is the Vitaraga? He is the Tirthankara, a great spiritual being who achieved liberation himself and taught the path of liberation to others. He is a victor (Jina), someone who, by eradicating utterly all forms of desire (raga) and aversion (dvesh), has completely conquered the ties that bind the soul to the world of endless death and rebirth. Completely unencumbered by karmic matter, he abides in omniscient bliss in Siddha lokaat the apex of the universe. He is, in the deepest possible sense of the expression, self-sufficient. He is entirely cut off from the joys and sorrows with which the denizens of samsara are familiar. And he has no connection or relationship whatsoever with the beings or happenings of this world.

Now this is the crux of the matter. Given his complete disengagement from the world, the Vitaraga’s status as an object of worship is obviously somewhat ambiguous. The ambiguity is mitigated so long as his worship is conducted in a purely representative or imitative mode : a worshiper may symbolically represent or enact the Vitaraga’s qualities, as is done in the Astaprakari puja,even though the Vitaraga is, himself, completely inaccessible to acts of worship. But for a certain type of religious sensibility this is not quite enough. Such a person longs for some kind of actual contact with the object of his or her devotion, and this clearly presents difficulties when the worshiped being is utterly removed from any form of connection or interaction with worshipers.

It is true, of course, that this does not pose a problem for all Jains. For many, perhaps most, the devotional impulse finds natural avenues of expression without regard to the obstacles to which doctrine gives rise. And this is surely not to be denigrated. For some individuals, however, matters are not so simple, Pundit Haragovind Ji was a man of powerful intellect and vast learning. He knew well the theological difficulties inherent to any form of Jain devotionalism. But he was also a spiritual personality of the devotional sort, a man in whom the impulse to connect with the divine ran too strongly to be denied. In this perspective, his stuti can be seen as an expression of a certain spiritual struggle, one that was clearly victorious in the end. He confronts, and finally transcends, the hesitations of orthodoxy. The stuti projects a devotional vision in which the author’s sense of personal connectedness with the Vitaraga is vindicated, and this is done in a way that is intellectually as well as emotionally satisfying.

The intelligibility of the author’s vision depends on the full range of connotations of certain key terms, and these connotations may not always be obvious in English translation. Foremost among these terms is karuna, a word that is central to the stuti’s message. Karuna carries the basic meaning of ‘compassion’, and is so rendered in this translation. But if one examines closely the way the word is actually employed (in this text, at least), one sees that its wider meaning is not quite congruent with the English sense of the term. To an English-speaker, compassion is, first, an emotion; and second, it is an emotion that establishes or modifies a relationship between a subject and an object. Someone, we normally say, feels compassion for someone else. Very different however, is the Vitaraga’s karuna. To begin with, it can hardly be said to be an emotion, for the Vitaraga is beyond emotion of any kind. And yet the devotee nevertheless experiences himself as the object of compassion and feels within himself the emotion that is the affective reciprocal of another’s compassion. Moreover, this is a compassion that is universalised; like the rain, as the poet says, it falls on land and ocean, on rich man and beggar. It is not ‘for’ someone in particular (although the devotee may experience himself as its particular object); it is for everyone in general, all the suffering beings of the universe.

There can be no doubt, moreover, that it is indeed the Vitaraga’s compassion. Compassion is intrinsic to his nature, and in any case the devotee experiences it as the Vitaraga’s compassion. In these matters the devotee must have the last word. In this experience, therefore, the devotee achieves his goal, which is connection with the Lord. But there remains a curious paradox. The Lord’s compassion is “his” to be sure, but it also seems to have a separate existence of its own;depersonalised and all-pervasive, it is ofhim but not quite the same ashim, which indeed it cannot be, given the Lord’s complete withdrawal from all relationships. An astrophysical analogy comes to mind. The final intense brilliance of a supernova continues to radiate outward in the cosmos long after the star itself has withdrawn into the isolation of its own powerful gravitational field. The Vitaraga’s final lifetime occurred long ago; he is now gone, utterly. Yet that last lifetime created an intense radiation of compassion, kindness. beneficence. These qualities exist still, and pervade the universe; they are there for the taking, which is what this stuti affirms.

How is it possible for prayers, supplications, and songs of praise to be unanswered yet fruitful? This is a question inherent to Jainism as a religious system, and perhaps — in different ways — to other religious systems as well. The tradition offers no simple solution, nor is any solution possible that does not contain an ambiguity that requires faith for its resolution. Pundit Haragovind ji’s stuti is of course many things: a poem, an expression of devotion, a testament to one man’s personal vision of the divine and the soul’s nature and destiny. It also resolves a spiritual dilemma, and does so in a way that brings faith and intellect into direct contact.

Lawrence A. Babb

Binsar, June 1991

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