Leveraging Spiritual Power in a Political World: How Jain Monks Negotiated with Mughal Elites

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:50 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Audrey Truschke, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
This paper strives to advance our conceptual resources for understanding how power was exercised, shared, and contested between political and religious communities in early modern empires. The case study concerns negotiations between two groups: Jain monks, leaders of a religious minority, and the Mughal Empire, a Muslim-led polity that controlled much of north and central India. Between 1580 and 1620, Jain monks maintained a consistent presence at the Mughal court and successfully negotiated a range of imperial concessions. Jain monks gained control of specific areas of lands, especially those considered holy by Jains and dotted with Jain temples. Jains also obtained imperial orders advancing Jain interests, ranging from restrictions on the consumption of meat (Jainism embraces strict vegetarianism) and the release of prisoners in Gujarat, a region with a significant Jain population. One especially important issue was freedom of movement, a crucial concern for peripatetic monks that had direct implications for territorial control.

I argue that Jains pursued concrete imperial benefits by drawing upon numerous resources, including their ties with merchant communities, spiritual authority, and cultural knowledge. I further contend that Jain monks were successful in these diplomatic negotiations, in no small part, because they convinced the Mughals of the political value of specific sorts of spiritual and cultural activities in which Jains positioned themselves as invaluable intermediaries and informants. Brahmins were also well-positioned to fulfill such roles, but Jains often effectively projected themselves as more competent in this regard than their Hindu rivals. In this regard, Brahmin-Jain competition served as a catalyst for Jain diplomatic successes by prompting and enabling Jain ascetics to project their shared cultural knowledge as mysterious and highly valuable for Mughal elites.