Jainism & Druidism - Resonances & Connections
by Philip Carr-Gomm
Ever since scholars in the 17th century began to explore resemblances between European and Indian languages, the similarities between Celtic and Indian cultures, and Druidic and Vedic cultures has been noted. These theories were developed in the 1940s by scholars such as Georges Dumezil who accumulated a considerable body of evidence to support the theory that Indo-Europeans, originating in the Caucausus region, had migrated west and east, taking with them the same tripartite social structure and use of iron and the horse. Here we take another approach which explores parallels between the Celtic culture of the Druids and the earlier pre-Vedic civilisation of the Indus Valley and with the religion of Jainism.
The following essay should be treated as a tentative exploratory document, as notes from the beginning of a study of the resonances and connections between two of the world’s oldest religions. The word ‘resonance’ is used because we are dealing with two systems that are so far apart geographically, and whose origins are now both so far away in time, it is difficult to determine facts with the degree of accuracy demanded by the historian. And so, although we will be exploring this subject partly from a historical viewpoint, I hope we can also approach the relationship between the two systems from the point of view of the artist, the bard and mythographer who, like the mystic, senses connections which transcend time and space.
I first became aware of the potential connections between Jainism and Druidism over forty years ago. When I was a teenager I studied under the old Chief Druid and founder of The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, Ross Nichols. He was an historian but also a poet, which gave him the ability to explore subjects at both the levels I have just referred to. Although he was dedicated to Druidry, he was a Universalist by nature, always seeking the common threads between religious systems, and trying to look beyond the outer forms to the inner core of teachings that transcend divisions. And so he was a Christian too, but he also felt very drawn to Jainism. He was a keen pacifist, vegetarian and naturist. Naturism, or nudism, was an idea that evolved in the 1920s as part of the process of the freeing of individuals from outmoded social restrictions that had started to occur following the First World War. It was all part of the move ‘back to Nature’ in which people sought to escape from the horrors of war, the alienation of city life, and rampant industrialization. They did not want anything, not even clothes, between them and the elemental forces of Nature: water, air and sunlight.
Ross lived on his own and was an ascetic, and so in a way his life paralleled that of a Jain monk of both the Digambara and Shvetambara variety, since at the Utopian Naturist resort of Spielplatz and later at The Five Acres Country Club, where he had a simple chalet, he lived like a ‘skyclad’ Digambara monk, while at Druid ceremonies at Stonehenge or on Glastonbury Tor he wore white robes, as do Shvetambara monks.
George Bernard Shaw was a famous naturist who once wrote “I adore so greatly the principles of the Jain religion, that I would like to be reborn in a Jain community.” Ross undoubtedly read this comment of the great playwright and himself wrote “Of the known cultural communities it is the Jains who seem most like a society from which Druidry could have originated.(1) ” He believed that Jainism influenced the West via a movement of ideas through Persia. In an essay he wrote, entitled ‘Sky Temples’ he described this influence by first offering an image of the two calls we probably all experience – for a life of plenitude and comfort, and a life of utter simplicity:
Man alternates between the ‘desert and the sown’. T.E.Lawrence has described how the Arab feels the purity and asceticism in the desert for a long stretch - then, overcome by desire for easier things, settles down awhile, becomes soft and shifty - then again, often at the call of the muezzin or some more way-out type of religious call, surges off to the desert again with an enormous sense of clearness and purity.
That is a dramatic version of a general truth. Hill-tops and open stone arrangements are without doubt of the essence of one religious tradition. It is at its oldest and clearest amongst the Jains.
This people and cult is long pre-Aryan, although it had a famous religious leader about the time of the Buddha, who met him - but neither made any impression on the other [This is not correct. There is no record of them meeting. Ed.] No tooled holy stones or temples on hills could serve the real God; the deity was one and unchanging and could not be shown save by natural stone nor worshipped save under the dome of sky. When their saints were represented they must be unattached even to clothes and make no gestures. Jains later had to compromise with Hinduism, but they seem to have taught it vegetarianism and a transcendental sense of God especially upon hills.
As cultures and peoples spread, probably this age-old puritanism and simplicity of belief passed on to Persia and added to it the sense of the purity and divinity of fire, from the ever-burning oil-land around Baku. The Magi according to Herodotus performed their worship entirely upon mountains. “They have no images of gods, no temples or altars and consider the use of them as a sign of folly… their wont, however is to ascend to the summits of the loftiest mountains and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus, which name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament… They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water and to the winds.” That is, they recognised one supreme god, the lesser godheads of the luminaries and the qualities of the four elements. Only later did they evolve a sun god Mittra or Mithras, who nearly displaced Christ.
Classical authors found striking parallels between the Persian Magi and the Druids. Both are reported as believing in the happy survival of the soul and in some sort of reincarnation; both therefore were indifferent to death. Both used stones as adjuncts to worship, the Druids adding trees; neither used any usual kinds of temples and both had the fourfold sense of direction and four elements. To them we must add the Jews, who possessed an elaborate temple and ritual but no images and made this image-less God completely exclusive. All these bodies therefore were obnoxious to the practical and administrative Romans.
Herodotus’ description of the Magi could apply almost word for word to Druids, except that western Europe did not seem to have cultivated worship upon actual mountains, probably because of climate, seasons and accessibility. But there were sacred hills. Druidry therefore is the third culture that we know of that maintained the true open-air tradition of reverence to the Supreme.(2)
Ross is suggesting here that three cultures are linked: the oldest, the Jains, and then the Magi or magicians of Persia, and the Druids of western Europe. In his essay he offers no other source for this theory, apart from the classical authors, but I do know of another that inspired him. When I was eighteen he recommended that I read ‘Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture’ by Henry Heras (Indian Historical Research Institute 1953). I remember I was living in Ireland at the time, and Heras’ great orange tome lay heavy on my desk as I tried – unsuccessfully I am embarrassed to say – to work my way through it. Today I would approach it with more enthusiasm.
Henry Heras (1888-1955) was a Spanish Jesuit historian who came to work in India in 1922. Such was his interest in the history of his new home that he founded the Indian Historical Research Institute four years later that was later renamed the Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture, which now flourishes in Mumbai as a research institute with its own museum (3). Heras also founded the Bombay Historical Society and was actively involved in the Indian Historical Records Commission, the Indian History Congress and the International Congress of Historical Sciences. He loved India so much he became an Indian citizen in 1947.
In the 1930s Heras became tremendously excited by the newly-discovered sites of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, which were proving such rich veins of information on the Indus Valley civilization. After 18 years and having written many articles on the subject he published his monumental work ‘Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture’ (4) which proposed a solution to the still undeciphered writing of Mohenjo-Daro. In this he suggested that there were cultural links between the Indus Valley Civilization and the Sumerian-Egyptian civilization.
Heras suggested that the Indus Valley people were Dravidians, and claimed that their language was a primitive form of Tamil. The Dravidians in South India were a megalith-building culture, and I remember Ross talking to me about the theory that the Druids of western Europe may have descended from the Dravidians, with the word Druid itself being descended from the word Dravidian.
A.L.Basham in his widely respected survey of India’s history, ‘The Wonder that Was India’, published in the same year as Heras’ master-work, writes of Heras’ belief that the Dravidians were the original inhabitants of the ancient Indus valley cities, but after reviewing the evidence, states ‘We can only say with certainty that some of the inhabitants of the Indus cities were of a type widely found further to the west, and that their descendants must survive in the present-day population of India’ (5). In a brief survey I have made on current thinking – fifty years on from Heras and Basham, it seems that little has changed, and indeed not much can be said with certainty about the origin of the inhabitants of these ancient cities.
Ross was excited by the thought of a great flow of ideas and peoples – with the inhabitants of the Indus valley fanning outwards northwest through present-day Afghanistan and Iran towards Europe, and south to influence the stone-building culture of the Dravidians of South India.
But where do the Jains come into the picture? Applying the rigid criteria of modern historical analysis, Paul Dundas, points out that the term ‘Jain’ may only have come into use in the early centuries of the Common Era, and that it originated as one component of a north Indian ascetic culture which flourished in the Ganges basin from around the eighth or seventh centuries BCE (6). The Indus Valley civilization was much earlier, was further west, and was believed to be at its height between 3300 and 1700 BCE. But other scholars hold to different opinions. Dr Jyoti Prasad Jaina supports the traditional Jain view that the religion emerged much earlier and that it was to be found in the Indus valley (7). Like Heras, he believes the ancestors of the Dravidians were there in Mohenjodaro, and that the archaeological evidence found there supports this theory. The great omniscient teachers of the Jain tradition are the Tirthankaras (meaning the ‘ford-makers’) and they are often depicted naked in the Urdhwa sthan kayotsarg position of standing meditation. Statues and coins depicting naked men in such a posture have been found in large quantities in the remains at Mohenjodaro. In addition, images of a bull found on many coins suggest a link with the very first Tirthankara, Rshabha Dev, whose symbol was the bull.
Professor Pran Nath Vidyalankar also considers the religion of the Indus Valley civilization was related to Jainsim, pointing out that a coin found there is imprinted with the word Jineswara, and that evidence of the Jain goddesses Srim, Hrim and Klim can be found at the sites, along with idols of a yogi protected by the hood of a snake, reminiscent of Tirthankara Suparsva. In addition the symbol of the swastika, used in Jainism, is found often in Indus Valley imagery, and can even be noted in the lay-out of the city streets (8).
The scholars quoted, and others, believe that Jainism emerged from a culture that was pre-Vedic, pre-Aryan, and Dravidian. In doing so, they suggest that Jainism is therefore one of the oldest religions in the world, that preceded the Vedic religion and Buddhism.
In reading Jain history I am reminded of the problems we encounter when we study the history of Druidism. At first glance we become enthusiastic as we believe we are uncovering a truly ancient tradition, only to find that if we follow a historical route we soon enter the field of speculation and possibility rather than certainty. Any attempt to explore the origins of Druidism encounters exactly the same problems as with Jainism – a paucity of hard data on which to base our knowledge. The trees of both traditions are buried deep in the soil of the past, and are hidden from the prying gaze of our intellects.
Instead we must content ourselves with the occasional insights provided by a statue here, a coin there, or perhaps a quote from an ancient text. Looking at the evidence for any possible link between the Jains and the Druids from the opposite position geographically, we can turn to the writings of that biographer of the Greek Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, who said: ‘Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatae had seers called Druids and Semnotheoi, or so Aristotle says in the ‘Magic’ and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his ‘Succession of Philosophers’… Those who think that philosophy is an invention of the barbarians explain the systems prevailing among each people. They say that the Gymnosophists and Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behaviour maintained.’(9)
Gymnosophist means naked sage, from the Greek gymnos - naked and sophia - wisdom. And it is just possible that this quotation offers us an insight into one way in which Jainism or proto-Jainism and Druidism may have interacted.
Beside the Jhumla river, a tributary of the Indus, just over 2300 years ago a group of these naked sages met the most powerful man in the world at that time, Alexander the Great, together with a man who was to become the first Skeptic philosopher - Pyrrho of Elis (10). Who knows what exchanges occurred between these sages and the Greek visitors, and to what degree ideas from the Indus Valley civilization made its way to the classical world and thence to the Druids as a result? We do know that Alexander found them so interesting that he invited one of them to return with him to his own land. Calanus, as he was called in the Greek version of his name, was said to offer wise counsel to Alexander and to have practiced sallekhana (voluntary death) in Persia, having fallen ill (11).
In the quotation of Diogenes we come back to Ross Nichols’ suggestion of the link between the Indus Valley civilization, Persia and the Druids, since he was talking about the three groups of sages mentioned in Diogenes: the Indian gymnosophists, the Persian magi, and the Celtic Druids.
An interesting feature of this supposed connection is that it suggests a relationship between Druidism and a pre-Vedic culture, whereas most comparisons, as noted in the summary given at the opening of this essay, point to the startling similarities between the Celtic and the Vedic Brahminical culture (12). There is clearly much work to be done here to tease apart and explore the connections between these two opposite poles of the Indo-European arc of civilisation, but let us now look briefly not at historical links but at similarities between Jainism and Druidism that would repay further study.
There are a number of variations in the forms of Druidry practiced currently. In the lineage that I follow, that of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, I continue in the tradition of my predecessor Ross Nichols and the Chiefs of his parent body, the Ancient Druid Order, that in the main were Universalist, Pacifist, Socialist-Egalitarian, Vegetarian and Naturopathic. These remind us of Jain ideals and cannot have arisen simply as a result of my predecessors emulating them. The socialist-egalitarian impulse was initiated by the founder of the Ancient Druid Order, George Watson Mac-Gregor Reid in the early 20th century, and can be found even earlier in a Druid-related context in the battle for equality between England and its Celtic neighbours. In a similar way Jainism is distinguished by its early rejection of the caste system and by Lord Mahavira’s acceptance that women could be nuns, even though his contemporary the Buddha at first rejected this idea.
Although we know that there was much war and fighting within Celtic culture, the Druids were known as peace-makers, as the following two quotations show:
‘For they [the Druids] generally settle all their disputes, both public and private… The Druids usually abstain from war, nor do they pay taxes together with the others; they have exemption from warfare.’ Julius Caesar
‘Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears are bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.’ Diodorus Siculus
Here we have an interesting example of an early practice reflecting the idea of ahimsa, that was taken so seriously by Ross Nichols that he became a committed pacifist before World War Two.
When I look at the Universalism introduced into modern Druidry by George Watson MacGregor-Reid in the early twentieth century, I cannot help seeing the Jain doctrine of anekanta, or many-sidedness, which attempts to understand issues from multiple perspectives while at the same time trying to cut through to the spiritual essence beyond differences.
Whereas the tradition of vegetarianism is ancient amongst the Jains, I suspect that within modern Druidry, the fact that some of us (but by no means all) are vegetarian is of recent origin. Ross Nichols may have been influenced by Jainism, but in general the influence more likely evolved through the Health Reform movement of the early twentieth century, of which MacGregor-Reid was a keen proponent.
Are there any other similarities between Druidry and Jainism? Druids of the Ancient Druid Order, prior to the Second World War, used the svastika as a symbol on their robes, until the Nazi perversion of it made this impossible. The oldest examples of svastikas come from the Indus Valley civilisation, but it is also found in many cultures, and in Druid lands it has been found on the bronze frontspiece of a ritual pre-Christian shield found in London’s River Thames near Battersea Bridge. Dating from the fourth century BCE, it is embossed with 27 svastikas in bronze and red enamel. On Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, there is a stone known as the Swastika Stone, with a svastika-shaped pattern engraved on it. At the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk numerous items bearing the svastika have been found, and the symbol has also been discovered on the hilt of a sword, and its accompanying belt, at Bifrons in Kent, in a grave of about the sixth century. The svastika is used by the Jains, Buddhists and Hindus but also by many other cultures, so it is impossible to say where the symbol originally came from, although – as stated – the Indus Valley seems to yield its earliest representation.
As a matter of interest, the Jain symbol of the Three Jewels of Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Action, is pictorially reminiscent of the three drops of inspiration or Awen in Druidry, that were said to emerge from Ceridwen’s cauldron (13).
There are further parallels. In the Jain view of the universe, there are three worlds: Upper, Middle and Lower, which remind us of the three worlds found in many systems, including the Anglo-Saxon and Shamanic, and adopted by many Druids now.
The Middle World is made up of a number of continents, on one of which humans live (14). Adjacent is another continent: Jambudvipa, the ‘Island of the Roseapple Tree’ (15), whose surface is divided into four terraces, each of which has pleasing forests of ‘prosperous trees’ (bhadrasal van) also described as ‘pink-flowery’ (16).
In the Jain concept of Time Cycles, humanity lives through twelve epochs. We are in the fifth, but in the first human beings only needed to eat once every four days, and all their desires were satisfied by ‘wish-fulfilling’ trees (kalpavruska) (17).
The tree and groves of trees have always been central features of Druidism, and the existence of sacred groves in the mythology and the physical landscape of both India and the Druid countries is intriguing.
Druids feel particularly close to trees, believing them to be sacred and to have a spirit. They would appreciate the Jain belief that all of life is sacred as described by Swati Chopra: ‘An attitude of reverence towards the earth, air, water, stems from the Jain belief that everywhere exist beings in different forms and in various stages of spiritual evolution. So if I cut a tree, I have killed a jiva (life) and therefore caused violence.’ (18) Jiva is translated more frequently as soul, and we can therefore say that Jains hold a belief that trees have souls, which is very close to the belief of Druids.
A few more associations of trees in Jainism need to be mentioned. In the Jain sutras, ten dome trees (Chaitya Vrkshas) are said to belong to the gods who reside in houses, while eight dome-trees belong to the cosmic gods. Just as the Buddha’s enlightenment is connected with the Bodhi tree, so in the sutras mention is also made of twenty-four Bodhi-trees associated with the twenty-four Tirthankaras who gained moksha (19). And, after his enlightenment, Mahavira the 24th Tirthankara, preached his first sermon at the shrine of a tree-spirit(20). A favourite place of meditation for a Druid is at the foot of a tree echoing this same idea that trees and the process of gaining liberation are mysteriously interrelated.
I have left perhaps the most significant similarity between Druidism and Jainism till last. We know, from the classical accounts, that the ancient Druids taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. We lack the details of their teachings, however, and this is where I see a tremendous value in the study of Jainism for modern Druids, since the Jain tradition, of all the Dharmic religions, has the most detailed and ancient understanding of reincarnation and the associated doctrine of karma. The Jain libraries are in fact the oldest libraries in India. In working towards a renaissance of ancient traditions, a study of the past and of related cultures can help us reclaim our ancient heritage and lead us towards a more secure future. I hope that an increasing understanding between Druidism and Jainism, and indeed Hinduism and Buddhism, will bring many benefits and blessings.
To conclude I would like to emulate the Jain prayer that asks that I may be forgiven for any errors or misunderstandings I may have conveyed in this essay, and offer you a Druid prayer followed by the Universal Jain Mantra:
Deep within the still centre of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove
May I share peace.
Gently and powerfully within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.
Awen, Awen, Awen
Om Namo Arihantanam - I bow to the Arihantas (ever-perfect spiritual beings)
Om Namo Siddhanam - I bow to the Siddhas (liberated souls)
Om Namo Ayariyanam - I bow to the Acharyas (spiritual leaders)
Om Namo Uvajjhayanam - I bow to the Upadhyayas (learned preceptors)
Om Namo Loe Savva-Sahunam - I bow to all the saints and sages everywhere in the world
Philip Carr-Gomm, from a talk given at the third International Conference and Gathering of Elders
Renaissance of Ancient Traditions: Challenges and Solutions
31st Jan to 5th Feb. 2009, Nagpur, India
1. Philip Carr-Gomm, In The Grove of the Druids – The Druid Teachings of Ross Nichols (Watkins 2002) p.71
2. Ibid. p.50
3. See http://www.xaviers.edu/heras.htm
4. Henry Heras, Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture (Indian Historical Research Institute 1953)
5. A.L.Basham, The Wonder that Was India (Grove Press 1953) p.25
6. Paul Dundas, The Jains (Routledge 2002) p.17
7. Jyoti Prasad Jaina, The Jaina Sources of the History of Ancient India: 100 BC - AD 900 (Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers 2006)
8. The History of Jain Religion, Its Culture, Literature and Art in ‘Jainology and Comparative Religion & Philosophy’ MA Previous Course Papers, Jain Vishva Bjarati University, Ladnun, 2008.
9. Diogenes Laertius (3rd cent AD) Vitae Introduction, I, 5
10. Some scholars argue that Pyrrho’s doctrine of agnosticism - of the impossibility of certain knowledge - was inspired by the ideas of the gymnosophist Sanjaya - a contemporary of the Buddha and the Jain founder Mahavira. Others believe that any similarities in their doctrines are coincidental – that the language barrier between the two men would have prevented the exchange of such ideas.
11. Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis. Plutarch, in his Alexander, gives a slightly different account of Calanus’ end: ‘At the same time, Calanus having been a little while troubled with a disease in the bowels, requested that he might have a funeral pile erected, to which he came on horseback, and after he had said some prayers and sprinkled himself and cut off some of his hair to throw into the fire, before he ascended it, he embraced and took leave of the Macedonians who stood by, desiring them to pass that day in mirth and good-fellowship with their king, whom in a little time, he said, he doubted not but to see again at Babylon. Having thus said, he lay down, and covering up his face, he stirred not when the fire came near him, but continued still in the same posture as at first, and so sacrificed himself, as it was the ancient custom of the philosophers in those countries to do.’ There are 4 different classical accounts of this moment, each with variations. While the tales of the Ten Questions posed to the gymnosophists and Calanus’ use of the hide as a teaching tool may be apocryphal, the first account of Calanus’ death has the distinction of being the earliest record in western literature of this practice. See Paul LeValley, “The Gymnosophist Legacy in India 326 B.C.1604 A.D.” diss. Florida State University, 1987, pp. 618.
12. For numerous examples see Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage, Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales (Thames & Hudson 1968) and Georges Dumezil The Destiny of a King University Of Chicago Press1988)
13. The three jewels are displayed above the svastika in the Pratika, the symbol of Jainism adopted in 1975 on the 2,500th anniversary of Mahavira’s enlightenment. In Druidry the three drops are displayed above the symbol of the ‘Three Bars of Light’ that also symbolise the positions of sunrise due east for the solstices, and ENE and ESE for the equinoxes.
14. The lower world is made up of a series of hells, the upper world of a series of heavens. Both are finite and those fortunate or unfortunate enough to end up in one of these places is eventually reborn in the Middle World, until finally achieving Moksha or liberation and ending up somewhere else altogether.
15. The Roseapple is a plant of tropical eastern Asia. The tree is cultivated in many parts of India for its fruit, which is of the size of a small apple, with a delicate, rose-water perfume. Varieties include Echinocactus Jambos, Echinocactus Malaccensis, and Syzygium Malaccensis, with common names: Jambos, Large-Fruited Rose Apple, Malay Apple, Rose Apple, Jambrosade, and Malabar Plum.
16. Natubhai Shah, Jainism, The World of the Conquerors (Motil Banarsidass Publisgers, Delhi, 2004) Volume II, p.32
17. ‘The basic ten varieties of needs were fulfilled by ten kinds of kalpa-vrikshas’ p.16 The History of Jain Religion, Its Culture, Literature and Art in ‘Jainology and Comparative Religion & Philosophy’ MA Previous Course Papers, Jain Vishva Bjarati University, Ladnun, 2008
18. Swati Chopra, The Gentle Conquerors, at http://www.lifepositive.com/Spirit/world-religions/jainism/jain.asp
19. The History of Jain Religion, Its Culture, Literature and Art in ‘Jainology and Comparative Religion & Philosophy’ MA Previous Course Papers, Jain Vishva Bjarati University, Ladnun, 2008. p.10
20. Paul Dundas, The Jains (Routledge 2002) pp.34-5
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