Aesthetics of Sovereignty: The Poetic and Material Worlds of Medieval Jainism
South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies
"Aesthetics of Sovereignty" explores how premodern religious communities employed narrative as a site to imagine ideal political worlds in ways that exceeded the capacity of formal philosophical and politico-theoretical discourse. Taking the Digambara Jain community of the ninth and tenth-century western Deccan as my primary focus, I argue that Jains theorized, modeled, and continually revised what it meant to be both a king and a Jain through literary and material improvisations with the narrative of the first Tīrthaṅkara Ādinātha (a genre known as the Ādipurāṇa). From the proposition that worldly sovereignty culminates in renunciation in Jinasēna’s Ādipurāṇa (c. 860 C.E.) and the devolution of courtly erotic love into devotional affect in Pampa’s Ādipurāṇaṃ (941 C.E.), to the vision of an ideal king as Jain devotee in the Cāvuṇḍarāya Purāṇaṃ (978 C.E.), my dissertation tracks shifting Jain experiments with language, genre, and artistic mediums that reflect broader attempts to imagine ideal worlds structured around perfected notions of worldly and spiritual sovereignty. In tracking these various Jain improvisations with the Ādipurāṇa, this dissertation demonstrates a broader Jain investment in the imaginative capacity of narrative to mediate between worldly and spiritual concerns. In so doing, I argue that Jains consistently sought to conceptually figure the worldly and spiritual, the political and religious, and even the sexual and the ascetic, as deeply imbricated social worlds rather than binaristic categories of human activity. By aestheticizing sovereignty, Jain poets created an imaginative space in which intense relations to the world could be made functional for Jain religious practice. The larger effect of this early medieval Jain political encounter, was to fundamental transform Jainism itself. What we are left with is a novel vision of Jainism: one that encourages subjects to let go of their loves only after holding onto them for a lifetime or three, one the demands renunciation of the world but only after you have conquered the eight directions as a cakravartin or sovereign emperor.