By Ellen Ioanes

AHMEDABAD – With its intricately carved marble walls, a Jain library known as the Gitarthganga Institute possesses an air of timelessness. It is tucked on a leafy side-street, far from the shriek of car horns and auto-rickshaws that dominate the streets of this busy city in the western state of Gujarat.

But there is something decidedly 21st-century going on behind those walls. Gitarthganga is undertaking a massive enterprise — to digitize all of its books and texts, some of which date back 150 years.

The library is, however, stepping gingerly into the new technological era since Jain monks and nuns, the guardians of the tradition, are not permitted to use cellphones and computers. What makes it all possible is cooperation and coordination between the ascetics and a cadre of lay Jain employees and volunteers.

“They’re the ones typing in this information.” says Dr. Peter Flugel, a scholar of Jainism at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The digitization project has been underway since 1992, according to Gitarthganga spokesman Shrenik Zaveri. But one can still visit the material texts, which are housed in glass cabinets on the upper floor of the temple. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, monks, nuns and temple staff pull and re-shelve the books, all of which still have the old hand-printed Dewey decimal system labels.

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Kushalkirti Maharaj Saheb, dressed in the white robes typical of Svetambara Jain monks, oversees the library and the digitization project. He’s a young monk, in his thirties, and a disciple of the guru Aacharya Shree Yugbushansuri. Before taking his vows, or diksha, he worked as an IT professional.

“We established this institution for subject-wise analysis,” he says, explaining that all of the books and manuscripts in the library have been divided into 108 main subject matter areas (for example, meditation, or nonviolence) with 10,008 subheadings under the main topics.

“It is the first effort in India to digitize this way,” he says, explaining how the system allows users to search for terms and discover the entire Jain philosophy on that particular subject. During an interview at the institute’s monastery, Yugbushansuri reiterates this point: “On meditation, if one wants references from Jain scripture, we can get more than 7,000, 8,000 references,” demonstrating the power of this system.

At this writing, Gitarthganga has over 125,000 books, manuscripts and ebooks. Five thousand books have been added to the digital database, along with thousands of ebooks, articles and photos. The remainder will be added over the next decade or so, says Zaveri. While it may seem like a small number, it’s impressive considering the very specific prohibition against the use of technology in the Svetambara monastic tradition.

For Jain monks and nuns to use a cell phone, computer or tablet is strictly taboo. Says scholar John Cort of Denison University, “The Jain understanding is that technology requires electricity, and the means of generating electricity are inherently violent.” Christopher Key Chapple, a scholar at Loyola Marymount University, says in his book Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, using electricity causes harm to the organisms (“fire-bodied beings”) present in electrical current.

While most lay people use technology all the time, Svetambara monks are strictly prohibited from doing so. So they direct some 45 staff members and volunteers, including three coders, in the hands-on computer entry work.

Gitarthganga is by no means the only Jain library in India; many mandirs, or temples, have their own libraries, with the Koba library in Koba, Gujarat, being the largest and best-known. Because education and knowledge are highly valued among Jains (they are consistently among the best-educated minority groups in India), many temples have excellent collections of religious books and manuscripts.

Jainism is a somewhat obscure practice in much of the world. While it’s one of India’s oldest traditions, there are only about 4.5 million practitioners there (out of India’s 1.2 billion total population) and about 250,000 in the Jain diaspora, according to the World Religion Database.

As a result, many outside this small community have no knowledge of Jain principles, dietary practices, or history.

Mahavira, who was born between 599 and 540 BCE, is considered the father of Jainism as we know it. Jains believe that their religion is timeless, and thus was not created, but rather, revealed. Mahavira brought modern Jainism to the people of India and is revered by devotees.

The religion has five core practices: ahimsa, or nonviolence, being chief among them, as well as chastity, avoiding lying or harmful speech, not stealing, and refraining from materialism or having possessions. Jains are vegetarians and have an extremely strict diet that excludes root vegetables and eggs, amongst other foods. They also fast often and have particular rules about when meals can be taken during the day.

The ultimate goal of practicing Jains is attaining moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death. The monastic traditions practice extreme asceticism to achieve this release, including refraining from using all technology, traveling only by foot, wearing simple white robes (or in the Digambara tradition, no clothing at all), practicing total abstinence and fasting frequently, sometimes until death.

There is an impetus in the community to promote knowledge about the religion. Pravin Shah, who started the Jain elibrary in 2008, says he began the project as a way to bring religious texts to the next generation of Jains.

Shah, who practices Jainism and came to the United States in the 1970s, says that no one in the U.S. had access to texts that would help them teach Jain children growing up in the diaspora. So he decided to create an online resource to make such texts available, for free.

The Jain eLibrary project differs from Gitarthganga in that Shah works with a number of Jain libraries and scans their documents into his online database. The documents are not keyword searchable, so navigating the database without prior knowledge of Jain texts can be a challenge.

The Gitarthganga Institute has developed a unique in-house software to facilitate the move to digital. Now, says Satva Bushan Vijayji, another disciple of the guru, the monks can analyze the texts, and can physically direct the staff building the library or doing programming.

According to Yugbushansuri, who says he came up with the idea for this project 30 years ago, this resource is intended “for experts and scholars, not the common man.” Much of the library’s contents are in ancient languages like Sanskrit, so “experts need to put the scriptures of Jainism in perspective for others.”

However, experts abroad have yet to make much use of it; the digital files are not accessible outside of India. A visit to the Gitarthganga website reveals only information about the project and does not contain access to the database itself. As to whether the information will ever be made available outside the institute, Zaveri says that Gitarthganga will continue to work with Jain scholars throughout the world so that they can “share their research with [Gitarthganga],” while requesting information “as needed.”

And according to Shah, Gitarthganga was reluctant to digitize in the first place. He says that he requested books from several different Jain libraries to add to the Jain eLibrary, but was rebuffed by Gitarthganga because, according to him, they hoped to keep their texts from being sullied by technology.

Even now, these resources are difficult to retrieve. Flugel recalls that on a visit to the library, a student found 136 resources that would be useful for her work. Gitarthganga sent only seven via email due to what they say was a technological problem.

Flugel speculates, though, that the lack of access could be due to the politics of competing Jain sects. Different groups take on different community-oriented projects, he explains, each jockeying for recognition and supremacy, much like the kinds of intellectual competition between Ivy League universities. Says Flugel, “All of this can only be understood within the context of sectarian competition within Jainism. It’s a nice thing, they outdo each other in producing books and libraries and temples, all sorts of prestigious things.”

But Yugbushansuri is confident that the resource will be helpful, and that users will spread the good word about it. There is no other plan, other than “via word of mouth,” to share this resource with scholars or the public at large. Eventually, the texts will be translated into Hindi, and an English encyclopedia will be added. But Flugel and Shah both agree that the library will have “no choice” but to embrace the digital age and share the wealth of its knowledge so that the religion can survive. Says Shah, “They have to change. There’s no other way.”