The story “The Prince Who Loved Sweetmeats” is an example of the Jain belief in asceticism and the error of worldly possessions and attachments. It is very different from the monotheistic tradition of Western cultures that treat one’s body as a creation in God’s image.
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The story talks about the life of Rupa, the son of a king. After growing up, Rupa continued to enjoy a life filled with sensual pleasures, including entertainment and food. He was especially fond of sweets and he consumed them often, although he shared his possessions with others. However, Rupa later realized that his body, no matter what he consumed, was physically imperfect and impure – it could not be considered beautiful. As a result, he chose to abandon his possessions and titles and live an ascetic life, through which he achieved perfection. In this story, the main ideas of Jainism are explored through the realization that material possessions cannot make a person’s life attain true excellence. The story shows that a prince’s life, filled with sweets, meals, dancing, and other riches was deceitful and wrong. In contrast, asceticism and frugality are depicted as paths to omniscience. While Rupa’s behavior does not directly present the Jain view of death and rebirth, it reveals that this belief system does not value possessions or attachments, but instead the pursuit of simplicity and austerity.
Therefore, one might say that liberation is only achieved in Jainism through these practices. Jain monks give up all attachments in order to also nullify their karma and move forward on the path to ultimate liberation of the soul. Here, the realization Rupa comes to is linked to this ideology. He recognized that engaging in leisure and pleasurable experiences will not make his body perfect or bring wisdom to his life. It will, however, reveal his body’s flaws, since people’s mortal flesh cannot be redeemed by indulgence. The narration states, “Behold, this is the way of worldly things,” highlighting the passing nature of all beings and objects and diminishing the significance of attachments in one’s life (“The prince who,” 2006, p. 175). The view of life that Jains want to pursue is free of such attachments, and, in turn, free of finality.
One might say that death is not treated in the story as well. Nonetheless, in this case, it is possible to consider the idea of transformation and compare the life cycles in Jainism and similar traditions to the change that Rupa decided to undergo. His rebirth happened during his life, and it may happen again after his cycle comes to an end. Through understanding and following the principles of asceticism, Rupa can reach a different level of rebirth and eventually be liberated from the flesh, which is considered vile in Jainism. On the other hand, commitment to earthly possessions is seen as a barrier to ascendance. Interestingly, the story contains a story within a story, with one Jain monk speaking to the people about another devoted follower of the religion. The narrator also came from a royal family and became a monk who “cast off all of his karma” (“The prince who,” 2006, p. 173). Here, the parallels between the lives of the two men show that Jainism values the process of transformation and opposes one’s predetermined nature, showing that liberation is reached through action.
The story was surprising in its conclusions, although its ideas are not entirely foreign to other religions. That is, the body is seen not just as impure, but also unlovable and dirty. It did not contradict my previously held beliefs about Jainism but instead informed me of the reasons why its followers are interested in asceticism. It is interesting to contrast these ideas with my personal view of my body. While I understand that the process of digestion and similar bodily functions may be seen as impure, it does not mean that the body itself is a reason people cannot be seen as beautiful. Moreover, the connection between disgust for one’s body and the desire to become free of possessions is still unclear for me. Many religious beliefs promote striving for austerity, and material possessions are often perceived as negative, especially if there is an excess of them.
I was surprised to see the conclusions the prince in the story came to after waking up to a foul smell. I think that the story was written to contrast Rupa’s superficial devotion to the religion (as he recited the hymn to the five beings before going to bed) and his real indulgence. This juxtaposition is what revealed the nature of the action in Jainism to the prince – asceticism that is worthy of honor in Jainism should be followed to receive the benefits of the practice. Thus, as Rupa renounced his ties to the material world, he became enlightened and attained omniscience. In the end, both the narrator and the character in the story came to similar conclusions. It is here that the moral structure of the religion and its ideas are most apparent. People should actively follow the rules that are placed before them to see change and achieve freedom.
The Jain understanding of life focuses on the negative view of one’s body and the positive outcomes of asceticism, which ultimately leads to omniscience and liberation.
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“The prince who loved sweetmeats.” (2006). In P. Granoff (Ed.), The forest of thieves and the magic garden: An anthology of medieval Jain stories (pp. 173-176), London, UK: Penguin Classics.