Article: Sacred writings

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Unlike monotheistic traditions, the Jains do not have a unique holy book that characterises their faith. Instead they have a body of holy writings or scriptures. In India, they share this feature with the Buddhists. Hindus are in a similar position, even though they have the Vedas, which can be considered the ultimate source of teaching.

The Jinas, especially the 24th, Mahāvīra, are the ultimate source of teaching for all Jains. All sects agree that this teaching was first transmitted orally. All are also aware that in the course of time this teaching changed, with some parts altered through faulty memorisation or simply lost. They dispute, however, which parts have survived and which have survived in amended form. This is why Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras do not agree about which scriptures are authoritative.

The Śvetāmbaras have a canon of 32 or 45 Āgamas, made up of several types of scripture. Believing that all the original Āgamas have been lost for centuries, the Digambaras have a different canon. They hold that two texts preserve parts of the Pūrvas or original teachings of the Jinas. These and other early texts make up their scriptures.

Both sects agree on only a single scripture. The Tattvārtha-sūtra contains the main doctrines of the Jain faith, though the two main sects have slightly different versions and composition dates.

Knowledge of what is now in written form is essential to being a good Jain. It is included in the second type of knowledge in Jain epistemology – śruta-jñāna – ‘knowledge of what has been heard’. In the often fervent debates about the importance of this knowledge in spiritual development, one powerful view says that scriptural knowledge is not enough by itself.

Although scriptural knowledge is very important, access to holy texts has frequently been restricted. In some sects particular scriptures are still limited to certain groups, such as male mendicants. Lay access to holy writings has usually been under the guidance of mendicants and often has not been direct and unmediated. Printing and editing the scriptures are thus relatively recent activities.

Whether they have access to the textual material through which the Jinas’ teaching came to be handed down or not, all Jains are aware of the existence of their holy writings. These writings are the basis of their ritual and religious life and are venerated in various ways. The most striking examples are individual Śvetāmbara and Digambara festivals in which holy texts form the centrepieces.

Terms and classifications

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

The word ‘canon’ for the Jain holy writings is increasingly felt to be inadequate, for it implies an unchanging body of texts sanctioned by a central authority. Jains commonly use the words siddhānta and āgama, which are pan-Indian terms. The former term conveys the idea of validity and authority, and is perhaps more common among Digambaras. The latter term means ‘what has come down to us’ or tradition.

Other terms used in Prakrit are ‘open teaching of monks’ – niggantha-pāvayaṇa – or ‘basket of the chief disciples’ – gaṇi-piḍaga. These are both in the singular and refer to the primary sources of the teaching as something global.

To a large extent, the concepts of siddhānta and āgama denote fluid groupings that are open to change. For practical purposes, various categories of the scriptures have taken shape over time and have been populated with specific texts. Whereas some categories are fairly fixed, others can be extended or reduced. The number of items in each group may play a role in sectarian identity because some may be rejected as apocryphal.

The terms āgama and siddhānta may also be understood as even broader groupings, covering any text with a Jain author that teaches some aspect of the tradition – whether commentary, hymn, story or treatise. These forms are all regarded as media meant to ‘awaken’ the ‘somnolent sūtras’ (Dundas 1996).

Therefore classifications of Jain scriptures may use various criteria. Different classifications may thus be compatible.

Each of the items in both classes contains a number of texts that may be either fixed or varying, according to the criteria adopted.

The Śvetāmbara canon comprises either 32 or 45 texts, depending on the sect.

Śvetāmbara canon or āgama

Sanskrit title

English meaning

Main categories

Aṅga

‘limbs’ or ‘main texts’

Aṅga-bāhyas

‘not limbs'

Upāṅgas
Mūla-sūtras
Cheda-sūtras
Prakīrṇakas
Cūlikās

For the sect of the Digambaras, the canon is also large, containing numerous texts.

Digambara canon or siddhānta

Sanskrit title

English meaning

Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama

Scripture in Six Parts

Kaṣāya-prābhṛta

Treatise on Passions

Prathamānuyoga

‘First Exposition’

Karaṇānuyoga

‘Exposition on Calculations and Techniques’

Caraṇānuyoga

‘Exposition on Conduct’

Kathānuyoga

‘Exposition of Stories

Outside the sectarian categories sit the Pūrvas, which means ‘early’ or ‘previous texts’ in Sanskrit. All Jains believe these were written before the existing canons of both sects. The Pūrvas are considered to be the work of the Jina’s disciples – gaṇadharas. They are thus a direct link to the last Jina, Mahāvīra. However, all sects agree that the Pūrvas were lost long before Mahāvīra’s teachings were put into writing in the Common Era.

Oral transmission

This detail of a manuscript painting shows the universal gathering – samavasaraṇa. When a Jina reaches omniscience, he sits in a samavasaraṇa the gods have built for him. The term is also used for the gathering of animals, humans and gods that listen.

An omniscient Jina preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jains hold that each Jina reveals the same essential truths, according to the needs of the society in the era in which he is born. When he reaches omniscience, he can make the ‘divine sound’ – divya-dhvani – through which he transmits his teachings to all sentient beings. The Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects interpret the notion of the divine sound differently. Each Jina sets up a fourfold community but also has a group of chief disciples – gaṇadharas. These disciples are mendicants, as the Jina is, and have followed him since before his enlightenment. They collect together the Jina’s sermons and discussions, which they pass on to the rest of the fourfold community by preaching to them. Succeeding generations of mendicant leaders memorise these oral teachings, which are eventually written down as the scriptures.

Divya-dhvani

The source of teaching is the ‘divine sound’ coming from a Jina's mouth. The ‘divine sound’ can only be produced after the Jina has reached omniscience, so he can preach to all creatures that have gathered to listen to him – samavasaraṇa.

All Jains agree on this, but the two main sects understand the ‘divine sound’ in slightly different ways.

Two concepts of the divine sound

Digambara

Śvetāmbara

unarticulated sound, which is monotone and can be compared to the sound of oṃ (Jaini 1979: 42)

called ‘divine’ because all beings can hear it, including five-sensed animals with understanding and spiritual abilities. It is considered to be a human language that takes the form of Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit.

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