Article: Sacred writings

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Chief disciples – the gaṇadharas

This manuscript painting shows Indrabhūti Gautama preaching. The white-clad monk is fanned by a servant and sits on a lotus, symbols of worldly and spiritual rank. King Śreṇika and his family sit separately from the lords and ladies of the court

Indrabhūti Gautama preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

‘A Jina utters the meaning, the chief disciples put together the text skilfully’. This oft-quoted statement from the Āvaśayaka-niryukti, an early Śvetāmbara commentary, describes the process of teaching and the respective roles of the Jina and his chief disciples.

The chief disciples – gaṇadharas – are the closest followers of a Jina, who have taken mendicant vows in his presence and form the core of his fourfold community. Mahāvīra, for instance, has 11, who are said to be converted brahmins. They are the only ones who can understand the Jina’s meaning from the various lectures and discussions he leads over time. They shape it so it can be passed on to others, resulting in the 14 Pūrvas and the 12 Aṅgas.

The differences in Śvetāmbara and Digambara understanding of the ‘divine sound’ may influence the role of the chief disciples. It could be more important among the Digambaras since the gaṇadharas have to translate into words a sound that does not correspond to any specific language.

The chief disciples attain final liberation without further rebirth and cannot continue their activities as monastic leaders or teachers after they have reached omniscience – kevala-jñāna. Thus they must ensure that they transmit the Jina’s teachings while still ordinary monks.

Chain of oral transmission

This picture from a manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra dates from 1512. It depicts the elder Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives

Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

In theory only the Jinas and their chief disciples are involved in passing on teachings orally. Each of the Jinas has direct disciples, but nothing much is known about their exact role in transmission. Precise evidence is available only for the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

Mahāvīra’s first chief disciple was Indrabhūti Gautama. But he attained omniscience on the day Mahāvīra died, which is commemorated in Dīvālī. Then the leader and preacher was Sudharman, who attained omniscience 12 years after Mahāvīra’s death. He was thus in a position to preach and lead Mahāvīra’s community during this 12-year period.

Sudharman taught his disciple, Jambū, as the introduction to many Aṅgas shows. When Sudharman died, at the age of 100, the first generation of Mahāvīra’s disciples was extinct. Jambū was the first ‘elder’ – sthavira. He became the leader of the monastic community and the chief teacher for eight years. When he attained omniscience and final liberation in the 64th year after Mahāvīra’s death, he was the last person to be liberated in this time cycle.

Jambū’s successors continued to transmit Mahāvīra’s message by memorising it, with their followers doing the same. The first ‘elders’ who followed Jambū were:

  • Prabhava
  • Śayyambhava, around 429 BCE
  • Yaśobhadra
  • Bhadrabāhu in the 4th century BCE, who was the last to master the 14 Pūrvas
  • Sthūlabhadra.

More elders are traditional, with the full list forming the topic of the second part of the Kalpa-sūtra, the'Sthavirāvalī' or 'String of Elders'. This list is also found at the opening of another work in the Śvetāmbara canon, the Nandī-sūtra. Legends about the main elders are knitted together in Hemacandra’s Pariśiṣṭa-parvanLives of the Elders – written in the 12th century (Fynes 1998).

Crises and losses

Sacred footprints in Bhadrabāhu’s Cave on Candra-giri at the pilgrimage site of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. These footprints – caraṇa – are considered to be those of the 3rd-century sage Bhadrabāhu, who fasted to death at Shravana Belgola

Bhadrabāhu’s sacred footprints
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC BY-SA 2.5

Legendary accounts show that a major crisis occurred around 300 BCE in the area of eastern India where the Jain community had originated and was strong. A 12-year famine in the Magadha region proved disastrous. The accounts explain why the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras have such different canons of holy writings. Dating from much later than the events they describe, the traditional stories suppose that the split between the two sects had already taken place. In fact, at the time of the famine, these two groups are emerging as separate factions.

According to Digambara sources, Bhadrabāhu led a fraction of the monastic community to the south, to today’s Karnatak, to escape the effects of the long famine. The Emperor Candragupta was also part of the group. Both Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta are thought to have fasted unto death in Shravana Belgola. Some 12 years later Bhadrabāhu’s followers went back to Pāṭaliputra, modern-day Patna and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. There they discovered that Sthūlabhadra had organised a recitation of the holy writings, which produced an official revised edition or recension. The returned monks disagreed with the recension. The northerners had also given up practising nudity while the community had been split up. The group that refused to accept these two innovations are those who were later called Digambaras.

Śvetāmbara sources say that Bhadrabāhu did not go south but went to Nepal. Organising a recitation of the sacred texts in Pāṭaliputra, Sthūlabhadra asked Bhadrabāhu to recite the Pūrvas, which only he knew.

Both sects agree that Bhadrabāhu was the last person to memorise the whole of the 14 texts. After he died they both hold that only part of the Pūrvas was still known, until, finally, they became extinct. They disagree, however, on when exactly he died. Digambaras believe he died 175 years after the traditional date of Mahāvīra’s death, around 352 BCE. The Śvetāmbara sect holds that he died 162 years after Mahāvīra, which is 348 BCE.

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark


Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.