Article: Sacred writings

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Śvetāmbara canon

As one of the early 'elders' – sthavira – of the Jain tradition, Sthūlabhadra is an important figure. He organised a recitation of the holy texts around 300 BCE, which was key in the gradual split between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects.

The elder Sthūlabhadra
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

This part of the story does not concern the Digambaras. Since they denied the authenticity of the first recitation at Pāṭaliputra, they view later ones in the same light. These councils produced what is known as the Śvetāmbara canon, which dates back to the 5th century.

The elders and teachers recognised that natural disasters or other crises threatened the preservation of the tradition. They made successive attempts to collect whatever was available during official recitations – vācanās – or ‘councils’.

Sthūlabhadra presided over the first council, which strengthened the growing divisions between the two groups that would later be known as the major Jain  sects. It took place in Pāṭaliputra ‘160 years after Mahāvīra’s death’, which would correspond to 367 BCE. At that time, the Pūrvas and the 12th Aṅga, the Dŗṣṭi-vāda, were already lost.

The next recitations took place in the 4th century CE, though it is possible that the texts had begun to be written down earlier. The second recitation was held at Mathurā in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, under the supervision of Skandila-sūri. A concurrent council took place at Valabhī, in Gujarat, led by Nāgārjuna. These two recitations were apparently irreconcilable. Scattered traces of the readings adopted by the ‘Nāgārjunīyas’ are preserved in the surviving Śvetāmbara scriptures but no more than that.

The final redaction of the Śvetāmbara canon was achieved during a council at Valabhī in the 5th century. According to tradition, the religious teacher Devarddhigaṇi Kṣamāśramaṇa organised the council ‘980 or 993 years’ after Mahāvīra’s death, which is 453 or 466 CE. All the accounts of the episode are much later but it appears that council attendees agreed to write down everything that remained to avoid more losses than had already occurred.

Digambara canon

What the Digambaras view as authoritative reflections of the early teachings are works that they believe were put into writing in the 2nd century CE. They are the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and the Kaṣāya-prābhŗta. They are fragments of the Pūrvas, which were all that the oral tradition had saved by that time.

Beyond boundaries – the Tattvārtha-sūtra

Because Digambaras and Śvetāmbara have different canons, it is important to underline the unique place of another Jain holy writing – the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

This is the only text accepted as an essential scripture by all Jain sects. There are disagreements about the date it was written and differences in the Digambara and Śvetāmbara versions of the text.

However, the Tattvārtha-sūtra sums up key beliefs of Jainism and its authority remains strong. Commentaries reflect these sectarian differences but also emphasise the place of the scripture at the heart of the Jain tradition. This is the reason the Tattvārtha-sūtra was selected to represent Jainism in the Sacred Literature Series, which organises the publication of key texts in different faiths. It was translated into English under the title That Which Is.

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Related Manuscripts

  • Text


    Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 9-1931. Unknown author. Circa 1490

  • Section on Mahāvīra

    Section on Mahāvīra

    Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 84-1963. Unknown author. Early 16th century

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