Article: Sacred writings

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


Initially, the language of the Jain scriptures was an issue – it was Prakrit against Sanskrit. But in later phases various languages came to coexist and have been used in different contexts in India, where multi-linguism has always been widespread.


A palm-leaf manuscript from Tamil Nadu. The manuscript is kept together by a string threaded through holes in each long thin folio. When the teachings of the Jinas were first written down, they were etched onto palm leaves, which are very fragile

Palm-leaf manuscript
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Both the Digambara and the Śvetāmbara Āgamas are written in Prakrit, not Sanskrit. This is considered to have been a deliberate choice. In Mahāvīra’s time Sanskrit was the language of the sacred texts of the brahmins and appears to have been reserved for an ‘elite’. As Mahāvīra’s teaching was ‘open’ to all – an idea that the term pavayaṇa might convey – it was written in the most widely understood language.

The Śvetāmbara Āgamas in the strict sense of the term are written in the variety of Prakrit known as Ardhamāgadhī, with a mixture of another form of Prakrit called Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī. The former is associated with the region of eastern India, where Mahāvīra preached, and the latter with western India. Jains migrated west later, and western India is where the final redaction of the scriptures took place, at Valabhī in Gujarat. Somebody who understands one of the two can also understand the other. The differences are grammatical. The degree of blend depends on the texts. Those which are considered ‘early’, such as the Ācārānga-sūtra, are more Ardhamāgadhī.

Early commentaries on the Śvetāmbara canon were also written in Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit, such as:

In their first phase the Digambara Āgamas are written in the variety of Prakrit known as Jaina Śaurasenī. Again, this is not altogether a distinct language. The differences from other Prakrits mainly relate to phonetics.

Digambaras also used a later form of Prakrit known as Apabhraṃśa, which is the language of some poetical treatises and narratives.


This is a good example of the pañca-pāṭha style of using the manuscript margins for commentary. This manuscript page is from a 16th-century copy of the Ṣaṣṭi-śataka.

Pañca-pāṭha style of manuscript commentary
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

In around the 5th century CE Jain writers began to use Sanskrit for certain scriptures. Though these texts were not believed to represent the earliest tradition, they have the status of quasi-canonical works, because Sanskrit was felt to be the language of knowledge and intellectual debate. The best-known example is the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

Most commentaries on the scriptures among both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras were written in Sanskrit. It has remained a trans-regional language of culture.

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