Article: Sacred writings

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Regional languages

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

From the 14th century onwards regional languages tended to become an important medium of teaching and commenting. This did not mean that Prakrit and Sanskrit had become obsolete, however. The choice of language depended on the context and corresponded to various levels of education.

Among the Śvetāmbaras, commentaries known as bālāvabodhas and ṭabos were written in old Gujarati. These range from extensive, in-depth explanations to word-to-word paraphrases, often equivalent to translations. At the beginning of the 20th century, several monks complained that they were not exposed to canonical scriptures in their original language but had access to them only through these intermediates. This situation still applies today, with variations depending on monastic orders and their attitudes towards religious education.

Among Digambaras from north India, similar commentaries or rewritings were completed in:

In south India, Digambara scriptures were rewritten or commented on in Kannada and, to a lesser extent, Tamil.

Learning and teaching scriptures

This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows Digambara monks preaching to lay men. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold up scriptures. The bookstands in front underline their role as religious teachers

Monks preach to lay men
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

During their long history, Jains have shown a variety of attitudes towards their holy writings. How should they be used? Should everyone be able to read and learn them? Who should be authorised to teach them? Should they be restricted to certain groups of people?

Evidence from the medieval period onwards shows that the holy writings are used as proofs in intellectual debates and controversies among mendicants who are learned ideologues (Granoff 1993, Dundas 2007, Balbir 2009 and others). Not only are specific works mentioned but precise passages are also quoted. In some cases, the authors refer to the page of the particular manuscript they read. Thus, for instance, advocates and opponents of image worship both fight with the support of scriptures. A question-and-answer format has been used in texts on controversial sectarian issues. Composed from the 17th century onwards, these are good examples of the way scriptural sources are quoted among both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras (Jaini 2004, Jaini 2008). Such texts – praśnottaras or bols – are produced even today as pedagogical tools.

Generally, Jains consider that lay Jains should read the Āgamas in their narrowest interpretation together with or under mendicant supervision. But they can read alone stories, hymns or digests specifically targeted at lay audiences or learn about the contents of the Āgamas from monastic preaching. Thus there are ‘practical canons’ (Cort 2001, Dundas 2002: 63) for various purposes and people, which may evolve in the course of time.

Even so, sectarian attitudes among both laity and mendicants differ on whether certain categories of scriptures should be available to all types of audiences.

Among Digambaras, study of the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama by the laity and, to a lesser degree, by mendicants was prohibited for a long time. This was largely because its concepts are so elaborate that it was thought no one could understand it. Members of the Digambara community were also keen to keep some mystery around this work as if to emphasise its prestige and antiquity.

Nuns of the Śvetāmbara Tapā-gaccha sect are not allowed to read the class of Āgamas known as Cheda-sūtras, which deal with monastic discipline in great detail. Lay people are generally not supposed to read them either.

Study of the Āgamas follows a steady progression among mendicants of the Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak orders (Cort 2001). A junior monk starts with the basic texts – the Mūla-sūtras – and in time moves on to read more technical texts as he becomes more senior. This progression is codified in books dealing with the monastic way of life.

Printing scriptures

Because the teachings are holy, Jains have at times shown reluctance to let them be printed. One reason is because printing is a mechanical process and may therefore involve harm. Another one is connected with the quasi-magical value attributed to scriptures.

The first printed edition of the Śvetāmbara Āgamas dates back to 1874. It was published after resistance from some monks and lay people.

Among the Digambaras, the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama started to be printed in 1939, only after many efforts. Other works in the Digambara canon had been printed earlier.

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