Article: Digambara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

As with most religious traditions, Jainism has scriptures that contain its fundamental principles and provides guidance and examples to believers. All Jains believe that their teachings come originally from the Jinas, who each reveals the same eternal truths according to the needs of his era of time. The most recent Jina, Mahāvīra, has given the fullest set of principles and guidance. All Jain sects agree that this teaching was originally passed on orally, but over the centuries elements were lost while other parts changed. They concur that after several centuries Mahāvīra’s teachings were written down, creating the sacred writings. The sects do not agree, however, on which portions of the teachings survived and which were amended. For this reason the Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have different sets of scripture.

Digambaras maintain that all the original scriptures were lost as early as the 2nd century CE. Thus they do not accept as authentic the works that make up the Śvetāmbara canon, although they list them occasionally. Instead, two other early texts form the basis of the Digambara canon or Siddhānta – ‘doctrine’. Their canon also includes later works covering various fields of knowledge, known as the Anuyogas – ‘expositions’.

Scholars have not examined these vast works in as much detail as the Śvetāmbara Āgamas. This is in large part because they have not been widely available for scholarly purposes until recently. They were first published in 1939, after longstanding opposition. In addition, they are highly technical and were probably understood only by advanced scholar monks. Also, Digambara manuscripts were generally written on palm leaves from south India and are thus more fragile than paper manuscripts from northern or western India. Surviving palm-leaf manuscripts are very rare.

Jains must master knowledge of various kinds to progress spiritually towards omniscience and eventual liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Jain epistemology names the second kind of knowledge as śruta-jñāna – ‘knowledge of what has been heard’. This usually means understanding of the scriptures. Even so, there is disagreement over whether scriptural knowledge by itself is sufficient for spiritual development.

All Jains know about their sacred texts, even if they do not have direct access to the scriptures. The holy writings are fundamental to religious ceremonies and practices, and to religious life more broadly. Jains venerate scriptures in various ways, the most prominent example of which is the festival of Śruta-pañcamī among Digambaras. Holy books are central to this annual celebration of knowledge. The respect with which Digambara Jains honour the scriptures is most remarkable in the subsect of Tāraṇ Svāmī Panth, which reveres books instead of idols of the Jinas or other figures.


This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Labelling the Jain sacred texts the ‘canon’ is often considered unsatisfactory, because the term generally describes an unchanging body of texts endorsed by a supreme authority. Digambara Jains usually call their holy writings siddhānta – ‘doctrine’ in Sanskrit. A pan-Indian term, this word implies validity and authority.

Digambaras also use the terms niggantha-pāvayaṇa – ‘open teaching of monks’ – or orgaṇi-piḍaga – ‘basket of the chief disciples’. These Prakrit phrases are used in the singular and suggest that the primary sources are relevant to all.

The term siddhānta implies a flexible, changing group of texts. The two principal scriptures preserve elements of the Pūrvas written by Mahāvīra’s closest followers – gaṇadharas – while later texts composed by mendicants make up a second group of the scriptures. While the first group is therefore stable, this second group is quite fluid.

History of Digambara holy writings

Jains of all sects agree that the ultimate source of the teachings is the Jinas, especially Mahāvīra, the 24th. The Jinas preach unchanging truths to their followers, who pass on their knowledge orally to successive leaders, known as elders and teachers. Down the generations, some of these teachings were gradually lost and other parts altered. All Jains believe that surviving teachings were eventually written down, producing the holy texts.

Both major sects agree that large elements of the teachings had been forgotten by the 4th century BCE, such as the Pūrvas and the 12th Aṅga, the Dṛṣṭi-vāda. The origins of the differences between the Digambara and Śvetāmbara canons can be found in the physical division of the Jain community around 300 BCE. The group of Jains who can be thought of as forerunners of the Digambara sect travelled south to escape a long famine in the north, where Jainism had its stronghold. The Jains who remained in the north organised official recitations – vācanās – or ‘councils’ to consolidate knowledge of the teachings, which were at greater risk of being lost in this time of crisis. Successive councils produced what is now considered to be the Śvetāmbara canon, with the last council held at Valabhī, Gujarat in the 5th century CE. The Jains who later developed into the Digambara sect did not accept any of these councils and therefore none of their redactions. They believe that fragments of the Pūrvas, which were all that the oral tradition had preserved, were written down only in the 2nd century CE. These two scriptures form the crux of the Digambara canon or siddhānta.

Dates of the texts

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

It is hard to assign dates to Digambara scriptures with absolute confidence. This is mainly because of the very long gaps between various stages of the transmission process. The period when oral transmission was the principal method of passing on teachings is accepted to begin roughly with the life of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra. It ends with the first known writing down of oral works. Scholars have established Mahāvīra’s historical dates as 497 to 425 BCE. Digambara scriptures were first written down in the second century CE, some six hundred years after their oral origins.

In addition, there is an interval between this traditional writing down and the date of the earliest manuscripts. Another consideration is what has lasted. Digambara texts were normally written on palm leaves, which have not survived in large numbers. The oldest examples of palm-leaf manuscripts date back to the 11th to 12th centuries while the first two scriptures were composed nearly a thousand years earlier. The later Anuyogas have dates ranging from the 2nd and the 11th centuries so some are nearly as old.

Despite these problems, scholars can calculate the scriptures’ likely dates by using internal characteristics of the texts and surviving manuscripts. Comparing features such as language, vocabulary, literary styles and material characteristics in many examples of the same text, researchers can work out approximate dates.

The Digambara scriptures are probably of ‘a date contemporary with later Śvetāmbara canonical texts’ (Dundas 2002: 80), and early verse commentaries thereupon. This is demonstrated by similarities in their contents and formal criteria, such as the type of metre used in verse. This dates them to the 5th century at the latest.

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