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.
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.
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.
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.
Authoritative scriptures. The holy texts that are considered authoritative depend on the group and the period.
Apabhraṃśa is an umbrella term for the dialects that were the forerunners of modern Indian languages. Taken from the Sanskrit term apabhraṃśa, which literally means 'corrupt' or 'non-grammatical language', Apabhraṃśa was used to write a large number of Jain texts. Though Apabhraṃśa developed over the 6th to 13th centuries, literary works date back to the 8th century.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
A member of the highest caste in Hinduism, the priests or brahmins. 'Brahminical' means 'of or like brahmins'.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
Vision, insight or perception. It works with the quality of jñāna – knowledge in the soul – to gain deep, true understanding and is ever-changing.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
A script for writing in different Indian languages, still used today. In Devanāgarī each letter has a horizontal line above it.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.
A term used for a man who is one of those listed in early sources as the direct successors of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina.
A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history.
'Supporters of the order'. This term is used for the first mendicant disciples of a Jina. They are able to understand his teachings properly and can pass them on. A gaṇadhara leads his own group of ascetics until he becomes enlightened.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:
With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
State in south-west India.
'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.
Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
The capital of the state of Mahārāṣṭra, the city of Mumbai is the biggest and richest in India. Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is the centre of Indian film-making and commercial activities.
'Learned one' in Sanskrit and used originally for a Hindu brahmin scholar and teacher. Nowadays a Jain pandit is a scholar who has been educated traditionally and is expert in the sacred texts of at least one of the Jain sects.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
Literally, the Sanskrit for 'ancient’. The term can mean either:
The 14 Pūrvas held all the knowledge in the universe and the few who knew them were given the exalted status of śruta-kevalin – ‘scripturally omniscient person'. In line with the prophecy of the last Jina, Mahāvīra, knowledge of the Pūrvas died out within a thousand years of his liberation. Parts of the Pūrvas are said to form elements of later philosophy and scriptures.
The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.
The language spoken in Rajasthan, in north-western India, and surrounding states. It is also spoken in some parts of neighbouring Pakistan. Also the adjective describing people, things or places in or associated with the state of Rajasthan.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Hindu goddess of learning who presides over the teaching of the Jinas, and is worshipped on the day of the festival devoted to scriptures. As goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, Sarasvatī is one of the most popular deities in India and has followers among all the Indian religions.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.
'Doctrine' in Sanskrit. Digambara Jains tend to use it to refer to their canon while Śvetāmbara Jains usually use Āgama for their holy scriptures.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
The wealthy city of Valabhī – now Vallabhi – in Gujarat was a major centre of Jain intellectual life in the early medieval period. The final version of the Śvetāmbara canon was written down there under the supervision of the religious teacher Devarddhi-gaṇi Kṣamāśramaṇa in the fifth century CE.
Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.