Article: Digambara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Printing scriptures

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. The monks are of the Digambara sect even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Each monk sits on a dais and holds a scripture in a scroll. The books

Preaching monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jains have frequently been opposed to the publication of their scriptures. This is partly because printing is a mechanical process and may thus cause harm. Another reason is connected with the quasi-magical qualities Jains give to their holy writings.

Only after overcoming long resistance from the Jain community did Digambara academics succeed in publishing the scriptures, beginning in 1939. The tale illustrates some of the concerns of Digambara Jains, both lay and mendicant.

The texts seem to have been unavailable to nearly everyone until the late 19th century. Pandit Todarmal, an 18th-century Digambara lay scholar from Jaipur in Rajasthan, knew of only one surviving Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama manuscript. It was in Mudbidri in Karnataka, but was a sacred and inaccessible object. In 1883, Seth Manikchand, a merchant from Bombay, asked to see it. He was told that seeing and worshipping the manuscript – darśana and pūjā – were sufficient, because, it was said, nobody could understand it anyway.

Academics persisted for more than a decade before getting permission to prepare two copies of the manuscripts, on the condition that they remained in Mudbidri. The work was started and interrupted, then resumed. Taking more than 25 years, the copies of the Old Kannada text were completed by the famous Paṇḍit Brahma-sūri from Shravana Belgola. Permission to publish was, however, refused.

In the meantime, someone managed to get a third copy made, and several other copies in Kannada and in Devanāgarī script appeared.

Leading Digambara scholars, including Pandit Nathuram Premi and Hiralal Jain, worked hard to overcome resistance from monks and lay people who were against printing sacred scriptures. They also found financial support for publication of the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama. Along with A. N. Upadhye, they gathered a team of scholars to start the work.

The publication of the first volume in 1939 helped non-academics understand that studying these scriptures was the best way of underlining the importance of the Digambara tradition. The rest of the text was published and scholars were allowed to consult the original manuscript.

Holy writings as sacred objects

Found in Digambara temples, a śruta-skandha-yantra represents the scriptures and scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna. In the form of a tree, it has 24 branches showing types of sacred texts. This example in Tamil Nadu is surrounded by Jina images.

Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The scriptures are significant among Jains for more than their contents. The manuscript or book is a sacred object in itself. Jains honour the holy writings as a whole and also as individual items. This veneration is demonstrated in several ways. Temples may hold holy books themselves, symbols of learning and books or quotations engraved on the walls. Sacred texts may also be worshipped or feature in dedicated festivals and special ceremonies. Indeed, worship of books alone is characteristic of one Digambara subsect.

Śruta-pañcamī is an annual festival dedicated to knowledge, in the forms of manuscripts, books and religious teachers. Copies of the scriptures are displayed, manuscripts and books are venerated and new editions of the holy texts produced. The mendicants who first wrote down the principal sacred works – Bhūtabali and Puṣpadanta – are honoured. Monks – who pass on the sacred teachings – are honoured in hymns. The goddess Sarasvatī may be worshipped as the patron deity of learning.

The most striking demonstration of books as objects of devotion can be found among the Tāraṇ Svāmī Panth (Dundas 2002: 81; Cort 2006). Followers of a medieval monk, the subsect worships books instead of images.

There are also specific worship ceremoniespūjās – and specific ritual diagrams – yantras – that put certain sacred texts at their centre. An example is the Bhaktāmara-stotra, a famous Sanskrit hymn in honour of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, which the Digambaras consider very holy.

A common sight in Digambara temples is that of metal or brass śruta-skandha-yantras. They are visual representations of the teachings in the form of a tree with 24 branches showing the various types of scriptures. These sit alongside images of goddesses or Jinas. They can be adorned with garlands of flowers.

The two oldest Digambara scriptures, the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and the Kaṣāya-prābhṛta, hold special sanctity for members of the sect. Twelfth-century palm-leaf manuscripts of the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and Kaṣāya-prābhṛta are very much associated with Mudbidri, in Karnataka. They have been preserved in a modest temple called ‘Guru Basadi’ or ‘Siddhānta Mandir’. Today the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama manuscript is a kind of enthroned treasure looked after by the local bhaṭṭāraka in Mudbidri. A longstanding pilgrimage attraction, the manuscripts' position as objects of veneration to be seen – darśana – accounts for the long delay in their publication (Dundas 2002: 64-65; Jain in Diwakar 2000 I: 13-14).

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