Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Kalpa-sūtra is a text in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures and one of the best-known, most fundamental Jain holy texts. Written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, it is partly in prose and partly in verse.

A common name for the Kalpa-sūtra among Gujarati Jains is Bāraso-sūtra, meaning The Scripture of Twelve Hundred. The number of 1200 is rounded down from the 1216 sections that make up the sūtras when counted in the traditional way. However, its Prakrit title of Pajjosavaṇā Kappa comes from its vital part in a major festival among Śvetāmbara Jains.

Indeed, the text's special importance and popularity comes largely from its association with the festival of Paryuṣaṇ, at the end of the rainy season. The Kalpa-sūtra has an important public and ceremonial role in this very significant festival. Copied annually for centuries as part of Paryuṣaṇ, there are numerous surviving manuscripts.

The Kalpa-sūtra is also important for its contents, set out in three parts. The first two parts contain details of the lives of the 24 Jinas, who are the source of Jain teachings, and their early followers. The third part establishes rules for monastic conduct during the rainy season, which is an exceptional period in the life of mendicants.

In addition, the Kalpa-sūtra is a key source for Jain art, because it is one of the most frequently illustrated Jain scriptures. Intended primarily as a way of passing on key episodes and themes of the text, Kalpa-sūtrapaintings have developed artistic conventions within a large body of work.

The scripture is closely linked with the Kālakācārya-kathāStory of the Monk Kālaka. Though a separate text in its own right, this tale is frequently found at the end of manuscripts of the Kalpa-sūtra. The reasons for this are probably to do with the narrative of the monk's life. Kālaka is credited with deciding the date of one of the days of Paryuṣaṇ and his story demonstrates qualities of the ideal ascetic. The latter point ties in with the Kalpa-sūtra theme of monks and nuns behaving correctly.

Appropriately for a fundamental Śvetāmbara scripture, the text is often found on manuscripts that are frequently noteworthy artefacts. JAINpedia has numerous digitised examples of the Kalpa-sūtra. Because of their beauty and importance in the literature and practice of the Jain faith, these items are highlights of the manuscripts on the website.

Creation of the Kalpa-sūtra

The Kalpa-sūtra is supposed to be the work of Bhadrabāhu. This highly respected figure is the centre of many legends and is an early religious teacher famous for his knowledge.

The date the Kalpa-sūtra was composed is unknown. Assuming Mahāvīra lived about 2,500 years ago and if Bhadrabāhu, who died about 162 to 175 years after him, is indeed the ‘author’, the work could date back to about 2,300 years ago. But there is no proof of this. It is likely that, as with all the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, the Kalpa-sūtra was passed on orally for centuries before being written down in the fifth century of the Common Era.

Kalpa-sūtra in the Śvetāmbara canon

This manuscript painting from a copy of the Kalpa-sūtra shows a Śvetāmbara teacher instructing a monk. As he is more important, he is bigger in the picture and sits on a dais above the junior mendicant, who raises his hands in respect.

Teacher instructs a monk
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Counting the Kalpa-sūtra as one of the Śvetāmbara canonical texts emphasises the sections on monastic regulations. It belongs to the Cheda-sūtras, which include various works setting out the rules of behaviour in daily monastic life, compensations for lapses and so on. The Daśāśrutaskandha is one of these Cheda-sūtras and the Kalpa-sūtra forms its eighth chapter. 

Although it is not an independent text, the Kalpa-sūtra has held a central position in the lives and hearts of Śvetāmbara Jains for many centuries.

Evidence from the 13th century

Sound evidence for the intense focus on the Kalpa-sūtra in the Śvetāmbara tradition is available from the 13th century onwards. There are plenty of commentaries on the text and hundreds of surviving manuscripts, copied as part of the annual festival of Paryuṣaṇ.

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