Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


Firstly, numerous commentaries survive, written in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages, especially Gujarati. These commentaries aim: 

  • to make the original Prakrit text clearer by offering near-translations or retellings in languages that are more familiar to audiences 
  • to expand the original text by adding episodes or tales
  • in some cases to use parts of the text to support sectarian views on doctrine or mythology. 

Many commentaries on the Kalpa-sūtra are anonymous and amount to reading notes but it is significant that a good number is by religious teachers with a prominent place in their particular mendicant order. Two examples of many are:

  • the Sandehaviṣa-auṣadhi or Remedy against the Poison of Doubt, completed in 1307 CE (1364 of the Vikrama era) by Jinaprabha-sūri of the Kharatara-gaccha and the oldest Sanskrit commentary on the Kalpa-sūtra
  • the Kalpalatā or Garland of the Kalpa, by Samayasundara of the Kharatara-gaccha, written in the 17th century.

Annual copies

Marked out by coloured boundaries, this manuscript painting has a caption in the margin next to it. The edges of the margin and the central golden shape are ornately decorated. This page is from a Kalpa-sūtra dating from the late 15th to 16th centuries.

Typical manuscript painting
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Secondly, there was extensive copying of the Prakrit text of the Kalpa-sūtra and also the Prakrit text along with a commentary. These manuscripts are found in large numbers in all Śvetāmbara temple-libraries. 

They often have remarkable features that make them more like objects of visual art, and which are not necessarily found in manuscripts of other texts. These characteristics are:

  • painted paper creating a coloured background instead of plain yellowish paper, which may be identical throughout the manuscript or vary from one folio to the next
  • the use of silver or golden ink instead of ordinary black ink
  • a large square script providing rare examples of calligraphy in Jain manuscripts
  • numerous miniature paintings, in the form of small vignettes (5 by 5 cm) or larger scenes (12 by 10 cm)
  • the common use of detailed final colophons giving full information about the place, date and names of people involved in the process of copying. 

The oldest illustrated manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra known so far dates back to 1278 CE.

Kalpa-sūtra colophons frequently include members of the family or families who sponsored the copy, the name and monastic lineage of the religious teacher who asked them to sponsor and the names of individuals who are supposed to read the manuscript. Usually, the only information missing is the cost, but the fact that a Kalpa-sūtra manuscript often needed the sponsorship of more than one family shows that it was expensive.

Western 'discovery' of Jainism

Nineteenth-century German scholar Hermann Jacobi was a leading Indology scholar. His 1879 establishing of Jainism as a religion distinct from Buddhism and his translations and critical studies of major Jain texts laid the foundations for modern Jain studi

Hermann Jacobi
Image by unknown © unknown

The central importance of the Kalpa-sūtra was therefore established long before the 19th century, when Western observers or scholars gradually ‘discovered’ Jainism.

In 1807, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, the pioneering British scholar in all that relates to Sanskrit, and classical India in particular, described it 'as a work of great authority among the Jainas'.

Reverend J. Stevenson published a translation of the Kalpa-sūtra in 1847. Although not very reliable, it is notable for being the first translation of any Jain text into English.

Hermann Jacobi was a German scholar who was one of the founding figures of Jain studies in the West. In 1879 he published his critical edition of the text and in 1884 the English translation followed. The introduction clearly demonstrates for the first time that Jainism is a fully independent tradition with its own scriptures and not an offshoot of Buddhism, as had been thought until then.

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Related Manuscripts

  • First page with library stamps

    First page with library stamps

    British Library. Or. 13455. Unknown author. 14th to 15th centuries

  • Text


    Victoria and Albert Museum. IS. 83-1963. Unknown author. 15th century

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