Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Centrality of the Kalpa-sūtra

There are two main grounds for the Kalpa-sūtra's occupying such a central position in Śvetāmbara Jainism. The principal reason is the content of the Kalpa-sūtra. Linked to this is the second reason – its role in worship, which focuses on both the meaning and the object itself.

Contents of the Kalpa-sūtra

The contents of the Kalpa-sūtra are foundations of Jain belief. To some extent, each of its three parts focuses on several things that define Śvetāmbara Jain identity and tradition.

Part One – ‘Lives of the Jinas’

This manuscript painting is of the 20 Jinas between Ṛṣabha, the first one, and Nemi, the 22nd. Omniscient and in the lotus meditation pose, they have bumps on their heads, signifying wisdom. Their jewellery and open eyes are typical of Śvetāmbara images.

Twenty Jinas
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The first part of the Kalpa-sūtra is called the 'Jina-caritra' or ‘Lives of the Jinas’. It consists of biographies of four of the 24 Jinas who are important figures of worship. They are, in order:

The lives of the remaining 20 Jinas are sketched much more briefly and are closer to outlines of key events than to narratives.

In the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, the 'Jina-caritra' can be described as the only complete text to focus on this topic in such a systematic and thorough manner. Other canonical scriptures, in contrast, merely provide clues to the Jinas’ careers. Two examples are:

  • the Ācārānga-sūtra, the first book of the canon, where the ascetic career of Mahāvīra and the hardships he undergoes are depicted quite realistically
  • the 22nd chapter of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, in which a famous episode dramatically relates how the 22nd Jina, Nemi, decides to renounce the world just before his wedding ceremony.

Given the status of the Jinas as religious teachers, the origin of Jain faith and role models, it is obviously important to have a single text providing fundamental material on them.

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