Article: Kalpa-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Part Two – 'The String of Elders'

This picture from a manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra dates from 1512. It depicts the elder Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives

Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The second part of the Kalpa-sūtra is called 'Sthavirāvalī' or ‘The String of Elders’. Mostly in verse, it gives the history of early Jain teachers and helps to root the faith in solid ground. It provides a detailed list of names and short characterisations of a sequence of monks, starting with Mahāvīra’s disciples. It ends with Devarddhikṣamāśrmaṇa, who put the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures in writing at the Valabhī plenary meeting in the 5th century. 

As often in Indian religions, there is more to this list than appears at first sight. Listing the names of prestigious teachers displays respectful homage. Indeed, the last 13 stanzas of the 'Sthavirāvalī' show a high degree of reverence for the elders, taking the first person in the form ‘I bow down to X, Y, Z’. Thus the 'Sthavirāvalī' is a hymn of praise meant to be uttered by devotees, especially monks, to acknowledge their predecessors. 

Part Three – 'Right Monastic Conduct'

This Kalpa-sūtra manuscript painting illustrates rules on alms during the rainy season. The third part of this Śvetāmbara scripture details mendicant conduct during the monsoon, when monks and nuns stay in one place instead of constantly 'wandering'

Rules on rainy-season alms
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The third part of the Kalpa-sūtra is called 'Sāmācārī' or ‘Right Monastic Conduct’. This plainly demonstrates why the Kalpa-sūtra is included in the canonical Daśāśrutaskandha.

This section does not deal with monastic behaviour in general, but with monastic conduct during the rainy season. This usually lasts for four months, giving rise to the Sanskrit term cāturmāsa – ‘four months’ – and the Gujarati equivalent comāsa. These are the months from July to October. 

The rainy season is a critical period of the year because vegetation and insects of all types thrive at this time. The division of the calendar year into rainy season and dry season is fundamental to all Indian religious communities. They have all evolved specific regulations for their members during the rainy season. 

The basic rule during the rainy season is that Jain, and also Buddhist, ascetics should stop their wandering life and stay in one place. This primarily answers a common-sense and practical need. Monks and nuns travel only on foot, and walk barefoot, and roads and paths are simply unfit for walking during the often torrential rains. However, the main justification that is traditionally given is the fundamental concern for life and the desire to avoid all harm to life – ahiṃsā.

The 'Sāmācārī' of the Kalpa-sūtra sets out how monks and nuns of all ranks should behave in daily life during the heart of the rainy season. This is reckoned to be a month and 20 nights after the beginning of the rainy season. The ascetics should be more careful than ever about walking, eating, lying down and so on. They should be aware of all the minute forms of life that emerge and abound during this period, which implies more restrictions for the ascetics

The special behaviours the mendicants should adopt are conveyed in the original text by the expression vāsā-vāsaṃ pajjosavei – ‘to perform the Pajjusana rites during rainy season’. This is the origin of the name Paryuṣaṇ, which is the title of the religious festival connected with this time of year. 

Paryuṣaṇ and the Kalpa-sūtra

The instructions for Jain ascetics during the major festival of Paryuṣaṇ mainly explain the special place of the Kalpa-sūtra

During the eight days of Paryuṣaṇ, the Kalpa-sūtra as a text and as an object is publicly worshipped among Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak Jains of Gujarat. This practice continues today.

In the past, the creation of illustrated or decorated manuscripts was sponsored for Paryuṣaṇ. Nowadays new printed editions with pictures in traditional or modern styles appear every year on this occasion.

Typically, on the third day of the festival, an auction takes place to decide which individual or family will present the new copy of the text to a local mendicant.

On the evening of the same day, the worshippers form a procession to take the copy to the home of the winning individual or family. It is worshipped with devotional songs and kept overnight.

On the fourth day the manuscript or book is presented publicly as an object of worship. Wrapped in muslin, it is placed in an embroidered wrapper and is sprinkled with sacred sandalwood powder – vāskṣep. It is placed on a metal or silver plate and ceremonially carried in procession to the temple hall where the mendicant sits.

Once in the hall, the book is worshipped as an embodiment of knowledge – jñāna – in a joyful atmosphere. Devotees present it with offerings of fruit, flowers, incense and sweets, waving lamps ritually before it.

From the fourth to the seventh day, ascetics read, recite or retell passages from the Kalpa-sūtra, usually in morning and afternoon sessions. This part of the ceremony depends on the mendicants’ abilities and tastes. It is important to note that in this context the term ‘Kalpa-sūtra’ means an ensemble combining the Prakrit text, Sanskrit and vernacular commentaries, and the free improvisation of the teaching mendicant.

On the eighth and last day, the book or manuscript is again the focus of worship. The monk reads the Prakrit text of the Kalpa-sūtra again, generally at a rather quick pace. At the same time, picture pages or independent illustrations are shown to the audience, acting as a visual commentary. This is important because the listeners mostly do not understand the literal words of the text in detail. However, they are familiar with the images, which are respected as objects of worship too.

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Related Manuscripts

  • Text


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

  • Text


    Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 161-1914. Unknown author. 16th century

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