Article: Karma-prakr̥ti

Contributed by Jean Arzoumanov

The so-called Karma-kāṇḍa manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford is a very peculiar text. An 18th-century Persian translation of a 17th-century Braj commentary on a Prakrit treatise attributed to an 11th-century Digambara philosopher, it was commissioned by a wealthy Frenchman from an Indian Brahmin.

As one of the highlights of JAINpedia, it is remarkable for several reasons.

Firstly, the manuscript has a twin, found in the collection of the British Library in London, which is not available on JAINpedia. These two manuscripts are copies of one translation, produced in the same year by the same individual for one sponsor, but their paths to different British institutions are unknown. They seem to form a quartet with a similar pair of manuscripts.

Next, several languages and scripts appear in the manuscript. The original text is provided in Jaina Śaurasenī, a Middle Indic Prakrit used by Digambara scholars, and Sanskrit, along with the Persian translation of the commentary. The translation uses Indian and Arabic scripts, frequently badly written, making the manuscript hard to read without good knowledge of all the languages and scripts.

Then, the title under which both manuscripts have been catalogued is potentially misleading. The title of Karma-kāṇḍa was used by the Sanskrit commentator, but the text is usually called the Karma-prakṛti, which means 'nature of karmic categories'. This latter title is used by the modern editor of the text. It deals with the religious doctrine of karma and is a technical work exploring the many details of the Jain concept. It is attributed to the Digambara thinker Nemicandra, whose most famous work, the Gommaṭasāra – Compendium [composed for] Gommaṭa – includes a lengthy examination of karma, called the Karma-kāṇḍa. The Karma-prakṛti may have been mistaken for this work, since it seems to share the same author and subject matter, and it may even have been a reworking of the Karma-kāṇḍa. The scholar Hiralal Shastri, editor of the 1964 modern edition, believes the Gommaṭasāra Karma-kāṇḍa is a reworking of the Karma-prakṛti.

The manuscript contains numerous inaccuracies of translation and explanation, which, coupled with poor penmanship, make the work difficult to understand. The Hindu translator seems to misinterpret Jain doctrine to chime with the beliefs of his own background and also introduces concepts and terms from Islam.

There is little information about the author, commentator, translator and sponsor of the manuscript but what there is shines interesting light on the creation of this unusual artefact.

The manuscript is undoubtedly perplexing in its mix of various languages, scripts and religious doctrine and terminology. However, this document stands at a crossroad of languages, religions and cultures as a rare testimony of the complex intercultural exchanges experienced by a Brahmin in late 18th-century India.

Two manuscripts

The handwritten title page of the 'Karma-kāṇḍa' or 'Karma-prakṛti' is in English by an unknown author. The 1796 manuscript is a Persian translation of a Jain text written in Prakrit, attributed to the scholar monk Nemicandra.

Title page of 'Karma-kāṇḍa' or 'Karma-prakṛti'
Image by Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The Bodleian Library and the British Library each hold a manuscript copy of an otherwise unknown text. It is called Karma-kāṇḍa in the library catalogues, after the Persian and English headings on the first page of the text, where it is further described as a 'Treatise (?) on Piety – Jain doctrines translated from Prakrit into Persian. The original author is Nemichandra a Jain priest'. The same handwriting is recognisable on both copies, which must have belonged to the same librarian or former owner before they were separated.

Karma-kāṇḍa copies in the Bodleian Library and the British Library

Institution

Shelfmark

Completion note

Bodleian Library

Wilson 262

written on 21 July 1796

British Library

Add. 25022 (folio 1 to 63)

finished in May 1796

They appear to make up a set of four manuscripts, with two copies made of one text and two of another text. A French collector in India commissioned all four manuscripts in the 18th century but how they arrived in the UK in the 19th century is largely unknown.

All the manuscripts contain two scripts and three languages. The standard of copying is quite poor and some of the translations and interpretations of Jain concepts are inaccurate, making the manuscripts difficult to understand.

An interesting handwritten remark on the first page of the British Library manuscript calls it 'A curious book'. It probably reflects the writer’s puzzlement faced with a fairly unintelligible text on what may look a dubious subject.

A following remark by another reader is even more telling: '[Jains] are very numerous and the Buddhists have merged with them'. It bears witness to general European ignorance about Jains at that time, which continued after the 1807 publication of Colebrooke's seminal article. Entitled 'Observations on the Sect of Jains' the article clearly sets the Jain religion apart from other faiths in India. The translation of the commentary in this manuscript, however, does nothing to clarify the unique qualities of the Jain tradition.

Origins of the manuscripts

A 1794 engraving of Claude Martin, honorary major-general at Lucknow. Born in France, Martin joined the British East India Company and became a wealthy entrepreneur in Lucknow. Martin was an avid collector of Indian texts and artefacts.

Claude Martin
Image by drawing by Renaldi; engraved by L. Legoux © public domain

The two manuscripts catalogued as Karma-kāṇḍa in the Bodleian Library and the British Library seem to form a group with two other manuscripts. These other manuscripts have the same handwriting for headings in English and Persian, and are also copies of a single text, the Pancā-stikāyasāra – Compendium on the Five Entities – by Kundakunda.

The Bodleian Library holds one manuscript of each text, with the two other manuscripts in the collections of the British Library.

All the manuscripts were copied for Claude Martin, a French collector in India in the late 18th century. After his death his collection of Indian and Persian manuscripts was split up, with many now held in British institutions.

The manuscripts are written in a mixture of two scripts, representing three different languages. The writing in Devanāgarī, which is used for the text and its Sanskrit translation, is hard to read because of its poor quality.

'Panchasat Gathas'

The two other manuscripts with the same handwriting are copies of a similar text, named as the 'Panchasat Gathas fifty verses Exposition of Jain tenets'.

Copies of Panchasat Gathas in the Bodleian Library and the British Library

'Panchasat Gathas' manuscript

Shelfmark

Bodleian Library

Wilson 261

British Library

Add. 25022 (folios 64 to 224)

However, the title in the libraries' catalogues is incorrect, because it is based on a wrong reading of the transcription in Persian on the same page. This gives the original name as Pancāstikāya-sāra – Compendium on the Five Entities – which corresponds to a well-known book by the celebrated Digambara philosopher Kundakunda.

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    Bodleian Library. MS. Wilson 262. Nemicandra. 21 July 1796

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