Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Jains have a long history of writing and copying manuscripts. Writings produced by and among the Jains demonstrate a wide range of trends and topics. These works can be thought of as either scriptural or non-scriptural. However, even non-scriptural works that do not directly set out or discuss holy teachings or religious beliefs generally contain religious principles. For example, stories and parables that illustrate Jain doctrine or practices have long been a popular way of passing on teachings. These may be adapted from non-Jain sources to emphasise Jain values and practices. In this respect, Jain writings always support the faith to some degree.
Widespread down the ages, the traditional tales known as Jain Universal History are increasingly presented in various forms. For example the ancient epic poems and other stories can now be found in illustrated books and comic books, as well as in other media, such as animated cartoons and audio recordings.
For centuries Jain teachings were transmitted orally from teacher to disciple. The Jinas were the source of religious teachings, preaching to their chief disciples, who taught their followers, and so on from generation to generation. This was the regular process from at least the sixth to fifth centuries BCE to the beginning of the Common Era. Then these teachings were put into writing and organised into various classes of scriptures. The sect of the Digambaras consider that this occurred in the second century CE, while the Āgamas of the Śvetāmbaras are said to have been fixed in the fifth century CE.
Partly because of Indian climatic conditions, the manuscripts of the holy teachings that have survived are all later than the 11th century. From this time onwards, however, they are available continuously.
The JAINpedia sections Śvetāmbara canon and Digambara canon describe the scriptures that have traditionally come to be classed under these headings and their usual groupings. They are written respectively in the Ardhamāgadhī and Jaina Śaurasenī varieties of Prakrit. These texts are regarded as closest to the teachings originally delivered by the Jinas, especially by Mahāvīra, the 24th. They form the Āgama or Siddhānta in the narrow understanding of these words, often translated as ‘canon’, however inadequate this term may be.
A wider and more practical acceptance of the term Āgama or Siddhānta includes virtually all the works by Jain writers, as this authorship is a guarantee of authority. They cover all sorts of genres and literary forms, and are finding new expression in contemporary media and technology, such as comics.
The Tattvārtha-sūtra by Umāsvāti / Umāsvāmin is an example of a treatise on philosophical topics which is accepted by both the main sects of Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras, though with some differences. Written in Sanskrit, it has quasi-canonical status.
One of the most effective media for teaching the principles of Jainism from time immemorial has been the story. Told and retold in the various languages Jains use, stories are often available in illustrated manuscripts.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Jain comic books or Diwakar Chitra Katha in Hindi, Gujarati and English show how new modes of teaching can be used for new audiences. They form a Jain counterpart to the famous Amar Chitra Katha series of Hindu mythology. Their 60 sections recount the lives of the Jinas and of a large repertoire of Jain heroes and heroines known from old literary and folklore forms.
Living within Indian society, the Jains were always exposed to the common Indian heritage. The epics of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are two of its main components. They have been favourite subjects of retellings over the centuries, with variations depending on time and region.
The Sanskrit version of the Rāmāyaṇa ascribed to Vālmīki, and that of the Mahābhārata, attributed to Vyāsa, were never taken for granted or left alone. Jain authors have challenged some of their contents and features, creating versions of these epics to accommodate their own conception of Jain history and doctrine. For example, the characters of Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Hanumān and Rāvaṇa, plus the five Pāṇḍavas, are part of what is often called ‘Universal History’. They are inserted in the broader frame of the careers of the 24 Jinas. For instance, the Rāmāyaṇa characters are contemporary with the 20th Jina, Munisuvrata or Lord Munisuvrata, and Kṛṣṇa is a cousin of the 22nd Jina, Neminātha or Lord Nemi. Some differences in the emphasis and the narratives of the Jain epics highlight Jain values, such as non-violence and renunciation of the world to become a mendicant.
Authoritative scriptures. The holy texts that are considered authoritative depend on the group and the period.
The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.
A dialect of the Prākrit language used for many Śvetāmbara Jain scriptures.
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A variety of Prakrit. A spoken language, it became used primarily for drama in northern India during the medieval period and is the language used for the main Digambara scriptures.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
One of the best-known avatars of the deity Viṣṇu the preserver, Kṛṣṇa is one of the principal Hindu gods. Since his name means ' dark blue', 'dark' or 'black' in Sanskrit, he is usually depicted with blue or black skin. Often shown as a boy or young man playing a flute, Kṛṣṇa is a hero of the Indian epic, Mahābhārata, and protagonist of the Bhagavad Gītā. Jains believe he is the cousin of Lord Nemi, the 22nd Jina.
One of the major works of Indian literature, this epic poem revolves around a legendary battle between two camps within the same family, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas. Fusing Jain values into the story, Jain versions of the Mahābhārata also include biographies of the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi and his cousin Kṛṣṇa, who is identified with the Hindu god. The Jain Mahābhāratas cast the leading figure of Kṛṣṇa and other characters in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
The five Pāṇḍava brothers are the heroes of the Hindu epic poem, the Mahābhārata, and its Jain versions. The Jain Mahābhārata is quite different from the Hindu version, demonstrating Jain virtues and religious beliefs.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:
An avatar of Viṣṇu, the preserver or protector who is one of the three major Hindu gods. Rāma is a prince of Ayodhyā and is often shown with blue skin, holding a bow and arrow. The epic poem Rāmāyaṇa recounts his adventures as he searches for his wife Sītā, who has been kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Blending Jain values into the story, the Jain Rāmāyaṇas cast him and other figures in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
One of the fundamental works of Indian literature, the Rāmāyaṇa is an epic poem recounting the adventures of Prince Rāma as he searches for his wife Sītā, who has been kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Blending Jain values into the story, the Jain Rāmāyaṇas present him and other figures in the tale as some of the 'great men' of Jain Universal History.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
'Doctrine' in Sanskrit. Digambara Jains tend to use it to refer to their canon while Śvetāmbara Jains usually use Āgama for their holy scriptures.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.