Article: Jain Purāṇas

Contributed by Eva De Clercq

The Jain Purāṇas centre on 'Jain Universal History' or the lives of the 63 śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’. Meaning literally ‘the ancient [scriptures]’ in Sanskrit, the Purāṇas form a group of religious texts. The term purāṇa is more common among Digambaras, while Śvetāmbaras tend to use the term caritra – 'biography'.

As a religious minority living within a largely Hindu society, the Jains have often responded to developments in Hindu India with works that have a distinctly Jain perspective. The Jain Purāṇas emerged to parallel the Hindu Purāṇas, which began to arise some centuries before the Common Era. The Jain versions, the earliest of which dates from the first centuries of the Common Era, demonstrate some similarities to Hindu Purāṇas in their narrative framework and subject matter. In contrast to the Hindu versions, however, the Jain texts were created by named authors and reflect key Jain religious beliefs, including karma.

Composed in a variety of languages, Jain purāṇas can be roughly classified into three groups. The first deals with the lives of just one or a small number of great men. They include the biographies of individual Jinas and the eighth Baladeva, Vāsudeva and Prati-vāsudeva triad, which forms the Jain versions of the Rāmāyaṇa, an epic poem. The second type recounts the life stories of all the great men. The final category of māhātmyas describes particular holy sites of pilgrimage.

Hindu Purāṇas

Viṣṇu, Śiva and Brahmā form the triad of major Hindu gods, who each has specific roles and numerous avatars. Viṣṇu is the preserver or protector, Brahmā the creator and Śiva the destroyer or transformer deity.

Viṣṇu, Śiva and Brahmā
Image by Los Angeles County Museum of Art © public domain

The original Purāṇas are an important body of mostly religious literature in Hinduism, reportedly meant for those groups in society to whom Vedic scripture was prohibited. These were women and the lower classes. The importance of this set of works can be seen in their occasional title of the 'fifth Veda'.

Most of these Hindu Purāṇas developed over a period of several centuries. Although they are a class of Hindu religious literature, the Purāṇas are extremely diverse in content. They have been described as the most important textual sources for the study of 'popular' forms of Hinduism.

The Hindu Purāṇas share certain characteristics regarding their subject matter, setting and form.

Tradition cites five subjects to be dealt with in a purāṇa – purāṇa-pañca-lakṣaṇa. These are:

  1. creation
  2. the cyclical destruction and recreation of the world
  3. dynasties of the gods
  4. dynasties of kings
  5. lives of the forefathers of all humans.

The narration of a purāṇa takes place in the forest and takes the form of a dialogue between bards and sages, who report what they heard from other sages, kings and gods. A great number of purāṇas are known, and the most common categorisation is in the table.

Most common categories of Hindu purāṇas

Groups of purāṇas

Sanskrit title

Authority and examples

18 major purāṇas

mahā-purāṇas

The most authoritative purāṇas, including the:

  • Agni-purāṇa
  • Bhāgavata-purāṇa
  • Skanda-purāṇa
  • Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa.

18 secondary purāṇas

upa-purāṇas

Of lesser authority, such as the Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa.

Apart from these purāṇas proper, other texts are also considered to be purāṇic literature. Such a category is, for instance, the māhātmya. Literally meaning ‘greatness’, māhātmya texts describe the ‘greatness’ of a pilgrimage site or a deity. Māhātmyas are often incorporated into a larger purāṇa. The Devī-māhātmya, for instance, describes the ‘greatness’ of Devī, the Goddess in her many manifestations, and is included in the Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa.

Jain 'counter tradition'

In this manuscript painting half a dozen monks represent the chief disciples – gaṇadhara – of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The gaṇadharas orally transmit the Jina's teachings, which pass down the generations until the scriptures are written down.

Disciples of Mahāvīra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

When purāṇic Hinduism grew ever more popular, the Jains began to compile a ‘counter tradition’ (Jaini 1993) of literature. Monks and poets composed purāṇas, offering a Jain alternative to the Hindu versions. The subject of the Jain Purāṇas are the lives of the śalākā-puruṣas or mahā-puruṣas – ‘great men’ – collectively labelled ‘Jain Universal History’.

Though there is relatively little trace in the extant canonical texts of most purāṇic stories, all Jain sects consider them to have been part of the Pūrvas. The Pūrvas formed a section of the original canon, passed down from the early disciples of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, but were lost in the first centuries after Mahāvīra. As Digambaras consider the entire original canon to be lost and do not accept the authority of the Śvetāmbara scriptures, they accord the purāṇas the status of a secondary canon.

The term purāṇa is used more often by Digambara authors, whereas Śvetāmbaras tend to prefer the term caritra – ‘biography’ – for texts dealing with the same content and composed in a similar style. Some authors use both terms. Jain purāṇas are generally named after the highest-ranking 'great man' who features in that purāṇa.

Similarities between Jain and Hindu Purāṇas

As a 'counter tradition', the Jain Purāṇas seem to mirror deliberately the Hindu Purāṇas in several aspects. These relate to the setting and subject.

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