Article: Pūrvas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Pūrvas form a type of scripture, which Jains believe predates the surviving holy texts. Recording the teachings of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra’s closest followers, the Pūrvas were lost centuries before the scriptures were first written down. According to tradition, they were lost nearly 200 years after the final liberation of Mahāvīra, early in the fourth century BCE.

This category of texts provides a good example of how Jains view the beginnings of their scriptural tradition. It shows how they are aware that this tradition is not eternal and could undergo losses in the course of time that cannot be recovered. This contrasts with, for instance, the Hindu doctrine that the Vedas are eternal.

Whatever concerns the Pūrvas and the early phases of Jain history connected with them is very hypothetical because all the evidence dates from later periods and is difficult to interpret literally. Later accounts describe how the Pūrvas were made up of texts on various subjects. As well as containing key topics of Jain belief, such as the soul, karma and knowledge, they were believed to embrace subjects including occult powers, yogic powers and astrology.

The 'previous' scriptures

Sacred footprints in Bhadrabāhu’s Cave on Candra-giri at the pilgrimage site of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. These footprints – caraṇa – are considered to be those of the 3rd-century sage Bhadrabāhu, who fasted to death at Shravana Belgola

Bhadrabāhu’s sacred footprints
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC BY-SA 2.5

The Sanskrit term pūrva means ‘early, ancient, previous’. In the Jain context, it is understood as a body of texts that is said to have been composed first. Jains believe the Pūrvaswere produced by the Jinas’ direct disciples – the gaṇadharas – before the Aṅgas, another class of scriptures.

All Jains, whether in the sects of Digambara or Śvetāmbara, agree that the Pūrvas were lost at an early stage. According to some sources, Mahāvīra had predicted that they would last one thousand years. According to other sources, they were to be extinct 170 years after the final liberation of the 24th Jina.

There are diverging accounts about how the loss happened. But it is likely to have been gradual. It is usually presented as the result of the great famine and consequent migrations of Jain monastic communities in the 3rd century BCE. The teachings of the Jinas were first passed on orally, as monks told them to their disciples, who made their own disciples memorise them.

The last religious teacher who is said to have known all the Pūrvas is reported to have been ‘Bhadrabāhu’. He is thus known as the last śruta-kevalin – ‘absolute knower of the tradition’. According to Digambara accounts, Bhadrabāhu migrated from the ancient kingdom of Magadha in north-eastern India to south India, along with the Emperor Candragupta. According to Śvetāmbaras, Bhadrabāhu did not go to the south but took refuge in Nepal. When the teacher Sthūlabhadra organised a recitation of sacred texts, Bhadrabāhu was called because nobody else knew the Pūrvas.

Fourteen Pūrvas

The types of human lives are shown in this painting from a manuscript. The length of life and many of the experiences of a lifetime are determined by karma, which comes mainly from behaviour in previous lives.

Kinds of human lives
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Pūrvas are said to have been part of another work, the Dṛṣṭi-vāda, which is regarded as the 12th Aṅga. But knowledge about this work was lost before the Āgamas of the Śvetāmbara sect were put into writing.

Jains believe there were 14 Pūrvas although there is no direct trace of them in manuscripts. The only information about them comes indirectly from Śvetāmbara and Digambara texts, and is rather similar in both sectarian traditions. This suggests that it reflects the memory of a phase before the split, which took place early in the Common Era.

This information concerns the names of the Pūrvas and their contents. Commentators from the ninth century onwards occasionally quote verses that they ascribe to the Pūrvas (Kapadia 1941: 86–87). Various authors consider them as sources for their own work, in particular when they relate to the science of omens or esoteric topics.

Because there are 14 Pūrvas, Bhadrabāhu is known as catur-daśa-pūrvin – ‘the 14 Pūrvas man’. Those of the religious teachers who came after him usually knew only nine. At the most, they may have known ten of the texts.

The 14 Pūrvas

Number

Name

Contents

1

Uppāya

origin of substances and modes

2

Aggāṇiya

measurements of substances

3

Vīriya

powers of animate and inanimate objects

4

Atthi-ṇatthi-ppavāya

existence and non-existence of objects

5

Nāṇa-ppavāya

kinds of knowledge

6

Sacca-ppavāya

truth and self-control and their opposites

7

Āya-ppavāya

exposition of the selfātman

8

Kamma-ppavāya

eight kinds of karmas and their subdivisions

9

Paccakkhāṇa-ppavāya

resolutions relating to rules and vows

10

Vijjāṇuppavāya

knowledge of miracles

11

Avaṃjha-ppavāya

merit and demerit and their results

12

Pāṇāu

types of breathing and forms of life

13

Kiriyā-visāla

activities in all their aspects

14

Biṃdu-sāra

subject not mentioned

Based on Nandī-sūtra and -cūrṇi, based on Kapadia 1941: 85–86.

This table shows how the Pūrvas were comprehensive, covering knowledge, speculations and methodology on various subjects. Hence they could have been viewed as a basic collection of texts. On the other hand, the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama, which contains the Digambara scriptural tradition, is said to be based on what its author remembered of one of the Pūrvas. The presence of topics relating to occult powers, yogic powers and astrology is also noteworthy.

Tradition disagrees as to whether the language of the Pūrvas was Prakrit or Sanskrit. Forms of Prakrit were used for the available Āgamas of the Śvetāmbaras and the Siddhānta of the Digambaras.

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