Article: Aṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The primary set of Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures is called the Aṅgas, from the Sanskrit for ‘limbs’. These main texts are complemented by the Aṅgabāhyas – ‘not limbs’. According to tradition there are 12 Aṅgas, all written in forms of Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, although one has been believed lost since the earliest times.

Śvetāmbara Jains maintain that the Aṅgas contain the teachings of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. These were initially passed on orally, with their final written form established nearly a thousand years later in the Aṅgas and other texts in the Śvetāmbara canon. The other chief Jain sect, the Digamabaras, counts different texts in its canon, which they call the Siddhānta.

The Aṅgas are written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, with variations depending on the work. Although the 11 works form a single unit, they contain materials composed at different times. All the Aṅgas use various methods to pass on the teachings, mainly sermons, dialogues, parables and stories. Chiefly in prose, the Aṅgas also contain ‘ascetic poetry’, which is verse on subjects connected with Jain mendicants. The texts can be categorised into two groups.

Aṅgas numbered 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 can be considered to make up the ‘story Aṅgas’ because they chiefly use tales and parables to pass on Jain teachings. The stories usually describe the course of various characters’ lives, demonstrating how fundamental Jain beliefs work. A single soul is followed as it is born in various bodies in different parts of the Jain universe and goes through a course of adventures. The tales show how karma works in the cycle of rebirth and provides inspiration to make spiritual progress towards liberation.

The other six Aṅgas – numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 – also contain story elements but do not fall into such a neat category. They can be termed ‘reference Aṅgas’ because they are mostly compilations of detailed information important to the practice and philosophy of Jainism. Their chief concerns are:

  • the rules governing the lives of mendicants
  • the principles of Jain doctrine
  • key subjects in the Jain faith, such as cosmology and ethics.

This is also the only place to find certain information about the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

As with many Jain scriptures, the Aṅgas have long been a focus of scholarly attention. Learned monks have produced commentaries on many of the Aṅgas almost since they were first written down early in the Common Era. Composed in many languages and forms, commentaries appear in several identifiable styles. This body of work has been vital in aiding the transmission of the Aṅgas down the years, creating a vibrant tradition of examining and interpreting the texts for different generations. With mendicants and scholars in the present day continuing this activity, the commentaries comprise a valuable source of information on the history and development of philosophical and religious concepts, language and practices.

Number and titles

According to the Jain tradition, the Aṅgas are 12 in number. The oldest sources refer to them as ‘the basket of the gaṇadharas which has 12 components’. This is also the case in Aṅga Number 4, which describes the contents of each of the texts. However, Number 12, the title of which is supposed to have been Dṛṣṭi-vāda, was lost rather early. Thus the Aṅgas have numbered 11 since before they were first written down in the fifth century. This is therefore the standard number referred to, for instance, when a canonical scripture says that a given character was a model Jain mendicant because he studied the 11 Aṅgas. This number also appears in Digambara sources. In fact, even though the Digambara sect recognises other writings as canonical, it does not totally reject the Aṅgas.

The titles of the Aṅgas can be understood in various ways. This table gives rough equivalents.

Eleven Aṅgas of the Śvetāmbara canon


Prakrit title

Sanskrit title

Translated meanings




‘On monastic conduct’




‘On heretical systems and views’
Prakrit sūya is an equivalent of the Sanskrit sūci – ‘[wrong] views’




‘On different points [of the teaching]’




‘On “rising numerical groups”’ (Kapadia 1941: 126)


Viyāha-pannatti or Bhagavaī

Vyākhyā-prajñapti or Bhagavatī

‘Exposition of explanations’ or ‘the holy one’




‘Parables and religious stories’




‘Ten chapters on the Jain lay follower’




‘Ten chapters on those who put an end to rebirth in this very life’




‘Ten chapters on those who were reborn in the uppermost heavens’




‘Questions and explanations’




‘Bad or good results of deeds performed’

The name of each work is generally followed by the generic Sanskrit term sūtra or Prakrit term sutta, thus it is the Āyāraṅga-sutta or Ācārānga-sūtra, for example. In this context, it lacks the technical meaning of sūtra and is an equivalent of the term ‘sacred scripture’, designating long texts. In the case of the holy text of the Tattvārtha-sūtra, however, the word has its usual technical meaning in Sanskrit literature, meaning it is written in concise aphorisms.


The statue of Māhavīra is decorated for Māhavīr Jayantī at the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. Celebrated in March to April, the festival of Māhavīr Jayantī commemorates the birth of the 24th Jina, Māhavīra. The festival is celebrated by all Ja

Māhavīra decorated
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

The 11 Aṅgas are written in Prakrit. Although they form a set, they are not all written in the same dialect of Prakrit, nor in the same style. Scholars have recognised that some parts are older than others. Among the oldest parts are the first book of Aṅga Number 1 and some parts of Aṅga Number 2. In Aṅga Number 5 researchers have distinguished the nucleus from various additions.

The Prakrit dialect used in the oldest parts is Ardhamāgadhī, which is associated with the region of eastern India where Mahāvīra preached originally. In more recent parts, the language shows salient features of the Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī dialect. This is associated with western India, where followers of the Jinas migrated and the Śvetāmbara Jain canon was finally put into writing in the fifth century CE.

Literary styles

This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript shows Śvetāmbara monks listening to a senior mendicant. The teacher is the largest figure, indicating his importance, and he sits on a low dais with a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – in front

Senior monk teaching
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 11 texts that make up the class of scriptures known as the Aṅgas displays a variety of literary forms and styles.

Aṅgas Numbers 3 to 11 are written in prose. The style of prose used in the Aṅgas has several characteristics. Often referred to as ‘canonical prose’, the style relies heavily on repetition and stock descriptions. These allow full descriptions of situations and characters to be referred to directly in the texts of other writings in the Śvetāmbara canon. These other writings are mainly the Aṅgas but also their complementary works, the Upāṅgas. The two sets of teachings thus form a larger group of texts that draws on a close knowledge of all the works to make sense of each one. They must be thought of as closely connected texts that cannot be considered separate items.

Poetry is also found in the Aṅgas. Verse is used in the final section of Aṅga Number 4 and also in several parts of Aṅgas Number 1 and 2. The contrast between archaic metrical forms and other metres has helped scholars distinguish between very old and newer passages or sections of these works.

The Aṅgas use a variety of formats to transmit the teachings. The traditional dialogue and question-and-answer formats are the dominant ones. The texts most commonly follow Indian literary traditions that feature a teacher and pupil talking about a philosophical topic. These techniques expose various sides of the subject and allow for argument and counter-argument. They also foreground the oral aspect of the teachings.

Other favourite methods of passing on key points in Jain belief are the parable and story. Particularly useful to illustrate a concept and its workings, these techniques are effective at all levels of understanding.

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