Article: Aṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Canonical prose

This detail of a manuscript painting shows the universal gathering – samavasaraṇa. When a Jina reaches omniscience, he sits in a samavasaraṇa the gods have built for him. The term is also used for the gathering of animals, humans and gods that listen.

An omniscient Jina preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The prose of the Aṅgas is sometimes called canonical prose, and uses a specific style and phraseology. Repetition and stereotypical descriptions are features of this style.

There are many sentences that use patterns such as ‘he approached X, after having approached X he said, after having said, he…’. Another feature is the use of series of quasi-synonyms instead of a single word as a way to emphasise something.

This canonical prose has numerous set descriptions, called varṇakas, which describe a city, a beautiful lady, a park, an ascetic, a universal gathering and so on. A specific stylistic form associated with these descriptions is the veḍha. These are long descriptive compounds arranged to form metrical units.

Such descriptions are stereotyped and can be used in different texts. This explains why there is a lot of cross-referencing between the different Aṅgas, as well as between the Aṅgas and the complementary texts called the Upāṅgas – the ‘auxiliary limbs’ of the Śvetāmbara canon. Each of these works should not be viewed as a closed and independent unit. All the Aṅgas and Upāṅgas form an intertextual network.

For instance, the first chapter of Aṅga Number 6 devotes a lot of space to the episode where Prince Megha asks permission to renounce worldly life and become a monk. He and his parents have a lengthy dialogue on the subject. In other similar situations the text will say ‘like Megha’ and the reader will know where the detailed passage is found. There are many techniques for shortening descriptions of stock situations or individuals in this way. Another case is that of Skandhaka, whose story is told in Aṅga Number 5. His life as a ‘perfect ascetic’ serves as a reference for depicting the behaviour of any exemplary ascetic.

Ascetic poetry

Though the majority of the Aṅgas is prose, verse is also used. It is often known as ‘ascetic poetry’ mainly because it is on matters to do with mendicants.

Verses can be found in the last section of the fourth Aṅga and in several parts of the first two works.

Aṅga Numbers 1 and 2 in particular are specimens of ascetic poetry. Among the most famous passages are:

Dialogues and question-and-answer formats

Indrabhūti Gautama in a painting from a 15th-century Śvetāmbara manuscript. The chief disciple of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, Gautama is an important Jain figure and features in many scriptures and tales.

Indrabhūti Gautama
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Traditional Indian formats for philosophical works are dominant in the Aṅgas. Philosophical texts in Indian culture historically use two main methods to present information. Firstly, a master and his follower have a dialogue discussing the subject thoroughly. Secondly, the guru and his pupil follow a question-and-answer format. The pupil may effectively be a surrogate for the reader or audience of the text.

The Aṅgas primarily follow the traditional dialogue and question-and-answer formats. Though the dialogues may be formalised, the consistent use of these modes of presentation plunges the reader directly into intellectual debates. It also underlines the importance of orality in passing on Jain beliefs.

Mahāvīra is the chief teacher in the Aṅgas. His major direct interlocutor is Indrabhūti Gautama, his chief disciple. Gautama features in several works and is prominent, for instance, in Aṅga Number 5.

The setting frame of many of the Aṅgas begins with the elders Jambū and Sudharman in conversation. Usually, Jambū asks Sudharman what Mahāvīra teaches in the given work. After Indrabhūti’s omniscience, Sudharman was the sole leader of the monastic community Mahāvīra founded. He taught his disciple Jambū what he had learnt from Mahāvīra himself. According to tradition Sudharman taught for 12 years after Mahāvīra’s death and in the 13th year reached omniscience.

Jambū’s questioning takes the following standard forms:

  • what is the name of this Aṅga?
  • how many chapters does it have?
  • what are the names of these chapters?

Then Sudharman answers. What he then tells his disciple forms the text itself. Examples of this framing device can be found in Aṅgas Numbers 2, 8, 9, 11.

In the narrative Aṅgas, which are made up of Numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11, the characters are in permanent dialogue with monastic teachers. Hearing mendicants’ teachings is the reason they wish to become monks themselves. When they want to undertake special penances, they request permission from mendicants as well.

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