Article: Aṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Parables and stories

In Indian culture, the lotus flower symbolises spiritual purity and detachment from the material world. It features in many stories, including a famous parable Mahāvīra tells about following the right path to truth.

White lotus
Image by Haha169 © public domain

Parables and stories are also favourite means of passing on the teachings. They contain familiar examples or exciting narratives to make or explain a possibly complex point or sophisticated concept. Stories form the bulk of Aṅgas Numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11, which are discussed in more depth in the article dedicated to story Aṅgas.

In the Ācārānga and Sūtrakṛtānga, the methods of Mahāvīra’s teachings are emphasised. They include the use of parables, comparisons and examples of all kinds.

A well-known example of one of Mahāvīra’s parables is that of the lotus, found in Sūtrakṛtānga II. 1. Four men come from the cardinal directions and try in turn to enter the pool to fetch the beautiful flower, but all get stuck in the mud. A monk comes along. Realising that the men’s method is not the right one, he stays on the shore and shouts: ‘O white lotus, fly up!’ The flower flies up so he can grasp it. This parable is then explained systematically. The four men represent heretics of various creeds.

The 11 Aṅgas

With numerous common elements, such as language and purpose, the 11 Aṅgas form an interwoven set of holy writings. To best understand each text, familiarity with the others is necessary and thus the Aṅgas should ideally be considered as a whole. Even so, these scriptures can be divided into two categories.

The first category can be thought of as the ‘story Aṅgas’, because the literary forms of narratives and parables are characteristic of these works. The second category is looser, linked less by form and style than by intention and scope. These texts can be labelled the ‘reference Aṅgas’.

Story Aṅgas

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)

Aṅgas number 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 are the story Aṅgas. These five scriptures underline the importance of narratives as a crucial medium to teach the doctrine in practice. They chiefly comprise life sketches featuring men and women from various backgrounds, though short parables are also a favourite form.

The purpose is to show how an individual’s behaviour determines future births, which are also the result of past lives. Apart from exceptional cases, when someone can remember his or her previous lives, the mediator who knows both about past and future is a Jina, especially Mahāvīra. These five scriptures are examined in detail in a dedicated article called Story Aṅgas.

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