Article: Reference Aṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The primary set of Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, the Aṅgas – ‘limbs’ in Sanskrit – can be grouped into two classes.

The six Aṅgas numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 can be bracketed together. Although some of them use narrative techniques, they can be considered to be more or less reference works. They set out rules for mendicants and present a detailed compilation of topics fundamental to Jainism, such as cosmology and ethics. The principles of Jain doctrine are stressed, often contrasted with rival beliefs, while there is also information on the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, and his opponent Makkhali Gosāla that is not found elsewhere.

The other five Aṅgas can be described as the ‘story Aṅgas’ because their predominant literary form is the narrative. By tracing the eventful lives of characters through the cycle of births, the stories offer numerous examples of the workings of crucial Jain concepts, such as karma and the soul.

Chiefly in prose, the Aṅgas also contain ‘ascetic poetry’, which is verse on subjects connected with Jain mendicants. One of the best-known examples is the sixth chapter of the second Aṅga, the Sūtrakṛtānga, which honours Mahāvīra. The Sūtrakṛtānga also contains one of the most celebrated of Mahāvīra’s parables.

Number and titles

A gallery of the Agam Mandir in Pune, Maharashtra, displays plates inscribed with the 45 holy writings or Āgamas of the Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak sect. Temples devoted to scriptures, Agam Mandirs were invented in the 1940s

Gallery of an Agam Mandir
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Śvetāmbara Jains believe the Aṅgas are the teachings of the 24th Jina. In the Jain tradition there were originally 12 Aṅgas, but one book has always been considered lost very soon after the time of Mahāvīra. This text, the Dṛṣṭi-vāda, was therefore never written down along with the other Aṅgas by the Jains who became the Śvetāmbara sect. The other main Jain sect, the Digambaras, does not hold these 11 Aṅgas to be canonical.

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’

Aṅga 1 – non-violence, monastic conduct and Mahāvīra’s career

The first Aṅga is called the Ācārānga-sūtra. It deals with many aspects of monastic conduct and emphasises non-violence as the ultimate ideal and asceticism as the highest value. It presents the Jain mendicant as a sage living in seclusion and absolute self-control rather than as a member of an organised community.

Aṅga Number 1 contains two sections. The first is probably one of the oldest parts of the Jain holy writings. The second section is very likely to be younger and may have been added later. Each of the section is divided into several parts.

First section of the Ācārānga-sūtra

The first section of the Ācārānga-sūtra has the title of BambhacerāiṃPure Life. Because of its antiquity, the German scholar Walther Schubring dubbed it the ‘senior’ work. The seventh of its nine chapters was lost centuries ago.

The text mixes poetry and prose, with the final chapter describing Mahāvīra’s wandering as an ascetic a particularly well-known example of ascetic poetry.

Details of the first section of the Ācārānga-sūtra

Chapter number




Knowledge of the Weapon

This is a plea in favour of non-violence. Separate parts deal with the different types of bodies in Jain cosmology. This chapter is often regarded as the oldest of all, on the basis of its archaic language and phrasing.


Spiritual Conquest

Spiritual conquest of the world implies knowledge of the world, rejection of pleasures and control of behaviour.


Hot and Cold

These qualities are used as symbols of extremes. Faced with these, the wise ascetic should not depart from equanimity. Similarly, he should not be affected by passions.



Correct understanding of the world and faith in correct principles is a prerequisite for correct behaviour. These are the ‘three gems’.


Essence of the World

Desire and its cause should be uprooted. Watchfulness is the condition for true freedom. Detachment and solitude are the main values, and ‘the greatest temptation in this world are women’ (Jacobi’s translation p. 48). Contemplation of the Self and the inner purity of the soul are discussed.


Process of Cleaning

Knowing which are the causes of rebirth, one should try to cast them off to become totally free and purified.


Lost long ago



Discusses the concept of liberation


The ascetic Mahāvīra

Righteousness as practised by Mahāvīra during his wandering ascetic life. The exemplary life of the 24th Jina can be seen as an illustration of all the preceding chapters. This is a well-known example of ascetic poetry.

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