Article: Story Aṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Contents of the 'story Aṅgas'

A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives.

Five-sensed animals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Aṅgas demonstrate the workings of the core Jain beliefs, particularly how karma plays out in the cycle of rebirth. The soul is trapped in a succession of different bodies in the cycle of rebirth according to the karma it gathers until it is pure enough to be liberated.

In Aṅga Number 8, all the characters ‘put an end’ to the cycle of rebirths in their present existence. Generally, however, they have to undergo one or more rebirths before they can reach emancipation. The stories show how living beings circulate in the various levels of the Jain universe, from hells to the highest heavens, from animals to humans. These are the practical applications of knowledge of cosmology.

The stories throw light on features of Jain ideals and practices, such as:

  • listening to an ascetic or a Jina preaching produces the wish to renounce worldly life and to become initiated as a monk or a nun
  • the decision to take initiation – dīkṣā – is never accepted immediately by reluctant parents but is finally granted, so strong is the candidate’s resolve
  • some characters, who are instances of perfect ascetics and can cope with monastic rules without difficulty and practise strong austerities
  • others are unable to face the hardships of monastic life, temporarily or permanently
  • fasting unto deathsallekhanā – appears the best practice to end one’s life in a pious way
  • practising penance is recommended, but the good effects of asceticism are liable to be annihilated if one does not repent or atone for past transgressions at the hour of death.

Instances of difficulties mendicants face include:

  • nuns who long for children
  • nuns who are too concerned with body care and stylishness,
  • ascetics who are unable to resume the wandering life after having been nursed during illness
  • a young monk whose sleep is disturbed by the incessant going and coming of his fellow monks.

The story Aṅgas feature a number of characters whose adventures are retold, readjusted, shortened or amplified by later authors, whether they write in Prakrit, Sanskrit or any of the modern languages. Thus these Aṅgas provide a repertoire of tales that may be used freely. In addition, Aṅga Number 6 features the first Śvetāmbara biography of the 19th Jina, Mallinātha or Lord Malli.

Aṅga 6 – parables

Aṅga Number 6 is called the Nāyā-dhamma-kahāo in Prakrit, the Jñāta-dharma-kathānga in Sanskrit. The first part is the longer part, containing 19 parables. The second part of the Jñāta-dharma-kathānga has a single story repeated several times, each version showing minimal changes in names, location and so on.

All stories are told by Mahāvīra in answer to the questions of his chief disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama. In the first part, the main pattern is binary – one main character illustrates good behaviour and the second bad behaviour. These characters represent various social backgrounds. They serve as analogies for good and bad ascetic conduct.

Some parables in the first section are short while others are similar to novellas or small epics, such as the 16th one. These epics tend to be of two kinds. One features characters who go through numerous adventures while the second type are tales with narrative ‘motifs’ found in tales around the world.

Parable 1 – Ukkhitta

This manuscript painting of an elephant shows an important animal in Jain myth. The elephant is the emblem – lāñchana – of Ajita, the second Jina, and appears in parables, stories and auspicious dreams in Jain myths

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

This text is the standard place to find:

  • the dialogue between the candidate for initiation and his parents
  • details of the initiation ceremony to become a Śvetāmbara monk

After listening to Mahāvīra’s discourse, the young Megha, son of King Śreṇika and Queen Dhāriṇī, wants to become a monk. Despite the sorrow and reluctance of his parents, he insists on taking initiation.

At night, the new ascetic is allotted a place to sleep, near the entrance of the mendicants’ lodgings. Constantly disturbed by other ascetics’ comings and goings, he cannot sleep at all. Next morning, the young monk goes to Mahāvīra, who guesses everything. He contrasts Megha’s reaction to these slight disturbances with what he had achieved in one of his former births.

In that previous life he had been born as an elephant named Meruprabha. In order to escape a terrible fire, all the animals in the forest took refuge in a large circle the elephant had prepared for this purpose. The place was packed with animals, with barely room for them to move. Meruprabha lifted one of his legs to scratch but when he wanted to put his leg back on the ground he realised a little rabbit was occupying the space. Out of compassion for living beings, the elephant kept his leg lifted – ukkhitta – for two and a half days, until the fire was over. However, he died in severe pain as soon as he put his leg back on the ground. As a result of this exemplary behaviour, he was born as Prince Megha.

The young ascetic asks Mahāvīra to give him a second initiation. After this, he practises rigorous fasts and eventually fasts unto death, repenting for all past transgressions.

The tale ends with a prediction that Megha will be reborn as a god in the ‘Five Unsurpassable’ heavens – Pañca Anuttara – before being born as a human being in the Mahā-videha area of the Jain universe and reaching emancipation.

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