Article: Cheda-sūtras

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Sanskrit word Cheda-sūtra, or its Prakrit form Cheya-sutta, is the name of a group of texts in the Śvetāmbara canon. All the texts deal with the rules mendicants should follow in monastic life and with their technicalities. The ideal to which mendicants aspire is the perfect ascetic, but in practice there are many areas where monks and nuns may make errors. The Cheda-sūtras establish:

  • an exhaustive map of lapses in behaviour
  • details of the effects of these breaches
  • ways to compensate for errors through atonements.

The Prakrit word cheya – Sanskrit cheda – means ‘cutting’. This refers to the ‘reduction [of seniority]’ which is one of the consequences of transgressing the monastic rules.

The Cheda-sūtras reflect a stage in mendicant lifestyle where most monks and nuns live within a monastic unit – gaṇa – with fellow-mendicants. The monastic rules thus define:

  • an individual’s behaviour in relation with other mendicants
  • the group’s behaviour considered against other mendicant groups and wider society, represented by Jain lay men, kings and so on.

Atonements or penances assume their full meaning in such a context. Situations where a monk may wander alone, according to the oldest religious ideal, are also considered occasionally. However, the overall impression from the texts is that this mode of living is becoming an exception.

Rules and the penalties for breaking them are the main concern of these works. Many of the texts refer to or share material with other Cheda-sūtras. This suggests that they can be thought of as forming a single body, like the two main groups of Śvetāmbara scriptures, the Aṅgas and Upāngas.

Detailed stories are found only in the Mahā-niśītha, which is regarded as being of later date. In the other Cheda-sūtras examples are occasionally mentioned as single words or abbreviated phrases, which are expanded orally or in commentaries. The assumption of familiarity with the other Cheda-sūtras and scriptures, focus on mendicant lifestyle and the technical nature of the writings indicate that these works are intended for a knowledgeable audience of ascetics.

Mostly, the Cheda-sūtras are specialised works for mendicants to read. Among them, however, there is one chapter of a work that has gained independent status, attaining crucial importance in the religious life of the Śvetāmbaras – the Kalpa-sūtra. One of the Cheda-sūtras also contains a chapter where the 11 stages of spiritual progress for lay people – upāsaka-pratimās – are listed and described. This crucial concept is developed in later literature as well.

In contrast with the Aṅgas and Upāṅgas, which contain a fixed number of texts, this group of works is quite fluid. The Cheda-sūtras range in number from four to six.

This class of writings is written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, the language of the core Śvetāmbara scriptures. For the most part in prose, it is often formed of concise aphorisms – sūtras. Extensive verse commentaries written in Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit on some Cheda-sūtras are indispensable. These help the reader understand the implications of the aphorisms and contain a lot of additional material as well, especially examples, anecdotes and stories.

Authority and number

A group of Jain nuns walks barefoot up a hill. Dressed in white robes with their heads covered, they all wear cloths fixed over their mouths, attached by strings over the ears. This identifies them as either Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns.

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns
Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The three main sects of Śvetāmbara Jainism have slightly different canons of holy texts. All of them recognise the Cheda-sūtras as an integral part of their canon.

But the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins, who accept canonical 32 scriptures, have fewer Cheda-sūtras than the Mūrti-pūjaks. The Mūrti-pūjaks count 45 scriptures as canonical and include two additional texts among their Cheda-sūtras. The number of the Cheda-sūtras therefore fluctuates between four and six.

Lists and titles

Four Cheda-sūtras are accepted by all Śvetāmbaras.

Cheda-sūtras accepted by all Śvetāmbaras

Name in Prakrit

Name in Sanskrit

Meaning

Details

Āyāra-dasāo or Dasāo

Ācāra-daśāḥ or Daśā-śruta-skandha

‘Ten [chapters] about monastic conduct’

10 chapters, of which chapter 8 is the Kalpa-sūtra.

(Bihā)Kappa

(Bṛhat)Kalpa

‘[Great] Religious code’

6 chapters

Vavahāra

Vyavahāra

‘Procedure’

10 chapters

Nisīha

Niśītha

‘Interdictions’ (title unclear)

20 chapters

In the recent Sthānaka-vāsin edition of the Cheda-sūtras, published under the authority of Pravartak Amar Muni, the Niśītha is not included. This is because Pravartak Amar Muni considers that there are ‘differences of opinions’ regarding this text (Illustrated Chhed Sūtra, Hindi introduction, page 8). Even so, according to personal communication from people connected with this project, this text will be published at a later stage.

To reach the number of 45 Āgamas, which has become a sectarian marker for the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks, two Cheda-sūtras are added to the four core texts.

Additional Cheda-sūtras among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks

Name in Prakrit

Name in Sanskrit

Meaning

Details

Jīya-kappa

Jīta-kalpa

Customary rules

103 verses written by Jinabhadra-gaṇi in the 6th century

Mahā-nisīha

Mahā-niśītha

Large Niśītha

8 chapters in prose and verse

Ācārya Ānandasāgara-sūri was a monastic leader of the 20th century who edited the Āgamas for publication and made them known to a large audience. He recognised these works in his edition of the Śvetāmbara holy scriptures. This list was also adopted in the 2000 edition of the 45 Śvetāmbara Āgamas by Muni Dīparatnasāgara.

In this context the colophon of a Mahā-niśītha-sūtra manuscript copied in 1777 is significant. It shows how a Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak monk suggested that a copy of the text be made to complete the fast called ‘45 Āgamas’. A group of lay women in Surat, Gujarat, thus commissioned the manuscript. From the 17th century onwards there is evidence that special fasts and ceremonies developed around the worship of the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks’ 45 canonical scriptures. The canon and the associated ceremonies are thus public statements of sectarian identity. This copy is a strong gesture in support of the Mahāniśītha-sūtra, the authority of which is not admitted or is disputed by other Śvetāmbara sects.

Finally, the Pañca-kalpa is another text that belongs to this category, although it is not strictly included in it. This is because it is a commentary rather than the scripture about which a commentary is written.

Accessibility

The Cheda-sūtras deal with technicalities of monastic life. Their technical character explains why, in practice, mendicants read and use these texts. But restrictions in readership have also developed in the course of time.

In modern times, some lay people or scholars who are not mendicants have reported being forbidden access to these works. Among some Śvetāmbara monastic orders, such as the Kharatara-gaccha, nuns are not encouraged to read them, though monks can do so.

On the other hand, it is noteworthy that a nun has produced a remarkable scholarly achievement, which includes a translation into Hindi. Samaṇi Kusumaprajñā of the Terāpanthin monastic order has provided one of the most recent editions and studies of one Cheda-sūtra, the Jīta-kalpa (2010). The Terāpanthins are among the Jain monastic orders where nuns are given every encouragement to pursue academic work. The samaṇis, in particular, focus on higher educational attainments.

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