Article: Cheda-sūtras

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Jīta-kalpa

Unlike the other Cheda-sūtras, the Jīta-kalpa is not anonymous. It was written by Jinabhadra-gaṇi, a famous religious teacher who lived in the 6th century CE and is the author of various sophisticated Prakrit commentaries. This prestigious authorship could be one of the reasons why the Jīta-kalpa is included in this category, though it is much later than the other Cheda-sūtras.

Another feature which makes this work different from others in the same category is that the sūtra is not in prose, but in verse.

The Sanskrit word jītajīya in Prakrit – in the title is a technical term. It refers to a theoretical list of procedures towards a transgressor. Five of them are recorded and jīta is the fifth.

Procedures against transgressors of the monastic rules

Prakrit term

Sanskrit term

English translation

āgama

āgama

canon

suya

śruta

tradition

āṇā

ājñā

rule

dhāraṇā

dhāraṇā

charge

jīya

Jīta

custom

It is not easy to determine exactly what these terms mean. But it is thought that the other Cheda-sūtras described above define atonements on the basis of traditional teaching, whereas the Jīta-kalpa is based on custom and practice.

This work starts with a list of the ten atonements, and then describes each of them in turn in its 103 verses. Special emphasis is laid on the sixth one, ‘fast’ – tava – which occupies about half of the text. Fasts are categorised based on the type of food consumed or given up and on their durations. They are described in highly technical language. The Jīta-kalpa is the basis for later texts dealing with monastic atonements, such as the Yati-Jīta-kalpa, written in 1399 CE.

It has to be read along with the:

Jīta-kalpa on JAINpedia

A palm-leaf manuscript from Tamil Nadu. The manuscript is kept together by a string threaded through holes in each long thin folio. When the teachings of the Jinas were first written down, they were etched onto palm leaves, which are very fragile

Palm-leaf manuscript
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Except for the verse commentary – bhāṣya – all the texts connected with the Jīta-kalpa have been digitised on JAINpedia. They are in the form of two palm-leaf manuscripts dating back to the 12th century, held in the British Library. This is worth noting because:

  • manuscripts of the Jīta-kalpa and its commentaries are not very common, even in India
  • palm-leaf manuscripts produced in western India are extremely rare in libraries outside India.

The digitised manuscripts contain:

Mahā-niśītha

This manuscript painting from a copy of the Kalpa-sūtra shows a Śvetāmbara teacher instructing a monk. As he is more important, he is bigger in the picture and sits on a dais above the junior mendicant, who raises his hands in respect.

Teacher instructs a monk
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Mahā-niśītha-sūtra’s eight chapters mainly deal with:

  • confession
  • contrition
  • atonement
  • monastic hierarchy
  • definitions of accomplished and imperfect monks.

These topics are found in other Cheda-sūtras. The title echoes the Niśītha-sūtra, which belongs to the same category, and, because its title means ‘great niśītha-sūtra’, it suggests that this is a full version of the work. But its style is quite different. Instead of the expected concise aphoristic style, it alternates discursive parts in prose and long verse portions. Many of these verses can be found in other Jain works of various dates. On the other hand, several chapters are narrative in character. Thus this work contains disparate styles.

All these characteristics may explain why the Mahā-niśītha-sūtra has aroused suspicions of its credibility, both among Sthānaka-vāsin Jains and modern scholars.

Additional reasons for suspicion are the:

  • ‘references to goddesses and magic spells not found elsewhere in the canon’ (Dundas 2002: 76)
  • mention of image-worship, which is rejected by non-Mūrti-pūjak Śvetāmbaras.

The general frame of the text, however, is close to that found in the Aṅgas and Upāngas. The whole work is introduced against the background of a question-and-answer format between two individuals. The thrust of the work then appears within a dialogue between Mahāvīra and his chief disciple Indrabhūti Gautama.

The Mahā-niśītha-sūtra also contains a ‘story of the rescue and restoration of a dilapidated manuscript of the work from a temple in Mathurā’ (Dundas 2002: 76), which is hard to trust.

Thus, in some respects, the Mahā-niśītha-sūtra can be described as pseudo-canonical. It is not old, but displays an archaic bent.

Chapters of the Mahā-niśītha-sūtra

Chapter

Name

Meaning

Details

1

Sall’-uddharaṇa

‘Extraction of Thorns’

prose introduction and 222 verses, mainly ślokas

2

Kamma-vivāga-vivaraṇa

description of the maturation of karma

209 ślokas and a long prose passage

3

no title

 

divided into 31 sections, 122 verses and prose passages

4

no title

 

prose and 14 āryā verses

5

Duvālas’anga-suyanāṇassa Navaṇīya-sāra

‘Cream of scriptural knowledge in the form of the 12 Aṅgas’

121 verses and prose

6

Gīyattha-vihāra

‘Life of an Experienced Monk’

411 verses then a predominantly narrative chapter

7

Pacchitta-sutta

Atonements

verse and prose

8

Susaḍha-kahā

story of Sujjhasirī and Susaḍha

prose and a few verses

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