Article: Śvetāmbara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

History of Śvetāmbara holy writings

This manuscript painting shows Indrabhūti Gautama preaching. The white-clad monk is fanned by a servant and sits on a lotus, symbols of worldly and spiritual rank. King Śreṇika and his family sit separately from the lords and ladies of the court

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

All Jains believe that the Jinas provide the original teachings for the Jain faith, especially Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The Jinas reveal the same essential truths, according to the needs of the society into which they are born. They pass on these principles in speech, beginning the chain of oral transmission. After being passed on for generations by leaders known as elders and teachers, these oral teachings are eventually written down, creating the scriptures.

The roots of the differences between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara canons can be traced to the physical split in the Jain community around 300 BCE. Large parts of the teachings had been forgotten already, such as the Pūrvas and the 12th Aṅga, the Dṛṣṭi-vāda, which both sects agree was lost by the 4th century BCE. The group of Jains who can be thought of as ancestors of the Śvetāmbara sect recognised that the famine that drove some Jains south endangered preservation of the tradition. They began to organise official recitations – vācanās – or ‘councils’ to consolidate knowledge of the teachings. The final council was held in Valabhī, Gujarat, under the supervision of the religious teacher Devarddhigaṇi Kṣamāśramaṇa in the 5th century CE. It took place ‘980 or 993 years’ after Mahāvīra’s death according to tradition, which is 453 or 466 CE. All the texts that are considered to comprise the Śvetāmbara canon were written down there. However, accounts of the event, which are all much later, do not provide names of the texts that were collected.

The Jains who later developed into the Digambara sect did not accept any of these councils. They believe that the remnants of the original teachings were written down in the 2nd century CE. These form the basis of the Digambara canon.

Marginal texts among the Śvetāmbara scriptures occasionally describe the inevitable deterioration of the teachings in the future. This will happen in the sixth descending phase of the cycle of time, in the reign of King Kalkin, when all principles of faith, knowledge and right conduct will be destroyed. The situation will be restored with the ascending cycle of time.

Dates of the texts

Establishing conclusive dates for the Āgamas is difficult for two main reasons, primarily connected with long intervals between the stages of the transmission process. Scholars can use internal features of the texts and surviving manuscripts to work out the probable dates of the texts in relation to each other.

The production process of the Śvetāmbara writings shows a very large gap between the time of oral transmission and the time when the Śvetāmbara tradition was officially fixed. Academic dating of Mahāvīra gives his lifespan from 497 to 425 BCE. The final redaction of the Āgamas took place in 456 or 466 CE. This gap of nearly a thousand years makes absolute dating of the texts impossible.

There is also a long time between the redaction and the period of the oldest available manuscripts. Some texts written on palm leaves survive but the earliest ones date back to the 11th to 12th centuries. This is some seven hundred years after the final Valabhī council.

Philologists have used internal criteria to come up with robust relative dates of the canonical texts. They compare features such as language, vocabulary, literary styles and material characteristics in many examples of the same text to roughly determine its relative age. Observations relating to the language used show that parts that may be remnants of the pre-Valabhī phases can be distinguished from other parts. Texts in which Ardhamāgadhī features prevail over Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī, such as the Ācārānga-sūtra, are considered ‘earlier’ works. Metrical form has been used as ‘an often trustworthy, if necessarily limited, guide to chronology’ (Dundas 2002: 73). It has been shown that there could be ‘earlier’ and ‘more recent’ parts in texts in which diverse metres – for example, rhythmical versus syllabic forms – used at different times are found side by side, for example the Mūla-sūtras.

Passing on the teachings

This detail of an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript painting shows a Śvetāmbara monk teaching. As the highest-ranking monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais. The junior mendicants gesture in homage while a bookstand is between them

Monastic teacher and pupils
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In its most restricted understanding, the phrase ‘Śvetāmbara Āgamas’ refers to the sūtras. This is both a style of writing – short aphorisms – and a more general phrase meaning any sacred text. In its broader meaning it can describe Mahāvīra’s teaching as shaped in successive councils. This wide interpretation is underlined by the extensive variety of styles and literary forms of the texts that make up the Āgamas.

The Āgamas are written in forms of Prakrit. Since Prakrit was widely understood, this was probably a deliberate decision to ensure that as many people as possible could understand the holy writings. Even so the language of the elite, Sanskrit, was also used, especially in commentaries. Later on, writing in vernacular languages rose in importance. However, the language chosen for a form usually reflected the context and audience of the work and thus varied in different situations.

A situation that was widespread was the commentarial one. The Āgamas have always been the subject of intense hermeneutic activity. Scholars have produced copious translations, paraphrases, explanations, glossaries, notes and full commentaries, providing fuel for differences in opinion and interpretation. Early commentaries tended to use Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit whereas later works were generally written in Sanskrit and regional languages.

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