Article: Śvetāmbara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Literary styles and forms

The Āgamas are presented in numerous styles and literary forms.

Literary styles of texts in the Śvetāmbara canon




Demonstrate formulaic style and phraseology, characterised by sequences of quasi-synonyms or stereotyped descriptions of persons and places. For example, the dialogue between a youngster who wishes to be initiated and his parents is common while accounts of a city or female beauty are descriptive conventions.

Prose is used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • narratives in life-sketches, legends and parables
  • philosophical dialogues
  • descriptions of the Jain universe


For example, ascetic poetry depicting ascetic life or exhorting ascetics to follow the ideal mendicant’s way of life. This term has been applied in particular to verse chapters of the first Aṅga, the Ācārānga-sūtra, the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and the Daśavaikālika-sūtra.

Philosophical dialogue

A method of explaining an argument and countering objections using a traditional Indian form. This is pervasive, for instance, in the fifth Aṅga.


Terms and concepts arranged in increasing numerical order of the components, for instance 1, 2… 10. Examples are the third and fourth Aṅgas.


Intended to be sung or chanted. The first hymns in the Śvetāmbara tradition are found in the Aṅgas.

Tables and charts

Often found in longer prose works, providing detailed measurements, time periods and categories.


The statue of Māhavīra is decorated for Māhavīr Jayantī at the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. Celebrated in March to April, the festival of Māhavīr Jayantī commemorates the birth of the 24th Jina, Māhavīra. The festival is celebrated by all Ja

Māhavīra decorated
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

From the Śvetāmbara perspective, Mahāvīra’s original teaching was ‘open’ – an idea that the Prakrit word pavayaṇa applied to it in some early scriptures might convey. This term implied the use of Prakrit instead of Sanskrit, which was associated with the restricted elite of the brahmins.

Therefore the Āgamas are written in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit and another form of Prakrit known as Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī. The former is associated with the region of eastern India when Mahāvīra  preached and the latter with western India. Somebody who understands one language can also understand the other because the differences are grammatical. The degree of blend depends on the texts. Earlier texts tend to have more Ardhamāgadhī.

From the 14th century onwards, regional languages tended to become an important medium of teaching and commenting. This did not mean that Prakrit and Sanskrit had become obsolete. Often corresponding to various levels of education, different languages were used depending on the context. Among Śvetāmbaras, this language was mainly Old Gujarati, used for the commentaries known as bālāvabodhas and ṭabos for instance. These range from extensive and in-depth explanations to word-to-word paraphrases, often equivalent to translations.


This is a good example of the pañca-pāṭha style of using the manuscript margins for commentary. This manuscript page is from a 16th-century copy of the Ṣaṣṭi-śataka.

Pañca-pāṭha style of manuscript commentary
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

The sūtras would have been ‘somnolent’ (Dundas 1996), had they not been kept alive by constant explanations, elaborations and discussions from the start. Commentaries take different forms and use various languages. Particular forms and languages tend to be associated with certain periods of scholarly activity.

The early phase of commentaries on the Śvetāmbara canon uses Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit. These commentaries are:

These are technical kinds of commentaries that apply scholastic methods of analysis to understand words and concepts. Niryuktis, especially, are highly technical and often go further than their starting text. Not all texts have given birth to such commentaries. Not all such commentaries have identified authors.

Nevertheless, prominent authors include Bhadrabāhu and Jinabhadragaṇi. The former is sometimes called ‘Bhadrabāhu II’ (for example, Wiley 2004: 52), because he is likely to be a different person from the earlier writer credited with the Kalpa-sūtra. He is said to be the author of ten niryuktis. The latter monk is famous as the author of bhāṣyas.

Taking place from the 8th century onwards, the next phase of commentarial activity uses Sanskrit for ṭīkās, vṛttis and avacūrṇis. These terms cover a wide range of commentaries, which are often hard to distinguish, as they vary from simple paraphrases to elaborate discussions. Some Jain monks have specialised in commentary writing and stand out as figures of high calibre in the tradition. Perhaps the most eminent examples are:

  • Haribhadra-sūri, active in the 8th century
  • Abhayadeva-sūri, writing in the 11th century, who commented on nine Aṅgas
  • Malayagiri, who wrote in the 12th century.

In the later phase, from the 14th century onwards, the language of the Śvetāmbara commentaries is mainly Old Gujarati. The bālāvabodhas and ṭabos range from extensive and in-depth explanations to word-to-word paraphrases, often equivalent to translations.

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