Article: Śvetāmbara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Studying and teaching the Āgamas

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Śvetāmbaras have displayed assorted attitudes towards their holy texts and the ways to use them. Scholar monks have used the scriptures to support or disprove intellectual and religious arguments down the centuries, which often have a sectarian dimension. Although knowledge of the teachings is a basic part of being a practising Jain, access to the teachings in written form has often been indirect for many Jains. This is again an issue of difference among the sects. Similarly, printing and editing the holy writings has been a controversial matter.

Since the medieval period, there is a great deal of evidence demonstrating how the scriptures are used in intellectual debates and controversies among learned mendicants (Granoff 1993, Dundas 2007, Balbir 2009 and others). An example of such an issue is that of image worship. The Mūrti-pūjak Śvetāmbaras practise it while the Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthins reject it. The scholar monks often quote certain sections in particular works, sometimes giving the page number of the particular manuscript of the text they have used. Favoured since the 17th century, a question-and-answer format including scriptural quotations is a common method of presenting arguments and objections. These texts – praśnottaras or bols – are popular today as pedagogical tools.

Sectarian attitudes among both laity and mendicants vary regarding open access to all scriptures.

At the beginning of the 20th century, several monks complained that they could only access canonical writings through the mediation of commentaries in modern languages. They could not read the texts in the original language. This situation still applies today with variations depending on monastic orders and their attitudes towards religious education.

Nuns of the Śvetāmbara Tapā-gaccha sect are not allowed to read the Cheda-sūtras. These texts deal with monastic discipline in great detail. Lay people are generally not supposed to read them either.

Mendicants of the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak orders study the Āgamas in a steady staged manner (Cort 2001). A junior monk starts with the basic texts – the Mūla-sūtras – and in time moves on to read more technical texts as he becomes more senior. This progression is codified in books dealing with the monastic way of life.

Both mendicant and lay Jains usually believe that the laity should read the Āgamas in their narrowest interpretation together with or under mendicant supervision. But they can read alone stories, hymns or digests that are specially produced for lay people and can learn about the Āgamas from monastic sermons. Thus there are ‘practical canons’ (Cort 2001, Dundas 2002: 63) for various purposes and people, which may evolve in the course of time.

Printing scriptures

Statue of Ānandasāgara-sūri, the 20th-century reviver of the holy writings or Āgamas of Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks. Ācārya Ānandasāgara-sūri established Agam Mandirs devoted to the scriptures and inspired the 1999 publication of the canon in a single volume

Image of Ānandasāgara-sūri
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jains have often been resistant to the idea of printing the holy writings. One reason is because printing is a mechanical process and may therefore involve harm. Another one is the quasi-magical qualities attributed to scriptures.

After opposition from some monks and lay people, the first printed edition of the Śvetāmbara Āgamas was published in 1874.

Maintaining knowledge of the original Āgamas among Śvetāmbara Jain mendicants has been an issue in the 20th century and is still so today. The monk Ānandasāgara-sūri (1875–1950) was one of the driving forces in reviving this declining knowledge. He founded the Āgamodaya Samiti publishing house, which specialises in publishing the sūtras and their commentaries in their original languages.

Editing scriptures

Śvetāmbara Āgamas have been passed on through palm-leaf and paper manuscripts in western India since the 12th century without break. The material available is thus overwhelmingly large. The texts are all separate, with no single manuscript collecting them together. They are copied either individually or in small sets. Published editions of the holy writings tend to use different manuscripts for the various texts.

There is no central religious authority among Jains so a single edition serving as the final, authorised word is impossible and does not seem to be an issue. Rather, numerous editions of the scriptures have been published since the end of the 19th century, of varying types and standards. This is the case today.

The first critical editions to use palm-leaf manuscripts and provide critical apparatus such as a glossary or references were published in 1968. These efforts were led by the prominent scholar monks:

Muni Puṇyavijaya and lay Jain scholars began publishing the Jaina-Āgama-Series from the Mahāvīra Jain Vidyālay in Bombay. At the same time Ācārya Tulsi and Ācārya Mahāprajña published the Ladnun edition. These editions differ because the editors hold varying opinions on how commentaries should be used in textual history.

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