Article: Śvetāmbara canon

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Most religions have sets of holy writings that lay out key principles and offer guidance and examples to believers, and Jainism is no exception. For the Śvetāmbara sect, as for all Jains, the Jinas are the ultimate source of teaching. This is especially true of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. All Jains believe that this teaching was first transmitted orally. All sects also agree that this teaching was partly lost and partly changed over time. However, they disagree on which parts have vanished and which have been amended. This explains why the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras consider different texts to be authoritative scriptures.

Śvetāmbara Jains have their own history about the transmission of scriptures and their own body of scriptures. The Śvetāmbara subsects disagree about what exactly these authoritative texts are. The number of accepted scriptures corresponds to a sectarian division which took shape from the 15th century onwards. Mūrti-pūjaks consider there are 45 scriptures while Sthānaka-vāsins and Terāpanthins state there are 32. Within the scriptures, some groups of texts are unchanging while others show fluidity and divergences.

Knowledge is significant for Jains because it is needed to make spiritual progress. The second type of knowledge in Jain epistemology is called ‘knowledge of what has been heard’ – śruta-jñāna – which means familiarity with the teachings of the Jinas. This is usually translated as knowing the scriptures, though there are long-running arguments over whether this alone is enough for spiritual development.

Whether they have access or not to the textual material passing on the Jinas’ teaching, all Jains are aware of the existence of their holy writings. These writings are the basis of their ritual and religious life and are venerated in various ways. The most striking examples are the Śvetāmbara festivals of Jñāna-pañcamī and Paryuṣaṇ, in which holy texts have central roles. Among contemporary Jains the scriptures remain key to religious life and cultural identity, leading to the development of new methods of sharing the teachings.

Terms

This manuscript painting shows some of Mahāvīra's chief disciples. The 24th Jina had 11 chief disciples – gaṇa-dharas – who were his closest followers. Depicted in Śvetāmbara robes, the monks sit in lotus and demonstrate typical signs of holiness

Five of Mahāvīra's disciples
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Using the English word ‘canon’ to describe Jain holy writings is increasingly thought unsuitable, because it suggests an unchanging body of texts sanctioned by a central authority. Śvetāmbara Jains commonly use the Sanskrit word āgama. This pan-Indian term emphasises the idea of a tradition that has ‘come down to us’ and which goes back to authoritative voices.

Other terms that are used are the Prakrit phrases ‘open teaching of monks’ – niggantha-pāvayaṇa – or ‘basket of the chief disciples’ – gaṇi-piḍaga. Used in the singular, these terms imply that the primary sources are of global relevance.

The term āgama largely suggests unfixed categories that may change, which more accurately describes the ‘Śvetāmbara canon’. Texts have been placed in the various classes of scriptures that have arisen. Some of these categories have changed with time, with texts moving from one to another, while others have remained more or less static, with stable content.

These groupings and therefore the number of texts that are recognised as Āgamas have become focal points for sectarian disagreements. The image-worshipping sect of Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks count 45 Āgamas while the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsins and Terāpanthins reject both this practice and 13 texts of the Śvetāmbara canon, which they consider apocryphal.

Groupings of texts

Though the Āgamas have been grouped in diverse ways over the centuries, these classifications may be compatible with each other because they are based on various criteria.

One of the early classifications distinguishes between:

  • Aṅga-praviṣṭa – ‘included in the limbs’ or ‘main texts’
  • Aṅga-bāhya or Aṅga-bāhira – ‘not limbs’.

It is clear that the Aṅgas form the core category. They are named and described in the Śvetāmbara scriptures themselves.

Another grouping correlates the texts with the time to study them. It makes use of the terms kālika and utkālika. In one source, the first term means that a text must be read at a specific time, although the meaning is unclear, and the second allows it to be read at any time. However, in another source it is the reverse.

There is also a fourfold classification relating to the subject matter:

  • Prathamānuyoga – ‘First Exposition’
  • Karaṇānuyoga – ‘Exposition on Calculations and Techniques’
  • Caraṇānuyoga – ‘Exposition on Conduct’
  • Kathānuyoga – ‘Exposition of Stories’

Although it is occasionally found in Śvetāmbara sources, this is more common among Digambaras.

The classification that has become largely predominant among the Śvetāmbaras, however, distinguishes five groups. Two additional texts are treated separately because they provide a methodological and ‘epistemological context’ (Dundas 2002: 76).

Śvetāmbara canon or āgamas

Sanskrit title

Main categories

Subcategories

Approximate English meaning

Pūrvas

 

 

‘previous texts’

Aṅgas

 

 

‘limbs’ or ‘main texts’

Aṅga-bāhyas:

 

‘not limbs’ or ‘subsidiary canon’

Upāṅgas

‘sub-Aṅgas’

Mūla-sūtras

‘root texts’

Cheda-sūtras

‘rules for mendicants'

Prakīrṇaka-sūtras

‘miscellany’

Cūlikās:

‘appendices’

 

 

Nandī-sūtra

list of early teachers, discussion about kinds of knowledge, especially scriptural knowledge

 

 

Anuyogadvāra-sūtra

discussion of various topics regarding methodology

On JAINpedia, as in many presentations of Jainism, this last grouping of the Śvetāmbara canon is followed.

Numbers of texts and sect

Ācārya Mahāprajña, Ācārya Tulsi and followers discuss the Āgamas. Ācārya Tulsi was leader of the sect of Śvetāmbara Terāpanthins until 1997 and was succeeded by Ācārya Mahāprajña until 2010. This sect believes there are 32 sacred texts

Discussing the scriptures
Image by Amitjain80 © CC BY-SA 3.0

The texts that are identified as the Āgamas have become crucial mostly from the 15th century, as the number and labelling of texts contributes to sectarian identity. Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks recognise the authority of 45 texts while Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsins and Terāpanthins accept 32 Āgamas.

Debates about this point show a distinction between an unchanging core, recognised by all Śvetāmbaras, and other categories. These latter are fluid classes.

Śvetāmbara core canon and sectarian differences

Categories

Texts

Mūrti-pūjak texts

Sthānaka-vāsin texts

Terāpanthin texts

Aṅgas
Upāṅgas
Cūlikās

yes

yes

yes

Mūla-sūtras:

Daśavaikālika-sūtra

yes

yes

yes

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra

yes

yes

yes

Āvaśyaka

yes

yes

yes

Piṇḍa-niryukti and Ogha-niryukti

yes

no

no

Cheda-sūtras:

Ācāradaśāḥ or Daśāśruta-skandha

yes

yes

yes

Bṛhatkalpa

yes

yes

yes

Vyavahāra

yes

yes

yes

Niśītha

yes

yes

yes

Mahā-niśītha

yes

no

no

Jīta-kalpa

yes

no

no

Pañca-kalpa

yes

no

no

Prakīrṇaka-sūtras

yes

no

no

Sthānaka-vāsins and Terāpanthins reject the whole of the last category – Prakīrṇaka-sūtras or ‘Miscellany’. With no fixed list of texts, it is the most fluid group, as recognised by authoritative scholar monks such as Muni Puṇyavijaya. The number of texts in this category ranges from 10 to 20, and there are also some called ‘supernumerary Prakīrṇakas’.

From the 17th century onwards there is copious evidence that the number of 45 Āgamas became emblematic of Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak Jains. They were obviously keen on professing this as their position since they publicised this number by:

  • writing lists of their Āgamas
  • having manuscripts of the individual Āgamas copied, making collections of the 45 texts
  • copying those texts that are specific to them – in contrast with other Śvetāmbaras – such as the controversial Mahā-niśītha-sūtra
  • inventing visual modes to display the 45 Āgamas.
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Contents

Related Manuscripts

  • Last page – colophon

    Last page – colophon

    Bodleian Library. Prakrit d. 18. Unknown author. 1777

  • Text

    Text

    Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 7-1931. Unknown author. Circa 1490

Related Manuscript Images

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