Article: Prakīrṇaka-sūtras

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


This manuscript painting shows the nine planets or celestial elements – navagraha. The sun – sūrya – is in the middle and around him revolve the planets. The panel on the left shows the moon in his chariot. Below him are Ketu and Rāhu, who cause eclipses.

The nine celestial elements
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Mostly, the Prakīrṇakas do not repeat what is found in other categories of the Śvetāmbara canon. Rather, certain texts in this group single out and deal extensively with topics or trends found in other Śvetāmbara scriptures that are not developed there. Examples include:

Mentioned in the Aṅgas and Upāṅgas, these themes are treated more systematically in several Prakīrṇakas. Thus the Prakīrṇaka writings are kinds of supplements. Other subjects are also covered in some detail in other Śvetāmbara scriptures, such as:

One Prakīrṇaka – the Ṛṣi-bhāṣitāni – is unique among the holy writings. Using both poetry and prose, it is made up of a number of individual works. Of disputed age, it shares some elements with Buddhist texts and the Hindu Upaniṣads.

The contents of many of the Prakīrṇakas show that they are directed explicitly or implicitly at the Jain ascetic rather than the Jain lay man. This is particularly true of the works that deal with the predominantly mendicant practice of fasting to death.

Fasting to death

This manuscript painting shows two monks fasting to death – sallekhanā – under the supervision of a monastic teacher. The teacher or mentor is present throughout the ritual, overseeing the stages of penance and renunciation that end in the 'sage's death'.

Fasting unto death
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Several Prakīrṇakas are concerned with the theme of fasting to death. A theologically important notion, it is honoured among Jains as a profound expression of faith and spirituality. Though it is touched on in various writings of the Śvetāmbara canon, fasting to death is discussed in detail in some of the Prakīrṇakas.

This ritual practice is mentioned or described in several passages of the Aṅgas, the primary class of Śvetāmbara scriptures. It is the recommended final stage of a pious religious life, as seen in many canonical stories found in the eighth and ninth Aṅgas. The pattern story is that of Khandaga Kaccāyana, a brahmin converted to Jainism, whose life story is narrated in the fifth Aṅga – the Vyākhyā-prajñapti.  Examples of ascetics fasting to death are more numerous, but the seventh Aṅga – the Upāsaka-daśā – which is concerned only with Jain lay men, show that they can also decide to die this way.

This subject has become crucial to Jain identity. A number of Prakīrṇakas deal with it at length, principally the:

  • Ātura-pratyākhyāna in its various versions
  • Bhakta-parijñā
  • Mahā-pratyākhyāna
  • Maraṇa-samādhi or Maraṇa-vibhakti
  • Saṃstāraka.

Although they vary in length, these texts are closely interrelated and occasionally borrow material from each other, so that the boundary between them is rather thin. Some of them seem to focus rather on the monk, while others also include the lay man in their coverage of the ritual.

These Prakīrṇakas turn around the notion conveyed by the Prakrit term ārāhaṇā and the Sanskrit term ārādhanā – ‘reaching the goal’ – by resorting to ‘the ‘wise [one]’s death’ – paṇḍita-maraṇa. The person who strives for this goal is an ārādhaka. Such texts thus form a Śvetāmbara counterpart to the Bhagavatī Ārādhanā, a Digambara work written in Śaurasenī Prakrit. Its lengthy discussion of the topic has produced a range of story books centring around the names of saints mentioned in its verses.

These Prakīrṇakas share several common themes regarding fasting to death. Also called the ‘wise one’s death’, this ritual has significant spiritual and mental dimensions, which are crucial for the process to be considered a proper performance of the ritual.

Details of the ritual

This manuscript painting shows examples of 'the fool’s death' – bāla-maraṇa – or suicide. Various methods of suicide are colourfully illustrated here, including hanging, poisoning and jumping from a high place.

Suicide – the fool's death
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

These five Prakīrṇakas explain at length the main points relating to the ritual of the ‘sage’s death’.

Firstly, fasting to death – paṇḍita-maraṇa – is presented as the opposite of ‘the fool’s death’ – bāla-maraṇa. The former is the result of a decision taken in full consciousness and is the final step in a long practice and training in pious life, whether as a monk or lay man. The terms parijñā and samādhi in two of the titles point to a decision taken with awareness and concentration. The Sanskrit term samādhi-maraṇa is also used to refer to this type of death. The fool’s death, on the contrary, covers various forms of suicide, the result of being subject to passions or delusion.

Secondly, a mendicant may choose this type of death when his or her physical capacities weaken with incurable illness, great age or other circumstances. The Ātura-pratyākhyāna specifies irremediable sickness as a possible reason. The reasons for choosing the sage’s death given in the Prakīrṇakas are slightly different from what one reads in the first Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon. The Ācārāṅga states that external conditions should not be motivating factors in this decision.

Thirdly, in order to be achieved fully, the sage’s death needs careful preparation. This requires the assistance of a teacher or mentor of some sort. He is present throughout the full process, from when the mendicant proclaims his decision until the last instant.

Next, the faster must complete certain prerequisites before beginning the ritual, including:

  • giving up worldly pleasures
  • victory over sense organs – that is, not being ruled by the senses
  • observing proper conduct
  • enduring all hardships
  • giving up attachments of all sorts.
  • restating mendicant or lay vows.

Hence the texts often include stanzas describing the ‘three jewels’ of Jain doctrine:

The Prakīrṇakas also pay homage to the Five Entities – Pañca-parameṣṭhins – who illustrate these qualities in the best way.

Fifthly, the practitioner must prepare mentally. It is vital that the faster is totally cleansed of mental impurity, passions, sins and so on. This is achieved by making confession, asking for forgiveness and performing atonement. If faults are not confessed properly, they remain in the heart as pricking thorns that make one suffer. The Prakrit word saṃlehaṇā (see for instance Maraṇa-vibhatti 176) and its Sanskrit equivalent sallekhanā – which has become the standard term for this practice – actually means ‘scraping or emaciating the passions’ (Williams 1963: 166).

Furthermore, the faster must possess moral firmness to complete the practice properly. This moral purposefulness is guaranteed by concentration or meditationbhāvanā or anuprekṣā – on proper topics, such as the:

  • disgusting nature of the body
  • miseries experienced by the embryo
  • painfulness of rebirths
  • ultimate loneliness at the hour of death.

Related to this is the moral support provided by the teacher or mentor. This support implies offering the faster similes and, especially, examples from stories. The model characters in these tales decide to resort to specific penances and finally achieve them, bearing pains and difficulties without their resolve weakening. Several of the Prakīrṇakas unfold verses which briefly describe the lives of such figures. Sanatkumāra, who endured all diseases, and Gajasukumāla, who resisted extremely painful tortures, are among those often referred to. For example see Maraṇa-samādhi stanzas 413ff or Saṃstāraka 56–87 (von Kamptz 1929).

Next, the wise one’s death consists, in practice, of reducing the amount of food in stages. Towards the end, the practitioner takes only fluids, taking gradually smaller quantities until nothing at all is consumed. The Prakīrṇakas codify modes of renunciation, which the assisting teacher can adjust to the dying one’s capacities. Details of the ritual of fasting unto death are found more specifically in the Bhakta-parijñā.

In addition, the practitioner has also left his monastic community and no longer uses his mendicant equipment. He is therefore outside his usual environment.

Finally, the faster resorts to ‘a bed of straw’ – saṃstāraka. He lies on this until he dies, attended by his teacher.

When taken together, all these texts thus provide a full picture of all the aspects relating to fasting to death. But it should be noted that the practical aspects are not always their main concern. Rather, considerable emphasis is put on the mental and spiritual elements of the full process.

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