Article: Prakīrṇaka-sūtras

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Astronomy, medicine and prophecies

This manuscript painting depicts the course of the moon and an eclipse. The moon - candra - rides across the sky in a chariot each night. In Indian mythology Ketu and Rāhu form a snake that swallows the moon or sun, bringing about eclipses.

Moon's path and eclipse
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Two of the Prakīrṇakas treat subjects outside the Jain teachings. The Jyotiṣa-karaṇḍaka and the Taṇdula-vaicārika deal with quite technical matters on unrelated areas. The former provides great detail on time and calendars and on astronomy. The Taṇdula-vaicārika, on the other hand, is concerned with the physical body and medicine.

The Jyotiṣa-karaṇḍaka is explicitly a work on time-measurement, astronomy and calendrical matters. Containing a lot of information that can be compared with non-Jain works on these topics, it thus represents an important contribution of the Jains to this area of knowledge. Among other things, it provides information on:

  • the various instruments that can be used to measure time, such as the clepsydra or water clock
  • divisions of time
  • calculations relating to the lunar days
  • the movements of the stars
  • revolutions of the moon and the sun
  • the length of seasons.

The Taṇdula-vaicārika is so named because it deals with the amount of ‘rice grains’ – taṇḍula –consumed by a man in a life of one hundred years. More broadly, it is concerned with matters relating to the nature of the physical body. The text expands on expositions found in the second and fifth Aṅgas.

The general idea is that the body is disgusting and should be considered impure and impermanent. This observation is not specifically Jain, being found also in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. But this text connects with the trend of Jain thought where the body is the starting point for thinking and meditation on the impure and the impermanent. Practice of the dharma is the only thing that is secure and is a way to overcome rebirth. In contrast, human beings of the distant past, who lived at the time of the first Jina Ṛṣabha, for instance, represent a kind of golden age and had perfect physical constitutions.

The development of the argumentation allows the transmission of information on several areas of knowledge relating to the human body (Caillat 1974). These include:

  • the different stages of the formation of the embryo in the womb, from conception to maturity and birth
  • elements of gynaecology
  • anatomy of the body
  • medicine proper, with all the diseases that may affect the body.

The result is that the Tandula-vaicārika can be read as a Jain counterpart and supplement to medical knowledge found in the Āyurvedic tradition.

The area of using signs to predict the future is represented by the Gaṇi-vidyā, in the context of monastic life.

Monastic knowledge and life

This illustration from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript depicts some of the qualities of a 'true monk', a perfect ascetic

The 'true monk'
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Two Prakīrṇakas are concerned with elements of monastic conduct. The Gaṇi-vidyā concentrates on the knowledge the leader of a monastic group should command. The Gacchācāra, on the other hand, deals with monastic life in general plus the subject of celibacy.

The Gaṇi-vidyā deals with what the head of a monastic groupgaṇin – should know. This is not knowledge in general, but a technical type of knowledge conveyed by the term vidyā, which is close to astrology and divining the future. According to passages in the Jain scriptures, mendicants should not resort to this type of knowledge and practice. However, in practice this means ‘not all mendicants’. Such recommendations are meant to stop ordinary monks indulging in divinatory activity rather than banning it altogether.

The head of a monastic group is here presented as being in charge of knowledge connected with the calendar. This is important because he or she should know which dates are appropriate for the different activities that make up mendicant life.

The nine sections of the text are:

  • natural days
  • lunar days
  • constellations
  • divisions of the day – karaṇas
  • days of the planets
  • moments – muhūrta
  • omens of bird activity
  • astral conjunctions
  • interpretation of signs.

The Prakīrṇaka known as the Gacchācāra deals with monastic conduct. According to the text itself, it is extracted from the Cheda-sūtras. These Śvetāmbara canonical works are specially devoted to the rules mendicants must follow in their daily lives and to penances in case of lapses. Unlike all Jain scriptures, it is meant to be read by monks and nuns alike. It can be viewed as a convenient abstract of technical and difficult works that are not always put in the hands of all mendicants. The emphasis is both on the monastic group as a whole – the gaccha – and on the behaviour of each of its components, namely:

  • the teacher – ācārya or sūri – who is the support of the whole community
  • the monk – sāhu in Prakrit – at various ranks
  • the nun – ajjā in Prakrit.

The issues of the relationship between monks and nuns and the conditions required for observing proper celibacy are discussed here in some detail.

‘Sayings of the Seer’

The types of human lives are shown in this painting from a manuscript. The length of life and many of the experiences of a lifetime are determined by karma, which comes mainly from behaviour in previous lives.

Kinds of human lives
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The place of the Ṛṣi-bhāṣitāni in the Śvetāmbara Jain scriptures is unique and special. In mixed prose and verse, the Sayings of the SeerṚṣi-bhāṣitāni – are individual compositions each attributed to a named seer. They display some archaic linguistic features, which have led some scholars to class this work as rather old. Others, however, consider this text as new work in old garb, which is perhaps intended to lend it the authority of ancient compositions.

This Prakīrṇaka is most adequately described as ‘a collection of some early views on simple religio-philosophical matters held by various thinkers of the time’ (Bhatt 1979: 163). Indeed, the names of some of the seers are found in non-Jain sources as well. Some of the verses and literary images have precise parallels and counterparts in Buddhist scriptures. This suggests that some of the poems, if not the whole work, may reflect shared concerns. Other statements point to parallels with those expressed in early Brahmanical thinking, as represented in the Upaniṣads (Nakamura 1967–68).

The subjects on which proclamations are made relate to:

  • transmigration
  • the nature of the soul
  • the nature of truth
  • the role of karma.

The stanzas are often concise and enigmatic – as if to underline that they do not come from ordinary persons but from wise individuals with visionary qualities.

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