Article: Upāṅgas

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The second of the main groups of Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures is the Upāṅgas – ‘auxiliary limbs’ in Sanskrit. ‘Auxiliary’ is understood by the tradition as meaning that this category complements the first group of scriptures that make up the Śvetāmbara canon, which are called the Aṅgas – ‘limbs’. Each Upāṅga corresponds to one Aṅga, to which it forms a kind of supplement. Indeed, there are cases where a given Upānga even incorporates passages from a specific Aṅga, underlining the close connection between the categories. There are 12 Upāṅgas, matching the 12 original Aṅgas.

Like their Aṅga counterparts, the Upāṅgas are written in forms of Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, demonstrating variations depending on the text. They also demonstrate the same variety of literary styles, using ‘canonical prose’, parables, dialogues, stories and reference techniques to pass on the holy teachings. The Upāngas contain a range of topics. Fundamental beliefs of the Jain faith are discussed, such as the soul, karma, the cycle of births and cosmology. They are predominantly written in prose.

Śvetāmbara Jains believe that their canon contains the teachings of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. These were originally passed on orally and began to be written down in the early centuries of the Common Era, with their final written form agreed in the fifth century. However, the other main Jain sect gives different texts canonical status. The Digambara Jains call their canon the Siddhānta.

Like their sister texts, the Upāṅgas have also been the subject of many commentaries. However, they do not demonstrate the range of styles, forms and languages found in Aṅga commentaries. Upāṅga commentaries appear to be written only in Sanskrit or vernacular languages, not in Prakrit. Nevertheless, commentary activities have helped to ensure that the Upāṅga scriptures have been passed down to present generations.

Number and status

The Upāṅgas total 12 but there is some confusion regarding texts number 5 and 7, which deal with related topics on astral bodies.

According to tradition, each Upānga is connected with a specific Aṅga, either because they have common themes or because they supplement each other. This connection, however, is far from obvious in all the pairings.

Twelve Upāṅgas of the Śvetāmbara canon


Name in Prakrit

Name in Sanskrit

Rough translation

Connection with Aṅgas




‘Places of rebirth’ – uvavāiya – according to one’s deeds, dealt with in the second part

1. Ācārānga-sūtra


Rāya-paseṇaijja or Rāyapaseṇiya


Questions of the king




Classification of animate and inanimate entities




Enunciation on topics of philosophy and ethics

5. Vyākhyā-prajñapti




Exposition on the sun




Exposition on the Jambū continent and the Jain universe




Exposition on the moon and the Jain universe


Nirayāvaliyāo or Kappiya


Series of stories on characters reborn in hells




Series of stories on characters reborn in the kalpa heavens




‘Flowers’ refers to one of the stories




Title based on the name of the nun Puṣpacūlā




Stories on characters from the legendary dynasty known as Andhaka-Vṛṣṇi

The Upāṅgas are regarded as both subordinate and secondary to the Aṅgas, which make up the primary category in the Śvetāmbara scriptures. However, by referring frequently to other works in these two groups, these texts rely on the reader’s familiarity with all of the Aṅgas and Upāṅgas to fully understand each one. The two sets of closely connected scriptures must therefore be considered as forming a larger network of writings.

Similarly, there are intertextual relations between certain Upāṅgas, which borrow passages from one another or include similar passages.

Teaching through dialogue and stories

Indrabhūti Gautama in a painting from a 15th-century Śvetāmbara manuscript. The chief disciple of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, Gautama is an important Jain figure and features in many scriptures and tales.

Indrabhūti Gautama
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The literary forms of the dialogue and question-and-answer format have important places in the Upāṅgas. Even though these literary approaches may be formalised, their frequent use immerses the reader directly in the issues being debated. They also highlight the significance of oral transmission in spreading the teachings of the Jinas.

The Upāṅgas present Mahāvīra as the main teacher. These texts show him replying to questions asked by his first disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama. Gautama’s curiosity has no boundaries and he always seems eager to know the whys behind what he sees. This format is used extensively in nearly all the Upāṅgas.

One of the best instances of an exchange with arguments and counter-arguments is the Rāja-praśnīya. The second part features a king and a Jain monk debating the topics of body and soul.

The Upāṅgas numbered 6, 7, 8, 9 and 11 are predominantly narrative. Although the central part of Number 2 is a philosophical dialogue, it also has a narrative setting and is a conversion story. Mahāvīra gives explanations and details about previous and future rebirths of the characters in answer to questions from his disciple.

Contents of the Upāṅgas

The 12 Upāṅgas demonstrate a wide range of literary approaches to passing on the key Jain beliefs. Most of the texts use the framework of Mahāvīra’s universal gathering to open a discussion on the karmas that determine the types of bodies a soul inhabits and its experiences during the cycle of rebirth. The form tends to have the Jina’s main chief disciple, Indrabhūti Gautama, asking questions about attendees at the universal gathering. Then his master answers, describing their behaviour in past lives and predicting the course of future births. Mahāvīra may tell stories or parables or recount dialogues within this literary frame.

This device allows Mahāvīra to discuss more specific aspects of these Jain concepts, including ascetic behaviour and rebirth, and the relationship between body and soul. This issue is famously explored in the second part of the second Upāṅga, the Rāja-praśnīya. This tale features a dialogue between the King Pradeśi with the monk Keśi, who eventually persuades the king of the true doctrine. The main topics that Mahāvīra discusses are concerned with the cycle of rebirth and karma. The final Upāṅga features a different teaching Jina. Here it is the 22nd Jina, Ariṣṭanemi or Lord Nemi, who answers the questions of his main disciple Varadatta on rebirth and karma.

Another theme that features heavily in the Upāṅgas is the Jain universe, which is also closely connected to the transmigration of souls. Important works on astronomy and philosophy contain a high level of detail while the first text can be thought of as a source book of literary descriptions that are found elsewhere in the Śvetāmbara scriptures. Large parts of a key work in Jain philosophy, the fourth Upāṅga, PrajñāpanāEnunciation – are identical to passages in the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama, one of the two chief scriptures of the Digambara canon.

Information on other subjects is also found in the Upāṅgas. Detailed descriptions of architectural features, dramatic performances, music and education form important passages in the works.

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