Article: Tattvārtha-sūtra

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Tattvārtha-sūtra is the only text that is accepted as an essential scripture by all Jain sects. There are disagreements about the date it was written and differences in the Digambara and Śvetāmbara versions but the text sums up key beliefs of Jainism and its authority remains strong. Commentaries reflect these differences but also emphasise the place of the scripture at the heart of the Jain tradition.

Title and features

Adopted in 1975, the Jain emblem is made up of key symbols. The cosmic man encloses the siddha-śilā and liberated soul, the three jewels, a svastika, the hand of non-violence, wheel of the cycle of birth and 24 Jinas, a mantra and Tattvartha-sūtra verse.

Jain emblem
Image by Mpanchratan © CC BY-SA 3.0

The full title of the Jain scripture known as the Tattvārtha-sūtra is Tattvārthādhigama-sūtra. It can be translated into English as Aphorisms on the Sense of Principles Aphorisms on the Understanding of Principles. Its title indicates the nature of the text and why it is widely considered to be the essence of the principal Jain beliefs.

The Tattvārtha-sūtra has three features that make it unique among Jain religious texts.

Firstly, it is the earliest religious scripture recognised as authoritative by both the Śvetāmbara and the Digambara sects. The Digambaras do not consider the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures to be authentic and vice versa.

This is the reason the Tattvārtha-sūtra was selected to represent Jainism in the Sacred Literature Series. It is one of the books published by the International Sacred Literature Trust, which organises the publication of key texts in different faiths. It was translated into English under the title That Which Is. However, this does not mean that Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras agree on everything relating to this text.

Secondly, it is written in Sanskrit. The different scriptures which are thought of as canonical by the Śvetāmbaras and the Digambaras are in Prakrit.

Thirdly, its literary form is remarkable. Whereas the canonical scriptures are mostly lengthy texts, the Tattvārtha uses the sūtra style. This means extremely concise aphorisms or a general truth made up of only a few words. Some aphorisms have only one word.

An example of a Tattvārtha aphorism is parasparopagraho jīvānām (5.21) or ‘souls render service to one another’. This proclamation of the interdependence of beings has become a slogan of Jainism for many contemporary Jains. Literally, it means: ‘[there is] reciprocal dependence of living beings’.

The latter two features are noteworthy because they show that it was written to provide a vigorous summary of Jain principles for audiences who were familiar with both Sanskrit and the sūtra style. These audiences were probably specialists in various Indian philosophical doctrines, of yoga and so on. All Indian philosophical schools have their own text in Sanskrit and use the same sūtra style.

Author and date

Among the Śvetāmbaras the author is known as Umāsvātī while the Digambaras call him Umāsvāmī. These two forms refer to the same person, but hardly anything personal is known about him. He is believed to have come from a brahmin family and later become a Jain monk.

The Tattvārtha-sūtra is regarded as his greatest work, but the Śvetāmbaras believe that he also wrote another text, the Praśamaratiprakaraṇa or Treatise on the Love for Tranquillity.

The question of the dates of the author’s activities and the composition of the Tattvārtha-sūtra has given birth to fervent discussions. It was probably written some time between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE.

Comparing the Tattvārtha-sūtra with Śvetāmbara scriptures shows many correspondences. Not all consider this to be true, but it can be seen that the Tattvārtha-sūtra is indebted to Śvetāmbara canonical doctrine and philosophy, which it presents in a systematic way in Sanskrit.

Contents of the text

The Tattvārtha-sūtra is made up of hundreds of sūtras or aphorisms. Organised into ten chapters, these sūtras explore the seven tattvas or 'realities'. Accepting the truth of these is the first step along the path of spiritual development that will lead, after a great deal of hard work and time, to final liberation.

Even though it is the only holy text accepted by the two main Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras, they have slightly different versions. These differences range from variations in some sūtras to disagreements over the interpretation and classification of some concepts in the text.

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