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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A member of the highest caste in Hinduism, the priests or brahmins. 'Brahminical' means 'of or like brahmins'.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
Vision, insight or perception. It works with the quality of jñāna – knowledge in the soul – to gain deep, true understanding and is ever-changing.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
A religious title for a monk in charge of a small group of mendicants, who live and travel together. A gaṇinī is a nun who leads a group of female mendicants.
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
Śvetāmbara mendicant leader who lived around the seventh to eighth centuries. He wrote many significant philosophical works, including the Anekāntajayapatākā and the Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya. He also wrote the first Sanskrit commentaries on the Āgamas.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
(1880–1978) A leading Jain Gujarati scholar of the 20th century from a Śvetāmbara family, who became blind at the age of 17. He studied philosophy and logic at Banaras and became a renowned specialist who taught several Jain monks. Part of the nationalist movement working for the independence of India, Pandit Sukhlalji published numerous editions and translations in Hindi or Gujarati of works on Jain philosophy or doctrine. His translation of and commentary on the Tattvārtha-sūtra is noteworthy.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
The ‘three jewels’ that form the fundamentals of Jainism, without which spiritual progress is impossible. They are:
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Reality or truth. This is very important to Jains and the satya-vrata is the second of the mendicant's Five Great Vows and the lay person's Five Lesser Vows.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
In common use it refers to any sacred text. However, strictly speaking, it means an extremely concise style of writing, as illustrated in the Tattvārtha-sūtra, or a verse.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
'Reality’, defined in the seven principles that form the basis of the Jain system of thought:
This list comes to nine items when good action – puṇya – and bad action – pāpa – are counted separately. One who has reached right insight – samyag-darśana – believes the tattvas as an item of faith.
Extremely famous Jain holy text written in Sanskrit in perhaps the fifth century CE. Śvetāmbaras call the author Umāsvāti while Digambaras know him as Umāsvāmin. Going into the principles of karma in ten chapters, it discusses the principles and the reality of existence in a concise style – sūtra. The Tattvārtha-sūtra is a key text, fundamental to all Jain sects. Its title is often translated into English as That Which Is.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Spiritual discipline. But Jains also use it to mean an ‘activity’ that produces vibrations.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.