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.

Chapters

This painting from a manuscript shows gods enjoying luxury and amusements in the heavens, the highest of the three worlds of traditional Jain cosmology. Though the souls born as gods in the upper world have pleasurable lives, they are still bound in the c

Gods enjoy life in the heavens
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The Tattvārtha-sūtra is divided into ten chapters or adhyāyaya without titles.

To translate the distribution of Tattvārtha-sūtra material into modern terms, it is convenient to follow K. K. Dixit’s analysis (Ref. 3: 1974: 1):

it takes up in its first chapter problems pertaining to epistemology,
in the second those pertaining to an empirical study of the animate world,
in the third and fourth those pertaining to mythological cosmography,

In the latest English translation of the work, called That Which Is and published in 1994, the ten chapters have been given the following titles:

  1. The Categories of Truth
  2. The Nature of the Soul
  3. The Lower and Middle Regions
  4. The Gods
  5. Substances
  6. The Inflow of Karma
  7. The Vows
  8. Karmic Bondage
  9. Inhibiting and Wearing Off Karma
  10. Liberation

Sūtras

The total number of aphorisms or sūtras ranges from 344 to 357. The variation is explained by differences among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras. Some sūtras may not be included by one sect while others may be divided into two or even combined into one.

In the text itself, the architecture of the whole work is built on the terms found in the initial sūtra. Many Jains consider it to be typical of the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

First sūtra of the Tattvārtha-sūtra

Transliteration

samyag–darśana–jñāna–cāritrāṇi mokṣamārgaḥ

Literal translation

right faith–cognition–conduct is the way to salvation

That Which Is translation
(1, p. 5)

The enlightened world-view, enlightened knowledge and enlightened conduct are the path to liberation.

Fundamentals of Jain belief

A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives.

Five-sensed animals
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The basics of the Jain system are specifically mentioned here.

The aim is to be liberated or to reach salvation. This means to become free from the cycle of rebirth and leave for ever the world of transmigration. Hence the Tattvārtha-sūtra is also known by the name Mokṣa-sūtra or Aphorisms for Salvation.

A believer can reach salvation by following the principles of correct faith, correct understanding and correct conduct. The way these terms are arranged in the original text emphasises that all three together are necessary. They form the triplet commonly known as the ‘three gems’ or ‘three jewels’ – ratna-traya.

These terms are far from being obvious, and have been the starting point of considerable discussion, especially darśana – ‘faith, vision, intuition’. It comes first because it means that, before anything else, the individual must at least have a positive approach to the doctrine he is going to learn about and begin acting out. If he refuses certain basic principles at the start, there is no need for him to continue. Thus it is a crucial first step.

In practice, it means belief in tattvas. This means recognising the existence and truth of certain ‘realities’, ‘principles’ or ‘that which is’.

Seven tattvas

Principle

Detail

jīva

what is living or sentient, also called the soul

ajīva

what is without life, just a substance

āsrava

flowing of karmic particles into the soul

bandha

bondage or the association of karmic particles with the soul

saṃvara

blocking the flowing of new karmic particles into the soul

nirjarā

exhausting karmic particles already present in the soul

mokṣa

salvation, when all karmas have been totally destroyed

Chapters and fundamentals

The seven tattvas are arranged logically. The first two lay out the basic ideas from which the rest follow. Numbers three to seven define the spiritual progression of the soul, while the last three directly relate to the concept of right conduct.

The seven tattvas are covered in chapters two to ten of the book.

Seven tattvas in That Which Is

Principle

Chapter number and title in That Which Is

jīva
ajīva

2. The Nature of the Soul
3. The Lower and Middle Regions
4. The Gods
5. Substances

āsrava

6. The Inflow of Karma

bandha

8. Karmic Bondage

saṃvara
nirjarā

9. Inhibiting and Wearing Off Karma

mokṣa

10. Liberation

Other chapters

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

'Five Great Vows'
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

Chapter 1 can be thought of as the base of the building because it deals with understanding, types of knowledge and ways of knowing a given object.

Chapter 7 is central to Jain ethics because it deals with the vows – vrata – of the ascetics and householders. Placing it between chapters on how karma enters and is bound to the soul is justified by the fact that the way one behaves or the vows one observes decide karmic inflow and binding.

In this sense, they foreshadow the spiritual exercises that are covered in later chapters. These spiritual exercises are ways of destroying karmic particles or preventing the inflow of new ones.

Sectarian versions

There are four main differences between Digambara and Śvetāmbara editions of the text.

Digambara and Śvetāmbara versions of the Tattvārtha-sūtra

Digambara

Śvetāmbara

the substance of 'time' – kāla – is a separate class within the category of 'substances' – dravya

'time' is included in the general category of 'substances'

number of heavenly beings

number of heavenly beings

certain types of karma are included among those that can have a good or non-destructive effect

other types of karma are included among those that can have a good or non-destructive effect

understanding of the sūtras

understanding of the sūtras

Digambara and Śvetāmbara writers have discussed both the definition of 'time' and the details of the sūtras at length in the commentaries. Despite sectarian disagreements over interpretations and categorisation of some items, all Jains admit the authority of the text.

Commentaries

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Understanding the meaning of each and every word of the aphorisms is not an easy task and thus the Tattvārtha-sūtra has sparked considerable activity in the form of commentaries. Both Digambara and Śvetāmbara scholar-monks have contributed to this body of work, ranging from simple explanations to, more often, very learned commentaries.

The earliest commentary is called Bhāṣya. According to the Śvetāmbaras, Umāsvātī himself created it, so they call this Bhāṣya svopajña, that is Written by [the author of the text] Himself.

The Digambaras dispute this and consider the Bhāṣya to be much later.

Among the prominent commentaries the Digambaras have written are:

  • the Sarvārthasiddhi, written by Pūjyapāda in the 6th century
  • Akalaṅka's Rājavārttika, composed in the 8th century
  • Vidyānanda's 9th-century Ślokavārtika.

Influential Śvetāmbara commentaries include:

Originally in Gujarati, this last work has been translated into English and is extremely valuable in understanding the principles of Jainism.

Translations into Western languages

Nineteenth-century German scholar Hermann Jacobi was a leading Indology scholar. His 1879 establishing of Jainism as a religion distinct from Buddhism and his translations and critical studies of major Jain texts laid the foundations for modern Jain studi

Hermann Jacobi
Image by unknown © unknown

The first translation of the Tattvārtha-sūtra into a Western language was a German edition published in 1906 by Hermann Jacobi, one of the pioneering Western scholars in the field of Jain studies.

There are other significant texts in the Jain faith but several descriptions of Jain philosophy found in various European manuals are based on the Tattvārtha-sūtra because it gives the essence of Jain belief and presents it in a sūtra style. An example is Frauwallner’s 1956 presentation of Jain philosophy in his German-language publication, Geschichte der indischen PhilosophieHistory of Indian Philosophy.

Influence of the Tattvārtha-sūtra

The aphorisms of the Tattvārtha-sūtra are meant to be memorised and the text's short length means that it can be carried around easily. Indeed, the Tattvārtha-sūtra frequently figures in the short collections of prayers and fundamental religious principles which many Jains carry with them. These are similar to Roman Catholic catechisms. Originally handwritten manuscripts, these collections are now available in print.

Images

  • Jain emblem Adopted in 1975, the Jain emblem is made up of several symbols central to Jainism. The shape of the cosmic man represents the three worlds, with the crescent shape of the siddha-śilā at the top, a liberated soul inside. Below it are dots representing the three jewels of Jain belief, set above the svastika symbolising the fourfold community or four conditions of existence. Underneath is the open hand of non-violence, containing the wheel symbolising the cycle of rebirth and the 24 Jinas. At the bottom is a verse from the Tattvartha-sūtra, which is often translated as 'Souls give service to one another'.. Image by Mpanchratan © CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Gods enjoy life in the heavens This painting from a manuscript shows gods enjoying luxury and amusements in the heavens, the highest of the three worlds of traditional Jain cosmology. Though the souls born as gods in the upper world have pleasurable lives, they are still bound in the cycle of rebirth.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Five-sensed animals A variety of animals is shown in this painting from a manuscript as examples of five-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul is born in different types of body according to the karma it has collected from previous lives. In traditional Jain cosmology, beings can be classed according to the number of senses they have. The animals pictured have the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • 'Five Great Vows' When they become mendicants, monks and nuns swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas – for the rest of their lives: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.. Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain
  • Monk and pupils A Śvetāmbara monk sits before a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which is a symbol of his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture wrapped in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while his pupils sit on the floor and listen. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally, with junior monks memorising what their teachers said. Today, monks and nuns still learn in large part from senior monks.. Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah
  • Hermann Jacobi Nineteenth-century German scholar Hermann Jacobi was a leading Indology scholar. His 1879 establishing of Jainism as a religion distinct from Buddhism and his translations and critical studies of major Jain texts laid the foundations for modern Jain studies.. Image by unknown © unknown

Further Reading

That Which Is: Tattvārtha Sūtra
Umāsvāti / Umāsvāmi
translated by Nathmal Tatia
Sacred Literature series
International Sacred Literature Trust in association with Harper Collins; London, UK; 1994

Full details

A Study of the Tattvārthasūtra with Bhāṣya: With Special Reference to Authorship and Date
Suzuko Ohira
L. D. series; volume 86
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1982

Full details

Commentary on Tattvārtha Sūtra of Vācaka Umāsvāti
Pandit Sukhlalji
translated by K. K. Dixit
L. D. series; volume 44
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1974

Full details

Reality: Sarvārthasiddhi of Pūjyapāda
Pūjyapāda
translated by S. A. Jain
Vira Sasana Sangha; Calcutta, India; 1960

Full details

'Eine Jaina-Dogmatik: Umāsvāti’s Tattvārthādhigama Sūtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft
series editor A. Fischer; volume 60
Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft; Leipzig, Saxony, Germany; 1906

Full details

Geschichte der indischen Philosophie
Erich Frauwallner
Otto Müller; Salzburg, Austria; 1953–1956

Full details

‘Le Jainisme’
Olivier Lacombe
L'Inde classique: manuel des études indiennes
edited by Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat et alia
volume 2
Imprimerie Nationale; Paris, France and Hanoi, Vietnam; 1953

Full details

Glossary

Brāhmaṇa

A member of the highest caste in Hinduism, the priests or brahmins. 'Brahminical' means 'of or like brahmins'.

Commentary

An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:

  • bālāvabodha
  • bhāṣya
  • cūrṇi
  • niryukti
  • ṭīkā.

Common Era

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.

Darśana

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'.

Digambara

'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.

Doctrine

A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.

Gaṇin

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. 

Gujarati

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.

Haribhadra

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.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jīva

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.

Kāla

Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.

Karma

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:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

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.

Mokṣa

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.

Monk

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.

Pandit Sukhlalji

(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.

Prākrit

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.

Ratna-traya

The ‘three jewels’ that form the fundamentals of Jainism, without which spiritual progress is impossible. They are:

  • right faith – samyak-darśana
  • right knowledge – samyak-jñāna
  • right conduct – samyak-cāritra.

Sāgāra

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.

Samyak-cāritra

'Right conduct'. A person who has faith in the principles of Jainism and knows them should put them into practice. This is the third of the Three Jewels vital for spiritual progress.

Sanskrit

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.

Satya

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.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sect

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.

Sūtra

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.

Śvetāmbara

'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.

Tattva

'Reality’, defined in the seven principles that form the basis of the Jain system of thought:

  • jīva – sentient entities
  • ajīva – non-sentient entities
  • āsrava – influx of karma into the soul
  • bandha – bonding of karma with the soul
  • saṃvara – stopping the inflow of karma
  • nirjarā – progressive elimination of karma
  • mokṣa – liberation.

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.

Tattvārtha-sūtra

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.

Vrata

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:

  • aṇu-vratas – 'Five Lesser Vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three supplementary vows
  • śikṣā-vratas – four vows of spiritual discipline

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. 

Yoga

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'.

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