Article: Kundakunda

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

From the Digambara sect, Kundakunda is a teacher ācārya and author of a philosophical work that has deeply influenced a lineage of Jain thinkers and mystical poets. First written for monks, his work acquired great popularity among the religious-minded laity. Kundakunda’s writings focus particularly on the soul and the vital importance of internal spiritual activity. His thought is based on the distinction between two ways of religious activity, namely the:

  • conventional vyavahāra-naya where devotees follow the right conduct in everyday practice
  • absoluteniścaya-naya in which aspirants are invited to know the real nature of the self.

Kundakunda wrote in Śaurasenī Prakrit, using verse to express clearly a number of complex concepts. Enjoying canonical status among the Digambaras, his works have been greatly influential among Jains of all sects.

Life and legend

This detail of a painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows a monk about to receive his daily alms. Even though he wears white robes like a Śvetāmbara monk, the mendicant is making the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Giving alms to a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

As with many important authors of long ago, nothing is known about Kundakunda’s life. He is traditionally dated in the second to third centuries but recent scholarly research puts him in the fourth to fifth centuries. His name is quoted as one of the leaders of the Mūla-saṅgha, the most ancient Digambara monastic order.

His name probably comes from Kuṇḍakundapura, a village in Tamil Nadu, south India. Kundakunda is known under four other names, among which Padmanandi is the most quoted in the epigraphical sources. Another proof of his origins in south India is that his name is associated with the Drāviḍa-saṅgha, a Jain monastic order established in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Kundakunda was probably close to the Pallava dynasty in Tamil Nadu, which ruled large parts of central and southern India between the early fourth century and the late ninth century. Therefore he would have probably been active in Kanchipuram, the Pallavan capital city, a centre of Hindu learning but also tolerant of other religions

A set of holy footprints – pādukā – is related to him in Ponnur Hill in Tamil Nadu, the place where he is believed to have attained liberation.

The traditional story about Kundakunda’s life is summarised here. In the town of Kurumarai in south India lived a rich merchant called Karamuṇḍa and his wife Śrīmatī. They employed a cattleman named Mathivaran.

One day, Mathivaran watched a huge fire rage in the forest but could see a group of trees that was still green. He went towards the living trees and saw the hut of a Jain monk among them. Inside the hut, he saw a box containing some Jain Āgamas, to which he attributed the miracle. He took the manuscripts and worshipped them every day. One day, a Jain monk visited the house. The merchant gave him food and the cattleman gave him the Āgamas. In return, the monk gave them his blessing

As the merchant did not have any children, what should happen happened. The cattleman died and was reborn as Karamuṇḍa’s son. Growing up in the merchant’s house, the extremely clever boy became a very important philosopher and a renowned religious master named Kundakunda.

The second part of the story is more cosmological and evokes Kundakunda’s journey in the Pūrva-videha. The Pūrva-videha is a mythical land where Sīmandhara-svāmī, one the great sages in Jainism, lives eternally. Kundakunda travelled here by translocation of the body – āhāraka-śarīra. In this way he attended Sīmandhara-svāmī’s samavasaraṇa and the legend says that he attained final liberation during this event.

The second part of the story is also told about two other important Digambara philosophers, Umāsvāmīn and Pūjyapāda.


Kundakunda’s work is written in Śaurasenī Prakrit, the language of the Digambara canonical scriptures. He used the classical Prakrit metre named gāhā, gāthā in Sanskrit. His style is very clear and some expressions strike the reader strongly and leave no doubt.

The works attributed to Kundakunda can be separated into three main groups:

  • the first one comprises three important treatises known as the ‘Three Offerings’ – prābhṛta-traya – or the ‘Three Dramas’ – nāṭaka-traya
  • the second group contains a series of eight ‘Offerings’ – prābhṛta in Sanskrit, pāhuḍa in Prakrit
  • the last one gathers together all the other works.

'Three Dramas'

A typical Digambara representation of a siddha, shown as an empty space. This underlines the idea that a siddha has no body and is a soul that has recovered its original purity. It regains this purity when it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In thi

Image of a siddha
Image by Hindi Granth Karyala © Public domain

These texts are the most significant and influential of Kundakunda’s writings. They aim to aid the soul in its fight to break free of the bondage of karma and reach emancipation by providing details of the knowledge and processes involved.

The most important of Kundakunda’s works is the Samaya-sāraEssence of the Supreme Self. It is a text of 415 stanzas that focus on understanding the pure nature of the self or soul in order to attain liberation. Kundakunda insists on the difference between the conventional and the absolute points of view. The conventional point of view is like a translation of the absolute point of view into an accessible language, just like people of different countries need translations to understand each other.

Kundakunda helps the reader to discriminate between what belongs to the self – jīva – and what belongs to the non-self – ajīva. The qualities of the self are knowledgejñāna – and faith – darśana. The attribute of the soul is upayoga. Kundakunda focuses also on the role played by the self in the process of the making of karmic particles. Then he insists on the fact that merit – puṇya – is not at all enviable because it produces karmas, just as demerit – pāpa – does. In a famous stanza, Kundakunda warns that a chain made of gold binds as much as one made of iron.

The text examines the other categories of truthpadārtha – in order to describe the:

The two last chapters of the book deal with how the all-pure knowledge – sarva-viśuddha-jñāna – of these principles must lead to liberation – mokṣa – of the self.

The Pravacana-sāra – Essence of the Doctrine – is also a very important text, which is divided into three books. It deals with consciousness and the soul, which are key topics in Jain belief.

The first one defines three kinds of upayoga. This term is difficult to translate because it describes the manifestation of consciousness, the capacity of cognition. The three types of upayoga are the:

  • unsuitable consciousness – aśubha-upayoga – which results in human, sub-human and hellish births
  • suitable consciousness – śubha-upayoga – which causes births in heaven
  • pure consciousness – śuddha-upayoga – which leads the soul to omniscience.

The omniscient soul is above physical pleasure and pain, and has a direct, true vision of all objects. The soul is called the ‘knower’.

The second book defines the relations of the substance, its quality and the modifications it undergoes. The soul is a sentient substance – jīva. Its main quality is the manifestation of consciousness – upayoga – which inclines towards perception – darśana – and knowledge – jñāna. The soul endures modifications because it is soiled by karmas created during infinite lifetimes. It realises itself as pure when the passions are not developed. In order to reach this purity, Jain monks must follow an internal and external discipline of non-attachment. The practice of ascetism and absolute non-attachment is the subject of the third book. A monk who follows proper conduct, who is peaceful in asceticism, is on his way to attaining liberation.

The Pañcāstikāya-sāra – Essence of the Five Constitutive Elements – is a kind of compilation of what has been described in the two previous texts. It describes the five entities that constitute the universe, which are also known as the five substances – dravya. Kundakunda insists on the primacy of the sentient substance – jīva – and describes its characteristics. Then the text deals with the nine categories of truth – padārtha – like the Samayasāra does. These lead the soul to the last one, which is liberation.

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