Jain Literature and Canonical Texts

A leaf from a Jain Manuscript

A Gold Leaf from a Dispersed Jain Manuscript of the Kalakacharya-katha

by Jayaram V

The classical Jain canonical literature was composed over a long period of time. Both Parsvanatha and Mahavira revived Jainism and created a pressing need to reorganize and record the Jain doctrine according to the new body of knowledge that was brought into light by their teachings. Since the last two Thirthankaras themselves used the language of the common people for the propagation of Jain doctrine, the early literature of Jainism reflected the sentiment of the times and was composed in Prakrit or Ardha-Magadhi.

It was only after five or six hundred years after Mahavira, some time during the early Christian era, the Jain scholars came under the influence of Vedic society and began using Sanskrit to compose their literary works. Jainism being one of the most ancient religious traditions of India, probably older than even the Vedic religion itself, there is no unanimity among scholars as to what constitute the original Jain literature. For several centuries even the most ardent followers of Jainism debated on this subject and failed to reach an agreement.

Both the Svetambaras and the Digambaras generally acknowledge the Agama Siddhanta to be their early literature while they do differ with regard to their content and interpretation. Much of the classical literature of Jainism we have today was composed after the passing away of the Thirthankaras. The available texts therefore do not guarantee the purity of their teachings.

Two hundred years after the passing away of Mahavira, an attempt was made by scholars to codify the Jain canon by convening an assembly at Pataliputra. It was the first Jain council to debate the issue and it ended in failure because the council could not reach an unanimous decision on the subject. A second council held at Vallabhi in the 5th Century AD was however largely successful in resolving the issue and enabled the scholars of the time to define the canon with some certainty.

The Main Body of Jain Literature

The following classification of Jain literature is based mostly on the decisions made during the second Jain Council and according to the classification presented by S.Radhakrishnan in the Indian Philosophy, Volume 1.

1. The Forty one sutras. They consist of

i. Eleven Anga suttas, which explain the concepts and philosophy of Jainism in the form of myths and legends, in addition to declaring the code of conduct for the monks. The 12th Anga sutta said to have been lost. The Anga suttas were originally said to be 12 of the 12th one was lost.

ii. Twelve Upangas,

iii. ive Chedas or Cheyya Suttas, which detail the rules of conduct for the monks in the monasteries and penalties for breaking them.

iv. Five Mulas or Mula Suttas, containing the basic doctrine of Jainism, and

v. Eight miscellaneous works such as the Kalpasutra of Bhadrabahu, the Nandi Sutta and so on.

2. The Prakarnikas which are unclassified works in verse form and deal with the basic tenets of Jainism.

3. The twelve Niryuktis or commentaries. The commentaries were written by Jain monks. Siddhasena and Samghadas later rearranged the commentaries into Bhashyas. The early commentaries were composed in Prakrit and later ones Sanskrit.

4. One Mahabhashya or great commentary.

The non canonical literature

Those texts which do not form part of the above, but of great value to the students and followers of Jainism are included in this category. We are listing a few such works below for reader's convenience. (Readers may note that for convenience sake we have divided the complex Sanskrit titles into individual words, but they have to be read together.)

The Svetambara Texts:

1. Tattva-artha-adhigama-sutra by Umapati (about 3rd century AD.)

2. Nyaya-avatara by Divakara Siddhasena (5th Century)

3. Saddarsana-samucchaya by Haribhadra (9th century)

4. Saddarsana-vichara by Merutunga (15th century)

The Digambara Texts:

1. Pancha-ashtikaya-sara by Kundakundacharya (50 BC)

2. Jaina-sloka-vartika by Vidyananda (8th century)

3. Atma-anusasana by Gunabhadra (9th century)

4. Tattva-artha-sara by Amitachandra (9th century)

5. Dravya-samgraha by Nemichandra (10th century)

6. Gommatasara

7. Labdhisara

8. Ksapanasara

9. Trilokasara

10. Syadavada-manjari by Mallisena (13th century)

11. Tattv-ardha-sara-dipika by Sakalakirti (15th century)

12. Pramana-naya-tattva-loka-alamkara

The Jain scholars have their own version of Jain mythology on the line of the Hindu Puranas. The Jain Puranas are valuable sources of information on the antiquity and doctrine of Jainism and the lives of Thirthankaras. Also included in the Jain literature are works of considerable importance in grammar, lexicography, mathematics, politics, arts and sciences. It is believed that the Panchatantra contains signs of Jain influence. In addition to these we have some Jain texts composed in Indian vernacular languages such as Hindi, Tamil and Kannada. The Jivaka Chinatamani, a Tamil epic poem, is a good example, composed in the tradition of Sangam literature by a Jain saint named Tirutakkatevar. It narrates the life of a pious king who rose to prominence by his own merit only to became an ascetic in the end. The Kural of Tiruvalluvar was composed by a Jain scholar. The most famous of the Jain writers, Hemachandra, hailed from the south.

Some Important Jain Texts

The Acaranga Sutra: It is the oldest Agama Sutra, written originally in Ardha Magadhi. Divided in two parts, it prescribes code of conduct for the monks in such matters as begging, type of begging bowl to be used, how to walk and speak, and what possession they can own and so on.

Adipurana : As the name suggests the Purana describes the events associated with the many incarnations of Adinatha or Rishabhanatha, the first Thirthankara. It is said to be based on an earlier work in Sanskrit by Jinasenacharya.

Kalpa Sutra According to tradition the Kalpasutra was composed by Bhadrabahu who was also the spiritual teacher of Chandragupta Maurya. It contains the life story of Mahavira and Parsvanath.

Suggestions for Further Reading

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