Article: Sacred writings

Unlike monotheistic traditions, the Jains do not have a unique holy book that characterises their faith. Instead they have a body of holy writings or scriptures. In India, they share this feature with the Buddhists. Hindus are in a similar position, even though they have the Vedas, which can be considered the ultimate source of teaching.

The Jinas, especially the 24th, Mahāvīra, are the ultimate source of teaching for all Jains. All sects agree that this teaching was first transmitted orally. All are also aware that in the course of time this teaching changed, with some parts altered through faulty memorisation or simply lost. They dispute, however, which parts have survived and which have survived in amended form. This is why Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras do not agree about which scriptures are authoritative.

The Śvetāmbaras have a canon of 32 or 45 Āgamas, made up of several types of scripture. Believing that all the original Āgamas have been lost for centuries, the Digambaras have a different canon. They hold that two texts preserve parts of the Pūrvas or original teachings of the Jinas. These and other early texts make up their scriptures.

Both sects agree on only a single scripture. The Tattvārtha-sūtra contains the main doctrines of the Jain faith, though the two main sects have slightly different versions and composition dates.

Knowledge of what is now in written form is essential to being a good Jain. It is included in the second type of knowledge in Jain epistemology – śruta-jñāna – ‘knowledge of what has been heard’. In the often fervent debates about the importance of this knowledge in spiritual development, one powerful view says that scriptural knowledge is not enough by itself.

Although scriptural knowledge is very important, access to holy texts has frequently been restricted. In some sects particular scriptures are still limited to certain groups, such as male mendicants. Lay access to holy writings has usually been under the guidance of mendicants and often has not been direct and unmediated. Printing and editing the scriptures are thus relatively recent activities.

Whether they have access to the textual material through which the Jinas’ teaching came to be handed down or not, all Jains are aware of the existence of their holy writings. These writings are the basis of their ritual and religious life and are venerated in various ways. The most striking examples are individual Śvetāmbara and Digambara festivals in which holy texts form the centrepieces.

Terms and classifications

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

The word ‘canon’ for the Jain holy writings is increasingly felt to be inadequate, for it implies an unchanging body of texts sanctioned by a central authority. Jains commonly use the words siddhānta and āgama, which are pan-Indian terms. The former term conveys the idea of validity and authority, and is perhaps more common among Digambaras. The latter term means ‘what has come down to us’ or tradition.

Other terms used in Prakrit are ‘open teaching of monks’ – niggantha-pāvayaṇa – or ‘basket of the chief disciples’ – gaṇi-piḍaga. These are both in the singular and refer to the primary sources of the teaching as something global.

To a large extent, the concepts of siddhānta and āgama denote fluid groupings that are open to change. For practical purposes, various categories of the scriptures have taken shape over time and have been populated with specific texts. Whereas some categories are fairly fixed, others can be extended or reduced. The number of items in each group may play a role in sectarian identity because some may be rejected as apocryphal.

The terms āgama and siddhānta may also be understood as even broader groupings, covering any text with a Jain author that teaches some aspect of the tradition – whether commentary, hymn, story or treatise. These forms are all regarded as media meant to ‘awaken’ the ‘somnolent sūtras’ (Dundas 1996).

Therefore classifications of Jain scriptures may use various criteria. Different classifications may thus be compatible.

Each of the items in both classes contains a number of texts that may be either fixed or varying, according to the criteria adopted.

The Śvetāmbara canon comprises either 32 or 45 texts, depending on the sect.

Chief disciples – the gaṇadharas

This manuscript painting shows Indrabhūti Gautama preaching. The white-clad monk is fanned by a servant and sits on a lotus, symbols of worldly and spiritual rank. King Śreṇika and his family sit separately from the lords and ladies of the court

Indrabhūti Gautama preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

‘A Jina utters the meaning, the chief disciples put together the text skilfully’. This oft-quoted statement from the Āvaśayaka-niryukti, an early Śvetāmbara commentary, describes the process of teaching and the respective roles of the Jina and his chief disciples.

The chief disciples – gaṇadharas – are the closest followers of a Jina, who have taken mendicant vows in his presence and form the core of his fourfold community. Mahāvīra, for instance, has 11, who are said to be converted brahmins. They are the only ones who can understand the Jina’s meaning from the various lectures and discussions he leads over time. They shape it so it can be passed on to others, resulting in the 14 Pūrvas and the 12 Aṅgas.

The differences in Śvetāmbara and Digambara understanding of the ‘divine sound’ may influence the role of the chief disciples. It could be more important among the Digambaras since the gaṇadharas have to translate into words a sound that does not correspond to any specific language.

The chief disciples attain final liberation without further rebirth and cannot continue their activities as monastic leaders or teachers after they have reached omnisciencekevala-jñāna. Thus they must ensure that they transmit the Jina’s teachings while still ordinary monks.

Chain of oral transmission

This picture from a manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra dates from 1512. It depicts the elder Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives

Jambū-svāmin and his eight wives
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

In theory only the Jinas and their chief disciples are involved in passing on teachings orally. Each of the Jinas has direct disciples, but nothing much is known about their exact role in transmission. Precise evidence is available only for the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

Mahāvīra’s first chief disciple was Indrabhūti Gautama. But he attained omniscience on the day Mahāvīra died, which is commemorated in Dīvālī. Then the leader and preacher was Sudharman, who attained omniscience 12 years after Mahāvīra’s death. He was thus in a position to preach and lead Mahāvīra’s community during this 12-year period.

Sudharman taught his disciple, Jambū, as the introduction to many Aṅgas shows. When Sudharman died, at the age of 100, the first generation of Mahāvīra’s disciples was extinct. Jambū was the first ‘elder’ – sthavira. He became the leader of the monastic community and the chief teacher for eight years. When he attained omniscience and final liberation in the 64th year after Mahāvīra’s death, he was the last person to be liberated in this time cycle.

Jambū’s successors continued to transmit Mahāvīra’s message by memorising it, with their followers doing the same. The first ‘elders’ who followed Jambū were:

  • Prabhava
  • Śayyambhava, around 429 BCE
  • Yaśobhadra
  • Bhadrabāhu in the 4th century BCE, who was the last to master the 14 Pūrvas
  • Sthūlabhadra.

More elders are traditional, with the full list forming the topic of the second part of the Kalpa-sūtra, theSthavirāvalī’ or ‘String of Elders‘. This list is also found at the opening of another work in the Śvetāmbara canon, the Nandī-sūtra. Legends about the main elders are knitted together in Hemacandra’s Pariśiṣṭa-parvanLives of the Elders – written in the 12th century (Fynes 1998).

Crises and losses

Sacred footprints in Bhadrabāhu’s Cave on Candra-giri at the pilgrimage site of Shravana Belgola, Karnataka. These footprints – caraṇa – are considered to be those of the 3rd-century sage Bhadrabāhu, who fasted to death at Shravana Belgola

Bhadrabāhu’s sacred footprints
Image by Ilya Mauter © CC BY-SA 2.5

Legendary accounts show that a major crisis occurred around 300 BCE in the area of eastern India where the Jain community had originated and was strong. A 12-year famine in the Magadha region proved disastrous. The accounts explain why the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras have such different canons of holy writings. Dating from much later than the events they describe, the traditional stories suppose that the split between the two sects had already taken place. In fact, at the time of the famine, these two groups are emerging as separate factions.

According to Digambara sources, Bhadrabāhu led a fraction of the monastic community to the south, to today’s Karnatak, to escape the effects of the long famine. The Emperor Candragupta was also part of the group. Both Bhadrabāhu and Candragupta are thought to have fasted unto death in Shravana Belgola. Some 12 years later Bhadrabāhu’s followers went back to Pāṭaliputra, modern-day Patna and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. There they discovered that Sthūlabhadra had organised a recitation of the holy writings, which produced an official revised edition or recension. The returned monks disagreed with the recension. The northerners had also given up practising nudity while the community had been split up. The group that refused to accept these two innovations are those who were later called Digambaras.

Śvetāmbara sources say that Bhadrabāhu did not go south but went to Nepal. Organising a recitation of the sacred texts in Pāṭaliputra, Sthūlabhadra asked Bhadrabāhu to recite the Pūrvas, which only he knew.

Both sects agree that Bhadrabāhu was the last person to memorise the whole of the 14 texts. After he died they both hold that only part of the Pūrvas was still known, until, finally, they became extinct. They disagree, however, on when exactly he died. Digambaras believe he died 175 years after the traditional date of Mahāvīra’s death, around 352 BCE. The Śvetāmbara sect holds that he died 162 years after Mahāvīra, which is 348 BCE.

Śvetāmbara canon

As one of the early 'elders' – sthavira – of the Jain tradition, Sthūlabhadra is an important figure. He organised a recitation of the holy texts around 300 BCE, which was key in the gradual split between the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects.

The elder Sthūlabhadra
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

This part of the story does not concern the Digambaras. Since they denied the authenticity of the first recitation at Pāṭaliputra, they view later ones in the same light. These councils produced what is known as the Śvetāmbara canon, which dates back to the 5th century.

The elders and teachers recognised that natural disasters or other crises threatened the preservation of the tradition. They made successive attempts to collect whatever was available during official recitations – vācanās – or ‘councils’.

Sthūlabhadra presided over the first council, which strengthened the growing divisions between the two groups that would later be known as the major Jain  sects. It took place in Pāṭaliputra ‘160 years after Mahāvīra’s death’, which would correspond to 367 BCE. At that time, the Pūrvas and the 12th Aṅga, the Dŗṣṭi-vāda, were already lost.

The next recitations took place in the 4th century CE, though it is possible that the texts had begun to be written down earlier. The second recitation was held at Mathurā in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, under the supervision of Skandila-sūri. A concurrent council took place at Valabhī, in Gujarat, led by Nāgārjuna. These two recitations were apparently irreconcilable. Scattered traces of the readings adopted by the ‘Nāgārjunīyas’ are preserved in the surviving Śvetāmbara scriptures but no more than that.

The final redaction of the Śvetāmbara canon was achieved during a council at Valabhī in the 5th century. According to tradition, the religious teacher Devarddhigaṇi Kṣamāśramaṇa organised the council ‘980 or 993 years’ after Mahāvīra’s death, which is 453 or 466 CE. All the accounts of the episode are much later but it appears that council attendees agreed to write down everything that remained to avoid more losses than had already occurred.

Digambara canon

What the Digambaras view as authoritative reflections of the early teachings are works that they believe were put into writing in the 2nd century CE. They are the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama and the Kaṣāya-prābhŗta. They are fragments of the Pūrvas, which were all that the oral tradition had saved by that time.

Beyond boundaries – the Tattvārtha-sūtra

Because Digambaras and Śvetāmbara have different canons, it is important to underline the unique place of another Jain holy writing – the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

This is the only text 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 of the text.

However, the Tattvārtha-sūtra sums up key beliefs of Jainism and its authority remains strong. Commentaries reflect these sectarian differences but also emphasise the place of the scripture at the heart of the Jain tradition. This is the reason the Tattvārtha-sūtra was selected to represent Jainism in the Sacred Literature Series, which organises the publication of key texts in different faiths. It was translated into English under the title That Which Is.


Initially, the language of the Jain scriptures was an issue – it was Prakrit against Sanskrit. But in later phases various languages came to coexist and have been used in different contexts in India, where multi-linguism has always been widespread.


A palm-leaf manuscript from Tamil Nadu. The manuscript is kept together by a string threaded through holes in each long thin folio. When the teachings of the Jinas were first written down, they were etched onto palm leaves, which are very fragile

Palm-leaf manuscript
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Both the Digambara and the Śvetāmbara Āgamas are written in Prakrit, not Sanskrit. This is considered to have been a deliberate choice. In Mahāvīra’s time Sanskrit was the language of the sacred texts of the brahmins and appears to have been reserved for an ‘elite’. As Mahāvīra’s teaching was ‘open’ to all – an idea that the term pavayaṇa might convey – it was written in the most widely understood language.

The Śvetāmbara Āgamas in the strict sense of the term are written in the variety of Prakrit known as Ardhamāgadhī, with a mixture of another form of Prakrit called Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī. The former is associated with the region of eastern India, where Mahāvīra preached, and the latter with western India. Jains migrated west later, and western India is where the final redaction of the scriptures took place, at Valabhī in Gujarat. Somebody who understands one of the two can also understand the other. The differences are grammatical. The degree of blend depends on the texts. Those which are considered ‘early’, such as the Ācārānga-sūtra, are more Ardhamāgadhī.

Early commentaries on the Śvetāmbara canon were also written in Jaina Māhārāṣṭrī Prakrit, such as:

  • the verse niryuktis and bhāṣyas, in the first centuries CE
  • the prose cūrṇis in the 6th to 7th centuries CE.

In their first phase the Digambara Āgamas are written in the variety of Prakrit known as Jaina Śaurasenī. Again, this is not altogether a distinct language. The differences from other Prakrits mainly relate to phonetics.

Digambaras also used a later form of Prakrit known as Apabhraṃśa, which is the language of some poetical treatises and narratives.


This is a good example of the pañca-pāṭha style of using the manuscript margins for commentary. This manuscript page is from a 16th-century copy of the Ṣaṣṭi-śataka.

Pañca-pāṭha style of manuscript commentary
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

In around the 5th century CE Jain writers began to use Sanskrit for certain scriptures. Though these texts were not believed to represent the earliest tradition, they have the status of quasi-canonical works, because Sanskrit was felt to be the language of knowledge and intellectual debate. The best-known example is the Tattvārtha-sūtra.

Most commentaries on the scriptures among both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras were written in Sanskrit. It has remained a trans-regional language of culture.


Jaina Studies: Their Present State and Future Tasks
Ludwig Alsdorf
translated by Bal Patil
edited by Willem Bollée
Hindi Granth Karyalay; Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; 2006

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‘Autobiographies of Jain Monks and Nuns in the 20th Century: A Preliminary Essay’
Nalini Balbir
Jaina Studies
edited by Colette Caillat and Nalini Balbir
Papers of the XIIth World Sanskrit Conference series; series editor Petteri Koskikallio and Asko Parpola; volume 9
Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, India; 2008

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‘Les lecteurs jaina śvetāmbara face à leur canon’
Nalini Balbir
Ecrire et transmettre en Inde classique
edited by Gérard Colas and Gerdi Gerschheimer
Études thématiques series; volume 23
École Française d’Extrême Orient; Paris; 2009

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‘Is a Manuscript an Object or a Living Being?: Jain Views on the Life and Use of Sacred Texts’
Nalini Balbir
The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions
edited by Kristina Myrvold
Ashgate; Aldershot, Hampshire UK; 2010

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‘On the role and meaning of the Śvetāmbara canon in the history of Jainism’
Nalini Balbir
Studies in Jaina History and Culture: Jaina Law
edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 4
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2013 – forthcoming

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In Search of the Original Ardhamāgadhī
N. M. Kansara
translated by K. R. Chandra
Prākrt̥a Grantha Pariṣad series; volume 35
D. M. Prakrit Text Society; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 2001

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‘The Intellectual Formation of a Jain Monk: A Śvetāmbara Monastic Curriculum’
John E. Cort
Journal of Indian Philosophy
volume 29

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‘Somnolent Sūtras: Scriptural Commentary in Śvetāmbara Jainism’
Paul Dundas
Journal of Indian Philosophy
volume 25

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The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

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History, Scripture and Controversy in a Medieval Jain Sect
Paul Dundas
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; series editor Peter Flügel; volume 2
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2007

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Scripture and Community: Collected Essays on the Jains
Kendall W. Folkert
edited by John E. Cort
Studies in World Religions series; volume 6
Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University & Scholars Press; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; 1993

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‘Going by the Book: The Role of Written Texts in Medieval Jain Sectarian Conflicts’
Phyllis Granoff
Jain Studies in Honour of Jozef Deleu
edited by Rudy Smet and Kenji Watanabe
Hon-no-Tomosha; Tokyo, Japan; 1993

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The Lives of the Jain Elders
translated and edited by R. C. C. Fynes
Oxford World’s Classics series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK and New York, USA; 1998

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The Jaina Path of Purification
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California USA; 1979

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‘Hemaraja Pande’s Caurāsī Bol’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Jambū-jyoti: Munivara Jambūvijaya Festschrift
edited by Madhusudan A. Dhaky and J. B. Shah
Shresthi Kasturbhai Lalbhai Smarak Nidhi series; volume 7
Sharadaben Chimanbhai Educational Research Centre; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 2004

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The Doctrine of the Jainas: Described after the Old Sources
Walther Schubring
translated by Wolfgang Bühlen
edited by Satya Ranjan Banerjee
Lala Sunder Lal Jain Research series; volume 15
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India; 2000

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‘The Dating of the Jaina Councils: Do Scholarly Presentations Reflect the Traditional Sources?’
Royce Wiles
Studies in Jaina History and Culture: Disputes and Dialogues
edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2006

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Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

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