Article: Tattvārtha-sūtra

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.


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


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


samyag–darśanajñāna–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




what is living or sentient, also called the soul


what is without life, just a substance


flowing of karmic particles into the soul


bondage or the association of karmic particles with the soul


blocking the flowing of new karmic particles into the soul


exhausting karmic particles already present in the soul


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


Chapter number and title in That Which Is


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


6. The Inflow of Karma


8. Karmic Bondage


9. Inhibiting and Wearing Off Karma


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 vowsvrata – 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



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.


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:

  • Siddhasena-gaṇi or Gandhahastin’s 8th-century work
  • the commentary by Haribhadra, written in the 8th century
  • Pandit Sukhlalji’s text, composed in the 20th century.

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.


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

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
translated by S. A. Jain
Vira Sasana Sangha; Calcutta, India; 1960

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

eLibrary Links

A Study of Tattvārtha-sūtra with Bhāṣya
Volume 86 of the L. D. Series is an attempt to assess the date of the Tattvārtha-sūtra using its treatment of some doctrinal themes and references to external data. It seems reasonable to locate it in the 5th century CE. The differences between Digambara and Śvetāmbara versions of the text are also discussed, as well as the status of the Bhāṣya and the question of knowing whether it has the same author as the sūtra itself.
Jain Spirit 01
This is issue 1 of Jain Spirit, covering July to September 1999.
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