Article: Kundakunda

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 meritpuṇya – 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.

Eight ‘Offerings’

This 18th-century statue of a Jina from the Deccan has no emblem – lāñchana – to identify him. The emblem is usually on the central panel of his pedestal. With characteristics such as closed eyes, nudity and a very plain style, this figure is Digambara.

Jina statue
Image by Sailko © CC BY-SA 3.0

Describing all the principles of the Jain doctrine and the way to practise them, the eight Prābhṛtas or ‘Offerings’ are short treatises, easy to learn by heart. They are all written in verse and are of varying lengths.

The Darśana-prābhṛta, or Prakrit Daṃsaṇa-pāhuḍa, is a text of 36 stanzas on the concept of ‘right faith’ – samyag-darśana. It provides two philosophical points of view, telling the reader to:

  • believe in the principles preached by the Jina
  • consider right faith to be the realisation of the self.

The second text is the Cāritra-prābhṛta or Cāritta-pāhuḍa in Prakrit. This is a 44-stanza text on ‘right conduct’ – samyak-cāritra – which is the essential tool for liberation. It goes into great detail about the correct conduct for both monks and lay men. Lay conduct is divided into 11 stages. Progressing from one to another requires the lay Jain to take all the groups of lay vows, namely the:

The Sūtra-prābhṛta – Sutta-pāhuḍa in Prakrit – has 27 stanzas. It is a metaphorical composition around the term sūtra, which means both ‘thread’ and ‘sacred texts’. Stating how a needle is not lost with a thread, the text discusses how, in the same way, a man is not lost in the cycle of transmigration with the knowledge of sacred texts. This prābhṛta is also interesting because it describes the ascetic practices reserved for women.

Eleven topics are dealt with in the Bodha-prābhṛta or Bodha-pāhuḍa. In 62 stanzas the text explores the:

  • sanctuaries dedicated to Jinasāyatana
  • soul seen as the real holy templecaitya-gṛha
  • image of great Jain figures to be worshipped – pratimā
  • faith – darśana – that shows the path of liberation
  • idol of a Jina – Jina-bimba – as an embodiment of knowledge
  • appearance of a Jina – Jina-mudrā – as an example of passionlessness and self-control
  • knowledgejñāna – without which nothing is possible
  • divinity – deva – that is free from delusion
  • holy places – tīrtha – that are in reality the Jain principles like right faith or self-control
  • nature of the Arhat as a support for meditation and asceticismpravrajyā – for ideal monks.

The fifth Prābhṛta is the Bhāva-prābhṛta or Bhāva-pāhuḍa. This 163-stanza text discusses the mental state – bhāva – necessary to reach the purity of all psychic or spiritual transformations – pariṇāma-suddhi. In this long text Kundakunda describes all the categories of detailed virtues that one should practise to move along the path of liberation. These are:

  • 12 reflections – aṇuprekṣā
  • 25 meditations – bhāvanā
  • seven principles – tattva.

All the disciplinary objects are nothing if they are practised without bhāva or good psychic disposition.

The next Offering is the Mokṣa-prābhṛta or Mokkha-pāhuḍa, a 106-stanza text describing the three kinds of self:

  • the external – bahir-ātman – represented by sense-organs
  • the internal – antar-ātman – represented by psychic states
  • the supreme – paramātman – represented by the Jina free from karmic particles.

Here Kundakunda mainly discusses the supreme self and invites his followers to discriminate between the self – jīva – and the non-self – ajīva.

The Liṅga-prābhṛta or Liṅga-pāhuḍa in Prakrit is a text of 22 stanzas. It stresses that mendicants’ internal attitude – bhāva-liṅga – is most important and that outward appearances – dravya-liṅga – will not make them true monks.

The final Prābhṛta is a text 40 stanzas long, called the Śīla-prābhṛta, Sīla-pāhuḍa in Prakrit. It covers virtuous conduct, focusing on chastity because sensory pleasure leads to the cycle of rebirths by creating attachments that produce karmic particles. On the contrary, virtuous conduct is like a fire that burns away the deposit of old karmas.

Other works

At the peak of the universe, the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā is where liberated souls – siddhas – exist in neverending bliss.

Image by Anishshah19 © CC-BY-3.0

Although numerous works are ascribed to Kundakunda, most of them are probably not his work. In addition to the writings described earlier, two other texts are associated with Kundakunda. These are concerned with meditation and the three gems of Jain doctrine.

The Dvādaśa-anuprekṣā or Bārasa-Aṇupekkhā in Prakrit is a quite popular text of 91 stanzas. This is the only composition that has been signed by the author, as ‘Kundakunda Muni’. The Twelve Reflections deals with the subjects on which every Jain has to focus his or her thoughts, such as the:

The twelfth topic is the perfect knowledgebodhi – which is difficult to attain – durlabha.

The Niyama-sāraEssence of Rules – is a composite text of 187 stanzas. It is a discussion of the ‘three jewels’ which are necessarily – niyamena – considered to constitute the Jain path of liberation. After a description of ‘right knowledge’ and ‘right faith’, Kundakunda examines the more practical topics comprising ‘right conduct’.

From a conventional point of view, it consists mainly of following the:

From an absolute point of view, right conduct means performing the six dutiesāvaśyaka. Practising these duties simultaneously with knowledge and faith, as heat and light are both found in the sunshine, will lead to self-realisation.

Other works are attributed to Kundakunda but they are probably by other hands. Among them are:


The Offerings – Prābhṛtas – described above had a profound influence on later Digambara philosophers. The style and the topics of some of Kundakunda’s stanzas can be found in:

  • Pūjyapāda’s Samādhi-śataka
  • Yogīndu’s Paramātma-prakāśa
  • Amṛtacandra’s Puruṣārthasiddhy-upāya
  • Guṇabhadra’s Ātmānuśāsana.

The ‘Three Dramas’ – Nāṭaka-trayas – have had a particular impact because they were the object of commentaries over a long period of time. Amṛtacandra in the 10th century and Jayasena in the 12th century wrote Sanskrit commentaries that were translated into and glossed in Hindi during the pre-modern period. These Hindi renderings assured the texts great popularity. Nowadays, these texts are translated into modern Indian languages and are thus accessible to devout lay Jains.

The Samaya-sāra has a special destiny, maybe because it is Kundakunda’s clearest and most powerful work. Amṛtacandra commented on it in Sanskrit prose, adding 278 Sanskrit verses. These verses were later taken out to form a new text, known under the title of Samayasāra Kalaśa – Jars containing the Samayasāra. Rājamalla translated and commented upon this in the 16th century. This commentary fell into the hands of Banārasīdās, who produced a new, free adaptation of the text entitled Samayasāra Nāṭaka. This version enjoyed great popularity in the 17th century and was probably read during meetings of the Adhyātma movement. Later associated with Banārasīdās, this movement was born in the second half of the 16th century and gathered together lay Jains of all sects in different cities of north India. The most important groups were in Agra and Jaipur. Kundakunda’s work was the basis of their discussions and their main source of inspiration.

Kundakunda’s style and thought found a special resonance in the late 19th century in the work of Rājacandra. This Gujarati mystical poet also emphasised that religious activity should focus on internal austerities practised with special psychic disposition – bhāva. Like Kundakunda, Rājacandra stressed the simultaneous necessity of both aspects in order to realise that the self is the supreme self.

Today, Kundakunda is read by a variety of audiences. He is popular among Jains of all sects who try to have an internal religious life. Digambara monks consider the majority of his work to be part of their canon of sacred writings. Philosophers and historians of philosophy also read Kundakunda. They read his works for his penetrating insight and in the context of religious rivalry. Kundakunda’s writings can be compared with the very popular Vedānta school of Hindu thought, which also stresses the inner spiritual life.


edited by Mahendrakumāra Jaina and Jayacandra Chābaṛā
Śrī Digambara Jaina Svādhyāya-Mandira Trust; Sonagaḍha, Gujarat, India; 1995

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translated and edited by Avināśa Sāṭhaye
Pandit Nathuram Premi Research series; volume 13
Hindi Granth Karyalay; Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; 2010

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translated and edited by Devendrakumār Śāstrī
Paṇḍit Ṭoḍarmal Smārak Ṭraṣṭ; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 1991

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Niyamsara (the Perfect Law)
translated and edited by Uggar Sain and Brahmachari Sital Prasada
Central Jaina Pub. House; Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1931

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Niyamasāra: Śrīmad Padmaprabha Maladhārīdeva Tātparyavṛtti nāmaka saṃskṛta ṭīkā sahita
translated and edited by Hukamacanda Bhārilla
Paṇḍit Ṭoḍarmal Sarvodaya Ṭraṣṭ; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 1960

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Pañcāstikāya-Sāra: The Building of the Cosmos
translated by Appaswami Chakravarti
edited by A. N. Upadhye
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Mūrtidevī Jaina granthamālā: English series; volume 4
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha; New Delhi, India; 1975

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Pravacanasāra (Pavayaṇasāra)
translated and edited by A. N. Upadhye
Shrimad Rajachandra Ashram; Agas, Gujarat, India; 2000

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translated and edited by Hukamacanda Bhārilla
Paṇḍit Ṭoḍarmal Smārak Ṭraṣṭ; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 1990

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Samayasara (the Soul-Essence)
translated and edited by Jagmandar Lal Jaini and Brahmachari Sital Prasad
Jagmandarlal Jaina Memorial / Sacred Books of the Jainas series; volume 3 / VIII
Pandit Ajit Prasada, Central Jaina Pub. House; Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1930

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translated and edited by Jethalal S. Zaveri and Muni Mahendrakumar
Jain Vishva Bharati University; Ladnun, Rajasthan, India; 2009

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translated and edited by Jethalal S. Zaveri and Muni Mahendrakumar
Jain Vishva Bharati University; Ladnun, Rajasthan, India; 2009

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Samayasāra of Śrī Kundakunda
translated by Appaswami Chakravarti
edited by A. N. Upadhye
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Mūrtidevī Jaina granthamālā: English series; volume 1
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha; Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1971

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‘On the Epithet: nāṭaka for the Samayasāra of Kundakunda’
Bansidhar Bhatt
Jainism and Prakrit in Ancient and Medieval India – essays for Prof. Jagdish Chandra Jain
edited by N. N. Bhattacharya
Manohar; New Delhi, India; 1994

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‘Vyavahāra-naya and Niścaya-naya in Kundakunda’s Works’
Bansidhar Bhatt
Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft
volume 28: supplement 2
Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft; 1974

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‘Kundakunda versus Sāṃkhya on the soul’
Johannes Bronkhorst
Svasti – essays in honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah for his 75th Birthday
edited by Nalini Balbir
Muddushree Granthamala series; volume 75
K. S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust; Bangalore, Karnataka, India; 2010

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Harmless Souls: Karmic Bondage and Religious Change in Early Jainism with Special Reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda
William J. Johnson
Lala Sundar Lal Jain research series; volume 9
Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, India; 1995

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‘Kundakunda echt und unecht’
Walther Schubring
Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft
volume 107

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‘Upayoga, according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti’
Jayandra Soni
Journal of Indian Philosophy
volume 35: 4

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‘The Bārasa-Aṇuvekkhā of Kundakunda’
Chandrabhal Tripathi
and Bansidhar Bhatt
Mahāvīra and His Teachings
volume VII: 1
Bhagavān Mahāvīra 2500th Nirvāna Mahotsava Samiti; Bombay, Maharashtra, India; 1977

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‘Introduction: An Essay on Kundakunda, his Date, his Pravacanasāra and other works, etc’
A. N. Upadhye
Pravacanasāra (Pavayaṇasāra)
edited by A. N. Upadhye
Shrimad Rajachandra Ashram; Agas, Gujarat, India; 2000

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‘The works of Kundakunda: an annotated listing of editions, translations and studies’
Royce Wiles
Vasantagauravam: Essays in Jainism
edited by Jayandra Soni
Vakils, Feffer and Simons; Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; 2001

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