Chapter 7: The Sacred Literature of the Jains

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 7: The Sacred Literature of the Jains

Perhaps of least interest to general readers, of all the scriptures treated in this volume, are those of the Jain faith, simply because they are so monastic in character. Jainism is a religion of India, considered sometimes by scholars as only a sect of Hinduism, but the Jains themselves will not agree to this. To be sure, it developed out of Hinduism, as Christianity did out of Judaism, but just as Christians do not regard themselves as a sect of Judaism, so Jains are not content to be considered a sectarian branch of Hinduism. They are listed in the Indian census as a separate faith with a total of 1,449,286 adherents, according to the most recent census report.

Jainism is a very old religion. Some Jains, indeed, regard Hinduism as only a degenerate form of it. While Mahavira, an older contemporary of Buddha, is usually thought of as its founder, it is probable that it was much older, and that Mahavira only gave it organized form, so that thenceforth it stood apart from the Hindu medium in which it existed, created a literature which became a sacred scripture, and so perpetuated the ancient faith to our own times.

Like Buddhism it found no help in the multitude of India’s gods and made man’s salvation wholly dependent on his own self-effort. Mahavira’s classic phrase: "Man thou art thine own friend, why wishest thou for a friend beyond thyself?"1 sets forth this self-dependence, which marks it off from the theistic Hinduism of his day. It stresses, more than either Buddhism or Hinduism, ascetic practice as a way to salvation, and its insistence on the principle of non-injury, Ahimsa, is more absolute and far-reaching than that of any segment of Hinduism or Buddhism which also hold it. The three jewels, right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct, afford the clue to the attainment of moksha, or salvation, which to the Jain, as to the Buddhist, meant release from the wheel of birth, on which one is held by the law of Karma. Long before Mahavira, there had been a succession of Jinas or Tirthankaras as they were called, ford-finders, who had attained moksha, and so became a guarantee to all mankind that they too might attain it. These Tirthankaras, twenty-four of them, of which Mahavira was the last, are much celebrated in the literature of Jainism, both the canonical and non-canonical, and their statues are set up in Jain temples, not to be prayed to for help, for none can help a man save himself, but as a source of assurance and encouragement to those who seek to find the release which these have already found.

Unlike Buddhism, the Jain faith has remained at home in India, so scholars say; but apparently this view is not held by the Jains. Recent correspondence with a Jain leader reveals a contrary view. "I have reason," he writes, "to believe that it was once a prevailing religion of Central Asia, Java, and Malaya, and other countries.

Jain narrative literature is full of instances of Jai existence in foreign countries." He expects to publish a book on the subject within the next few years.2

Like Buddhism, its so-called founder was from the Kshatriya or warrior, ruler caste, rather than from the Brahmin or priestly group. Mahavira, like Buddha, was son of a rajah and, like him, abandoned that status in the quest for release. At a number of points there are clear parallels between the two faiths. Many think that when Gautama forsook his princely estate and became for several years a wandering ascetic, he really became a follower of the Jain way of asceticism. Later he abandoned it and found enlightenment through meditation under the sacred Bo tree.

As in the case of the Buddhist scriptures, much of the content purports to be reported sayings of the founder. But not all of it. There are some books assigned definitely to authors other than Mahavira. The growth of the literature probably followed much the same pattern as that of Buddhism, but it was much longer in reaching anything like official canonical form. According to their own tradition, the canon, as we know it today, was agreed upon almost a thousand years after the death of Mahavira, in the late fifth or early sixth century of the Christian era at a Council held at Vallabhi in. Gujarat, presided over by the famous monk, Devarddhi Ksamasramana, called for the specific purpose of collecting and putting the sacred texts into written form. Long before this at another Council at Pataliputra, the exact date of which is unknown, because it was feared that the knowledge of the sacred text was being lost, an effort was made to collect them. Tradition says that the original teachings of Mahavira were contained in fourteen Purvas, or "old Texts," handed down orally through his disciples for six generations. A famine caused the migration of a substantial portion of the Jain community to the south, led by the great Bhadrabahu. There remained behind in Magadha only one person who knew the sacred text. Learning the loss of these texts the Council was called and it compiled the eleven angas which form the first division of the canon, and put together as many as remained of the fourteen purvas to form the twelfth anga.

Meanwhile a difference arose between those who had migrated and those who remained at home. Apparently the original Jains were forbidden to wear clothing. Those who had migrated persisted in this custom, while those who remained at home adopted the custom of wearing a white garment. They were therefore called the Svetambaras, or "White Clad," while the other group were called the Digamharas, or "Sky Clad." This distinction still prevails even today. When the Sky Clad folk returned they refused to accept the canon as formulated at Pataliputra, and have their own which while agreeing substantially in content, at least as to the names of the books included, nevertheless omits some, includes others, and within the texts bearing the same name differs at significant points. Svetambara Jains believe that the canon as adopted at Vallabhi is based squarely upon the old texts compiled at the earlier Council at Pataliputra, and that this goes directly back to Mahavira, and his early disciples.

How dependable the Jain tradition is, it is not possible to assert with certainty. Scholars differ in their judgments in the matter. Jacobi thinks the writing of the Jam works might go back as far as 300 B.C.3 Bhandarkar thinks none of the works were written before the second or third century AD. Certainly the canon, as we have it, is the end result of a long process which undoubtedly began with the formation of the order and culminated in the work of Devarddhi. There are clearly earlier and later strata to be discovered in it, which need much more attention from the specialists.

The general make-up of the canon is in outline as follows. It is divided into six sections and contains either forty-five or forty-six books.

I. The twelve An gas or limbs. Actually only eleven Angas exist, the twelfth having      beenlost, although at Pataliputra it had been constituted by the collection of such      remnants of the fourteen Purvas as could then be recalled.

II. The twelve Upan gas, or secondary limbs

III. The ten Painnas, or ‘Scattered pieces"

IV. The six Cheya-Suttas

V. Individual texts (two)

VI. The four Mula-Suttas

Since only a very few of these have been translated and are therefore available for reading by the general reader, the names of the individual books which constitute each division are not given here.4 Only a few can be mentioned, and that but briefly, only enough to reveal the general nature of the literature. The first Anga, for example, treats of the life of the monks, in a mixture of verse and prose. Mostly it is made up of sermons on various themes of importance to the Jains. Ahimsa is a central feature, and often stressed.

All breathing, existing, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented nor driven away. This is the pure unchangeable, eternal law which the clever ones who understand the world have declared.5

Here is found also much having to do with ascetic practice, which may end in suicide by starving, if, after twelve years of penance and extreme periods of fasting, one is permitted by his Guru to do so.

A long narrative poem appears here describing in some detail the ascetic practices of the Master Mahavira himself. He wandered about, homeless and naked. He was persecuted, beaten with sticks, attacked by crawling or flying animals. Often he was without food or shelter. "Moist or dry or cold food, old beans, or bad grain, whether he did or did not get such food, he was rich in control, meditating on things above, free from sin and desire, he was finally freed from delusion and liberated."7

Included also is a long section of nearly a hundred pages containing rules for begging which are of some interest. One section on begging for food requires thirty pages. Rules regulating the begging for a couch occupy fifteen pages, for clothes, nine pages, and at least two pages are used to indicate places where the monk or nun "should not ease nature." 8

This Anga also contains material for the life story of Mahavira, which will be seen to have been used in a later book, the KalpaSutra.

The second Anga deals with the religious life of the monks and devotes much of its attention to refuting heresies which might lead young monks into error. There are all sorts of warnings against the dangers and temptations to which the monk is exposed. Not the least of the dangers is women. The chapter dealing with this particular danger is well worth quoting in part. Mahavira, like Buddha, and indeed all the believers in the monastic way of life, does not think too well of women. It is not lacking in humor, and it is quite revealing as to the nature of the feminine toilette in that remote period. There is in it a touch of modernity, that makes it of interest to twentieth century men and women. Better it is to let women alone, for when they by their wiles succeed in catching a man he is completely under their control.

Then they make him do what they like. . . . As an antelope caught in a snare, so does he not get out of it, however he struggles. . . .

A worthy monk should have no intercourse with women. . . . When a monk breaks the law, dotes on a woman and is absorbed by that passion, she afterwards scolds him, lifts her foot, and tramples on his head . . .they send him on all sorts of errands: "Fetch some nice fruit . . . bring wood to cook the vegetables . . . paint my feet, come and meanwhile rub my back . . . reach me the lip-salve, fetch the umbrella, and slippers, the knife to cut the string; have my robe dyed bluish! . . . fetch me the pincers, the comb, the ribbon to bind up my hair, reach me the looking-glass, put the toothbrush near me. . .

. . . pregnant women order their husbands about like slaves to fulfil their craving.

When a son is born the mother bids the father to hold the baby, or to give it to her. Thus some supporters of their sons have to carry burdens like camels.

Getting up at night, they lull the baby asleep like nurses, and though they are ashamed of themselves they wash the clothes like washer-women.9

A good description of the Jam idea of hell is found here, as frequently in others of their books.

Another of the Angas, the third, is much like the Gradual Sayings of the Buddhist canon, dealing in ten sections with things of which there are one, two to ten.

The fifth Anga sets forth Jam dogma largely in the form of answers by Mahavira to questions asked by one of the chief of his disciples, but it also gives perhaps the most vivid picture of Mahavira himself and his relationship to his contemporaries to be found in any of the books. There are also legends of some of the earlier Jain ascetics.

In the sixth Anga are to be found a series of narratives or parables spun out to form a more or less lengthy narrative. One of these parables bears some resemblance to the parable of the talents in the Christian gospels. Here however, it is the story of a man who has four daughters-in-law. In order to test them he gives each five grains of rice. One throws them away thinking to herself that there are plenty of grains of rice in the larder and that she can easily replace them with five other grains. The second thinks more or less the same, only she eats her five grains. The third puts them carefully away in her jewel box. But the fourth plants them, harvests and replants again and again for a period of five years when she has accumulated a large store of rice. On the return of the merchant he punishes the first two by requiring that they perform the most menial tasks about the house. To the third he entrusts the guarding of the entire property, but to the fourth he gives the management of the entire household. These daughters-in-law represent the monks, some of whom do not keep their vows at all, others neglect them, the better ones keep them joyfully, while the best not only keep but propagate them.10

There are other stories of travellers, adventurers, robbers, some approaching the novel type -- all with a moral conveniently attached. One of these stories concerns one Malli -- the only female among the twenty-four Tirthankaras.

She was the daughter of a noted king and beautiful beyond words. Six princes learn of her and seek to woo her, one of them having seen only her great toe in a portrait of the lady. She will accept none of them. They are outraged and make war on her father’s kingdom. He is helpless. Then she tells her father to invite one after another of the princes into the city offering to give him his daughter. Meanwhile she had constructed a "puzzle house in which by some peculiar arrangement the six princes from different vantage points could see a figure of herself at one point. Then she made a figure resembling her exactly. She filled the head with a most unsavory mixture of left-overs from her meals, carefully covering the opening with lotus blossoms.

While the princes, having been admitted, admire the beautiful figure of the supposed princess she herself appears, opens the figure’s head so that it gives off a terrible stench. The princes cover their faces and turn away, but she moralizes upon the fact that within her beautiful body there is that that is even more loathsome than the inside of the artificial figure, and they should therefore not cherish any more the thought of the enjoyment of love. Telling the story of her former births, she announces that she intends to become a nun. Thereupon the princes also renounce the world.11

The seventh book treats of the duties of lay adherents of the movement in the form of legends of pious laymen, mostly merchants who practiced certain forms of asceticism appropriate to laymen, of whom by no means so rigorous a pattern of behavior is required. As stated in a modern Jain tract, while absolute avoidance of non-injury is required of a monk, the vows of a layman require only the avoidance of gross injury to living things. Writes a modern Jain correspondent, the layman "should adopt asceticism as much as his physical strength permits.". . . One should proceed onward according to one’s spiritual advancement. Hence even a pariah who hunts and eats flesh can be a believer in Jainism."12

The ninth Anga consists largely of accounts of how faithful monks have starved themselves to death. Jainism is the one faith with which the author is acquainted which not only condones but lauds suicide, only, however, by the method of slow starvation. It seems not a little strange that the faith which is most insistent upon the principle of Ahimsa and will not take the life of the most humble living thing, makes a definite place for putting an end to one own life. No translation is available but it may be of interest to quote a quite modern Jain tract which tells the story of the fasting of various saints, some of them unto death.

One, it is claimed, fasted not less than 40 days any year from 1873 to 1883. In 5 of the 11 years he fasted more than 100 days, and in 1883 reached the extreme period of 186 days. Another is reported to have fasted a total of about 8,000 days in 35 years. Still another endured 2,975 one-day fasts, 37 of 2 days, 10 of 5 days, one of 15, 17 of 31 days, one of 101 days, one of 186 days and one of 47 days. He passed away as a result of the last one.13

The eleventh Anga is filled with legends of the retribution which various people have suffered or enjoyed as a result of the working of the principle of Dharma not only in this but in preceding successive births. These stories are purportedly told by Mahavira who is asked by a disciple why a certain person is suffering some particular disability in this life.

There is an Upanga for each of the Angas. They are of varied content, mainly dogmatic and mythological. In the first there is a description of the state of the soul that has acquired perfect knowledge.

Neither among human beings nor among all the gods is there such illimitable bliss as has begun for the enlightened one. The bliss of the gods multiplied in duration to eternity, even though it were endlessly augmented in its fulness, is not so great as the blissfulness of liberation. ... As a savage, who becomes acquainted with the manifold beauties of a city, cannot describe them, because he lacks something with which to compare them, so too, the blissfulness of the enlightened ones is incomparable -- there is no comparison.14

Two of the Upangas give in question-and-answer form detailed classifications of living beings and a description of the world in considerable detail, oceans, islands, the palaces of the gods, as well as a classification of races and their habitations. Three others are "scientific" treatments of geography, astronomy, and cosmology including a discussion of time. Its astronomy is interesting, particularly its treatment of the sun and moon. Five of the Upangas are definitely legendary in character, dealing mainly with the life beyond, one especially with the various hells, one with the birth of ten different princes into a different heaven. One relates the past births of ten gods and goddesses who paid homage to Mahavira, and one narrates the conversion of twelve princes by a famous Jain teacher.

The Painnas or Scattered Pieces are really a miscellany dealing with almost every topic of interest to Jains, in both prose and verse. One gives in forty-eight verses the names of Mahavira, another is astrological, one is a dialogue on physiology and anatomy between Mahavira and a disciple, some deal with voluntary death by starvation, one gives in three hundred verses a classification of the kings, of the gods, etc. etc. It will be seen that there is here no definite principle of organization, and it is also evident that much of it is later in origin. In this particular section there is some disagreement as to just what are the ten pieces. As many as twenty different texts appear in Jain literature as forming a part of this division of the canon.

The fourth division of the canon corresponds roughly with the Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali Buddhist canon, and probably contains a great deal of quite ancient material. Most representative of this section is the Kalpa-Sutra which is supposed to have been written by the great Jain Bhadrabahu, sixth head of the movement after Mahavira, though parts of it could not possibly have come from his hand since they list heads of schools which existed long after the period of his life.

The Kalpa-Sutra is in three sections, the first of which contains the biographies of some of the Tirthankaras or Jinas, giving major attention to Mahavira, last of the line.

It treats of Mahavira very much as the Lalita-Vistara does of the Buddha. Devananda, a Brahman woman, one night had a succession of fourteen marvelous dreams in which appeared an elephant, a bull, a lion . . . the moon, the sun . . . a heap of jewels and a flame. Wakening she told her husband who interpreted the dream to mean that they would have a son who would be of wonderful beauty and strength and great wisdom. She conceived a son and was surpassingly happy. But the king of the gods transferred the embryo from the womb of Devananda to that of Trisala, a Kshatriya, wife of King Siddartha (cf. the story of Krishna’s birth) , who also had the fourteen wonderful dreams. On the night of the birth of Mahavira, a divine light overspread the earth, occasioned by the ascending and descending gods and goddesses, and the spirits rained down upon the palace a great shower of silver and gold and jewels, clothes, ornaments, and riches. But like Buddha, Mahavira renounced wealth, comfort, and ease and set out on a life of discipline. He entered the state of homelessness, walked about naked, neglected his body, but in the thirteenth year, being engaged in deep meditation he "reached the highest knowledge and intuition, called Kevala, which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, complete and full."15 When after some thirty years as Kevalin, at the age of about seventy-two he died, it was as he sat alone "reciting the fifty-five lectures which detail the result of Karman, etc. free from all pains."16 It is because Mahavira and the other Tirthankaras, or ford-finders, finally attained the sought-for release, that men continue to hope and seek for that same release for themselves.

Section two is an enumeration of the various schools and their branches, and of the heads of each. The first section contains rules for the monks and nuns which read very much like those of the Buddhists.

Of the Mula-Sutras, the first the Uttaradhyana-Sutra is best known in the West, and is one of the most valuable books in the whole canon, for an understanding of Jainism. It in some ways resembles the Sutta-Nipata of Buddhism. It is partly poetic, partly prose. It contains sermons, proverbs, advice to students, counsel to monks and nuns, parables, dialogues and ballads. In places it reads like the Dhammapada.

Another parable somewhat like the parable of the talents appears here:

Three merchants set out on their travels, each with his capital. One of them gained much; the second returned with his capital; the third merchant came home having lost his capital. This parable is taken from common life; Learn (to apply it) to the Law. The capital is human life, the gain is heaven; through the loss of that capital man must be born as a denizen of hell or a brute animal.17

One of the old ballads which, incidentally, is of interest because it involves a number of persons who appear in the legends of Krishna, runs thus in summary:

There lived in a certain city two great princes. One of them, Vasudeva, had two wives -- Rohini and Devaki -- each of whom bore him a son, Rama and Kesava. The second had an elder son Rathanemi, who became an ascetic, and a younger, Aristanenis. Kesava sought Ragimati, daughter of a powerful king, as wife for Aristanenis and it was granted. When Aristanenis set forth with ceremony to get his bride, he saw on his way a great many animals in cages, and learned that they were to be killed for his marriage-feast. Deeply shocked at this, he took the vow of an ascetic. The expectant bride, hearing of this, wept loudly, but she too decided to become a nun. Caught in the rain one day while wandering as a nun, she took refuge in a cave and, believing herself alone, took off her garments to dry them. But the ascetic brother of Aristanenis, Rathanemi, had also taken refuge in the cave, and seeing the nun in her nude loveliness made passionate advances to her. However, she reproved him, admonishing him not to wish to "drink that which another has spat out." Brought to his senses by her forcible rebuke he "returned to religion like an elephant spurred on by the goad."18

The two individual texts, sometimes mentioned before, sometimes after the Mula-Sutras, are sometimes listed as among the scattered pieces. They are not primarily religious in content though they do deal in part with religious subjects. They may be characterized rather as encyclopedias "dealing with everything that should be known by a Jain monk."19

Very little of Jain literature has gotten into the anthologies. What is available for further reading appears below.


The Sacred Literature of the Jains

Sources for Further Reading

Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 22 and 45.

S. E. Frost, The Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 119-132.



1. Akaranga Sutra, I, 3, 4, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, p. 33.

2. K. Jain, Hon’y Editor: The Jain Antiquary, in a personal letter June 17, 1950.

3. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, p. 43 (xliii)

4. For the complete list, with some description of each see Winternitz, History of Indian Literature, Vol. II, pp. 435 ff. J. N. Farquhar, Outline of the Religious Literature of India, names them and indicates translations and scholarly treatments of various parts of the canon.

5. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, I, 4: 1,2, p. 36.

6. Ibid., Vol. 22, I, 7-8, pp. 72-78.

7. Ibid., Vol. 22, pp. 79-87, passim.

8. Ibid., Vol. 22, pp. 88-178.

9. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 45, pp. 272 -- 275, passim (I, 4, 1.)

10. Told in abbreviated form as found more fully in Winternitz, II, p. 446.

11. Abbreviated from the Winternitz summary, II, pp. 447-448.

12. Personal letter, K. Jain, June 17, 1950.

13. Chagmal Chophra, A Short History of the Terepanthi Sect of the Sevetambar Jains and Its Tenets, fourth edition, 201 Harrison Road, Calcutta, pp. 28-33. The pamphlet is undated, but a letter dated 1946 is quoted in it.

14. Quoted by Winternitz, II, p. 455.

15. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 22, p. 263.

16. Id., p. 269.

17. VII, 14-16. Translated by Jacobi in Sacred Books of the East, XIV, p. 29.

18. Abbreviated from summary as given by Winternitz, II, p. 470.

19. Winternitz, II, p. 472.