Svasti - Essays in Honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah: Kundakunda versus Sāṃkhya on the soul

Published: 04.01.2011
Updated: 30.07.2015


Kundakunda versus Sāṃkhya on the soul

There have been several conceptions of the soul in the history of Jainism. The probably oldest text of the Śvetāmbara Jaina canon, the Ācārāṅga Sūtra / Āyāraṃga Sutta, has some passages that reveal an idea about the soul that is very different from what came to be the classical Jaina conception. Dalsukh D. Malvania (1981) and others have drawn attention to Āyāraṃga 176, which describes the soul in the following terms:

“It is not long nor small nor round nor triangular nor quadrangular nor circular; it is not black nor blue nor red nor green nor white; neither of good nor bad smell; not bitter nor pungent nor astringent nor sweet; neither rough nor soft; neither heavy nor light; neither cold nor hot; neither harsh nor smooth. It does not have a body, is not born again, has no attachment and is without sexual gender. While having knowledge and sentience, there is nonetheless nothing with which it can be compared. Its being is without form, there is no condition of the unconditioned. It is not sound nor form nor smell nor flavour nor touch or anything like that.” (tr. Jacobi, 1884: 52, emended as in Dundas, 2002: 43).

Āyāraṃga 171, moreover, states:

“That which is the soul is that which knows, that which is the knower is the soul, that by which one knows is the soul.” (tr. Dundas, 2002: 44).

The classical Jaina concept of the soul finds already expression in other texts of the Śvetāmbara canon. A verse of Uttarajjhayaṇa chapter 36 states:

“The dimension of perfected [souls] is two-thirds of the height which the individual had in his last existence” (tr. Jacobi, 1895: 212, modified).

The Viyāhapannatti (7.8) compares the soul, which may cover the volume of an elephant or of a louse, with a lamp that lights up the space in which it is placed, sometimes a hut, sometimes the space determined by a cover (Deleu, 1970: 139). A short reference to the body-like size of the soul is also found in one of the concluding stanzas of the Uvavāiya (171). This classical concept - as I have been able to show in another publication (2000) - appears to have been formed under the influence of Abhidharma Buddhism.

It seems likely that the classical Jaina concept of the soul, whether under the influence of Buddhism or otherwise, was developed along with the special ideas of karma that came to occupy Jaina thinkers. But whatever its historical justification, it represents a somewhat idiosyncratic development which remained, as far as we can see, the exclusive property of Jainism. And even here it appears to have little to connect it with the origins of this religion. One reason for thinking so is constituted by the early canonical passages which I mentioned. Another one is that this classical concept barely fits in the surroundings out of which Jainism arose, and to which it originally belonged. Let us have a closer look at these surroundings.

I have studied and analysed the cultural background of Jainism, Buddhism and other movements that were originally situated in the region east of the confluence of the two rivers Gaṅgā and Yamunā in a book called Greater Magadha (2007). Jainism shared with some of the other religious movements a preoccupation with karmic retribution, which in their case meant the belief that all acts inevitably will have an effect, often in a future life. Many of these religious movements were concerned to avoid the new lives that would come about as a result of acts carried out in the present and preceding lives. Early Jainism emphasized the need to abstain from all physical and mental activity. In other words, the advanced practitioner should abstain from all acts, with the result that he would not create new bases for karmic retribution. Acts that had been carried out before, whether in this or a preceding life, could be immunized, i.e. forced to fructify in this life, through the pain produced by ascetic practices. Since the ascetic practices that were believed to bring this about consisted themselves largely in the abstention from all activity, the physical and mental immobilization pursued by the advanced Jaina ascetic served a double purpose: no new bases were laid for further karmic retribution, and the traces of acts carried out earlier were destroyed.

This specific method to attain liberation from rebirth and karmic retribution did not crucially depend on any specific vision as to the true nature of the soul. Such a specific vision may have accompanied early Jainism, but we have already seen that the oldest canonical texts provide us with preciously little information to go by. There were however other religious movements at the same time and in the same region of northern India in which the concept of the soul did play a crucial role. These were the movements that believed that the soul, i.e. the real self of the human being (and of all other living beings for that matter), does not and cannot act by its very nature. Activity belongs to the body and the mind, both of which are essentially different from the inactive self. Karmic retribution, too, belongs for this reason to the realm of body and mind, without affecting the real self of a person. Knowledge of one’s real self frees from rebirth and karmic retribution, because knowledge of the self amounts to the realization that in deepest reality one does not act and has never acted.

This notion of a real self that never acts lies at the heart of most philosophical thought that came to be associated with Brahmanism. It is very visible in Sāṃkhya, which divides all that exists in two totally distinct categories: on the one hand the selves, essentially and fundamentally inactive, and on the other hand all that which is active, whether physical or mental. The fundamental idea finds expression in a verse of the Bhagavadgītā, which states:[1]

“Actions are, all of them, undertaken by the guṇas of Prakṛti. He who is deluded by egoism thinks ‘I am the doer’.”

The guṇas of Prakṛti are, in Sāṃkhya and therefore in texts like the Bhagavadgītā which accept the fundamental ideas of Sāṃkhya, that which makes up all that is active, i.e., all that is different from the inactive self. The self, for its part, is not involved in any acts, and indeed, if a person thinks that he is thus involved, he is deluded by egoism. It is Prakṛti that acts, and the self remains inactive throughout. The Bhagavadgītā adds some practical teachings of its own. It does not teach that one should abstain from all activity. No, one should rather act in accordance with one’s own nature. The terms used to designate the nature of a person are prakṛti and svabhāva; these coincide, according to the Gītā, with a person’s own duty (svadharma), i.e., the duties associated with one’s position in life. The warrior Arjuna, for example, is told to carry out his duties as a warrior in a war that opposes him to members of his own family. The way to carry out such a task is by not being attached to the fruits, i.e. the results, of one’s acts.

This short excursion into the teaching of the Bhagavadgītā is useful as an introduction to the thought of Kundakunda as it expresses itself primarily in his Samayasāra, a work which “has greatly influenced Digambara thinking for centuries, and has been acclaimed by them as the most profound exposition of the Jaina doctrine” (Jaini, 1976: 30/92).[2] Before turning to him, let me summarize what has been said so far. We are very poorly informed about the ideas on the self that were current in early Jainism. We do know that Jainism abandoned these early ideas, whatever they were, and turned to the idiosyncratic concept of the soul that accompanied it henceforth. We do not know for sure why the idea of an essentially inactive soul, which became so fertile in other currents of thought, was not incorporated in the classical beliefs of Jainism; I have already made the suggestion that the way in which Jainas elaborated their ideas about karma had a role to play in this.

These ideas about an inactive soul were not completely abandoned, however. Kundakunda’s ideas of the true nature of the self, I propose, have to be understood as attempts to introduce, perhaps reintroduce, them into Jainism, not, of course, in their original and primitive form, but adjusted to Jaina doctrine as it had taken shape in the meantime.

Recall, at this point, that the notion of a totally inactive soul or self, where it is accepted, is inseparable from the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution. More precisely, knowledge of the true, inactive, nature of the self is always presented as an essential step toward the ultimate goal of liberation. The implication of this fact is that the way in which karmic retribution is conceived is closely connected with the way the self is thought of. Briefly put, the self is free from all those features that are responsible for rebirth and karmic retribution. For most currents of thought in ancient India, these features cover all acts carried out by a person. It goes without saying that, if others were to believe that only certain acts, not all of them, lead to karmic retribution, they are free to postulate the existence of a self that is only free from those specific acts, not necessarily free from all of them. In other words, they may believe in a self whose activity is limited to such acts as do not bring about karmic retribution.

This, I submit, is the position of Kundakunda in his Samayasāra. His main point is similar to the one that finds clearest expression in Sāṃkhya and related texts, viz., that an essential step on the road to liberation is the realization that one’s self is different from activity that leads to karmic retribution. The ripening of the fruit arising from karma does not belong to the self, we read in verse 208, for the self is different from it. The Jinas, verse 210 adds, have pointed out that there are many such ripenings, but these are not my own natures: I am only a knower by nature. However, he who still has if ever so little attachment or other faults left, does not know his self, however learned he may be (211).

The similarity between Sāṃkhya and the thought propounded by Kundakunda is undeniable. The similarity is however only superficial, and there are important differences. As a matter of fact, Sāṃkhya is mentioned and criticized in the Samayasāra. What is more, the teaching of the Bhagavadgītā is criticized, too, be it implicitly. Let us begin with the latter.

Verse 335 states that one becomes liberated when one gives up the fruit of one’s deeds. This is close to the main teaching of the Bhagavadgītā. However, the then following verse 336 adds an important specification. The ignorant person, it states, since he resides in the own nature (svabhāva) of Prakṛti, experiences the fruit of his deeds; he who possesses knowledge, on the other hand, knows the fruit of his deeds but does not experience it as arisen.[3] The use of the words svabhāva and prakṛti, so typical for the Bhagavadgītā, confirms our suspicion that Kundakunda here criticizes this text in particular. Unlike the Bhagavadgītā, he is of the opinion that only an ignorant person will follow his own prakṛtic nature. Only the person incapable of liberation (abhavya)[4] will not give up Prakṛti, verse 338 adds. The knowing person neither carries out nor experiences the various kinds of acts; however, he knows their result, as he knows bondage, merit and demerit (340).

However, Kundakunda does not only voice criticism of the practical path taught by the Bhagavadgītā. He is of the opinion that the underlying Sāṃkhya philosophy is not up to the mark, either. Indeed, if all that is active is, for that reason, part of Prakṛti, the conclusion must be that Prakṛti is the only agent around. Prakṛti, however, is unconscious. Unconscious Prakṛti would in this way turn the self into one that has a correct or incorrect understanding of the world (vv. 353, 354). And all selves would be inactive (366). Kundakunda does not accept this. For him the soul is subject to change. Indeed, he points out in an earlier verse (127; cp. 124) that if the soul did not undergo modifications, there would be no cycle of rebirths (saṃsāra) and the Sāṃkhya philosophy would be correct.[5]

According to Kundakunda, then, the soul is active, at least to some extent. Verse 127, just considered, states that the soul is modified by bhāvas such as anger (krodha). Kundakunda makes a point of regularly using the verb “to do, to make” (Skt. kṛ) in connection with words denoting the soul. What, then, is it that the soul makes or does? The word often used as object in such situations is bhāva.[6] Recall that anger was called a bhāva in the verse just considered. We may assume that bhāvas are states of the soul, which the latter “makes” or “produces”, presumably by a process of modification. The soul, we learn in another verse (28), can be connected with many bhāvas.[7]

An important verse states that the self makes a bhāva and is its agent from the highest point of view, while from a practical, and therefore lower, point of view, it is the agent of material karma.[8] This is to be understood in the light of the fact that karma in Jainism is thought of as a material substance which clings to the soul and is responsible for the cycle of rebirths it undergoes. Freedom from this substance signifies freedom from rebirth. Total inactivity on the part of the soul is not required. The soul, in Kundakunda’s opinion, is active: some of this activity has as consequence that material karma attaches itself to the soul, with the results we know. Activities of the soul that do not cause material karma to cling to it do not have this effect; they do not involve the soul in the endless cycle of rebirths. It follows that the soul must act in the right manner in order to be freed from saṃsāra. In Sāṃkhya the soul could not do a thing to bring about its liberation; it depended on the activity of Prakṛti. Kundakunda’s soul can do something, and is indeed ultimately responsible for its own liberation.

The self, verse 88 points out, is an agent by its own bhāva, but it is not the agent of all the bhāvas produced by material karma.[9] The following verse explains this further: From the highest standpoint the self makes nothing but itself and experiences itself.[10] How does the self produce and experience itself, or rather its own bhāva? Verse 93 appears to present the answer:

“Just as the self makes its own bhāva because of material karma, so it experiences its own bhāva because of material karma.”[11]

It is clear from what precedes that Kundakunda distinguishes between bhāvas that belong to the soul and are in a certain way identical with it, and such that are not. This is confirmed by verse 94, which states that error and bhāvas such as anger are of two kinds: they are either the soul (jīva) or not the soul (ajīva).[12] It follows from verse 95 that the difference lies in what is called upayoga, which is often translated application of consciousness.[13] Ignorance, intemperance and error are jīva, on condition that they are upayoga.[14] Indeed, they are modifications of upayoga connected with confusion; these modifications fall into three main categories: error, ignorance and intemperance.[15] Upayoga is in this way of three kinds, and itself a bhāva that is pure and unsullied; whatever further bhāva it creates, it is its agent.[16]

So far the discussion deals with activities that take place within the self and which for this reason have themselves no karmic consequences. However, material substance modifies itself in accordance with what happens in the self:

“Whatever bhāva the self produces, it is its agent; [however,] material substance modifies itself in relationship to that, and turns itself into karma.”[17]

At this point confusion is likely to enter:

“The soul consisting of ignorance makes something else into itself, and itself into something else. It becomes in this way the agent of the karmas.”[18]

The soul thinks it becomes the agent of the karmas, but this is due to ignorance. In reality it is not. The soul possessed of correct knowledge knows better:

“The soul consisting of correct knowledge does not make something else into itself, and itself into something else. It is not the agent of the karmas.”[19] “He who knows that the self does not make the modifications of material substance [such as] the obstructions of knowledge, he possesses correct knowledge.”[20]

The picture which develops out of these and other verses is the following. There are two fundamentally different realms: that of karma, which is a material substance, and that of the soul. The soul, though not without activity, is not the agent of anything that takes place in the karma which belongs to the material realm. However, it can have a causal effect on karma, through its activity within its own realm. One can therefore say that the soul produces karma, but only metaphorically:

“Having seen the modification of bondage, the soul being its cause, it is said that karma has been produced by the soul, but only metaphorically.”[21] “Even though a battle is carried out by soldiers, people say that it is carried out by the king. In the same way, the obstruction of knowledge and other such things are produced by the soul [only] from a practical point of view.”[22]

The distinction, in this discussion, between a higher point of view and a practical point of view is unavoidable.[23] Indeed, it is the confusion between these two which is responsible for the fact that most people do not see the road to liberation. This is not only true of Kundakunda’s thought. It applies with equal force to the Sāṃkhya system of thought which Kundakunda criticizes. There, too, the failure to see the distinction between the realm of the soul and the realm of Prakṛti keeps people tied up in the world of eternal transmigration. This is not to say that Kundakunda’s thought is identical with Sāṃkhya. Unlike Sāṃkhya, the soul as conceived of by Kundakunda is capable of certain activities, which are however limited to its own domain. All this we have seen.

The verses of the Samayasāra present, sometimes in quick succession, the two different points of view just mentioned. This can easily lead to confusion. Since all verses do not explicitly state whether they present the highest or the practical point of view, the impression is often created that they contradict each other. The contradictions, it seems to me, can almost always be resolved by keeping the two points of view in mind, and assigning, of two contradictory verses, one to the highest point of view, the other to the practical point of view. Kundakunda’s main point, unsurprisingly, is to emphasize that the soul is not, and cannot be, the agent of what happens in the material world of karma. This is essential, because it is this knowledge that allows of a dissociation of the self from all that which leads to karmic retribution. Kundakunda’s ideas about the realm of the self in which the self can be an agent constitute a theoretical elaboration meant to distinguish his thought from Sāṃkhya - which he obviously looks upon as a close competitor - and no doubt to allow place for certain traditional Jaina notions as to the possibility of the soul to be an agent after all. Indeed, verse 127 points out that if the soul did not transform itself into states such as anger, this would signify the end of the cycle of rebirths, or the acceptance of Sāṃkhya.[24]

The preceding analysis of the thought of the Samayasāra reveals a vision of the place of the soul in the world and of its place on the path to liberation that is coherent and credible. This depiction of the self does not “very much resemble that of the Upaniṣadic and Advaitic Brahman or Ātman”, as it has been claimed.[25] It resembles the self of Sāṃkhya in some respects, but differs from it in certain others, voluntarily so, as we have seen. Nor do I see any reason to look upon the Samayasāra as a “heterogeneous repository of accumulated Digambara teaching, [...] rather than the imperfectly preserved work of an individual heterodox philosopher”.[26] This is not to deny that its author used traditional material, nor do I wish to claim that he was necessarily a complete innovator. But in reading the Samayasāra, I do have the impression of being confronted with the work of someone who wished to incorporate into Jainism a notion that had become very fruitful and useful in other currents, primarily Sāṃkhya, but also elsewhere. The author of the Samayasāra is explicit about his concern to take over the central idea of Sāṃkhya, at the same time improving upon it. In order to do so, he had to think out a competing system, an attempt in which he succeeded to at least some extent. The fact that the Samayasāra can, by and large, be read as a text expressive of a coherent thesis is the best argument there could be to maintain that it had one single author, whether he was called Kundakunda or otherwise.[27]

Some other works ascribed to Kundakunda represent by and large the same thesis as the one propounded in the Samayasāra. The Pravacanasāra, in particular, has some verses that state in so many words that the soul can be active, but only in its own domain. According to Pravacanasāra II.92,

“The self, making its own nature, becomes the agent of its own bhāva, but not the agent of all the bhāvas that consist of material substance.”[28]

Two verses further, the same text states:

“The [self], now being the agent of its own modification born from its [own] substance, is sometimes taken [and sometimes] freed by the dust of karma.”[29]

Pravacanasāra I.9 attributes to the soul (jīva) itself three states:

“While the soul, whose nature is modification, modifies into something auspicious by means of an auspicious [state], into something inauspicious by means of an inauspicious [state], it becomes pure by means of a pure [state].”[30] “If the self itself is not auspicious or inauspicious by nature, there will be no cycle of rebirths for embodied beings.”[31]

The Pañcāstikāyasāra contains similar statements, among them the following:

“Since it makes its own bhāva, the self is the agent of its own bhāva, not of the material karmas; this is how the words of the Jina must be understood.”[32]

It is on account of a modification in the soul that karma attaches itself to it (v. 128).
We can contrast this with the Paramātmaprakāśa of Yogīndu, which is sometimes claimed to continue the thought of Kundakunda; this text does not contain any statement supportive of Kundakunda’s vision of the soul’s nature. Quite on the contrary, it states in no uncertain terms that the highest point of view is that the self does nothing whatsoever.[33]


Balbir, Nalini (1998): “Glossaire du Paramātmaprakāśa et du Yogasāra.” Bulletin d’Études Indiennes 16, 249-318.
Balbir, Nalini, & Caillat, Colette (1999): Lumière de l’Absolu. Paris: Payot & Rivages.
Bhatt, Bansidhar (1974): “Vyavahāra-naya and niścaya-naya in Kundakunda’s works.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Supplement 2, pp. 279-291.
Bronkhorst, Johannes (2000): "Abhidharma and Jainism." Abhidharma and Indian Thought. Essays in honor of Professor Doctor Junsho Kato on his sixtieth birthday. Ed. Committee for the Felicitation of Professor Doctor Junsho Kato's Sixtieth Birthday, Nagoya. Tokyo: Shuju-sha. Pp. 598-581 ([13]-[30]).
Bronkhorst, Johannes (2007): Greater Magadha. Studies in the culture of early India. Leiden - Boston: Brill. (Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 2 South Asia, 19.)
Deleu, Jozef (1970): Viyāhapannatti (Bhagavaī): The Fifth Anga of the Jaina Canon. Introduction, critical analysis, commentary & indexes. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1996. (Lala Sundar Lal Jain Research Series, 10.)
Dhaky, M. A. (1991): “The date of Kundakundācārya.” = Dhaky and Jain, 1991: 187-206.
Dhaky, M. A., and Jain, S. (ed.)(1991): Aspects of Jainology Vol. III. Pt. Dalsukhbhai Malvania Felicitation Volume I. Varanasi. (not seen)
Dundas, Paul (2002): The Jains. Second edition. London and New York: Routledge.
Jacobi, Hermann (1884): Jaina Sūtras, translated from the Prākrit. Part I: Ācārāṅga Sūtra, Kalpa Sūtra. Oxford University Press. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1980. (Sacred Books of the East, 22.)
Jacobi, Hermann (1895): Jaina Sūtras, translated from Prākrit. Part II: Uttarādhyayana Sūtra, Sūtrakritāṅga Sūtra. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1968. (Sacred Books of the East, 45.)
Jaini, Padmanabh S. (1977): “Bhavyatva and abhavyatva: A Jain doctrine of ‘predestination’.” Mahāvīra and His Teachings. Ed. A. N. Upadhye et al. Bombay: Bhagavān Mahāvīra 2500th Nirvāṇa Mahotsava Samiti. Pp. 95-111. Reprinted: Jaini, 2000: 95-109.
Jaini, Padmanabh S. (2000): Collected Papers on Jaina Studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Jaini, Padmanabh S. (1976): “The Jainas and the western scholar.” Sambodhi (L. D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad, July 1976) pp. 121-131. Reprinted: Jaini, 2000: 23-36; Soni, 2001: 85-98. (references to the reprints).
Johnson, W. J. (1995): Harmless Souls. Karmic bondage and religious change in early Jainism with special reference to Umāsvāti and Kundakunda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kundakunda: Pañcāstikāyasāra. Ed. tr. A. Chakravartinayanar & A. N. Upadhye. New Delhi: Bharatiya Jnanpith. 1975.
Kundakunda: Pravacanasāra. Ed. tr. A. N. Upadhye. Agas: Shrimad Rajachandra Ashrama. 1964.
Kundakunda: Samayasāra. (1) The original text in Prakrit, with its Samskrit renderings, and a translation, exhaustive commentaries, and an introduction, by Rai Bahadur J. L. Jaini, published by Pandit Ajit Prasada at The Central Jaina Publishing House, Ajitashram, Lucknow, 1930. (Sacred Books of the Jainas, 8.) (2) Original text, romanization, English translation and annotations (with scientific interpretation) by Jethalal S. Zaveri, assisted by Muni Mahendra Kumar, Jain Vishva Bharati University, Ladnun, 2009. References are to and citations from edition (1)
Malvania, Dalsukh D. (1981): “Beginnings of Jaina philosophy in the Ācārāṅga.” Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus. Gedenkschrift für Ludwig Alsdorf. Ed. Klaus Bruhn and Albrecht Wezler. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner. (ANISt, 23.) Pp. 151-153.
Singh, Ram Jee (1974): The Jaina Concept of Omniscience. Ahmedabad: L. D. Institute of Indology. (L. D. Series, 43.) (not seen)
Soni, Jayandra (ed.)(2001): Vasantagauravam: Essays in Jainism Felicitating Professor M. D. Vasantha Raj of Mysore on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. Mumbai: Vakils, Feffer and Simons.
Soni, Jayandra (2007): “Upayoga, according to Kundakunda and Umāsvāti.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 35(4), 299-311.
Wiles, Royce (2001): “The works of Kundakunda: an annotated listing of editions, translations and studies.” = Soni, 2001: 183-224.
Yogīndu: Paramātmaprakāśa (Paramappapayāsu). Ed. A. N. Upadhye. Agas: Shrimad Rajachandra Ashram. 1937.


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SVASTI - Essays in Honour of

Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah
for his 75th birthday 7.10.2010

Editor: Prof. Dr. Nalini Balbir.

Publisher: Dr. M. Byregowda
K.S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust
Krishnapuradoddi #119, 3rd Cross,
8th Main, Hampinagara
Bangalore - 560 104 Karnataka
Ph: 080-23409512

Edition: 2010

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  71. Uttarādhyayana Sūtra
  72. Varanasi
  73. Viyāhapannatti (Bhagavaī)
  74. Ācārāṅga
  75. Ācārāṅga Sūtra
  76. Śvetāmbara
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