Jaina Exegetical Literature and the History of the Jaina Canon

Posted: 18.08.2011
Updated on: 31.10.2016


The following article by Ludwig Alsdorf was first published in the anthology Mahāvīra and His Teachings (ed. by A.N. Upadhye et al., Ahmedabad 1977, pp. 1-8). This online edition based on the mentioned work but include additionally some corrections of errata, made by Prof. Klaus Bruhn shortly after the publication of the paper.

Jaina Exegetical Literature and the History of the Jaina Canon

Zeal and sagacity of the followers of Mahāvīra devoted to the study and teaching of their holy scriptures have given rise to a vast literature which apart from its immediate exegetical value embodies the fruits of Jaina scholastic scholarship of more than a millennium and thus contributes an important chapter to the history of Indian thought and learning. That it can be made to yield valuable information on the history of the Jaina Canon I hope to show in the present article.

This exegetical literature is as yet very imperfectly known. The needs of the modern Jaina community as well as of the Western pioneers of Jainology were served by the extensive Sanskrit prose commentaries forming a latest layer. The Prakrit predecessors of these Sanskrit Ṭīkās, the Cūrṇis

[1], had been almost forgotten. Some of them were printed in recent years, but, as Schubring in his "Doctrine of the Jainas" [2] complains, with few exceptions did not come in the hands of Western scholars. Of the third class of commentaries, the voluminous Bhāṣyas in Prakrit verse, Schubring can only say that their importance for the history of thought and literature will be great when one day all of them will be accessible and subjected to scholarly study. As to the fourth and oldest class of texts, the Nijjuttis, the dwindling of interest in them even in old times is shown by the fact that they are included in the oldest Sanskrit Ṭīkās, e.g. in Śāntisūri's Uttarajjhayaṇa-ṭīkā, but left out in the younger ones, e.g. in the famous Uttarajjhayaṇa commentary of Devendra. Their study was inaugurated in the West eighty years ago by Leumann, who, to quote once more Schubring, has never had a successor. The reasons for this unsatisfactory state of affairs will become clear when the true nature and mutual relation of the four kinds of exegetical scriptures are understood.

For the explanation of the holy texts, the Jaina ācāryas soon developed a more or less fixed form of instruction. It was as little written down as the texts themselves, but its unimpaired transmission was ensured by composing mnemonic stanzas supplying the teacher with catchwords. It is these mnemonic stanzas that are called Nijjuttis. Without the full instruction text on which they are based, of which they are mere extracts, they are as difficult to understand or even unintelligible as are most sūtras of scientific Sanskrit literature. Their language is above the niceties of grammar: to say nothing of syntax, terminations may be dropped, words abbreviated, vowel quantities changed - only the metre must be scrupulously preserved - no doubt because any violation of it would have disturbed the recitation of the stanza and thus impeded its memorizing, a distinct hint that these stanzas were destined for oral transmission. Their number, rather small to begin with, soon increased, partly no doubt due to an increase of exegetical and instructional matter; but also stanzas were added which were actually commentaries on too cryptical original stanzas. In the Nijjuttis such as we have them successive layers of additions and insertions can be discerned, of which the later ones are sometimes expressly called bhāṣya, commentaries.

The traditional account of the redaction of the canon by the Council of Valabhi is a reflex of the gradual introduction of manuscripts into transmission and instruction. Now when the sacred texts themselves were committed to writing, it was at most a question of time when the same must happen not only with the Nijjuttis but also with the full text of the instruction, the wording of which had so far been left - at least to some extent - to the individual teacher. The result of its written fixation were the Cūrṇis. Cūrṇi - said to have been a designation also of Patanjali's Mahābhāṣya - means "pulverization" or "flour" - a not inappropriate designation for a commentary grinding the grains of a text into the flour of detailed explanations. In the Cūrṇi we come for the first time to know the full text of the traditional exegesis, and it is clear that though the form of the text we have now before us may be centuries younger than the old mnemonic gāthās of the Nijjutti, yet originally the Nijjutti is but a secondary mnemonic aid for mastering the primary oral precursor of the written Cūrṇi.

Our Cūrṇi texts date from the time when, in about the 7th century, the Jainas could no longer resist the trend of the time and were forced to switch over their independent Prakrit tradition to the Sanskrit of their Brahmin rivals. The Cūrṇis we have are still on the whole written in Prakrit but are, in a varying degree, interspersed with Sanskrit, in many cases Sanskrit passages being clearly marked as later by their contents, and the amount of Sanskrit a Cūrṇi contains being a criterion of its relative age. In the 8th century, the learned Brahmin Haribhadra, a Buddhaghosa of Jainism, inaugurates the period of the classical Sanskrit commentaries, the Ṭīkās. To a large extent, they mechanically transpose Prakrit explanations into Sanskrit; the rich treasure of stories and parables which is such a distinguishing and attractive trait of Jaina exegesis is left unchanged by the classical Ṭīkā authors; only their late successors will translate them into Sanskrit. But at the same time we notice a distinct tendency to modernize: archaic, primitive traits of the Cūrṇi are deleted and replaced by a scholarship borrowing its tools and weapons from the armoury of Brahmanical learning, e.g. the Nyāya. A good example is the traditional account of the Seven Schisms. For each of them there is an old Prakrit kathānaka supplying a refutation of the heretical doctrine in the primitive form of an anecdotal story demonstrating more or less drastically its foolishness. The Ṭīkās retain the Prakrit kathānakas unchanged but raise them to the higher scientific level of their time by inserting learned theoretical refutations in Sanskrit proving their familiarity with contemporary philosophy. I need hardly add that just those archaic traits which the Ṭīkās remove as obsolete or primitive may be of particular interest for the student of early Indian thinking. Thus, the systematic study of the Cūrṇis, hardly begun as yet, promises to be rewarding.

The Cūrṇi as well as the older type of Ṭīkā has assumed the form of a commentary on the Nijjutti as well as on the canonical text itself, portions explaining Nijjutti stanzas alternating with portions commenting on the sūtra text. To explain this seemingly odd arrangement - for is not the Nijjutti itself a commentary on the Sūtra? - it is necessary to add some more remarks on the contents and methods of a Nijjutti.

Its most characteristic and prominent feature is the so-called nikṣepa, no doubt the exclusive invention of Jaina scholars and their most original contribution to scholastic research. The space at my disposal forbids the detailed treatment this subject needs and deserves. Reserving it to a future occasion I can only briefly describe the nikṣepa as a method of investigation to which any word or concept can be subjected by applying different viewpoints. The four original viewpoints are nāma or denomination; sthāpanā or effigy; dravya, the material, concrete, non-spiritual aspect; and bhāva, the mental, spiritual, religious one. The list is later on optionally supplemented by inserting between dravya and bhāva the viewpoints of kāla, time, and kṣetra, space, and any other which the individual case may suggest to an ingenious teacher. Now the word to be investigated is of course taken from or suggested by the canonical text, but the investigation, or if the word-monster may be permitted, the nikṣepization is carried through without particular regard to that text which is almost at once completely lost sight of; instead, the nikṣepa gives any moderately clever ācārya the possibility to deal with any subject or chapter of the doctrine he wants to include in his teaching. The first and compulsory object of nikṣepization is the title of the canonical text, if this is a compound, each of its members; next, the titles of each chapter and subsection; only in comparatively rare cases a prominent word or concept of the text itself. It will by now be clear that the vast majority of the nikṣepas contribute practically nothing to the explanation of the Sūtra text but treat of introductory or downright extraneous matter. And this is hardly less true of most other Nijjutti gāthās, whether they give versified tables of contents or catchwords for tales and dṛṣṭāntas to be inserted or lists of synonyms or, as so-called dvāra-gāthās, lists of items to be dealt with. It is thus quite correct to say that a Nijjutti is not a commentary in our sense of that term, that it affords little help for the understanding of the text; but there is no reason to complain: the explanation of the Sūtra text was not neglected, but by its nature it did not lend itself to condensation into Nijjutti verse. We do have it in the Sūtra comments of Cūrṇis and Ṭīkās, and the way in which these works alternate between explanations of Nijjutti stanzas and Sūtra text is after all a reflection of the original oral instruction, of which only certain parts had been epitomized in the form of mnemonic verse. The great importance of the Nijjuttis consists in their being the earliest non-canonical sources of Jaina doctrine and scholastic theology.

The average Nijjutti numbers a few hundred gāthās, and even to this size it has only grown by gradual insertions, part of which, as we have seen, are called bhāṣyas. The same word bhāṣya, however, also designates a fourth class of exegetic works, each of which consists of several thousand Prakrit gāthās. It was natural to assume, as did Leumann and Schubring, that the bhāṣya was nothing but the result of the continued insertion of bhāṣya verses into the Nijjutti. To quote Schubring:

"As long as such insertions were limited, the title of Nijjutti remained … but when the size of the latter had swollen up owing to an extraordinary number of Bhāṣa verses, it was they that gave the whole work its title." [3]

What this explanation fails to make clear is the relation between Bhāṣya and Cūrṇi. According to Schubring, the Cūrṇi is a commentary on the Nijjutti as well as on the Bhāṣya, but in some cases the Cūrṇi follows immediately on the Nijjutti without a Bhāṣya in between. I am afraid these views are based on a misunderstanding of the true character of the Bhāṣya. My own opinion will be given with some reserve; it may have to be modified after a more extensive study of the whole Bhāṣya literature. But a comparison of the Viśeṣāvaśyakabhāṣya with the Āvaśyakacūrṇi leaves to me no doubt that the former is a mere versification of the prose tradition represented by the latter. I believe that, certainly in this case and probably also generally, Ṭīkā and Bhāṣya represent two parallel developments: the Ṭīkā changes the Prakrit language of the Cūrṇi to Sanskrit but keeps to the prose form; the Bhāṣya versifies the traditional prose but keeps to the Prakrit language. It is perhaps not too bold to see in the Bhāṣya an attempt at continuing beside the new Sanskrit exegesis the old Prakrit tradition in a new form. This new form may indeed have been suggested by the progressive insertion of Bhāṣya stanzas into the Nijjuttis; but that the Bhāṣya really marks a new departure is shown by its very size which is a multiple of that of the average Nijjutti; it is underlined by distinguishing the 257 Bhāṣya stanzas inserted into the Āvaśyaka-Nijjutti as Mūlabhāṣya from the Viśeṣāvaśyakabhāṣya of Jinabhadra. Studying this latter work, Leumann

[4] has noted that its language is much more correct and its style more intelligible than that of the old Nijjuttis and their Bhāṣya insertions; Jinabhadra, Leumann remarks, "has done away with that old slovenliness". I should prefer to say that the Bhāṣyas are a new departure also linguistically: perhaps it would not be too much to speak of a kind of Prakrit renaissance.

What I have said so far might have given rise to the notion that there exists for every, or almost every, text of the canon a set of the four types of exegetical works. Actually, tradition has a list of ten Nijjuttis only and ascribes their composition to one Bhadrabāhu. If he is at all a historical personality, he cannot be the great father of the church of that name in the third century B.C. but must be regarded as a redactor - working according to Leumann

[5] in the first century A.D. at the earliest - who compiled a systematically arranged corpus of Nijjutti tradition. The selection and order of texts treated in that corpus not only reveal sound pedagogical planning but also give valuable information on the history of the canon. The beginning is made by the Āvaśyakas, six short texts designated by their name as "indispensable" because every monk daily needs them and which, therefore, the novice has to learn and study first of all: vows, formulas for intercourse with the guru, a stotra, a confession schedule etc. Numbers two and three are two anthologies: the first, the Dasaveyāliya, is described by tradition as a manual for beginners, but the second, the Uttarajjhayaṇa, a collection of legendary, disciplinary and dogmatical chapters, is certainly no less suited to the same purpose. Then only follow, as nos. 4 and 5, the two first texts of the canon, Āyāraṅga and Sūyagaḍaṅga. These two and the two anthologies are exactly those four texts which Schubring has called the Seniors of the canon. They are followed by the three oldest disciplinary texts traditionally combined under the dvandva title Dasā-Kappa-Vavahāra. The last two Nijjuttis of the list of ten are not available. Their basic texts are said to be the Sūrapannatti, an old astronomical work, and the Isibhāsiyāiṁ. Now we do possess a text entitled Isibhāsiyāiṁ which is no doubt very old, but it does not belong to the canon and no commentary of any kind on it has ever been known, and it is not even certain that our text is identical with the one named in the Nijjutti list. As to the Sūrapannatti, its commentator Malayagiri states in the 11th century that its Nijjutti had been lost through the wickedness of the Kali age. I cannot account for the inclusion of these two Nijjuttis in the list and seriously doubt that they ever existed. Conversely, we do have two Nijjuttis not included in the list of ten and reckoned today as independent canonical works: Piṇda- and Oha-Nijjutti. But of the former it has been shown that it formed originally part of the Āyāranijjutti; it became an independent work when it has swollen so much as to burst the frame of the original Nijjutti. The case of the Ohanijjutti is more difficult and awaits final clarification, but at any rate tradition maintains that the Ohanijjutti has to be recited at a certain point of the Āvassayanijjutti. Thus both works, Piṇda- and Ohanijjutti, are in some way or other included in the ten, or rather eight, Nijjuttis of the traditional list. Be that as it may, there is not, and there cannot be a Nijjutti which is not at least originally based on a canonical text; but those few texts which are provided with a Nijjutti clearly form a kind of nucleus or oldest layer consisting of the oldest and most important texts of the canon. Their unique position will become even clearer when it is realized that there is e.g. no Nijjutti on any of the Aṅgas 3-11, none on any Upāṅga with the very doubtful exception of the Sūrapannatti.

It is a well-known feature of Indian commentaries that their authors will accommodate contributions of their own, innovations, extraneous matter etc., mostly in the beginning of their work, of which this part swells to inordinate proportions while towards the end it shrinks to a brief verbal commentary. The same phenomenon can be observed in the Nijjutti corpus taken as a whole. The first, the Āvassaya Nijjutti, is, notwithstanding the briefness of its six basic texts, three times longer than any other: it has (in its present, repeatedly enlarged form) nearly 2000 stanzas, of which 257 are called Mūlabhāṣya. As the learned monks had no difficulty to drag in any subject they wished to deal with for the benefit of their students, the first half of the Āvassaya Nijjutti and Cūrṇi has become a comprehensive handbook of Jaina doctrine and scholastic learning, set in the framework of teachings on the origin and nature of the sacred texts, their study and tradition and above all on the methods of their interpretation. That in the designation of the sacred texts as śrutajñāna there occurs the word jñāna is sufficient reason to bring in the whole theory of cognition; the texts originating from Mahāvīra, we get his biography in its more developed form, and this is supplemented by the caritras of the rest of the 63 Great Men - that peculiar Jaina Universal History which in the old canonical texts is not yet found in its systematized form. The unique importance of the Āvassaya Nijjutti has finally led to its being invested with that canonical dignity which properly belongs only to the six brief Āvassaya texts underlying it and which, conversely, might be claimed with equal justification by every other Nijjutti: the Svetāmbar list of canonical texts the Āvassaya Nijjutti figures the third of the Mūlasūtras, the basic texts for beginners.

Nor is this all. In the same list we find before the group of the Mūlasūtras two works not belonging to any group which Schubring calls propaedeutical: Nandī and Aṇuogadārā. If the texts of these works are laid beside those of the Āvassaya Nijjutti and its Cūrṇi it becomes soon apparent that they are nothing but parts of the Āvassaya exegesis grown independent through amplification. To show that it is not, conversely, the Āvassaya Nijjutti which has borrowed from the two works it is sufficient to quote from Schubrings's summary of contents of the Aṇuogadārā:

"Investigations (aṇuoga) in the sphere of knowledge in general and of Jain doctrine in particular … Cognition through tradition as an object of teaching. This leads to the Āvassaya-suyakkhandha. The author's plan is to deal with all the six Āvassayas, but this plan is realized only for the first of them." [6]

It would be difficult to describe the Aṇuogadārā more clearly as an original part of the introduction to the Āvassaya exegesis grown independent through amplification. And if Schubring remarks of the other work that its author seems to have chosen the title "Nandī" in order to mark his work as an introduction, we may now add that it is an introduction to the study of the Āvassaya Nijjutti, the introduction of which is also called Nandī. Schubring's description of the two texts as "propaedeutical" is thus confirmed but assumes a more definite and precise meaning. And the fact that Nandī and Aṇuogadārā are not included in one of the classes of canonical texts may now be explained by the fact that they were received into the canon as separate works very late, probably after the Āvassaya Nijjutti - one more proof of their secondary character as against the latter.

The Āvassaya Nijjutti with its Cūrṇi and Ṭīkās thus occupies a kind of key position in Jaina exegetical and scholastic literature; it is, as it were, the centre of a circle of late or post-canonical works, surrounded by a wider circle of exegetical, dogmatical, disciplinary and narrative works, Svetāmbara as well as Digambara, the whole forming what Leumann has called the Āvaśyaka Literature. To have first recognized this central role of the Āvassaya tradition and inaugurated its study 80 years ago was the great pioneering feat of Leumann - an achievement the more astounding because it was based entirely on manuscripts of which Leumann managed to assemble a splendid systematic collection at Strasbourg. It would hardly be too much to say that in his researches he was ahead of his time by at least half a century. It is to be regretted but also only too understandable that in the end he got stuck in the enormous and unwieldy mass of texts none of which was then printed, let alone critically edited. We are today in a much more favourable position, but e.g. the only existing print of the Āvassaya Cūrṇi is still far from satisfactory and stands in urgent need of critical treatment. This should only be one more incentive to resume Leumann's work and continue it, and this is what we are actually trying to do now in Hamburg.

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