The Main Source of Jain Knowledge

Posted: 24.08.2017
Updated on: 16.12.2017

In specific periods of human history special personalities appear who possess unique insight into the workings of nature both internal and external. With the practice of austerity they purify their souls from craving (rāga) and aversion (dwesha) eventually attaining the knowledge of absolute reality or keval gyān.[1]

These remarkably gifted individuals possess special insight and knowledge into the workings of the universe at all levels including the domains of matter, life and mind. In addition they are also aware of an eternal reality transcendental to the visible universe thereby possessing absolute knowledge (keval gyan). These super souls referred to as Tirthankaras or Arhantas preached their knowledge to Ganadhars and in general to all. The Ganadhars in turn taught their knowledge to monks and lay public. This transmitted knowledge has subsequently been codified in canonical Jain scriptures called the Agams.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the following topics:

  1. Meaning of "Āgam."
  2. Types of Āgams.
  3. Āgams' decline and its reasons.
  4. Efforts made to preserve Āgams.



The word Āgam has been interpreted differently over the ages. It is made of two words, Ā+Gam. In Sanskrit "Ā" means "from all sides." The word "gam" means to "know".[2] Āgam then means knowing from all sides—past, present and future; inside and outside; here and beyond. It is a state of multidimensional, multi-directional total knowledge.

According to the Āchārāng Sutra[3], āgam means to seek knowledge, to get knowledge, to become knowledgeable. It also refers to the "persons" who possess such knowledge; that is the keval gyānis.[4] Āgams were also called "shruta" or "samyak shruta" in the ages before.[5]

Āgams have existed both in the verbal and in the written forms. Āgams were verbally communicated before Lord Mahaveer and was primarily due to the twenty-three tirthankars prior Mahaveer. This large body of knowledge is known as "Purvas," meaning prior or ancient there being fourteen Purvas in all. The holders of such knowledge are known as purvadhars.



Āgams preach the everlasting truth about behavior, equanimity, universal affection, and amity. They also reflect upon the principle of multiple nature of reality and the principle of relativity of knowledge. They teach about divine things including great reverence for all forms of life, reincarnation, soul, karma, and entire cosmic existence. They also teach the codes of asceticism; and the rules for householders, namely, the compassion, ahimsa, and nonpossessiveness.



Āgams have been classified both as knowledge and as literature. Each classification, in turn, has its own sub-classifications. Let me first present its classification as knowledge.

Āgams, as knowledge, have been classified in two different ways. The first classification has three types of Āgams, namely, the Arthāgam, the Sūtrāgam, and the Ubhayāgam.[6] The second classification also has three types of Āgams, namely, the Ātmāgam, the Anantarāgam, and the Paramparāgam.[7]





First Classification

1. Arthāgam

The 'deshnā' (message, updesh, preaching) that the tirthankars give, after they have obtained the absolute knowledge, is known as Artha or Tattva[8], as Arthāgam. As noted before, gaṇadharas are the preserver of this knowledge. They are also the communicators of Tirthankars' wisdom. Each tirthankar had his own group of gaṇadhars. All eleven gaṇadhars of Mahāvīra had received such knowledge from the Lord directly. Indrabhūti Gautam was his first gaṇadhar.

2. Sūtrāgam

Literally, the word sūtra means thread or string. Philosophically, it means elements of knowledge woven together in some order by threads (guidelines, rules, etc. in precisely). The ganadharas present the knowledge (arthaagam) which they receive from the tirthankaras. They teach this huge amount of knowledge orally in the same language in what they received. Hence, it became for the apprentices, to learn and procure it for longer period.

Sūtrāgam refers to the knowledge (arthāgam) that the gaṇadhars put together in some form of composition.

3. Ubhayāgam

The knowledge that were taught orally detailed and in short, as needed, are known as ubhayāgam (also known as tadubhayāgam or sūtrārthāgam).

It may be noted here that Arthāgam is also known as Gyān. Sūtrāgam is also known as Vachan-rachanā. The direct knowledge is Arthāgam and the lingual composition of knowledge is Sūtrāgam.


Second Classification

4. Ātmāgam (Ātmā + Āgam)

Obtaining fundamental knowledge by itself (tattva or artha gyān), without any updesh (sermon) or help from others, is known as ātmāgam. In this state, there is no third element between the knowledge and the knowledge-recipient. Tirthankars obtain such knowledge. This knowledge is called keval-gyān (absolute knowledge).

Notice that obtaining the fundamental knowledge is ātmāgam; while preaching it to gaṇadhars is Arthāgam. Other people can also achieve this knowledge.

5. Anantarāgam (Anantar + Āgam)

The word is derived from anantar which means 'right the next' (the second generation). When the gaṇadharas receive knowledge from tirthankars directly, it is known as anantarāgam. In this case only two parties are involved. There is no third party in between.

6. Paramparāgam (Parampar + Āgam)

When gaṇadhars pass knowledge to the third parties (āchāryas, disciples, and next generations, etc.), it is known as a paramparāgam. Now there are three or more parties involved in the process.



The teachings of Lord Mahaveer are composed by his gaṇadhars into twelve angas or parts, also known as Dwādashāngī. These are known as anga-āgams. It is believed that initially it was done vocally, until Jain scholars started writing them in the text form. Let me discuss these briefly.

1. Āchārānga Sūtra

The Āchārānga Sūtra discusses topics such as, celibacy, non-violence, and life of monks.

2. Sūtrakritānga Sūtra

It deals with the topics such as, Jain history, and philosophers and philosophical schools of thought during the time of Mahaveer.

3. Sthānānga Sūtra

It deals with the modes of Jīva and Ajīva in numerical pattern.

4. Samvāyānga Sūtra

It deals with Jain history, cosmology, universe, karma, Tirthankars Vāsudev and other topics.

5. Bhagavati Sūtra

This Sutra deals with the various questions asked by gaṇadhar Gautam, the first disciple of Mahaveer, and the answers given by the Lord. It also includes the questions asked by the householders about loka and soul. It is considered as a treasure of Jain knowledge.

6. Gyātā Dharma Kathānga Sūtra

It contains several thoughtful legends and illustrations of ancient Jain history and prehistory.

7. Upāsak-Dashānga Sūtra

Its real name is "Upāsakdashā." It contains a detailed description of Mahaveer's ten shrāvaks including Ānand, Kāmdev, Saddāl Putra, Mahāshatak, Kundkolik, Tetalipita, Nandini Pita etc.

8. The Anta-Kriddasānga Sūtra

It deals with the life stories of all souls from all classes who became 'siddh' immediately after attaining keval gyān.

9. Anuttaropapātik-Dashānga Sūtra

It contains the life stories of great virtuous souls who had led the most pure lives and then emerged in Anuttar Viman, a well-known land of god, the Dev Loka.

10. Prashna Vyākaran Sūtra

It discusses topics such as non-violence, evil, and good elements, i.e. Āshrava and Samvar.

11. Vipāka Sūtra

It discusses the causes of pains and pleasures, unhappiness and happiness, and good deeds like donations.

12. Drishtivāda Sūtra

It consisted of the fourteen Pūrva texts containing the knowledge that existed prior to Lord Mahaveer. It is believed that it began missing 200 years after Lord Mahaveer`s nirvana (about 327 BC). However, some of its contents are believed to have been retained by some learned saints.



There are two points of view about how the knowledge was transferred from Lord Mahaveer to gaṇadharas, and then on to others. The transfer of absolute knowledge from Mahāveer to gaṇadhars was a flawless transfer because the transferor was the Lord himself. Likewise, transfer of absolute knowledge between gaṇadhars and āchāryas was also perfect, because the former were the direct disciples of the Lord. The 5th gaṇadhar, Sudharmā, was nominated as the first Āchārya after Mahaveer Nirvana who was on his way to attain his own absolute knowledge.    The knowledge began to dilute as it was passed on from one person to the next. Āchārya Kālak once said to his pupil Sāgar, that the immense knowledge that tirthankars had, the gaṇadhars couldn't obtain in the same amount. Likewise, the entire knowledge of gaṇadhars couldn't be

received by the āchāryas. And the knowledge that āchāryas had, we don't. Giving an example, the āchārya added, as the particles of dust relocate, some of them are lost. Similarly, some knowledge of āgams is lost during their transfers.[9]

In my opinion, Āchārya Kālak's argument is in conflict with the general belief that there can be no dilution of knowledge when it is transferred from tirthankars to gaṇadhars; and from gaṇadhars to the first āchārya. It is because in each case the transferors are either keval gyānīs or becoming keval-gyānīs; or are the recipients from keval-gyānīs. After the end of keval-gyān era, the knowledge started declining.



There are several reasons for the decline of such knowledge. One, the famine that occurred during various times caused Jain monks to pay more attention to their livelihood and less on teaching such knowledge. A major famine lasting about 12 years occurred after Mahaveer's nirvāna.

Two, the pūrvadhars who had such knowledge, passed away with the passage of time. Bhadrabāhu Swāmī was the last person known to have a complete command over such knowledge. Sthūlibhadra Swāmī received this knowledge from him. He passed away in Veer Nirvāna (VN) 216. Thus the immense knowledge continued to weaken.

Three, certain political, social, religious, and the personal issues at the time also caused such decline.

In spite of all these reasons, certain parts of the Drishtivāda (12th anga) are believed to have survived in various forms in the documents such as Samavāyānga, Nandī sūtra, Shatkhandāgam and Kasāyaprābhrit.



Several efforts were made to protect āgams.

First, 170 years after Lord Mahāvīra's nirvāna, Jain saints met in Patliputra. They found 11 of the 12 Jain angas, containing all their knowledge, safe and secure. However, the 12th anga was with Bhadrabāhu Swāmī[10] who at the time was engaged in Mahāprān Dhyān in Nepal. A delegation of 1,500 shramans (500 of student shramans and 1,000 of follower shramans) went to Nepal to obtain the knowledge contained in the 12th anga. However, Bhadrabāhu Swāmī gave the knowledge contained in the 12th anga only to Sthūlibhadra Swāmi.

Something strange happened after all the saints returned to Patliputra. When Sthūlibhadra's sisters came to visit their brother, he jokingly converted himself into a lion to show what the miracle power he had gained. His sisters thought that a lion has killed their brother. Guru Bhadrabāhu didn't like it. Sthūlibhadra apologized.

Bhadrabāhu had already taught Sthūlibhadra the first 10 pūrvas. With the latter abusing the knowledge he acquired, he then decided to teach him only the words contained in the remaining four pūrvas, not their meaning.[11]

Secondly, during the period of VN 170 to VN 827 years after the Lord's nirvana, the knowledge was safe in the presence of pūrvadhars. Early in the fourth century, the King Khārvel of Orrisa invited Jain monks, sadhvīs and followers to update the scriptures. In that convention, almost 800 learned sadhus and sadhvīs and 1,400 scholarly followers took part.[12]

Up to VN 617, the knowledge of nine pūrvas existed. What happened between VN 617 to VN 826 requires more research to answer the question. The knowledge of at least one pūrva is believed to have remained up to 1,000 years after VN. 

Thirdly, during the period of VN 827 to VN 840 years (9th century) after the Lord Mahāvīra's nirvāna, the Jain saints again gathered to discuss how to preserve āgams? Āchārya Skandil led the effort in Mathurā City (in U. P.)[13]; as Āchārya Nāgārjun guided it in Vallabhī City (in Saurashtra). Over the years, these efforts came to be known as "vāchanā.". Up to this period all efforts were done to update the knowledge orally.

Fourthly, during the period of VN 793-904, another effort was made to collect and preserve the āgams under the leadership of āchārya Devarddhigani in Vallabhī City. They tried to write down āgams in an organized manner. This appears to be the first effort to pen the original knowledge.[14]

Two languages were used for the purpose. Māthurī was used as the base or main text. Nāgārjunīya was used as the variant text. The differences between the two were reconciled where possible, and noted so if these could not be reconciled.

The āgams that are available to us today, are those that were collected by Devarddhigani Kshamāshraman. After this effort there was no efforts done by all Jains collectively. Thus, Jains consider the available āgams as the foundation of their faith, knowledge and practices.



Tirthankars are the original sources of 'āgams." This fountain of knowledge began from them. They mainly passed it on to gaṇadhars; who in turn shared it with āchāryas; who then shared it with saints and people at large.

It is reasonable to assume that the āgams that we have available today are, in totality, not the āgams that Lord Mahāvīra gave to us. It is also reasonable to surmise that the current āgams may not be too much different from the originals. My reason for this belief is that taken together, the current āgams represent a reasonable, logical vision of the human race, as represented by the five simple and solid principles of Jainism as mentioned above.

All the same, however, research should continue to find out the nature, shape, and contents of the original āgams. In this age of leapfrogging technology, the humans one day may begin to travel in time to find certain answers that are unknown today.



I am deeply thankful to Dr. Narendra Bhandari, Professor of Management at Pace University, New York for teaching me the various aspects of writing a research based article. I also thank Samani Jayant Pragyaji for her valuable advice on Agam's historical point of view and Revered Sadhvi Shree Shrutyashaji for final review.

Above all, I want to express my humble gratitude to my Gurus, Āchārya Shri Bhikshu and Āchārya Shri Mahāshraman. Just remembering their names fills me with the energy to keep learning.
Jain Vishwa Bharati of North America
151 Midlesex Ave., Iselin, NJ 08830, USA



  1. Āchārya Mahāpragya (editor), (1977), Nandi sūtra, jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun Acharya
  2. Āchārya Mahāpragya (editor), Anuyoga Dvāra, (1996), jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun.
  3. Āchārya Mallisen, Syadvad Manjarī (1979), Shrī Paramshrut Prabhāvak Mandal, Agās.,
  4. Gani Shree Jindas, (1928), Āvashyaka Chūrni, Shree Rishabhd, asji Kesharimalji Shwetambar Sanstha, Ratlaam
  5. Kusum Pragyā (editor), (1996), Vyavahār Bhāshya, Jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun.
  6. Sādhvī Sanghmitrā, Jain, (2001) Dharma Ke Prabhāvak Āchārya, Jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun.
  7. Shrī Hemchandāchārya, (1926), Yogashastra, Shrī Jain Dharmaprasārak Sabhā, Bhāvanagar.
  8. Suri Vadidev, (editor by Raja Radhakantdev), (1967), Shabda-Kalpadrum, part 1, Varanasi.
  9. Siddhāntāchārya Pt. Foolchand Shastri, (editor), Sarvārthasiddhi, Bhāratīya Gyānpīth, Delhi.
  10. Muni Punyavijay (editor), (1933), Vrihatkalpa Bhāshya, part 1, Ātmānand Jain Sabhā, Bhāvanagar
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