More from the Spalding Symposium: on the Jaina Kalpasutra

Moving now to Jain tradition, and continuing my analysis of the construction of the significant past across the three traditions, an obvious place to start is the Kalpa Sūtra attributed to Bhadrabāhu. This text is ancillary to the Śvetāmbara canon (a Cheda Sūtra). The canon itself supposedly took something like its present form at the council of Valabhī in the middle part of the C6th CE. Paul Dundas dates the Kalpa Sūtra itself to the first or second century BCE, but is far from certain in this regard (see his The Jains p 23). Others have dated it to the mid-part of the first millennium (e.g. Malvania, cited in Dundas p. 282). The Kalpa Sūtra (and the Āvaśyaka literature, which I will not take up today) offer, amongst other things, the earliest accounts of the lives of the 24 tīrthaṅkaras (of the present half of the cosmic cycle).
The Kalpa Sūtra, in complete contrast to the Buddhavaṃsa, begins with the present tīrthaṅkara and works backwards. It closes with a very long pedigree of senior monks, which it calls a therāvalī, and an account of the monastic prescriptions for the rainy season retreat (parjuṣanā – which is a much celebrated time of year across early Indian literature).
The Kalpa Sūtra is something of a middle term between the Buddhavaṃsa and the Brahminical epics in that it combines an emphasis on transmigration with a rich consciousness of genealogy.
There is no frame narrative in the text at all. The external narrator tells us, in detail, of the birth and ministry of four tīrthāṅkaras, as well as listing the other twenty. There is mention of the extraordinary omniscience of the tīrthaṅkara, which I give in Lalwani’s translation:

121. Then Śramaṇa Bhagavān Mahāvīra became the venerable victor, omniscient, all-knowing, all-observing; knew he and saw he all categories of gods, men and asuras in all the worlds…knew he and saw he their open deeds as well as their secret deeds (in Ardhamagadhī, their āvī-kamma and raho-kamma).

But this is in no way related to the capacity for the tale of the tīrthāṅkaras to be told (as is often the case implicitly or explicitly for the buddhavācana). Neither do we find the emphatic first person at all. The text is narrated, in its entirety, in the third person. There is no sense of the personal transmigratory journey of Mahāvīra either, such as we find in the progress of Sumedha (this is to do, of course, with differences between Jain and Buddhist understandings of the karmic process that leads to liberation, which I will not detail here, but which Naomi explores in some detail in her most recent book).
The accounts of the lives of the tīrthānkaras and the enumeration of their followers are formulaic, like those of the Buddhavaṃsa, and have largely the same cumulative impact: a cosmo-historical teaching pedigree is established. The list, in brief, of the twenty other tīrthankaras extends this and creates a vast chronological framework for transformative insight. The inclusion after this of a list of senior monks (and their associated gaṇas, śākhās and kulas) extends this list into the arena of immediate history. Of course, parallel material may be found in Buddhist and Brahminical sources: from the Buddhist Bāhiranidāna to the teaching pedigrees of the Upaniṣads and the elaborate Brahminical genealogies of the Gotrapravaramañjarī, but not in this precise combination. The final chapter on the monastic discipline appropriate to the rainy season retreat ‘grounds’ the text in concrete ritual practice, as the teaching pedigree does, in terms of the more recent history of the transmission of Jain teachings.
In terms of genealogical consciousness, we find descriptions of Brahminical lineages, as well as of Kṣatriya ones. These genealogies are placed in a transmigratory framework. Lalwani translates (again I give some Ardhamagadhī terms for clarity):

2. After the liberation of 21 tīrthaṅkaras who were born in the race of Ikṣvāku (the ikkhāga-kula) in the line of Kaśyāpa (kāsava-gotta) and of two others born in the race of Hari (hari-vaṃsa) and the line of Gautama (goyam-sagotta), 23 tīrthaṅkaras in all.

The Kalpa Sūtra is more detailed in its coverage of the lives of the first tīrthankara, Ṛṣabha, and the last one, Mahāvīra. The text presents a rather odd birth narrative for Mahāvīra, in which he is transferred, as an embryo, from the womb of Brahmin woman to that of a Kṣatriya at the behest of Indra. Paul Dundas has interpreted this as a part of a pattern of Brahmin-Kṣatriya rivalry. While this may, no doubt, be the case, it is to the ‘fathers’ of Mahāvīra that I would like to turn and specifically to their interpretation of the portentous dreams of their wives when they are pregnant with Mahāvīra. On hearing of the fourteen auspicious signs that accompany the birth of a tīrthāṅkara, the first ‘father’ of Mahāvīra, the Brahmin Ṛṣabhadatta, anticipates the great achievements of his son in Vedic learning. While his kṣatriya father, Siddhārtha, looks forward to his son’s martial achievements. Both fathers offer us textbook interpretations of their wives prophetic dreams in terms of the idea-typical preoccupations of their varṇas. The movement between wombs, as well as perhaps expressing rivalry, also allows for Mahāvīra to assimilate some of the qualities of both varṇas. It is after this that the specialist dream interpreters are called upon. The interpreters of dreams present two alternatives in their interpretation of the dream (familiar to us also from Buddhist tradition): the child will be an arhat or a cakravartin. Of course, we know already, by the frequent reference to Mahāvīra as a tīrthaṅkara, which way the story is likely to proceed. The point is the development of an ideal human that, depending on the circumstances, can be an idealised temporal or spiritual leader. The narrative of embryonic transfer reflects this, even if Mahāvīra will, of course, go beyond ‘mere’ Vedic learning.
In the tale of Ṛṣabha, which shares many descriptions with that of Mahāvīra, we hear that Ṛṣabha, before his renunciation and during his period of earthly rule, introduced the fundaments of civilisation – from agriculture to the written word – and left one hundred sons to rule after him. This recalls the role of Pṛthu in Brahminical tradition, as the epico-purāṇic stabilizer of the earth (albeit the former is part of a foundation myth of a rather more domesticated type: Ṛṣabha does not ‘milk the earth’, but rather sets up trade unions and teaches numeracy and literacy). This is perhaps a complimentary myth to that of the embryonic transfer, but differently polarised: here it is the paradigmatic role of the king, and especially the cakravartin, that is emphasised.

The Kalpa Sūtra thus does much that the Buddhavaṃsa does, but speaks also to the genealogical – and political – emphases of the Brahminical sources. It also, as was the case for the Buddhist material, retains a small space for divine intervention- by Indra, albeit of a more restricted, facilitatory, type.


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