Jain Agam Literature

By Pravin K. Shah
Jain Study Center of North Carolina


Lord Mahavir’s preaching were orally compiled into many texts (scriptures) by his disciples. These scriptures are known as Jain Agam or Agam Sutras. The Agam Sutras teach great reverence for all forms of life, strict codes of vegetarianism, asceticism, compassion, nonviolence, and opposition to war. In olden times, Jain ascetics believe that the religious books and scriptures are possessions and attachments. Therefore the scriptures were not documented in any form but were memorized by ascetics and passed on by oral tradition to future generations of ascetics. The memorized sutras were divided into two major groups:

Ang Agam Sutras:

Ang Agam sutras contain direct preaching of Lord Mahavir. They consist of 12 texts that were originally compiled by immediate disciples of Lord Mahavir known as Ganadhars, who possessed absolute knowledge of the soul or keval-jnan. They were compiled immediately after Lord Mahavir’s nirvana (death). The twelfth text is called Drstiwad, which includes 14 Purvas.

Angbayha Agam Sutras:

Angbayha Agam sutras provide further explanation of Ang Agam sutras. They were originally compiled by Shrut Kevali monks, who possessed total knowledge of the soul by studying 12 Ang Agams. They consist of 14 texts according to the Digambar sect, 34 texts according to the Swetambar Murtipujak sect, and 21 texts according to the Sthanakvasi and Terapanthi sects. They were compiled within 150 years after Lord Mahaviras nirvana.
Also, during the course of time many learned acharyas (elder monks) compiled commentaries on the Agam literature and independent works on various subjects of Jain philosophy and religion.

In the course of time, it became extremely difficult to keep memorizing the entire Jain literature (Agam sutras – scriptures, Commentary literature, and Independent works) compiled by the many scholars. Also there occurred a twelve years of famine around 350 BC. It was extremely difficult for the Jain ascetics to survive during this time. Under such circumstances they could not preserve the entire canonical literature. In fact, a significant number of Agam sutras were already forgotten and lost after the famine.

Later, when the Jain congregation relaxed the vow of non‑possession with regards to religious scriptures for ascetics, they had already forgotten much of the oldest canonical literature such as twelfth Ang-agam known as Drastiwad, which included fourteen Purvas. The rest of agams were polluted with some modifications and errors.

About one thousand years after Lord Mahaviras nirvana the memorized Agam Sutras and their commentaries were recorded on leafy papers (Tadpatris).

Swetambar Jains have accepted the recorded Agam Sutras (11 Ang Agams and all Angbayha Sutras) as an authentic version of Lord Mahavir’s teachings, while Digambar Jains have not. They concluded that after the famine, the entire Jain canonical literature (Ang and Angbayha Agam Sutras) became extinct. In the absence of authentic Agam sutras, Digambars follow Shatkhand Agam and Kasay Pahud as their main texts and four Anuyogs (which includes about 20 texts) written by great ascetics from 100 to 900 AD as their basis to follow and practice the Jain religion.

Jain history indicates that during the course of time, Swetambar ascetics held three conferences for the preservation of the Jain canonical literature, commentaries, and non-canonical literature. No documentation occurred during the first conference but during the second and third conferences most of the scriptures, commentaries, and other works were documented.

  Conference Place Time
1 Patli-putra Conference @320 BC
2 Mathura and Valabhi Conferences @380 AD
3 Valabhi Conference @520 AD

Around 1400 to 1600 AD, the Swetambar sect also divided into three sub-sects known as Swetambar Murtipujak, Sthanakvasi, and Terapanthi. Differences also exist among all three Swetambar Jain sects in their acceptance of the validity and interpretations of the documented Jain scriptures (Agam Sutras) and other literature.