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Jainism, like Hinduism and Buddhism, is one of the ancient religions of India. It was established by Mahavira in the 6th century BCE. Like Buddhism, Jainism also originated in the eastern parts of India, i.e. Bihar, parts of Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. Later, it spread to other parts of the continent.
The followers of this religion are called ‘Jains’. There are two main sects in Jainism: Shvetambara Jains (clothed in white) and Digambara Jains (Skyclad). There are some ideological differences that exist between the two sects but, fundamentally, there are many similarities as they share the same roots. Both the sects believe in twenty-four Jain Tirthankaras¹. The ethical and philosophical teachings of the Tirthankaras play a pivotal role in Jainism. These canonical teachings are passed on from one generation to the other through written texts as well as oral discourse. These written texts (manuscripts) are donated in Jain ‘Shastra-Bhandaras’ (Temple Repositories). This practice (known as ‘Shastra-dan’) is encouraged in the Jain tradition and is considered an act of religious merit. Among the two sects, the Shvetambaras seem to have been more involved in the manuscript writing activity than the Digambaras (Doshi, 1995).
Image - 01: Kalpa-Sutra Manuscript.
(Image Link: Kalpa-Sutra – Section on Mahavira.
Image Source: ©Jainpedia 2014, Image copyright: The Jain universe online at www.jainpedia.org. Creative Commons Public Domain.)
Of these written texts, the Kalpa-Sutra written by Bhadrabahu (around 4th-5th century BCE), is an extremely important and highly worshipped text of the Shvetambara Jains. This text is also known to be the oldest extant text within the Jain tradition. It primarily deals with the rules and code of conduct for ascetics during the rainy season, and also describes the lives of the 24 Tirthankaras. It is the most frequently illustrated text of the Shvetambara Jains, and most of these illustrations correspond to verses in the text. These sutras² are recited by Jain monks and devotees during the holy month of Paryushana. The sutras are written by a scribe called a ‘Lahiya’ (લહિયા/लहिया). These manuscripts are well known for their beautiful illustrations, unique text layouts and distinct calligraphic styles. They are finely illuminated with natural pigment colours and often with gold and silver and hence have a high artistic value.
¹A Tirthankara is an omniscient teacher who preaches the dharma (righteous path) (Wikipedia 2016).
²A Sutra refers to a short or concise technical sentence used as a memorial rule.