On the meaning of daṇḍa in Jainism

The term daṇḍa conveys a wide range of meaning, as you can see from the entry in the Sanskrit dictionary. The basic sense is “stick”, from where it means “staff”, but then also “cane, rod, club” in the sense of what you hit someone with; and from there to “violence, cruelty, power”.

The sense is very close to that in the famous biblical saying, “spare the rod, spoil the child”. This has justified centuries of violent coporal punishment on children, with effects still felt today. But the original sense was kinder; it was referring to a shepherd caring for their flock. They’d use their crock to tap and nudge the sheep in line, keeping them safe from the wolves, and only occasionally needing a firmer blow.

In MN 56, the Jain interlocuters object to the Buddha’s use of kamma, preferring to state their ideas in terms of daṇḍa. Ven Bodhi translates it here as “rod”, while Norman suggests “punishment”. Ven Analayo, pointing out that the Chinese and Sanskrit texts speak not of performing deeds (as does the Pali) but only of refraining from deeds, suggests daṇḍa has the sense of “control, restraint” here. This would relate directly to the sense I suggest above, with the shepherd and the flocks. The point is that the Jain doctrine is mainly about not doing things, and by avoiding all kammic deeds they can find liberation.

Analayo cites a number of sources in support of this reading, however I do not have access to most of them. Anyway, I thought I would go back to the source, and check the use of the word daṇḍa in the Ācāraṅga Sūtra, one of the most important of the (relatively) early Jain texts. While this is obviously not complete or authoritative, it should give us a reasonable idea.

For the text I relied on the Gretil edition, and for translation, Jacobi’s, which is available at the Internet Archive:

https://archive.org/details/jainasutrasparti029233mbp

The following is not entirely complete, but it represents the majority of occurrences.

n’ eva sayaṃ eehiṃ kajjehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārabhejjā, n’ ev’ annaṃ eehiṃ||8.1||
kajjehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārambhāvejjā, n’ ev’ annaṃ eehiṃ kajjehiṃ daṇḍaṃ||*8.2||
Knowing this, a wise man should neither commit violence by such acts, nor orders others to do so, nor consent to the violence done by someone else.

Similar:

uḍḍhaṃ ahaṃ tiriyaṃ disāsu ||33.26||
savvao savvāvantī ca -aṃ paḍikkaṃ jīvehiṃ kamma-samārambheṇaṃ||*33.27||
Ō taṃ parinnāya mehāvī n’ eva sayaṃ eehiṃ kāehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārabhejjā,||*33.28||
n’ ev’ annehiṃ eehiṃ kāehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārambhāvejjā, ||*34.1||
n’ ev’ anne eehiṃ kāehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārabhante vi samaṇujāṇejjā.||*34.2||
je v’ anne eehiṃ kāehiṃ daṇḍaṃ samārabhanti, tesiṃ pi vayaṃ ||*34.3||
lajjāmo. taṃ parinnāya mehāvī taṃ vā daṇḍaṃ annaṃ vā daṇḍaṃ Ō||*34.4||
no daṇḍa-bhī daṇḍaṃ samārabhejjāsi Ō tti bemi. ||*34.5||

uvaraya-daṇḍesu vā aṇuvaraya-daṇḍesu vā,||*17.22||
cruel or the not cruel

nikkhitta-daṇḍā ||*19.11||
nikkhitta-daṇḍāṇaṃ ||*27.5||
abstain from cruelty

puvvaṃ daṇḍā pacchā phāsā, puvvaṃ phāsā pacchā daṇḍā Ō||*24.25||
first troubles then pleasures, first pleasures then troubles

savvāvantī ca -aṃ logaṃsi Ō||*35.8||
nihāya daṇḍaṃ pāṇehiṃ pāvaṃ kammaṃ akuvvamāṇe ||*35.9||
esa mahaṃ aganthe viyāhie. ||*35.10||
A person who is without desires and does no harm unto any living beings in the whole world is called by me “unfettered”.

Further, in the Uttarajjhaya we have the following:

tao se daṇḍaṃ samārabhaī | tasesu thāvaresu ya / (5.8)
Then he begins to act cruelly against movable and immovable beings

(Note the same phrase found in the Metta Sutta; for the Jains it seems to mean “plants and animals”)

tiguttigutto tidaṇḍavirao ya /20.60||
protected by the three guptis, and abstaining (virao) from injuring (daṇḍa) in the three ways

From this, it seems clear that the dominant sense of daṇḍa is, in fact, a negative one, referring to the acts committed, which implicitly or explicitly involve violence and harming. By making this term central to the teaching on karma, they are reminding us that the outcome of deeds always involves suffering in some way. It is a harsher teaching than the Buddha’s, but there is some truth to it. We don’t find the positive sense of “control” or “restraint” here, although it is not impossible that it has such a sense elsewhere.


Moving to more general Jain teachings, an important use of daṇḍa is in the set of twelve vows for laypeople, among which is anarthadaṇḍavrata. I am not entirely sure how to parse this compound, but it seems to mean “vow regarding unnecessary harming”. Since all action must harm something, the point is to minimize it. In Dr Shiv Sharma’s The Soul of Jainism this is defined as having four aspects:

  1. Not even thinking about harming anyone.
  2. To take care not to cause harm by accident, for example, by leaving lids off liquids that insects might fly into.
  3. To avoid being the cause of accidents through weapons, i.e. not to keep weapons.
  4. Not to use someone’s influence to do harm (which agrees with the emphasis on not getting someone else to harm for you in the examples above.)

The case of not keeping weapons is interesting. It agrees with the argument I made in a previous article that Jain ascetics should not accept alms at a house where weapons are kept.

This sense is also dominant in the Jain theory of diplomacy (upaya), where the last is daṇḍa, force.


Finally, there is a Jain legend that makes the notion of the daṇḍas more literal. I am not sure of the provenance of the legend, but according to Suresh and Usha Sharma’s Cultural and Religious Heritage of India: Jainism, a past life of Mahāvīra tells of how he struggled with the daṇḍas of body, speech, and mind.

This difficulty he evaded by an ingenious mechanical pun. The word daṇḍa or stick is the same as the word daṇḍa that connotes the three controls he found so hard to exercise, so he gathered together three sticks and preached far and wide the comforting doctrine that any ascetic might do what he liked and linger at will on the primrose path of dalliance, provided he carried in his hand the three rods.

Here the authors evidently take the term daṇḍa in the sense of control; not knowing the sources I cannot say how valid that is. However, even in such a context, the metaphor of the “rod” is still very much alive. I’m still not convinced that such is the meaning in the early texts, but in any case, sticking close to the root of the metaphor, which has such similar meanings in English, seems like the most prudent approach. So, “rod” it is.

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Danda is a very common word in Sinhalease language.
It means stick, staff, cane, rod, club, punishment.
Marniya Dandana means death penalty.
Ea (read as A) Danda means the tree trunk lay across a stream so people can cross the stream.
There is a colloquial usage of Danda to means erected penis.

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I found a use of daṇḍa as a beating staff for cattle in a simile on the dangers of unrestrained senses in sn35.246.

Although this is a Buddhist teaching context, and not a Buddhist/Jaina discussion context, it is an example in agreement with the first meaning Bhikkhu @sujato discusses — that of the rod/staff being used in pastoral punishment. It’s also possible that it is an illustration, by metaphorical context, of the second meaning Bhante discusses — the positive sense of “restraint”? In other words, the metaphor used might be playing on the negative beating sense of the word and also the positive “sense” of sense-restraint.

I’m sure this doesn’t help with translating for the Jaina context, but I thought it was an interesting possibility of wordplay in the allegory. And I wouldn’t have been alerted to such a possibility without this essay.

What a detailed analysis!