Jainism FAQs

Monks and nuns

Why do some Jain monks and nuns wear mouth-cloths? Do all Jains wear them?

A group of Jain nuns walks barefoot up a hill. Dressed in white robes with their heads covered, they all wear cloths fixed over their mouths, attached by strings over the ears. This identifies them as either Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns.

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns
Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Some mendicants use mouth-cloths to avoid harming the one-sensed beings and tiny insects in the air. They may accidentally cause violence by breathing out or inhaling insects.

The monks and nuns of the Śvetāmbara mūrti-pūjaka sects wear mouth-cloths – muhpatti or mukhavastrikā – at certain times. They hold cloths in front of their mouths when preaching or reading scriptures aloud. Mouth-cloths prevent saliva inadvertently flying onto the holy scripture when speaking.

Mendicants of the Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin sects wear mouth-cloths permanently except when eating. The mouth-cloths are attached to loops of strings that hang over the ears.

Digambara monks and nuns do not use mouth-cloths at all.

Lay Jains may hold cloths over their mouths when carrying out particular ceremonies. They may also attach mouth-cloths when cleaning an idol or performing rituals of worship. These stop saliva accidentally landing on the holy object when they breathe out.

Do Jain monks and nuns take a vow of poverty? What is renunciation?

The monastic staff and broom of a Śvetāmbara mendicant lean against shelves in a corner. Monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara sect use alms bowls, staffs and brooms as their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa

Śvetāmbara monastic equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Renunciation is the general term for taking the special vows to becoming a mendicant for the rest of one’s life. Jains give up the life of the householder – renounce the world – to travel towards higher spiritual conditions, which only fully-fledged monks and nuns can do. They perform the ‘Five Great Vows’ – mahāvratas – which include the vow of non-possession – aparigraha. This means that Jain ascetics do not own anything at all.

Jain monks and nuns do not take a specific vow of poverty, as Christian mendicants do. Their lack of possessions may suggest this, but this condition stems from the vow of non-possession.

If the mendicants are Śvetāmbaras, they use the monastic equipment believed necessary to practise the mendicant life. If they are full Digambara monks, they do not use clothing. Anything monks or nuns need – such as medicine, spectacles and food – they are given by lay people.

Lay people can also take up to 12 vows of renunciation, of varying levels of commitment, but these do not make them mendicants. Only by performing the formal ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – does someone become a monk or nun.

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