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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The religious status of women is one of the chief differences between the two principal sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. It is also a crucial issue in the history of Jainism.

Historically, Jainism's attitude towards women has shared a view common amongst other Indian and Asian traditions, which see women as innately unequal to men. Counter to these long-established attitudes, Jainism gives women a central role in its ethical and spiritual patterns. For example, the fourfold community that is the foundation of Jain daily life includes lay women as well as lay men, nuns as well as monks. Among Śvetāmbara sects, there tends to be more female mendicants than male. Traditional sources name several distinguished women who play important roles in the tales of the Jinas, while goddesses are significant cultural and religious figures. In addition, the soḷa satī – 16 virtuous women – are female role models whose stories highlight desirable religious qualities.

These conventions are more striking when recalling that historical Jain holy writings were written by men primarily for male readers and listeners. Women’s voices have only been heard since the 20th century and these usually take the form of autobiography rather than philosophical works.

Women lead the key Jain religious activities surrounding food, especially fasting, and often have principal roles in the performance of worship, particularly singing hymns. Jain women are also often the keenest participants in religious festivals.

Despite the vital importance of female activity in Jain religious life and the high proportion of female mendicants, nuns must defer to male colleagues. Frequently, senior nuns have limited authority and are not allowed to preach like monks. One of the most basic Jain beliefs is that each individual is responsible for his or her spiritual condition and thus anyone may read the scriptures, which guide spiritual progress. It is very likely, however, that female Jains generally had lower educational levels than their male counterparts, which must have hindered their scriptural knowledge. Nowadays female education for both nuns and lay women is a focus of disagreement among the sects.

This is partly connected to the main philosophical distinction between the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. The capacity of women to achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth has been hotly debated for around two thousand years, and relates to whether nudity is necessary for salvation. The sectarian dispute over whether the 19th Jina, Mallī, was male or female symbolises disagreements about female liberation.

Centrality of women from the start

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

No sound information is available before the time when Mahāvīra, the main expounder of the Jain doctrine, organised the community of Jains. From the start, this community, known as ‘the fourfold sangha’, included women as two of its components:

The male elements of the community are lay men and monks. Thus both main sects recognise that women form two of the four essential parts of society.

In contrast to Buddhism, the Jain tradition has no text showing that the idea of a nuns’ order could ever have caused difficulty. Nuns have always been there and in fact they always outnumber monks in traditional statistics for Jain communities surrounding the Jinas, at least among Śvetāmbaras.

Indeed, the names of individual respected women appear in early sources and are depicted in the narrative literature as ideal types of virtue and generosity – the satī. Examples include the head nun of Mahāvīra’s community, Candanā or Candanābālā, who had first come to notice by offering him an appropriate gift of food. Sulasā and Revatī were at the head of his female lay followers. Revatī was known for having offered medicine to Mahāvīra when his life was at risk because of his enemy Gośāla.

Male or male-oriented sources

This express recognition of the vital place of women in Jainism is more notable since women's voices are seldom heard directly. This is because the sources are almost all written by men or are male-oriented.

In the 20th century a few highly charismatic nuns have been able to express themselves through their autobiographies, for example Āryikā Jñānamati, or in religious pamphlets. Yet no woman is known to have composed any truly groundbreaking treatise on dogma.

Even so, a few women are famous for having inspired innovative work. This is the case for Mahattarā Yākinī, a legendary figure who is said to have been the muse of the eighth-century teacher and scholar Haribhadra.

Nuns and religious hierarchy

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a cloth-wrapped bookstand, used to hold scriptures. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate
Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0

The high number of nuns in the Jain orders has not had a positive impact on their rank within these orders. In fact, nuns usually have lower places in the hierarchy of monasticism than monks, with high-ranking nuns having less authority than their male equivalents.

It is rather rare to see female mendicants take part in public activities such as preaching or scriptural discussions.

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