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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Monastic codes

A Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak nun holds a mouth-cloth – muṃhpatti – over her face. The mouth-cloth both stops minute beings entering the mouth and protects wind-bodied beings, which are one-sensed living beings according to the Jain classifications of life.

Nun covers her mouth
Image by unknown © Jain Spirit / Institute of Jainology

Women’s difficulties in rising to high rank within the monastic hierarchy are first shown by the texts discussing the monastic code that is part of the Śvetāmbara canon. Even though no statement seems to record any fundamental inequality between monks and nuns, this code rests on the underlying belief that a woman, being unsteady by nature, needs more control and thus more rules than a man.

Individual monastic orders have both men and women members. Small groups of monks or nuns come under the authority of one of them. But female groups as a whole are generally supervised by men members and leading nuns are appointed by monks.

Among the Digambaras, where the place of women is always more inferior than among other Jain orders, a nun – āryikā – is initiated by a monk and traditionally becomes a member of a male mendicant’s ‘lineage’. In some cases, a Digambara nun may be an independent group leader and initiate her own disciples, female or even males.

The general rules for monks and nuns are largely similar. There are, however, additional, stricter rules which limit nuns’ options in their daily routine, especially food regulations.

Besides this, their independence and freedom are limited by a broad subordination to the monks, which takes the following forms:

  • even after long years as a nun they may be under the authority of junior monks
  • they need to serve longer than their male colleagues to reach high positions in the religious hierarchy
  • nuns have their own religious titles – guruṇī, gaṇinī, pravartinī – which refer to their function as leader of a small group or unit only. However, they all imply an inferior rank to those of monks.

One exceptional case, which has given rise to controversy, is that of the nun Candanā, who was appointed ācārya. This title was bestowed on her by Amar Muni, the creator of the Veerayatan centre in Bihar.

Example of the Terāpantha

That nuns’ religious titles suggest a lower rank than those of monks is exemplified in the organisation of the Terāpanthin movement, a modern subsect of the Śvetāmbaras mostly active in Rajasthan. When it originated in the 18th century a single teacher – ācārya – was the head of both monks and nuns. The regular increase of nuns resulted in the institution of a female-head or pramukhā who commands smaller units. However, her role is that of a co-ordinator in practical matters and she is not considered the female counterpart of the ācārya. He is the decision-making authority and she remains junior to him.

Access to scriptures and education

A woman passes printed translations of Jinasena and Guṇabhadra’s Mahāpurāṇa, the standard Digambara version of Universal History. These scriptures are exposed for ‘darshan’ or 'sight' at the Bhandari Basadi, Shravana Belgola in Karnataka

Digambara canon on display
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The stress on individual responsibility for spiritual progress is an important Jain belief. Making spiritual progress relies on knowledge and scriptural knowledge is a key part of this. Customarily, women received and passed on religious teachings orally and through taking leading parts in daily practices such as food preparation and ceremonies of worship. Being able to directly read, meditate on and transmit sacred writings were not crucial elements in women’s traditional roles in the Jain faith. These days, the topic of female education in religious matters is disputed among contemporary Jains, with sects varying in their beliefs and practices.

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