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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Nuns and scriptures

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

As far as access to sacred scriptures is concerned, there is again no theoretical distinction between nuns and monks. Like Buddhism, Jainism is open to all, differing from the orthodox Hindu tradition, where women are not allowed to read the Vedas. However, the educational level of Jain nuns is very difficult to assess. Hints in manuscript colophons show that some texts were copied to be read by women, whether nuns or lay women, but they remain a minority.

Today, nuns' and, more broadly, women's education is a divisive issue, for instance among Jain subsects of the Śvetāmbara group. Some subsects, for example the Terāpanthin and Sthānaka-vāsin, claim that monks and nuns can study all texts. But the Tapā-gaccha sect, for instance, states that nuns' abilities are lesser and therefore prevents them from studying the Cheda-sūtras, a difficult and controversial group of canonical texts dealing with the monastic code. This same sect does not allow nuns to preach, whereas the Kharatara-gaccha allows it. Even then the number of nuns giving public sermons is limited, considering the global number of nuns. More often, they are seen surrounding the preaching monk and carefully listening to him.

Some prominent nuns of the 20th century, such as Sādhvī Mr̥gāvatī try to use their prestige and influence to promote women's education. They believe that young girls must undergo a trial period before going through full religious initiation. During this period they should gain at least elementary knowledge not only of Jainism but also of basic disciplines such as Sanskrit and Prakrit grammar or literature.

Promoting women's education is high on the agenda of the Terāpanthin. This subsect has a special category of nuns called the samaṇi, which is officially free from certain rules restricting their movements and can visit institutions in India or abroad to pursue academic research.

Lay women and scriptures

This manuscript painting shows Indrabhūti Gautama preaching. The white-clad monk is fanned by a servant and sits on a lotus, symbols of worldly and spiritual rank. King Śreṇika and his family sit separately from the lords and ladies of the court

Indrabhūti Gautama preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jain lay women’s book knowledge of the tradition varies according to their social environment. From time to time, resolutions are passed in Jain conferences to encourage women's education. This was the case during the large lay Jain conference held in 1915 in Sujangadh, near Bikaner in Rajasthan. The ninth resolution passed here called for greater support for women’s education (Cort 1995: 11). In the 17th century one of the conclusions proclaimed during a meeting led by the monk Satyavijaya-gaṇi related to the proper ways to give religious instruction to lay women (Cort 1995: 18).

Principally, women ‘protect or continue the community’ by passing on basic teachings to the younger generations, mainly through telling legends and stories. The old stock is kept alive thanks to new versions in modern-language translations that are widely available in small cheap booklets.

Listening to the daily sermons of monks and nuns, which they normally attend in large crowds, alone or with their family members, is another way in which lay women become familiar with Jain scriptures. They largely outnumber their male colleagues in these circumstances.

Religious hymns form another category of literature in which lay women are prominent. Chanting and reciting hymns are two areas where women take a leading role in both domestic and temple rituals.

Lay women’s roles

Women’s knowledge and place in the community are mostly oriented towards two areas where they dominate, namely the:

  • preparation of food
  • performance of rituals.

Here, in a reverse of the usual situation, men are completely dependent on them. This is chiefly because they mostly spend much less time at home or at the temple than the female members of the family.

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