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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Food – feasting and fasting

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

In the Jain tradition, food is a major concern because observing specific dietary rules is one of the clearest marks of Jain identity. Thus the woman at home is a guardian or modifier of the tradition through various roles connected with food. These include:

  • offering alms to the Jain mendicants who beg at her door, which implies mastery of a detailed sequence of ritualised actions and rules
  • preparing meals for the family
  • deciding whether a rule such as the one forbidding eating after sunsetrātribhojana – will be observed or not
  • knowing which foods should be cooked depending on whether, for example, it is an ordinary day or a festival
  • taking full command of the complicated calendar and types of fasts which regulate Jains' lives. Partly for these reasons, fasting is known as a women's penance and it is a way for women to gain a reputation for piety and status.

Role of women in worship

Their mouths and noses covered, Jain women stand before a highly decorated idol in a shrine in a temple in Mumbai. Offerings used in worship rituals are behind them, such as rice, coconuts and flowers.

Women and an idol in the temple
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are differences among the subsects as to whether women ought to have the same rights as men in worshipping images.

Fundamentalists among all Śvetāmbara groups hold that they should never be allowed to enter the innermost sanctuary and touch the idols because they can never reach the required degree of purity. The Kharatara-gaccha sect does not authorise women of childbearing years to have direct contact with idols, so, for example, women are not allowed to anoint Jina images with sandalwood paste. Menstruating women, who represent impurity, should not perform worship or undertake pilgrimages to sacred places.

The non-idolatrous groups, however, lay more stress on internal worship so their notions are more egalitarian.

On the other hand, recent studies have stressed that women have true authority in the conduct and performance of ritual itself.

Woman and salvation

The most original contributions of the Jains to world religion are undoubtedly the theological consequences of their conceptions of women and their millennia-old debates about women's ability to reach salvation.

This contentious issue separates the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras very deeply and is linked to the question of whether nudity is a prerequisite for liberation.

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