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Article: Women in the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Nudity as a condition of salvation

Digambara monks live naked and without possessions as part of their renunciation of the 'householder' life. After they take religious vows to become wandering ascetics, Digambara monks use only a water gourd and a peacock-feather broom to sweep insects

Digambara monk sitting cross-legged
Image by Jainworld © Jainworld.com

For the Digambaras, mendicants must be nude because it is a symbol of their perfect detachment from everything, whether material possession or moral defilement. This leads to the conviction that a woman can never go naked because of her physiology and the innate impurity caused by numerous microscopic beings in her body. Hence she is not considered able to reach emancipation as a woman and must be reborn as a man first. This may be one reason there are fewer nuns than monks among the Digambara sect.

In contrast, Śvetāmbaras focus on a more internal approach. An individual must meet the requirements of ‘right faith, right knowledge and right behaviour’, which are the only necessary conditions for attaining the goal of salvation. If these 'three gems' are met, the individual’s gender does not matter.

Debates on sex and gender

From the beginning of the Christian era up to the present day, this debate about female religiosity has continued in many texts, all written by male ascetics. Authors from the two groups have done their best to provide logical arguments and close the discussion in favour of their respective opinions.

Some of them, for instance, have devised a fine analysis of the notion of ‘gender’. They distinguish between the two concepts of:

  • biological gender, which can be male, female or hermaphrodite, combining elements of male and female
  • psychological sexual craving or ‘libido’ – veda in Sanskrit.

These categories are not necessarily the same. This distinction is important in debates about women’s spiritual liberation.

Mallī, the 19th Jina

This 16th-century manuscript painting shows a Jina in the lotus position of meditation. His jewellery and headdress show that he is a spiritual king. Jinas are always pictured in a very stylised way and this Jina has no identifying emblem.

A Jina meditating
Image by Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Theological debates about women and emancipation are mirrored in the treatment of gender in myth. Both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras agree that 23 out of 24 Jinas are men, but they disagree about the 19th one, named Mallī.

The Digambaras hold that Mallīnātha, or Lord Mallī, was a boy. They consider the absence of any sculptures or paintings of Mallī as a woman as proof that he is masculine.

The Śvetāmbaras state that Mallī became a Jina during her last birth as a woman. This narrative reinforces the dual nature of women’s status for Śvetāmbaras. Mallī had to be a woman as a kind of atonement for an act of deception in a former existence. However, at the same time, she was able to lead the same life as the other 23 masters and was equally capable of achieving emancipation. The lack of representations of Mallī with feminine sexual characteristics could be explained by the idea that all the Jinas are pure emancipated souls, without sex, age or other standard physical characteristics.

There is only one instance of a sculpture which could represent Mallī and this is not conclusive. Not all Jinas have a full-fledged individual biography in the Śvetāmbara canon but the inclusion of a text of the life of Mallī may well indicate a desire to stress differences on this point from the Digambaras.

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