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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Women in the lives of the Jinas

A painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra shows Queen Triśalā and her newborn son. He will grow up to become Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. This is a conventional way of illustrating the birth of a baby who will become a Jina

Mahāvīra and his mother Triśalā
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Early sources recounting the lives of the 24 Jinas frequently feature episodes in which women are pivotal. For instance, there are the exemplary women who lead the female laity and female mendicant elements of the fourfold community, such as Sulasā.

Women also offer alms and medicine at crucial points, such as Candanbālā and Revatī. In addition, the first of the five auspicious events in the life of a Jina – kalyāṇakas – is birth, in which a woman gives birth to the infant who will grow up to be a Jina. Lady Triśalā, mother of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, is an example of the mother of a Jina, who experiences the auspicious dreams that are significant omens of her son’s destiny.

Even so, all Jains agree that women are a threat, especially as they may prevent monks from strictly observing the vow of chastity, which is widely said to be the most difficult. Hence, even talking with women – or about them – is viewed negatively. The Prakrit word itthī-kahā – literally ‘woman-talk’ – describes this concept.

For Digambaras it is impossible to conceive of Mahāvīra as subject to these temptations. Albeit the young handsome son of a princely family, he renounces the world as a perfectly chaste man and never surrenders to the delights of love, thus embodying the perfect ascetic.

In contrast, the Śvetāmbaras’ biography of this Jina contains several features that underline the key role of women:

  • although reluctant, Vardhamāna – Mahāvīra’s birth name – obeys his parents' command to marry Princess Yaśodā
  • he fathers a daughter, Anojjā or Priyadarśanā, who marries Jamāli, the son of one of his sisters, and they are later responsible for an important schism in the community.

This probably intentional stress on feminine lineage may be part of a strategy to underscore a sectarian identity that is opposed to the Digambaras. It also contrasts with Buddhists since Gautama Buddha is said to have fathered a son.

The desire to describe Mahāvīra as a perfect householder before he renounces the world is perhaps a way to make the ideal he represents closer to the ordinary man. It is therefore a less extremist view, more in accordance with accepted social patterns in Mahāvīra’s time.

Jain goddesses and heroines

A highly decorated idol of the goddess Padmāvatī in the Walkeshwar Temple in Mumbai. The yakśī of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, Padmāvatī can be identified by her snake-hood canopy. She is one of the most popular Jain deities.

Decorated idol of Padmāvatī
Image by Sd77 © CC BY-SA 3.0

Like other Indian traditions, Jainism has both a negative image of women and a tendency to extol certain female figures. These women may be viewed as worthy of worship because of their spiritual achievements or because they represent protective entities and are equated with benevolent motherly characters.

Art testifies to a fairly ancient cult centred on the mothers of the Jinas, especially Marudevī, the mother of the first, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Among Śvetāmbaras she is said to have been the first emancipated soul in this era of time.

The main feminine deities of the Jain tradition are the female spiritual attendants – yakṣīs – attached to the 24 Jinas. Among them are Cakreśvarī, Padmāvatī and Ambikā. Connected respectively with the 22nd, 23rd and 24th Jinas, they have gradually become independent figures and occupy prominent places in worship. Their protection is invoked by devotees, both men and women. Ambikā is popular with the Jains of Gujarat and is the protective deity of places like Girnār. The goddess Padmāvatī is especially associated with Karnataka, but images of her are increasingly seen in Jain temples all over India. While the Jinas appear as distant spiritual ideals, these female deities are nearer to the human world and its difficulties. They are worshipped in the hopes of being blessed with wealth, good health, good fortune and so on.

Knowledge, a cardinal concept in the Jain doctrine, takes shape in figures that are all feminine. Examples include:

  • the goddess Sarasvatī, who is as important for the Jains as she is for other Indians. She is the goddess of learning who presides over the teaching of the Jinas, and is worshipped on the day of the festivals devoted to scriptures.
  • the vidyā-devīs, who represent various sciences
  • the ‘eight mothers’ or mātṝkās, a group of eight basic notions of Jain ethics.

Among human Jain heroines are satīs. This term refers to women who, though they faced trying circumstances, remained faithful to their husbands. Sixteen of them – the solā satī – are famous and dear to the heart of their chiefly female devotees. The number of satīs is not restricted to 16. Some lists include more names of illustrious female models in both olden and modern times.

The stories of the satīs are known from countless narratives and hymns where they are praised. Among them is Rājimatī, whose story is known as early as the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra and which is played on stage even today by young Jains. She was about to marry Neminātha or Lord Nemi, who at the last minute jilted her in favour of renouncing the world, but even so she remained faithful to him. She refused her brother-in-law’s offers of marriage and lived a life of celibacy.

Women in Jainism

This manuscript painting shows the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina. All four parts of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top rows with monks and a nun below

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Although the Jain tradition shows some of the common Indian and wider Asian prejudices against women, it undoubtedly appears an original way to give them some place in its general ethical scheme.

It demonstrates the following patterns:

  • women are fully included in the Śvetāmbara approach to attaining salvation but only partly in the Digambara model
  • Jainism is male-centered at an institutional level
  • the ascetic lifestyle reflects the power hierarchy of Indian society at large, in which women are subordinate to men regardless of personal qualities, education or experience
  • exemplary Jain nuns and heroines are praised in oral and literary traditions
  • goddesses and divine female personifications, such as the vidyā-devīs and ‘eight mothers’, have an important place, because they are figures of worship that are more accessible on an everyday level
  • historical scholars as well as present-day theological debates show that views of gender are complicated and continually move between two extremes.

Images

  • Lay people worship a Jina 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. . Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah
  • Śvetāmbara nuns meditate Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a bookstand or sthāpanācārya, which is used to hold scriptures, here wrapped in cloth. 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.. Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0
  • Nun covers her mouth 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. The mendicants of the Śvetāmbara Sthānakavāsin and Terāpanthin sects wear mouth-cloths permanently.. Image by unknown © Jain Spirit / Institute of Jainology
  • Digambara canon on display 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.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns 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 members of either of the Śvetāmbara sects of Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin.. Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Indrabhūti Gautama preaches 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.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Lay women give alms to nuns 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 in a complex ritual may take hours. The staff – daṇḍa – of one of the nuns can be seen on the right.. Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah
  • Women and an idol in the temple 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.. Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Digambara monk sitting cross-legged 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 from their path. Nudity is respected as a sign of advanced spirituality because nude monks show detachment from the world.. Image by Jainworld © Jainworld.com
  • A Jina meditating This painting from a 16th-century manuscript shows a Jina in the lotus position of meditation. His jewellery and headdress show that he is a spiritual king, a status underscored by the elephant, parasol and pedestal, standard symbols of royalty in Indian art. Jinas are always pictured in a very stylised way so they are hard to tell apart. In this case the Jina's personal emblem, which can be used to identify him, is not visible. Around the Jina, various figures stand or sit in postures of worship.. Image by Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
  • Mahāvīra and his mother Triśalā A painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra shows Queen Triśalā and her newborn son. He will grow up to become Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. This is a conventional way of illustrating the birth of a baby who will become a Jina. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Decorated idol of Padmāvatī A highly decorated idol of the goddess Padmāvatī in the Walkeshwar Temple in Mumbai. The yakśī of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, Padmāvatī can be identified by her snake-hood canopy. She is one of the most popular Jain deities, who are worshipped because they can intervene in human affairs, unlike the liberated Jinas.. Image by Sd77 © CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Fourfold community This manuscript painting illustrates the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina preach. All four elements of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top two rows while monks and a nun are on the bottom. All the figures are kneeling and raise their hands in a gesture of respect.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Further Reading

‘Women in Jainism’
Nalini Balbir
Religion and Women
edited by Arvind Sharma
McGill Studies in the History of Religions series
State University of New York Press; Albany, New York, USA; 1993

Full details

‘Defining Jainism: Reform in the Jain Tradition’
John E. Cort
Jain Doctrine and Practice: Academic Perspectives
edited by Joseph T. O’Connell
volume 13
Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada; 2000

Full details

Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

Full details

Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Maṇḍaḷ Singing and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details

Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2009

Full details

Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains
Manisha Sethi
South Asian History & Culture series; volume 8
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group; London, UK and New Delhi, India; 2011

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Glossary

Ācārya

Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

Anojjā

Daughter of Mahāvīra in Śvetāmbara belief, who is also known as Priyadarśanā. Her father renounced the householder life to become an ascetic when she was a child. Later she married Jamāli, the son of her father's sister, and the pair became the first followers of Mahāvīra. When her husband disagreed with some of Mahāvīra's teachings, they left the community and caused a schism in his devotees. Later, Anojja decided that she agreed with Mahāvīra's preaching and rejoined his disciples. She had a daughter called either Śeṣavati or Yaśovati. Digambara Jains believe that Mahāvīra never married and never had a child.

Āryikā Jñānamati

A renowned Digambara nun born in 1934, active in education and research. In 1987 she was the first āryikā to initiate a man.

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Buddha

Title meaning ‘Enlightened One’ in Sanskrit and Pali. It is most frequently used for Siddhārtha Gautama, whose teachings form the basis of the Buddhist faith. He lived about 563 to 483 BCE in the north-eastern area of the Indian subcontinent, around the same time and in the same area as Mahāvīra, the last of the 24 Jinas.

His life story is similar to that of the Jinas in certain ways, such as:

  • his mother had significant dreams on the night of conception
  • he was born a prince into a kṣatriya family
  • as an adult he renounced his wealthy, pleasurable life to seek the meaning of life through asceticism.

After six years he reached enlightenment while meditating and from then on was known as Buddha – 'Awakened One' or 'Enlightened One'.

Buddhism

The religion founded by Buddha, often called the 'Middle Way' between the self-indulgence of worldly life and the self-mortification of a very ascetic way of life. Buddhism has similarities to Jain belief but some significant differences. For example, Buddhists hold that the world around us is a short-lived illusion and do not believe in individual, everlasting souls.

Buddhist

A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.

Caturvidha-saṅgha

The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.

Celibacy

Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.

Chastity

Either avoiding sexual activity outside marriage or being totally celibate. Chaste can also mean a pure state of mind or innocent, modest action. 

Christian

A follower of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ or Anointed One. Among other key principles, Christians believe in a creator God, that Jesus is the Son of God, who suffered and died to redeem the sins of the world and was restored to life after three days in the Resurrection. Also an adjective for concepts, people and objects related to Christianity.

Colophon

Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.

Cult

Religious activity centred around a deity or saintly figure. Religious rituals are performed regularly to the god or goddess, who may be represented in images or relics or found in natural features such as springs and trees. Shrines and temples are frequently built at the site of a cult and pilgrims arrive to worship the deity.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Detachment

Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

Dhyāna

Sanskrit for 'meditation', one of the six internal austerities or tapas that help purify the soul of karma. Meditation is deep thought about religious doctrine or mental focus on spiritual matters over a period of time. An important part of many religions, meditation is especially important in Jain belief because it forms key elements of religious practice and spiritual development.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Disciple

An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.

Doctrine

A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.

Dogma

An authoritative belief or set of principles, particularly on religious matters or set out by a religious group as a necessary tenet.

Fast

Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Gaṇin

A religious title for a monk in charge of a small group of mendicants, who live and travel together. A gaṇinī is a nun who leads a group of female mendicants. 

Gujarāt

The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.

Guruṇī

A religious title for a nun who is in charge of a small group of other nuns. The male ācārya who supervises her group may appoint her for life and she is usually succeeded by the most senior nun in her mendicant lineage.

Haribhadra

Śvetāmbara mendicant leader who lived around the seventh to eighth centuries. He wrote many significant philosophical works, including the Anekāntajayapatākā and the Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya. He also wrote the first Sanskrit commentaries on the Āgamas.

Hindu

Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.

Hymn

The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:

  • solo or in groups
  • as a form of meditation
  • as a rite offered as part of worship.

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Initiation

Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.

Invocation

A formula or prayer calling upon a deity or authority to bring blessings and protection. Invocations are frequently found at the beginning of Jain texts.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jamāli

Mahāvīra's son-in-law, according to Śvetāmbara belief. He was married to Anojjā and was the first of seven defectors from Mahāvīra's teachings, causing a schism in Mahāvīra's followers.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

Kalyāṇaka

An auspicious moment in a Jina's life. There are five pañca-kalyāṇakas:

  • garbha – conception
  • janma – birth
  • vairāgya – renunciation
  • kevala-jñāna – enlightenment
  • mokṣa or nirvāna – liberation.

Karnataka

State in south-west India.

Kharatara-gaccha

Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century. 

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Mahattarā Yākinī

A legendary woman who is said to have been the muse of the eighth-century teacher and scholar Haribhadra.

Mahāvīra

The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.

Makkhali Gośāla

An enemy of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The Śvetāmbaras claim Gośāla was Mahāvīra's disciple, who later joined the Ājīvka mendicants and battled with Mahāvīra. The Digambaras say he was a follower of Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, who wanted to become Mahāvīra's chief disciple. When he was rejected he set up his own mendicant community spreading the teachings of the Ājīvka movement.

Malli

The 19th Jina of the present age. There is no historical evidence of his existence.

Śvetāmbara Jains believe Mallī was a woman – the only female Jina – and often spell her name with ī, indicating feminine gender. However, Digambaras hold that Malli was a man, like all the other Jinas.

For Śvetāmbaras, her symbolic colour is dark blue whereas for Digambara Jains it is golden. Both sects believe Mallinatha's emblem is the water pot – kalaśa.

Mokṣa

The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.

Monasticism

The monastic life or system, particularly within a formal religious order.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Nātha

A Sanskrit term for 'Lord', which is usually shortened to nath in modern Indian languages. It is added to the end of a person's name and is frequently used for very holy figures or deities. For example the 22nd Jina is referred to as Neminātha, meaning Lord Nemi.

Nemi

The 22nd Jina of the present age, also called Ariṣṭanemi. His symbolic colour is blue or black and his emblem the conch. There is no historical evidence of his existence.

The Jains hold that Nemi is the cousin of the Hindu god Kṛṣna. The tale of his renunciation and jilting of his fiancée Princess Rājīmati are famous among the Jains.

Nudity

The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.

Nun

A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Penance

A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.

Prākrit

A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.

Pramukhā

Title for a head nun in the Terāpantha sect who commands smaller units of nuns. However, her role is that of a co-ordinator in practical matters and she is not considered the female counterpart of the ācārya or preceptor. He is the decision-making authority and she remains junior to him.

Preach

To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Rajasthan

The largest state in India, in the north-western part of the country.

Rātri-bhojana

'Eating at night'. No Jains should eat after dark because of the greater risk of unknowingly eating living beings. It is counted as a supplement to the five Greater Vows of the ascetics. Lay Jains should also observe it, but not all of them do so.

Renunciation

Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.

Revatī

A leading female follower of Mahāvīra. She is known for having offered medicine to him when his life was endangered because of his enemy Gośāla.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Ṛṣabha

First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.

Sādhvī

A common term for Jain female mendicants.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Samaṇi

A special category of nuns in the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect. The nuns are officially free from certain rules restricting their movements and can visit institutions in India or go abroad to pursue academic research or minister to the Jain diaspora.

Sanctuary

The most sacred area of a temple, church or religious building, often where the image of a deity is housed and worshipped. An outdoor space that is associated with a deity may also be considered a sanctuary.

Sandalwood

A fragrant wood from trees in the Santalum genus, which is often made into oil, paste, powder or incense. Widely used in religious ceremonies across Asia, sandalwood paste and powder are used to mark or decorate religious equipment, statues or images, priests and worshippers. Also used for carvings, sandalwood produces a highly prized oil used in cosmetics and perfumes.

Saṇgha

Sanskrit for 'community'. The Jain ‘fourfold community’ is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

Sanskrit

A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.

Sarasvatī

Hindu goddess of learning who presides over the teaching of the Jinas, and is worshipped on the day of the festival devoted to scriptures. As goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, Sarasvatī is one of the most popular deities in India and has followers among all the Indian religions.

Satī

'Virtuous woman', who is worshipped for her admirable qualities. Satīs demonstrate religious devotion and loyalty to husbands and family, especially in difficult times. Some satīs renounce to become nuns while others remain householders. There are many satīs but there is a group of Sol Satī or 16 satī who are particularly venerated by Śvetāmbara Jains.

Schism

A serious split in a philosophical or religious movement or organisation, leading to the establishment of various groups with different beliefs, which may be hostile to each other.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Sermon

A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.

Siddha

An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.

Śrāvaka

'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.

Śrāvikā

'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay woman, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The masculine form is śrāvakā.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin

A subsect of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin, which originated in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The Terāpanthin do not worship images. One of the sect's best-known leaders was Ācārya Tulsī, who created a new category of ascetics in 1980. These samaṇ and samaṇī are allowed to travel using mechanised transport and to use money.

Tapā-gaccha

A Śvetāmbara mūrti-pūjaka sect, first established in the 13th century and reformed from the 19th century. Today nearly all mūrti-pūjak mendicants belong to this sect.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

Theology

The systematic study of God or religion, including doctrine, practice and spirituality.

Triśalā

The kṣatriya birth-mother of Mahāvīra. Queen Triśalā was married to King Siddhartha.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra

An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.

Veda

Earliest scriptures of the Hindu faith, which are divided into four collections, all written in verse:

  • Ṛg-veda, often known as the Rigveda in the West
  • Yajur-veda
  • Sāma-veda
  • Atharva-veda.

In tradition, the sage Vyāsa compiled the Vedas. The works were probably composed from roughly 1500 to 1000 BCE, though they were probably first written down around the fifth century of the Common Era. The Vedas and the large body of associated literature capture the mainstream of Indian thought over many centuries.

The term veda – knowledge – is also used for sexual desire or sexual preference. In this sense it is one of the 14 Jain 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

Yakṣī

The female attendant of a Jina, also called yakṣinī. One of the pair of guardian or protector gods for each Jina. The śāsana-devatā protect his teachings – śāsana – and can appease evil powers. The yakṣa and yakṣī's closeness to the Jina and their divine powers mean they are popular subjects of worship.

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