Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Monks and nuns are frequently referred to as mendicants or ascetics. Jain mendicants are people who have completed the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā and live according to monastic rules. They renounce ordinary life, receive the monastic equipment in keeping with the monastic order to which they will belong and after that lead a life observing the ‘five great vows’ – mahā-vrata.
Organised in hierarchies, mendicants also follow the rules of their sect and monastic order. Mendicants belong to one of the two main sects of Śvetāmbara and Digambara. They have strict rules regulating their behaviour and monastic equipment.
In contrast to the Christian concept of monks and nuns, Jain ascetics have a wandering lifestyle most of the time and have daily contact with lay people. This chiefly takes the form of the ritual of seeking alms.
There is a range of terms for Jain mendicants, with the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras normally using slightly different words for the same concepts. An ordinary monk is known as a muni or sādhu while an ordinary nun is an āryikā for Digambaras and is usually called a sādhvī by Śvetāmbaras.
Monks and nuns form two elements of the traditional fourfold community of Jainism, along with lay men and lay women. The proportion of mendicants to lay people is very small. Nuns always outnumber monks in traditional statistics for the communities founded by the Jinas, at least among Śvetāmbaras. For example, according to the Kalpa-sūtra, the fourfold community which the 24th Jina Mahāvīra established was made up of 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 lay men and 318,000 lay women. There are fewer nuns than monks among the Digambaras.
When a householder decides to become a monk or nun, he or she completes the ritual of renunciation or initiation – dīkṣā. The two main Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras follow somewhat different dīkṣā ceremonies. The various mendicant lineages within the sects also have distinct initiation traditions. There may also be rules regarding the age or caste of the initiate and the individual who may carry out the initiation.
Some elements of the initiation take place in private, others in public rituals. Initiation is considered a celebration for all of the Jain community, lay and mendicant, as well as an opportunity to gain merit – puṇya – for lay Jains.
The most striking aspect of initiation for outsiders is the ritual of keśa-loñca. In this rite, the initiate removes his or her hair. Traditionally, this is pulled out in five handfuls and men also pluck out their facial hair. Nowadays, however, among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks usually a symbolic tuft is plucked out and the rest shaved off. The concept of keśa-loñca underlines the ideal ascetic’s indifference to the body and signals a readiness to take on the demands of the mendicant lifestyle.
Among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks, some parts of the dīkṣā ceremony are performed in private, some in public. There are ceremonies in the days before and after the day of initiation, usually involving the local lay community.
Among Digambara Jains, becoming a mendicant takes several stages. In the early stages, the individual takes the 11th stage of renunciation – pratimā – of a lay person and remains a householder. Many devout lay people remain at this stage. Those who wish to become mendicants are then initiated and are considered novice mendicants.
Within all sects, the new mendicant is given a new name and completes a period as a kind of novice mendicant. The final initiation into full mendicancy – including the keśa-loñca – is a public ritual for Digambaras and usually a private ceremony for Śvetāmbaras. It entails taking the ‘Five Great Vows’.
This is the traditional order in which the vows are listed. They were clearly set out by Māhavīra, the 24th Jina. Earlier, in the time of his predecessor Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, there were only four restraints, with the vow of celibacy included in that of non-possession.
Monks and nuns live according to these vows for the rest of their lives. It is very rare for a mendicant to return to the householder life. Lay people, however, can practise asceticism and take formal vows of renunciation, such as the aṇu-vrata or ‘Five Lesser Vows’.
All Jain ascetics live in small single-sex groups, whose composition and movements are decided by higher-ranking mendicants.
Jain monks and nuns can be thought of as being organised in two ways. Firstly, they belong to one of the sects and, within that, to one of the mendicant orders or lineages. Secondly, each mendicant lineage is organised into communities, in which there is a hierarchy. In this social organisation, lower-ranking mendicants defer to high-ranking members.
Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.
The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.
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.
Non-possession, or not having an attachment to possessions. It is the fifth of the Five Greater Vows of mendicants and the Five Lesser Vows of lay Jains.
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.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
Hindu society is traditionally divided into numerous jātis or classes, which are usually grouped into the four varṇas – often called 'castes' – of:
Relating to ritual purity, castes are hereditary and probably based on occupation. Members of different castes performed particular socio-economic roles and did not mix or eat the same food. People outside the caste system were usually looked down upon.
Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.
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.
From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.
'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.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.
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.
The five vows taken by ascetics. Monks and nuns must follow these ‘absolute’ vows of:
The 24th Jina Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to his predecessor Pārśva's four, making the vow of celibacy not just implicit but a separate vow.
Ascetics are initiated into a tradition handed down from a named religious teacher. Religious instructions and principles are passed on orally and in writings from one generation of mendicants to the next, continuing the monastic lineage.
A single-sex group of ascetics that vows to follow rules set out by a founding religious teacher. They formally renounce the world to become monks and nuns. They usually have a hierarchy of leaders at different levels to govern them.
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.
Modern Indo-aryan language term from the Sanskrit ‘mukhavastrikā'. The small rectangular piece of cloth permanently fixed over the mouth by some mendicant orders. This is to avoid being violent accidentally, either by inhaling tiny creatures or killing them by breathing over them unexpectedly.
This is not the same as the mouth-cover used on some occasions by other mendicants and by laypeople when they perform certain rites.
Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.
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.
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.
The Sanskrit term for 'five handfuls' refers to the traditional gesture of the initiation ritual – dīkṣā – in which the future mendicant pulls out his or her own hair in 'five handfuls'. Nowadays, new monks and nuns symbolically pull out a single hair while the rest of their hair is shaved off. The shaven heads of Jain ascetics indicate their status.
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.
A series of 12 vows that constitute 11 stages of progressive renunciation for a lay Jain. These vows are:
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.
'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.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
British Library. Or. 14290. Gangādāsa. 1792
Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 10-1931. Unknown author. Circa 1490