Article: Monks and nuns

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.


This detail from a manuscript painting shows the monastic initiation of the former King Yaśogha. The man on the left is nude, showing he is a Digambara monk. He watches Yaśogha performing the rite of keśa-loca – ‘pulling out of the hair’ – which is part o

Yaśogha becomes a monk
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

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’.

The 'Five Great Vows'

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

'Five Great Vows'
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

As part of their initiation, monks and nuns swear to follow these 'absolute' vows or mahā-vrata:

  1. non-violence – ahiṃsā
  2. truth – satya
  3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya
  4. celibacy – brahmacarya
  5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

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’.

Organisation of monks and nuns

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.

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark

Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.