Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

As acknowledged in the earliest sacred writings, all parts of the fourfold community have vital roles in the Jain faith. Lay men and women are crucial because they support monks and nuns by giving alms and, secondly, they have children, ensuring that the religion survives. Since the beginning of Jainism, however, becoming a monk or a nun and leading a mendicant lifestyle has been an ideal proposed to followers of the faith. Keeping to this type of life is not possible for all because of its strict rules and requirements so the proportion of mendicants to lay Jains is very small. Usually, monks and nuns remain mendicants for the rest of their lives, although rarely some return to the lay status.

For Jains the ideal condition for spiritual progress is to be completely detached from the world, which can be achieved more easily as a mendicant. The monastic code or monastic rule is the set of restrictions that governs the behaviour of monks and nuns. They vow to give up not just material possessions but also all passions or emotions that cause karma. This includes concern for the physical body, such as tasty food, concern for warmth and personal cleanliness. Thus the new mendicant gives up all elements of householder life, including emotional attachments to other people, places or things.

When a householder decides to become a monk or nun, after due preparation 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 and treat the new mendicants slightly differently. In all sects, the initiation of new mendicants is celebrated by all of the fourfold community.

An initiate chooses a mendicant lineage or monastic order to join. These have distinct initiation traditions as well as slightly varying monastic lifestyles. There are usually rules regarding the age or caste of the initiate and the individual who may carry out the ceremony. Joint initiations often take place. Sometimes these see several family members or entire families ordained at once.

The initiation ceremony features the ritual of keśa-loca – ‘pulling out of the hair’ – which indicates indifference to the body. The new monks and nuns perform the Five Great Vows – mahā-vrata. They also receive equipment associated with the order into which they are being initiated. Since one of the mendicant vows specifies non-ownership and non-attachment, the ascetics are not believed to own these objects. Monastic equipment, such as the broom and mouth-cloth, are considered the minimum needed to live a religious life.

Desire to renounce worldly life

This manuscript painting shows Prince Nemi’s renunciation in two parts. First he visits his fiancée Princess Rājīmatī and then he flees the scene, upset by the distress of the animals about to be killed for his wedding feast

Nemi's renunciation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

In the lives of the Jinas as told in the Kalpa-sūtra, a lack of interest in the affairs of the world, or even disgust at social customs, leads to their renunciation of the world. Future Jinas fulfil their destinies as spiritual teachers by leaving their enjoyable lives and princely status. They are reminded of this by the so-called Laukāntika gods, who intervene at this point in their career.

In story literature and modern accounts of contemporary Jains, the desire to renounce appears the main motivation for becoming a monk or a nun. Worldly life means life among family members and having a position in society, whether high or low. In the story literature, this lack of interest in worldly concerns is often called vairāgya. The origins of this feeling depend on each individual. In the case of ordinary persons, this feeling often arises after a series of misfortunes or disappointments.

In traditional tales, the decision to turn disgust with worldly life into something positive can be spontaneous or not. Many stories demonstrate the following stages:

  1. a given character leads an unhappy life
  2. he meets a Jain monk who has come to preach in the neighbourhood
  3. at the end of the preaching he asks questions about his own life
  4. the monk explains that misfortunes are caused by karma accumulated from his previous lives.
  5. the character suddenly feels a strong commotion – saṃvega – and understands that the only way out of his misery is to be a mendicant.

A famous example of a ‘commotion’ is that of Neminātha or Lord Nemi, the 22nd Jina. When he realised that animals were going to be slaughtered for his wedding feast, he immediately decided that he should renounce worldly life.

In such cases, mendicants encourage unhappy lay people to become monks or nuns and initiate them as fellow mendicants.

Restrictions on initiation

Early scriptures take care to underline that not everybody is qualified for monastic initiation. They list a variety of restrictions, chiefly relating to sex, age, physical health, motivation and caste.


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

Unlike their male counterparts, Digambara nuns never go nude because it is believed that women’s bodies have various imperfections that make public nudity impossible. For Digambaras spiritual salvation is only possible when one has fully cast off all passions and attachments to earthly life. Since clothing is part of earthly life, this means that Digambaras hold that women cannot be liberated. Therefore women in Digambara sects can technically never become fully-fledged mendicants. The women who are commonly described as Digambara nuns – āryikās – are thus still lay women in a technical sense. They have dedicated themselves to a mendicant lifestyle by taking strict lay vows.

Reflecting their contrasting view that women can be liberated, Śvetāmbara sects are generally composed of more female than male mendicants. Even so, Śvetāmbara nuns are usually subordinate to monks in the monastic hierarchy and may not be permitted to study or handle scriptures or holy objects. However, the nuns live the same demanding monastic lifestyle as their male counterparts.

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