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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.
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.
The 'Five Lesser Vows' that householder Jains take. These are not as strict as the 'Five Greater Vows' that ascetics observe but are more practical in daily life. Few Jains take these non-compulsory vows these days. The vows are to:
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.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:
Both sects are practised in India.
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.
Either avoiding sexual activity outside marriage or being totally celibate. Chaste can also mean a pure state of mind or innocent, modest action.
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.
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.
'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.
Religious initiation through which a man or woman leaves the householder or lay status to become a mendicant. Parts of this ritual renunciation are public ceremonies, depending on the sect.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
A principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
Literally a Sanskrit word for 'tree', gaccha is used by Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak Jains to describe the largest groups of their mendicant lineages. It is often translated as 'monastic group', 'monastic order' or 'monastic tradition'. These groups are formed when some mendicants split from their gaccha because of disagreements over ascetic practices.
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.
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.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
The water pot used by Digambara mendicants.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
'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'.
Pulling out one’s hair in handfuls in a symbolic gesture as a part of the religious initiation known as dīkṣā. Only mendicants do this, and they do it regularly in their monastic life.
Title given among Digambaras to a lay person who has taken the vows and observes the same strict rules as a monk but does not practise nudity.
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.
A class of gods that intervenes in the lives of future Jinas to encourage them to renounce worldly life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.
Hell. There are seven levels of hells in the lower world of Jain cosmology.
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.
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 act of being appointed as a member of the clergy of a religion. It is a formal ceremony that consecrates a believer into the holder of a religious office.
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:
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.
Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
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.
Breaking a religious or moral principle, especially if this is done deliberately. Sinners commit sins or may sin by not doing something they are supposed to do.
'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.
'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.
'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.
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.
An intellectual and cultural movement that arose around the mid-17th century in Western Europe. It stressed freedom of thought, reason, analysis and individualism as guides to behaviour and social development rather than the traditional authorities of church and state, which seemed to ask for uncritical acceptance. During the Enlightenment, new ways of thinking about the world – especially scientific approaches and radical philosophies – developed.
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.
Reverence towards the elders, modest behaviour.
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.
Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 8-1931. Unknown author. Second half of the 15th century
Wellcome Trust Library. Beta 1471. Raïdhū. Perhaps 15th century