Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


First published in 1916, this photograph shows three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks sitting cross-legged, a boy monk on the left. Initiation as a child still occurs today, though rarely. In the colonial period many Britons became very interested in India

Three Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monks
Image by R. V. Russell and Rai Bahadur Hira Lāl © public domain

Traditionally, the youngest age of initiation is eight. This is considered the age of reason in Indian tradition. Story literature and historical examples show that boys of this age or just a little more used to become Jain monks. One famous example is the 12th-century writer Hemacandra. Among certain Śvetāmbara monastic orders it was and still is common to initiate young boys into monkhood.

Nowadays child initiation – bāla-dīkṣā – is a highly controversial issue, which has even been the subject of cases in the Indian judicial system. Some believe that bright minds are able to decide for themselves and choose the monastic path in total freedom. Others reply that young children know nothing of life and are not in a position to decide. They become monks because of adult pressure.

Both positions have some truth. Hemacandra is just one example among several others in Jain monastic history who were initiated early, led a full mendicant life and became towering personalities of the faith. But there are also many counter-examples.

Today child initiation exists but is probably not so frequent as before. Several monastic orders have established as a rule or practice that 18 is the minimum age for initiation.

On the other hand, there is no upper limit. Mendicants who have entered monastic life in their late years are known in both past and present.

Once a mendicant, someone’s worldly age is no longer important because mendicants’ ages are counted from the day of initiation.

Other restrictions

Śvetāmbara monks walk down a Mumbai street accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra

Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The life of a mendicant is physically demanding so the initiation candidate should be in good physical condition. His or her health should be perfect, without any physical handicap or weakness.

Other restrictions relate to the candidate’s personal circumstances. For example, those who seek to escape a bad situation are not eligible. These rules are meant to deter those who consider the life of a mendicant a refuge from the difficulties of worldly life.

In addition, pregnant women should not be accepted as nuns, because their children would be burdens to the community and the focus of attachment for their mothers. Story literature, however, has several instances of women who had to flee from their families for various reasons but managed to hide their pregnancy and were thus admitted into an order.

Among some monastic orders, candidates born into certain castes may be excluded or encouraged. Even if such practices are not explicitly mentioned, reading colophons or exploring statistical data often shows a privileged connection between certain castes and geographical areas, on the one hand, and given monastic orders.

Before initiation

Becoming a monk or nun is the most important sign of dedication to spiritual advance for Jains. Such a life-changing decision is not taken lightly, and the eligibility rules partly contribute towards this. Those thinking of being ordained must gain family permission and, in most cases, complete a period of preparation first.

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