Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Gaining permission

This Śvetāmbara manuscript painting shows Prince Mṛgāputra becoming a monk. He finally convinces his parents to let him perform dīkṣā – renunciation. He completes the ritual of keśa-loca – pulling out of hair – that indicates a mendicant's detachment

Mr̥gāputra becomes a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Once an individual has decided to become a monk or nun, authoritative family members must agree to it. This is true of the past as well as of the present. In the present day, getting this permission is a necessary pre-condition for joining all mendicant orders. Even so, exceptions to the rule exist.

Although becoming a mendicant is highly respected among Jains, families are not always pleased if one of their members wants to renounce.

In Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures as well as in later literature, there are moving scenes in which a young boy who has suddenly decided that the only way of life for him is to become a monk faces his parents. His mother especially tries her best to depict the hard life awaiting him. His parents want to demonstrate that, having been brought up in a cosy atmosphere, he will be unable to live the mendicant lifestyle. The boy’s determination is always stronger, however, so his parents reluctantly give him permission to join a monastic order.

Prince Mṛgāputra

One of the emblematic stories of permission is that of Prince Mṛgāputra. Told in chapter 19 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, it features a long dialogue between parents and son.

While standing at a window of his palace, Mṛgāputra sees a Jain monk passing. This sight reminds him of his former life, when he had been a monk.

He went to his father and mother, and spoke as follows: “I have learned the five great vows. I know the suffering that awaits the sinner in hell or in an existence as a brute [= animal]; I have ceased to take delight in the large ocean [of the Saṃsāra]; therefore, O mother, allow me to enter the order. O mother, O father, I have enjoyed pleasures which are like poisonous fruit: their consequences are painful, as they entail continuous suffering. This body is not permanent, it is impure and of impure origin; it is but a transitory residence of the soul and a miserable vessel of suffering. I take no delight in this transitory body which one must leave sooner or later, and which is like foam or a bubble. […] I shall save my Self, if you will permit me.”
To him his parents said: “Son, difficult to perform are the duties of a monk must possess thousands of virtues. […] Hunger and thirst, heat and cold, molestation by flies and gnats, insults, miserable ascetic; lodgings, pricking grass, and uncleanliness, blows and threats, corporeal punishment and imprisonment, the mendicant’s life and fruitless begging [for alms]: all this is misery. […] Painful is the plucking out of one’s hair; difficult is the vow of chastity and hard to keep even for a noble man. My son, you are accustomed to comfort, you are tender […] you are not able, my son, to live as an ascetic. […] Enjoy the fivefold human pleasures. After you have done enjoying pleasures, O son, you may adopt the [monastic] Law.”

translation by Hermann Jacobi
Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, pages 89 onwards

Young Mṛgāputra again tries dramatically to convince them, narrating the various torments he has already suffered in his previous lives and underlining that no tortures could be worse.

The parents begin to give in. First they say: "Son, a man is free to enter the order, but it causes misery to an ascetic that he may not remedy any ailings."

The son again argues, saying that he will imitate the life of wild animals, who are free.

"Well, my son, as you please," the parents answer.

Then the young man gives away his possessions.

Once more the parents agree with his choice and tell Mṛgāputra that he can now leave worldly life:

“Go, my son, as you please.” – When he had thus made his parents repeat their permission, he gave up for ever his claims in any property, just as the snake casts off its slough.

translation by Hermann Jacobi
Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, page 89 onwards


This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. The monks are of the Digambara sect even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Each monk sits on a dais and holds a scripture in a scroll. The books

Preaching monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

In some sects, such as the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin, there is a stage of preparation before becoming a monk or a nun. These candidates are known as mumukṣu – 'aspiring to emancipation'. At this point, candidate mendicants live with full mendicants for a certain period of time. They study the holy writings and other subjects, and start progressively observing monastic rules before the initiation ceremony itself.

More generally, people aspiring to be initiateddīkṣārthīs – are often seen going to the mendicants’ lodgings. The girls or women visit the nuns while the boys or men go to the monks. The candidates sit with them regularly, listening to their advice and teachings or reading under their guidance. This monastic presence is an incentive to become a monk or nun, and a preparation as well.

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