Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


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

The removal of hair in the ceremony of keśa-loca is a key part of the initiation rite because this deeply painful gesture symbolises total renunciation and disregard for physical pain. The ritual is frequently considered an identifying feature of Jainism by outsiders. Evidence of disapproval of the ceremony can be found in early Buddhist sources.

Although all initiation ceremonies involve the removal of hair, the rituals of the initiation ceremony – dīkṣā – differ by sect and monastic order.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka initiation

Mahāvīra's palanquin
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Before finally renouncing all possessions and worldly life, the future monk or nun is treated like a king. Part of the dīkṣā ceremony for Śvetāmbaras is a public procession through the streets, which alerts everybody nearby to what is happening. The candidate is dressed in magnificent clothes and rich jewellery, like a princely groom or bride. Sometimes he or she rides on the back of an elephant, the paramount royal animal.

The new initiate arrives at a gathering of lay people and mendicants. The initiate takes off all the clothing and jewellery and receives mendicant clothing and monastic equipment.

The most significant gesture is ‘pulling out the hair’ – keśa-loca – which the initiate does him- or herself. Men remove their facial hair too.

According to the early tradition, hair was removed in ‘five handfuls’ – pañca-muṣṭi. In the present, often all the hair is not pulled out in this way. Instead, the head is shaved beforehand and only the remaining tuft of hair is pulled out by hand. It is also common to dust ashes on the roots of the hair. This makes the hair smoother, relieves pain and has a soothing effect. The hair-plucking ceremony takes place in private, with the initiate emerging dressed as a monk or nun once his or her hair has been completely removed.

Finally, the initiate receives a new name and the monastic equipment associated with the monastic order he or she has just joined. The names of monks and nuns are generally compounds in which the second element is similar for all mendicants in the same lineage or sub-lineage. An example is having -vijaya or -sāgara at the end of the name. The names have auspicious meanings. For example, Puṇya-vijaya means ‘Victory of Merits’ while Jñāna-sāgara means ‘Ocean of Knowledge’.

The candidate is now initiated and starts his or her new mendicant life.

Digambara initiation

Being initiated as a mendicant is a more drawn-out process among Digambara Jains. Several stages take place at different times before a lay person becomes a full monk.

In the early stages, the candidate takes the 11th stage of renunciationpratimā. It is quite common for devout lay people to take this vow because it does not commit them to a mendicant life.

An individual who wants to become a monk or nun goes on to perform the initiation ceremony. Among Digambaras the keśa-loca ritual is more likely to be carried out in the traditional style.

The initiate is then given a new name and the broom and water pot of Digambara monks.

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