Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

After initiation

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

'Five Great Vows'
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

Most Jain mendicants undergo a period as a novice after being initiated. The length of the novitiate stage and the tasks and duties of the novice mendicants differ in the various sects.

Usually at the close of their novitiate, the novices swear the ‘Five Great Vows’ – mahā-vrata. These vows are effectively some of the main principles of Jainism:

  • non-violence – ahiṃsā
  • truth – satya
  • taking only what is given – asteya
  • celibacy – brahmacarya
  • non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

These vows date back to the earliest history of the faith. Jains believe that the last Jina, Mahāvīra, added a fifth vow to his forerunner Pārśva's list. Mahāvīra made the vow of celibacy not just implicit in the vow of non-attachment but a separate vow.

Life as a novice

This detail of a manuscript painting shows Digambara novices and monks. Full monks go naked as part of their vow of non-possession while novices wear white garments until they are ready to renounce the world fully

Monks and novices
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Novices serve a kind of apprenticeship to full monks or nuns in the group they have joined, learning from their example. They must be at the service of older mendicants and carry out menial tasks. The good behaviour of a monk, and especially of a novice or junior one, is crystallised in the term vinaya, which has the shades of meaning of ‘good education, humility, modesty, politeness, submission’.

Mostly, the novice depends upon an ācārya, who decides when he is mature enough to progress further. It is a close mutual relationship, which is expressed by one of the terms that mean ‘disciple’ – antevāsin – ‘the one who lives at the side of’ his teacher.

There is no formal test or examination to leave the novice stage. According to some early texts, the probationary period can last for one week, four months or six months. But according to others, a mendicant who has been with the monastic community for less than three years is considered a newcomer.

Education in religious doctrine and practices is broadly the main task of novices. Living among religious teachers is a traditional way of transmitting holy learning and customs. Formal study of holy texts is conventionally done by memorising them.

However, the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin and Sthānaka-vāsin subsects are unusual in allowing both monks and nuns to study all scriptures. Indeed, the Terāpanthin sect is unique in promoting female religious education. In many sects, female novices and full nuns are not permitted to study some or even all of the holy texts.

The life of a novice is not always easy. A lively story found in Śvetāmbara scriptures tells of the bad conduct of the novice Nimbaka – 'Bitter Fruit' – who had turned to monastic life along with his father:

He used to throw thorns on the latrines, to sneeze while the monks were reading and studying, or to create disturbances when the exact moment came for them to do something and thus ruin that time for their religious acts. In every matter he used to behave in the way opposite to good conduct.

translation by Nalini Balbir
1990

This behaviour resulted in the expulsion of both father and son from one monastic group after another. When Nimbaka realised his father’s sorrow, he decided to reform himself. When they were finally accepted by a group of monks, the boy became the best of novices, 'examining the latrines three times a day' and accomplishing all the tasks required of him.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka novices

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjakas, the novice period lasts six months or so. This period ends with the final ‘great initiation’ – mahā-dīkṣā – when the novices take the ‘great vows’ – mahā-vrata. After this they are ready to follow the full mendicant lifestyle.

The novice monk and nun does not seek alms as full mendicants do. Instead, he or she receives food collected by other members of the group and brought back to the lodging-house.

Generally, the novices spend their time studying holy texts. They learn by heart some of the Mūla-sūtras, which can be thought of as the basic Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. The scriptures include:

  • the Daśavaikālika-sūtra – containing a long chapter of rules for begging alms
  • the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra – general lessons on Jain fundamentals combined with stories of examples. Significantly, the book starts with a chapter describing the concept of vinaya – ‘modesty, good education’.
  • the Āvaśyaka-sūtra – a liturgical text describing the six daily obligatory rites of a mendicant.

All these writings cover important areas of monastic life and regulate daily behaviour. Understanding these principles and rules is necessary for those who enter the mendicant life.

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