Article: Becoming a monk or nun

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Digambara novices

Digambara monks live naked to show detachment from worldly concerns, which is much honoured. A kṣullaka or junior novice wears three white garments while an ailaka wears a loincloth. When an ailaka is ready to become a monk he casts off his loincloth

Digambara monks and novices
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Among Digambaras, novices must progress through two stages before reaching full monkhood. In the first stage the novice is called a ‘junior’ – kṣullaka for a male, kṣullikā for a female. In the next stage the novice is referred to as ailaka – an untranslatable word without feminine form. Throughout these stages the novices are not yet monks or nunsmunis or āryikās.

In the Digambara context clothing means attachment while nudity means detachment. So a junior and an ailaka can be identified by their clothing. A junior wears three pieces of white clothing, while an ailaka wears only a white loincloth. This means that he is higher in spiritual progress.

A junior first takes the vows of a lay man – aṇu-vrata – which he is expected to observe strictly. He also renounces worldly activities, remains celibate and follows dietary restrictions. In the 11 stages of spiritual progress defined by Digambaras – the pratimās – he has reached the first one. Although a junior is not a monk, he receives a new name and the monastic implements used by the Digambaras. These are the water pot – kamaṇḍalu – and the broom made of peacock-feathers – piñchī.

The ailaka belongs to a mendicant lineage. He has reached the second stage of the 11. Some of the practices he follows are those which a full Digambara monk follows as well, namely:

  • eating once a day and receiving food from lay men in his cupped hands
  • periodically plucking out hair and facial hair by hand.

In contrast to the custom among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjakas, the Digambara final initiation into full mendicancy – including the keśa-loca – is carried out in public.

When male novices become fully-fledged mendicants – munis – they cast off all clothing and live nude. This distinctive characteristic of the Digambara sect gives it its name, which means ‘sky clad’ or wearing the elements.

Female mendicantsāryikās – always wear white clothing. They are initiated by a male mendicant and belong to a male mendicant lineage. There are recent exceptions where Digambara nuns are group-leaders and may be authorised by monks to have their own disciples, but these are extremely rare.

Family initiations

The decision to become a monk or nun is an individual one. However, in the past as well as today, there are examples of group initiations of whole families. Story literature has numerous instances of married kings who renounce worldly life. When they announce their decisions to their wives, the queens decide to become nuns. Other relatives may join too.

In modern times there are also examples of family renunciation. A well-known case is that of Muni Jambū-vijaya. He was initiated into monkhood as a child alongside his father, and his mother became a nun at the same time. His father then became his religious teacher.

In these cases, the ties that united the family members no longer exist. These mendicants see each other as monks and nuns living the same mendicant lifestyle.

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Related Manuscripts

  • Text


    Victoria and Albert Museum. IM 7-1931. Unknown author. Circa 1490

  • Indrabhūti Gautama

    Indrabhūti Gautama

    British Library. Or. 13476. Unknown author. 1537

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