Article: Monks and nuns

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Mendicant lineage

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

All Jain mendicants are initiated into one of many mendicant orders within each sect. Early in the Jain tradition, teaching was passed on orally, with leading teachers collecting followers, who then passed on their teachings to their disciples and so on. These different groups descended from various teachers are termed mendicant lineages.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks call these groups gaccha – going or travelling together – while Digambaras know them as sangha.

Mendicant hierarchy

This 2007 painting called ‘Padabhishek’ shows the ceremony in which a Jain monk is promoted to ācārya. Artist: Shanti Panchal. Medium: watercolour on paper.

Padābhiṣeka ceremony
Image by Shanti Panchal © Shanti Panchal

The hierarchy of monks and nuns depends on the individuals’ length of time as a mendicant, sex and office. Ordinary monks and nuns defer to those who have been monks and nuns for longer and to those who hold an official position. Nuns are always outranked by monks, even if they have been mendicants for longer and hold office.

Nowadays, among the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks, each mendicant lineage is headed by a number of ācāryas. Only the sect of the Añcala-gaccha has a single ācārya. The mendicants of the non-Mūrtipūjak sects of Sthānaka-vāsīn and Terāpanthin are also led by a single ācārya in each sect. Official posts deal with different responsibilities in the gaccha, such as the pannyāsa, who is responsible for groups of ordinary monks, called munis or sādhus.

Digambara monks are ranked according to their status as full mendicants, novice mendicants or lay men who have taken some renunciation vows. They have similar official posts to those found in the Śvetāmbara sect.

Nuns have a less strict hierarchy than monks within their own communities of women. Although they usually outnumber monks among the Śvetāmbaras, nuns must defer to male mendicants, even if they have been initiated for longer and have official positions. Among both the principal sects, communities of nuns are usually supervised by monks, who also normally appoint their leaders and initiate new recruits.

Mendicant life

In addition to the Five Great Vows, the lives of monks and nuns are regulated by rules found in scriptures and in the oral tradition. Though these have been discussed and adjusted throughout Jain history, they give rise to several elements characteristic of Jain mendicants. These range from their monastic equipment, their lifestyle, their duties and their clothing or nudity, depending on sect. Jain ascetics do various things each day, ranging from seeking alms to performing the 'six obligatory actions' of a mendicant. They may also have other religious duties, although customs vary in the different sects and mendicant lineages.

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