Article: Monks and nuns

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Monastic equipment

Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

In line with their fourth vow of non-attachment to worldly things, monks and nuns do not own anything. The local lay community provides them with monastic equipment, which is believed to be the minimum necessary for correct religious life.

Monastic equipment varies according to the mendicant’s sect and mendicant lineage. Ascetics of all sects use monastic brooms to sweep an area before sitting or lying down so that insects and minute beings are not harmed. This helps them keep their vow of non-harm. The Śvetāmbara broom is made of cotton or wool strands while the broom used by Digambaras is made of peacock feathers.

Śvetāmbara ascetics use an alms bowl, water pot and a mouth-cloth. The mouth-cloth stops minute beings being accidentally inhaled and avoids injuring wind-bodied beings. Monks and nuns from Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak sects may also use staffs, bookstands and seats.

Digambara mendicants eat alms directly from their hands and carry a water pot for toilet purposes.

Wandering lifestyle

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Jain ascetics also are known for their wandering lifestylevihāra. Expected to travel around instead of staying in one place as householders do, monks and nuns may cover up to around 30 kilometres a day. This 'wandering' – vihāra – entails walking from one place to another every day or every few days. This custom may also be linked to the vow of non-attachment.

Mendicants wander all the time except during the annual rainy season, when they remain in one place for these four months. There are three principal reasons for this practice. Firstly, travelling is difficult because of floods, poor roads and so on, especially as mendicants traditionally travel on foot. Secondly, it reduces the likelihood of breaking the first vow of non-violence, because the warmth and humidity of the monsoon season result in a great increase in various forms of life. Last, while the monks and nuns stay in one place they have more contact with lay people. This encourages devotion among the local lay community.

Daily activities

Every day monks and nuns perform certain tasks. The most important from a practical point of view is probably seeking alms. From a religious viewpoint the most significant is the six ritualsāvaśyaka – 'necessary, required'.

Other tasks are practical, such as washing garments, where these are worn, or religious, such as memorising or studying sacred writings. These duties vary according to the monastic order, the place of an ascetic within this order, the sex of the mendicant, age and other factors.

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