Article: Monks and nuns

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Gathering alms

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jain mendicants are not allowed to cook food themselves. They are also not allowed to get it cooked by anybody in the premises where they stay. Thus they have to go to lay people’s houses to get food. The alms tour takes place twice a day for Śvetāmbara mendicants, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. Digambara ascetics seek alms once a day.

Finding correctly offered alms that are suitable may take hours. However, all food has to be eaten before sunset.

Six daily obligatory rituals

The six rituals each mendicant is supposed to complete every day are known as āvaśyaka – ‘necessary, required’. The most important is the ritual of repentancepratikramaṇa – which takes place at regular periods, at least twice a day.

Clothing or nudity

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

This has become the most obvious way to tell the difference between Śvetāmbara and Digambara mendicants. Śvetāmbara means 'white-clad' while the latter means 'sky-clad' – that is, naked.

However, not all Digambara mendicants go without clothes. Only those who are full mendicants go completely nude because it is considered part of being able to renounce all possessions and have no attachment to anything. Neither male novice mendicants nor nuns go nude. Among the Jains, nudity produces great respect because only those who are capable of full detachment from worldly matters can practise it in total freedom.

In early Śvetāmbara scriptures, there is some flexibility regarding the connection of clothes to the idea of non-possession. As suggested by their name, Śvetāmbara monastic robes are white. In Western Indian manuscript paintings of the medieval period, the robe of the Śvetāmbara mendicants is depicted as white or transparent with white dots. In later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.

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