Article: Monks and nuns

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Fasting unto death

This manuscript painting shows Dhanya and Śālibhadra fasting to death, among lay people and monks paying homage to them. Dubbed the 'sage's death', this very difficult ritual is believed to purify the mind and destroy negative karma and passions

Dhanya and Śālibhadra fast unto death
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

For Jains the conditions of someone’s death are important because the individual’s mental state at this time helps determine destiny in the next birth. For this reason and also because one should avoid living in circumstances that prevent keeping vows or obligations, it is traditional for Jains to try to exercise control over their deaths. It is especially achieved by mendicants as part of ideal ascetic conduct.

The ultimate method of having some control over one’s death is that of sallekhanā – literally 'thinning out' – or anaśana, which means 'fasting unto death'. It implies gradually giving up food and liquids in order to purify the mind and destroy all negative karma and passions. Fasting to death is not considered to be suicide, which is forbidden in Jain belief. A Jain freely chooses the 'sage’s death', which is recognised as a difficult choice and is honoured as an expression of devotion.

The mendicant who makes this decision generally goes to a secluded place on a hilltop. Inscriptions and memorials found in places such as Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa are evidence of this longstanding practice. It is still part of the mendicant’s life today, especially among Digambaras, and is considered to be remarkable and worthy of great respect.

Number of monks and nuns

A group of Jain nuns walks barefoot up a hill. Dressed in white robes with their heads covered, they all wear cloths fixed over their mouths, attached by strings over the ears. This identifies them as either Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns.

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns
Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Though the 'fourfold community' of the Jains is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women, the proportion of mendicants to laity is likely to have always been very small. A large lay community is probably needed to support a relatively low number of monks and nuns. Estimates of the number of Jains in the world vary from around 5 to 10 million, concentrated in India.

Nearly all Jain monks and nuns are in India because attitudes towards modernity, especially transportation, stop them travelling to Jains outside the country. This results in a handful of mendicants tending to the spiritual needs of over 100,000 lay members of the Jain diaspora. These are chiefly Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin samaṇas and samaṇīs, who are special categories of mendicants permitted to travel, established in 1980 by Ācārya Tulsī.

This table shows the number of Jain monks and nuns in 1999, which is when the figures were last verified.

Number of Jain mendicants in 1999

Sect

Monks

Nuns

Total mendicants

Proportion of mendicants (%)

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak

1489

5354

6843

58.30

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin

533

2690

3233

27.46

Terāpantha

154

557

711

6.06

Digambara

610

350

960

8.18

Adapted slightly from the table in the article by Peter Flügel, 'Demographic Trends in Jaina Monasticism' in Studies in Jain History and Culture, edited by P. Flügel, London, Routledge, 2006.

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