Article: Mendicant lifestyle

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Intermediate categories

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

Each sect also has special types of mendicant.

Digambara terms for special types of mendicants

Meaning

Men

Women

‘junior’ – a state between an ordinary lay follower and a full-fledged mendicant

kṣullaka

kṣullikā

position higher than that of a kṣullaka because it entails stricter vows

ailaka

Śvetāmbara terms for special types of mendicants

Meaning

Men

Women

one who lives a sedentary life and does not take the full vows

yati

special category among the Śvetāmbara Terā-panthin sect

samaṇa

samaṇī

The samaṇa and samaṇī have fewer restrictions than full mendicants. For example, they can use transport instead of only walking.

Wandering and sedentary life

Monastic life depends on the season. The year is divided into two parts, consisting of the:

Mendicant activity by season

Season

Activity

eight months of the year

wandering life – known as vihāra in modern times

rainy season – about four months

living in the same place without travelling

Wandering life

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

As part of the mendicant lifestyle, Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. Known as vihāra, ‘wandering’ means walking along the roads from one place to another one, starting very early in the morning. The distances vary, but they can amount to 20 to 30 kilometres a day. Being a Jain ascetic therefore requires physical strength and resilience.

The destination is decided by a leading mendicant of a small group, or by the head of the monastic order in the case of the Terāpanthins. During the ceremony known as māryādā-mahotsava, he decides where the various groups of ascetics should go for the next rainy season. They reach their destinations in stages. Ascetics wander in groups of varying sizes. A mendicant is generally not expected to be alone.

According to traditional rules, mendicants are not allowed to stay more than a few days in the same place outside the rainy season. This rule is still in force today, although the duration of their stay may be longer. In extreme cases, the mendicants would always stay in the same place.

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