Article: Mendicant lifestyle

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

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 mendicant groups are organised in ranks based on seniority, sex and position. Seniority is based on the number of years spent as a mendicant since religious initiationdīkṣā – not on the real age of the person.

General principles of this hierarchy are:

  • juniors serve and respect senior ascetics
  • a mendicant who holds an official position is senior to one who does not
  • a monk is always senior to a nun, irrespective of mendicant age or office held.

The titles of the various roles vary among the different monastic orders and they have varied in the course of history. The names found in earlier texts are not necessarily the same as those used today. Among the Śvetāmbaras, sūri and gacchā-dhipati are the highest titles. Among the Digambaras, it is muni and ācārya.

Promotion to higher positions is an occasion for ceremonies and celebrations organised by the lay communities. Promotion comes through appointment from older mendicants or from the head of the sect, if there is one. The various positions take into account the achievements of the mendicants. For example,a preceptor or tutor – upādhyāya – or a pannyāsa – approximately ‘learned’ – are those who have been recognised as having a special proficiency in the knowledge of scriptures.

Attitudes towards modern life

The development of modern technologies is a challenge for today’s Jain mendicants. The great majority of them keep to traditional rules, which means that:

  • they do not use any means of transportation and only walk
  • they do not use electricity because it is considered a form of fire, and its use endangers fire-beings
  • they do not use modern toilets
  • they do not accept modern medicine, especially surgery.

There are, however, some exceptions. These are of two kinds – institutional and individual.

Institutional exceptions are the mendicants in the intermediate category of samaṇ and samaṇis among the Śvetāmbara Terā-panthins. In particular, they are allowed to use methods of transportation and travel abroad. They play an important role for the Jain diaspora outside India.

Individual exceptions include leading mendicants in various groups who believe that they have to adjust to changing contexts and make use of modern innovations for the sake of their religion’s future. Such decisions often give rise to heated discussions and criticisms. One example is that of the three brothers known as ‘Bandhu Triputi’. These three men are Śvetāmbara Mūrti pūjaka monks who travel extensively to Europe and America and do not consider that this amounts to breaking the rule.

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