Article: Mendicant lifestyle

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The term ‘mendicant’ refers to monks and nuns in general. Jain mendicants are people who have become monks or nuns after the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā. They renounce ordinary life, receive the monastic equipment in accordance with the monastic order to which they will belong.

After that they lead a life conforming to the ‘five great vows’ – mahā-vrata. These vows provide a frame of behaviour for mendicants, but there are many specific rules for each and every aspect of daily life.

Different terms for mendicants

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

Depending on the period and sources, there is a wide range of terms for Jain ascetics, most referring to various aspects of their lives.

The two main sects of the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras normally use slightly different words for their monks and nuns.

 

 

Early Jain writings

Early records that mention mendicants call them by different expressions according to the context. There is a masculine and feminine form of each term.

Early terms for mendicants

Meaning

Men

Women

mendicant as a spiritual person – ‘without knot, without bond’

niggantha

nigganthī

mendicant as someone begging alms

bhikkhu
bhikṣu

bhikkuṇī
bhikṣuṇī

mendicant as a person who practises asceticism and penance

samaṇa

samaṇī

general term for a sage

muni

Other contexts

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts monks preaching to lay men. The mendicants are Digambara even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Raising scriptures high, the monks sit on low platforms

Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

While the different sects tend to use the terms outlined below, members of the two groups might sometimes use terms that are more frequently associated with the other sect.

Contemporary terms for mendicants

Sect

Men

Women

Digambara

muni

āryikā

Śvetāmbara

muni

sādhu

sādhvī

mahāsatī

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Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images

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