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

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.

Life in the rainy season

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

Called caturmāsa in Sanskrit and comāsa in Gujarati, the rainy season lasts from June or July up to October or November each year.

The rainy season is traditionally considered unsuitable for wandering for three main reasons. Mendicants traditionally only go on foot and for the practical reasons of floods, muddy roads and so on travelling is very difficult during this period. It is also a time when numerous minute beings are born because of the combined warmth and humidity. Hence it is believed that hurting living beings is much easier, which makes it easier to accidentally break the fundamental Jain principle of non-violence. Limiting one’s movements is a way to counteract this risk. Finally, staying in one place enables mendicants to meet the local lay communities daily, through preaching, begging alms and so on. Thus lay people are more inclined to study or to keep additional dietary restrictions and so on.

Daily activities

Jain ascetics do various things each day, ranging from seeking alms to performing the six rituals of a mendicant. They may also have other religious duties, although customs vary in the different sects and monastic orders.

Gathering alms

In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Monk receives alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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 begging 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

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a cloth-wrapped bookstand, used to hold scriptures. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate
Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0

The six rituals each mendicant is obliged to complete every day are known as āvaśyaka – ‘necessary, required’:

  1. serenity – sāmāyika
  2. praise of the 24 Jinas
  3. offering worship and respect towards mendicants
  4. repentance – pratikramaṇa
  5. rejection of the body – kāyotsarga
  6. vowing special austerities for the future.

The most important is the ritual of repentance – pratikramaṇa – which takes place at regular periods, at least twice a day.

Other activities

Mendicants usually do other things during the day. What they do depends on the monastic order, the place of an ascetic within this order, the sex of the mendicant, age and other factors.

Studying

This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript illustrates a Śvetāmbara monastic teacher and pupils. As the senior monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais under an ornate canopy. The lower-ranking mendicants pay homage to him

Monastic teacher
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Ascetics may read and study the scriptures or other subjects, such as grammar, poetry and philosophy. Whether they do this very much depends on the monastic order to which they belong.

Some monastic orders support it for all ascetics while others do not encourage it for nuns. Yet others make a point of promoting female mendicants’ education.

Writing and copying

Mendicants do not necessarily write and copy texts. This activity is connected with monastic education, which depends on the individual mendicant order. Writing in minute script or copying are almost artistic activities.

Recitation and singing

Learning by heart is an important activity for monks and nuns, even today.

All activities that favour memorisation are encouraged but using electricity or even a lamp is not allowed. Memorising keeps the mind busy even in these conditions.

Public preaching

This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows Digambara monks preaching to lay men. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold up scriptures. The bookstands in front underline their role as religious teachers

Monks preach to lay men
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Mendicants who preach generally do this in the morning.

But not all mendicants are allowed or able to preach. In some monastic orders only the monks teach in public.

Consultation

It is common to see lay people visiting the mendicants’ lodgings – upāśraya – to talk with them, to receive their blessing or advice on worldly matters. These can be thought of as consultations, but lay newcomers can come along so these meetings are not private.

The mendicants often answer queries by talking about a more general belief or principle and like to refer to past or present examples, role models, and so on. These are very numerous in Jain story literature.

Manual activities

A Śvetāmbara nun washes monastic clothing in the nuns’ lodgings – upāśraya. Rules in scriptural texts govern all aspects of monastic life, including necessary tasks such as the washing of clothes.

Nun washing clothes
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Like everyone else, Jain mendicants must attend to practical necessities, such as washing monastic robes. Related to this are more artistic activities such as stitching and embroidering. These tasks are done mostly by nuns or junior mendicants.

Sleep

Jain monks and nuns generally sleep only for a few hours at night, around three to five hours.

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.

Images

  • Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin 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 members of either of the Śvetāmbara sects of Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin.. Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Lay men listen to monks 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, their brooms next to them. The bookstands in front of them are symbols of the mendicant role as religious teacher. The lay men hold their hands up in gestures of respect.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Digambara monks and novices Digambara monks live naked to demonstrate detachment from worldly concerns. As a sign of advanced spirituality, it is much honoured. To become a full Digambara monk, novices complete two stages after their initiation. A kṣullaka or junior novice is technically a lay man and wears three pieces of white clothing. An ailaka wears a white loincloth and lives as a monk. When he becomes a full monk he casts off his loincloth and goes nude.. Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya
  • Digambara monks walking This manuscript painting depicts Digambara monks walking 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 their water pots and peacock-feather brooms as monastic equipment. All mendicants have a ‘wandering’ – vihāra – lifestyle.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Lay women give alms to nuns White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered in a complex ritual may take hours. The staff – daṇḍa – of one of the nuns can be seen on the right.. Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah
  • Monk receives alms In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect. He holds his water pot and broom in his left hand and presses all the fingertips of his right hand on his right shoulder in the āhāra-mudrā – 'food-gesture'. When he is ready to eat he stands on a platform above the lay man offering him food. The donor holds a pot of purified water with which he washes the monk's feet in a gesture of respect. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Śvetāmbara nuns meditate Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a bookstand or sthāpanācārya, which is used to hold scriptures, here wrapped in cloth. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.. Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0
  • Monastic teacher This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript illustrates a Śvetāmbara monastic teacher and pupils. As the senior monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais under an ornate canopy. The lower-ranking mendicants pay homage to him. The bookstand – sthāpanācārya – between the junior monks symbolises teaching. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Monks preach to lay men This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. Though dressed in white, like monks of the Śvetāmbara sect, the mendicants are Digambaras. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold scriptures in their hands. The bookstands before them underline their role as religious teachers. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Nun washing clothes A Śvetāmbara nun washes monastic clothing in the nuns’ lodgings – upāśraya. Rules in scriptural texts govern all aspects of monastic life, including necessary tasks such as the washing of clothes. To make sure that as little violence as possible is done, mendicants must use boiled water so no living beings are in the water and, theoretically, no detergent. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
  • Padābhiṣeka ceremony This 2007 painting called ‘Padabhishek’ shows the ceremony in which a Jain monk is promoted to ācārya. Artist: Shanti Panchal. Medium: watercolour on paper.. Image by Shanti Panchal © Shanti Panchal

Further Reading

‘The Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak Jain Mendicant’
John Cort
Man (New Series)
volume 29: 4
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; 1991

Full details

‘The Codes of Conduct of the Terāpanth Samaṇ Order’
Peter Flügel
South Asia Research
volume 23: 1
SAGE Publications; 2003

Full details

Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community
Anne Vallely
University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada; 2002

Full details

'Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras Part II: Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra and Sûtrakritâṅga
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 45
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1895

Full details

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995

Full details

Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains
Manisha Sethi
South Asian History & Culture series; volume 8
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group; London, UK and New Delhi, India; 2011

Full details

Glossary

Ācārya

Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Diaspora

From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.

Dīkṣā

Religious initiation through which a man or woman leaves the householder or lay status to become a mendicant. Parts of this ritual renunciation are public ceremonies, depending on the sect.

Gujarati

The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Kāyotsarga

'Absence of concern for the body'. This commonly refers to a standing or sitting posture of deep meditation. In the standing position the eyes are concentrated on the tip of the nose and the arms hang loosely by the body. The individual remains unaffected by whatever happens around him.

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Monastic order

A single-sex group of ascetics that vows to follow rules set out by a founding religious teacher. They formally renounce the world to become monks and nuns. They usually have a hierarchy of leaders at different levels to govern them.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Muni

Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.

Nun

A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Penance

A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.

Pratikramaṇa

'Introspection’ in Sanskrit. The elaborate ritual of confession and repentance that involves reciting liturgical texts and performing set gestures at dawn and dusk. It is one of an ascetic's six daily duties – āvaśyaka. For many lay people, pratikramaṇa is the essence of Jainism.

Preach

To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

Pūjā

Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Rainy season

The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Sāmāyika

Equanimity, calm, a mental state where one is able to consider all beings as equal to oneself. The second of the four śikṣā-vratas or vows that lay Jains take. The ritual entails working towards being even-tempered by meditating or reciting mantras for 48 minutes each day. Performing this ritual three times each day is also one of the six duties – āvaśyakas – of a mendicant.

Sanskrit

A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Sūri

A title for the leader of a religious order among the Śvetāmbaras. It is a higher position than ācārya.

Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin

A subsect of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin, which originated in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The Terāpanthin do not worship images. One of the sect's best-known leaders was Ācārya Tulsī, who created a new category of ascetics in 1980. These samaṇ and samaṇī are allowed to travel using mechanised transport and to use money.

Tapas

Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.

Upādhyāya

Preceptor or tutor. One of the Five Supreme Beings, who is worthy of being worshipped by ordinary Jains.

Upāśraya

Dwelling-hall near a Jain temple where wandering ascetics stay. They may stay for a short time during their travels or for the long rainy season. There is usually a main room where lay Jains come to listen to sermons. Lay people may also perform fasts here, such as upadhāna tapas or rituals such as posadha that involve leaving household activities for a while.

Vihāra

A Sanskrit term that describes the wandering lifestyle of Jain mendicants. Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. They wander constantly on foot, never staying more than a few days in one place. They may walk around 30 kilometres a day in small groups. However, every year, during the monsoon, monks and nuns stay in one location to avoid travelling.

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