Article: Mendicant orders

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

All lay and mendicant Jains are members of sects, which are the largest divisions within the Jain tradition. Monks and nuns are organised into mendicant or monastic orders. These form the largest grouping for mendicants. In Jainism there is no central authority equivalent to a pope, so a mendicant’s relationship with the leader of his or her mendicant order or subgroup – usually called an ācārya – is the most important one. These relationships between teacher and pupil produce a mendicant lineage or monastic order. Succession lists document these relationships and help establish the history and context of a mendicant order.

Members of most Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak groups use the term gaccha for a sect. Within this sect there are smaller sects or subsects, which take gaccha as part of their title. Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin use sampradāya instead.

All monks and nuns live in small groups or communities. Because mendicants have a wandering life – vihāra – they travel in small bands, each with a leader, which are deliberately similar to large families. These leaders are subordinate to higher-ranking mendicants within the same monastic lineage or mendicant order.

The followers of the Jinas split over time and developed into two distinct sectarian traditions with individual histories at the beginning of the Common Era. Describing this process even-handedly is hard because Digambara mendicant orders have developed in a complicated way, still in need of scholarly exploration. Today Śvetāmbara mendicant orders appear fairly organised and structured. Although only the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect has a single leader, other Śvetāmbara sects organise themselves around different leaders and subdivide into various subsects. Digambara mendicants also live in small communities but among the few full-fledged monks there is more emphasis on individualism. Both sects have a strict mendicant hierarchy based on length of monastic life although nuns are always junior to monks, regardless of mendicant rank.

In Mahāvīra’s time living in organised communities was not the only option. Another possibility was to live ‘like a Jina’, that is outside any group, living alone.


This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript shows Śvetāmbara monks listening to a senior mendicant. The teacher is the largest figure, indicating his importance, and he sits on a low dais with a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – in front

Senior monk teaching
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A variety of terms is still used for the subdivisions of mendicant orders within sects. Some signal identities and differences while other are more or less synonyms and are used rather loosely.

Saṅgha is the broadest term. It can refer to the complete Jain ‘community’, with its four components of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. But it is also used in the more restricted sense of ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.

‘Monastic orders’ are called either gaṇa or gaccha. Both terms mean ‘group’. The first one is technically older. The second one etymologically relates to a root meaning ‘to go’ and thus can be understood as designating ‘monks who go together’ – who travel together and who follow the same rules. Gaccha is the term commonly used among the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks to refer to the largest unit, often called the ‘sect’. It appears as the second element of various proper names such as Tapā-gaccha, Añcala-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha. The Sthānaka-vāsins prefer the term sampradāya.

A monastic order is first defined by a common descent, which indicates a lineage. Most Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders trace their origin to Sudharman, one of Mahāvīra’s direct disciples.

In modern times, the Terāpanthins are the only Śvetāmbara monastic order with a straightforward history because they have a centrally organised structure with a single leader – ācārya. All other Śvetāmbara sects that have emerged since the 11th to 12th centuries have a complex history of splits, which have generated a number of subsects or sub-branches. These are known as sampradāyas, śākhās or samudāyas. This term means ‘co-arising’ and underlines the creation of a lineage.

Each sect and subsect records the names of its leaders. These succession lists form a special type of literature – paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – of which mendicants are fully aware. Śvetāmbara mendicants place themselves within such lineages in manuscript colophons, inscriptions and in everyday usage. The usual formula names X as ‘pupil of Y, who was / is the pupil of Z, etc., at the time when N was/is the head of the monastic order So and So’. They recite this lineage when a new monk or nun is initiated (Cort 1991: 656), emphasising the sense of continuity and context.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka or Sthānaka-vāsin

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

In the 15th to 17th centuries, a major split occurred within the Śvetāmbara sect, which gave birth to two distinct sectarian traditions:

The main issue of contention is the worship of images. The Mūrti-pūjaks practise it while the Sthānaka-vāsin reject the notion.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there are examples of mendicants who took initiation within a monastic order belonging to one of these two traditions and later joined the other one. Becoming a member of another sect may require a mendicant to change his or her name.

Changing mendicant order

Name and dates

Original mendicant order

Second mendicant order



changed name to Buddhivijaya

Muni Jinavijaya



Muni Ātmarām


changed name to Vijayānanda-sūri

Founding new orders

A distinct monastic order within the broader group of a sect is usually founded when a mendicant disagrees with something and his disciples or other mendicants follow him. The grounds for divisions are generally complex and multiple. They relate to:

  • disagreements over interpretations of scriptures that influence practice, recitation, ritual, religious calendar, child-initiation and so on
  • personal conflicts between a senior and junior mendicant, perhaps in a competition of egos
  • individual charisma
  • demography – mendicants generally live in small groups during their wandering life of eight out of 12 months, supervised by the most senior monk, which may eventually produce a new group
  • geography (Cort 1991: 661) – that is, wandering in a specific area
  • the death of a religious leader.

Once a new monastic order is founded, it takes the name of its founder. For example the Nemisūri-gaccha is named after the ācārya Nemi and his title sūri while the Vijayarāmacandra-sūri-samudāya is called after Vijayarāmacandra and his title of sūri. A common element in the names, such as –vijaya or –sāgara may be an identifying sign.

The year when a new order is founded may become the starting point of a new era.

A change of group is fairly formalised in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. A newcomer should be questioned as to why he left his former group and about his motivations for wanting to enter a new one (Caillat 1975: 61–65).

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