Article: Mendicant orders

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


This detail of a manuscript painting shows Digambara novices and monks. Full monks go naked as part of their vow of non-possession while novices wear white garments until they are ready to renounce the world fully

Monks and novices
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Internal hierarchy (Cort 1991: 663) is a characteristic of all Jain monastic orders. Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures show this is not a new phenomenon, but the terms and levels have changed.

Among today’s Digambara munis or naked ascetics, who are limited in number, the hierarchy is generally less marked because the main factor in a band of mendicants is personal charisma. A wandering group of ascetics includes only one muni, together with nuns and novices who are, by definition, subordinate to him.

As a rule monks, and especially nuns, are expected to serve their superiors – sevā or vaiyāvṛttya. They must perform obligatory duties such as confession and repentance in front of him when he or she is present. When he or she is absent, the superior is symbolised by the sthāpanācārya. These are signs of good education and modesty – vinaya. Relations between mendicants in the same monastic order combine such features with devotion and a sense of togetherness.

The monastic hierarchy is based on seniority in religious life, which means how long a mendicant has been a monk or nun, on knowledge of the scriptural tradition or ability to lead. It does not depend on chronological age. A nun is always subordinate to a monk, even though she may have equal or greater monastic seniority.

The Śvetāmbara scriptures that deal with monastic organisation give the levels of mendicant hierarchy.

Śvetāmbara mendicant hierarchy


Meaning in English






‘elder’, referring to seniority and knowledge

āyariya – Prakrit
– Sanskrit


‘teacher’ or ‘superior’

vajjhāya – Prakrit
upādhyāya – Sanskrit


‘preceptor’ or ‘tutor’



‘promotor’, in charge of discipline



leader of a group of monks

niggantha – Prakrit
nirgrantha – Sanskrit
bhikkhu – Prakrit
bhikṣu – Sanskrit
sāhu – Prakrit
sādhu – Sanskrit


ordinary monk or nun

This is a rough picture, as the terms may be used differently and may not match this ranking. For instance, a teacher can be an elder and so on. Even so, the presence of teachers, preceptors and ordinary monks among the ‘Five Entities’ praised as part of the ‘Fivefold Homage’ – Pañca-namaskāra-mantra or Navakār-mantra – suggests that these three terms are fundamental.

Among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak monastic orders, the members are ranked as shown in the table.

Contemporary Śvetāmbara mendicant hierarchy


Meaning in English




gacchādhipati or sūri


head of the main gaccha
There is no such position in the Tapā-gaccha



'teacher’, though usually translated as 'mendicant leader'
The old title of pravartinī for nuns is seldom used, and there is no equivalent to ācārya among nuns



'leader of a group’
The second term is equivalent to pandit and in practice indicates years of study



Now fallen into disuse, but common formerly



Now fallen into disuse but common formerly, for example Yaśovijaya Upādhyāya in the 17th century



ordinary monk or nun

Monastic ‘families’

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

The basic frame of mendicant life has always been a small group centring on a religious teacher. This entourage is called parivāra or kula, which in common parlance means ‘family’. Indeed, especially among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak monastic orders, there is ‘a replication of many elements of the [lay] social order’ (Cort 1991: 652).

Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures detailing rules for daily monastic life – the Cheda-sūtras – are well aware of this and consider it a guarantee of harmonious religious life:

The entourage (parivāra) of an instructor [= ācārya], compared to the father, includes on the one hand his ‘descendants’ (pupil, pupil’s pupil, and also pupil of the pupil’s pupils) and on the other his ‘ancestors’. […] A lineage is thus constituted by seven generations […] The monks who have been brought up in the same ‘families’ and the same ‘flocks’ – and consequently in the same religious customs (pravrajyā), and those who have received the same teaching (śruta) from the same teacher are ‘members of the same party’. An educational community produces the strongest affinities

1975, pages 27–28

The head of the working unit is always a monk, with nuns dependent on him. But as nuns live in monastic lodgings – upāśrayas – that are separate from monks, in practice one of them is the leader of the other nuns on the same premises, at least temporarily.

Evidence from the past as well as the present shows that groupings at these levels are quite fluid. Close disciples of a given teacher tend to travel and stay together, but groups may be rearranged. For instance members of various bands may be combined into different groups before the rainy season, when mendicants have to reside in one place.

Among Terāpanthins, who have a central organisation, the head of the sect decides which mendicants will form each group and their destinations for the coming rainy season. This takes place in the ceremony known as Māryadā Mahotsav.

Living like a Jina

This manuscript painting depicts Mahāvīra's initiation. Mahāvīra pulls out his hair in the rite of keśa-loca, which forms part of the ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – that begins life as a monk or nun. Śakra, king of the gods, watches him

Mahāvīra's initiation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

During the fifth century BCE, approximately the time of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, living in organised communities – sthavira-kalpa – was not the only option for monks. They could choose the ‘Jina’s mode of life’ – Jina-kalpa. This meant living outside any social structure, either alone or in small groups without any hierarchy. It implied the desirable condition of increased detachment, and could involve total nakedness or not using alms bowls. In this respect the Jina-kalpika monks imitated the mode of life followed by the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, and the last, Mahāvīra.

This mode of life requires great moral strength and is typical of early Jainism. Monks who lived as the Jinas did are exceptional cases and are perceived as representing extreme asceticism. Both Śvetāmbara and Digambara traditions agree that the Jina-kalpa came to an end ‘with the death of Jambū, which took place 64 years after the death of Mahāvīra’ (Wiley 2004: 108).

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