Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Even though the two major Jain sects take their names from their respective mendicant clothing practices, lay people of all Jain sects wear clothes. The issue of nudity or clothing is discussed only for mendicants. Monastic clothing has become the most obvious way to differentiate male mendicants of the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects, which form the two main Jain sectarian traditions. The former means 'white-clad' in Sanskrit while the latter means 'sky-clad' – that is, naked. It is not as superficial a topic as it may appear, because wearing or not wearing clothes symbolises attachment or non-attachment to the world respectively.
Both male and female mendicants take a vow of non-possession when they become monks and nuns. As the ideal to which mendicants aspire, the ‘perfect ascetic’ demonstrates total detachment from the things of the world. This includes not just objects but emotions of all kinds, since complete detachment enables spiritual progression towards omniscience and liberation from the cycle of births. Disagreements over the interpretation of the vow of non-possession – aparigraha – support the different practices of the sects when it comes to whether their mendicants wear clothing and, if so, what kinds of clothing are permitted.
The sectarian attitudes towards mendicant clothing can be seen most clearly in the issue of female nudity. Female mendicants of all sects wear white robes. However, Digambara nuns are not considered to be the female equivalent of monks because they are not permitted to be nude. Since, for Digambaras, mendicants must renounce clothing to achieve salvation, nuns are not considered capable of the level of spirituality required for liberation. In contrast, Śvetāmbaras believe that nuns are just as capable of gaining emancipation as monks, even though both wear clothes. For them, detachment involves having no feelings of attachment to monastic equipment, not in using the items themselves. Both sects consider certain items vital to living a religious life.
Examples of both clothed and nude figures can be found in Jain art. Early depictions of Jinas show them naked but loincloths appear around the fifth century. Since then idols created by the Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects have usually demonstrated representative attitudes towards mendicant nudity. This results in Śvetāmbara images wearing loincloths while Digambara images are naked.
To non-Jains, being nude in public for any reason can be disturbing, shocking or even wrong from a religious point of view. This has led to periods when rulers of India discouraged or banned public nudity. The official disapproval of nudity in the 19th century weakened as Digambara monks revived the custom in the early 20th century. Though there is a national law against nudity in public, the principle of religious nudity is legally accepted. However, attitudes towards public nudity today vary and Digambara monks may try to adapt to the traditions of the local population.
The Sanskrit terms for nudity are nagnatva or a-celakatva, the latter meaning literally 'absence of clothing'. Partly in recognition that living naked is difficult, not all Digambara mendicants go nude. Full monks – munis – among the Digambaras go without clothing, while novices and juniors wear garments. Digambara nuns wear white robes, as do monks and nuns of the Śvetāmbara sect.
For the Digambaras, nudity is a symbol of perfect detachment from everything, whether material possession or moral defilement. Therefore it is necessary stage in the theoretical possibility of reaching salvation. This is stated very clearly by Kundakunda, one of the most famous authoritative Digambara voices, who lived around the first century of the Common Era:
According to the Teaching of the Jina, a person wearing clothes cannot attain mokṣa [emancipation] even if he be a Tīrthaṃkara. The path of mokṣa consists of nudity (nagna); all other paths are wrong paths
Suttapāhuḍa, verse 23
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 35, 1991
In the Śvetāmbara tradition, absolute nakedness is the rule only for spiritually advanced monks who live according to the rule of Jinas – jinakalpikas – or for Jinas themselves. For example, according to the Kalpa-sūtra, when Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, renounced worldly life in order to become an ascetic, ‘for a year and a month, he wore clothes – cīvara-dhārī; after that time he walked about naked – a-cele, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hands’ (Jacobi 1884: 260). The first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, also lived most of his monastic life without clothing. The other 22 Jinas, however, wore clothes after renunciation.
‘My clothes being torn, I shall [soon] go naked’, or ‘I shall get a new suit’, such thoughts should not be entertained by a monk. At one time he will have no clothes, at another time he will have some; knowing this to be a salutary rule, a wise [monk] should not complain about it
Another argument in favour of nudity is that clothes may attract minute living beings through dirtiness. Since these beings could be destroyed, even involuntarily, clothes hinder the practice of perfect non-violence, one of the key principles of Jainism.
For average ascetics, however, the use of clothing is the rule.
Such statements underline the fact that going nude is not something easy and that not all ascetics can do it. Being able to go naked without feeling embarrassed requires detachment with regard to both the body and onlookers’ eyes. Hence nudity means being invulnerable to the ‘passions’ or emotions, to which shame and pride belong (Dundas 2002: 50). For instance, a Digambara commentator recommends that male ascetics can use clothes if they have genital or other deformities (quoted in Jaini 1991: 100). This, however, seems quite unusual, as the rule is normally that people with deformities are not allowed to receive monastic initiation.
In general, nudity produces great respect among the Jains because only those who are capable of full detachment can practise it in total freedom and have inner purity.
Non-possession or non-attachment is the theoretical ideal of Jain mendicants. The question is then whether wearing clothes contradicts this ideal or not. In fact neither Śvetāmbaras nor Digambaras regard clothing as a possession – parigraha. Both sects view certain items as essential to a proper mendicant lifestyle, but their interpretations of whether clothing is one of them vary.
The view of the Digambaras is rather radical in that they take this literally. From their perspective, rejection of clothes to live in total nudity is the clearest example of non-possession. Therefore only the most advanced ascetics can achieve this.
Śvetāmbaras promote a different interpretation of possession and non-possession. For them parigraha is attachment or feeling of ownership. Thus it is not related to clothing or to the number of monastic equipment ascetics use. This equipment, such as brooms and staffs, is viewed as necessary to live a religious life and such items are not embellishments.
Monastic robes are normally not private or individual properties. They are part of the equipment the newly initiated mendicant gets at the time of initiation – dīkṣā. During this ceremony clothes play a symbolic role. Before initiation the candidate is dressed richly, like a prince or a princess. After initiation he or she wears only the sober white monastic robes. These robes are also part of the religious gifts – dāna – lay people can offer.
Ascetics receive monastic clothes from lay people in the same way they accept food or other monastic equipment from them as alms. One chapter of the Ācārānga-sūtra, the first of the Śvetāmbara scriptures, is devoted to this topic and provides rules that have to be followed. They relate to:
Only natural fabrics made from plants are permitted, such as wool and cotton. Animal products, such as furs, or any material using animal hair is forbidden. Expensive, perfumed or embroidered clothes are also not allowed. When monks and nuns receive clothing, they should not do anything to it, such as washing or dying.
Mendicants should not request clothes belonging to the donor, as it would amount to theft.
These rules are meant to eliminate reasons for quarrelling, mutual envy, attachment, breaking of self-control and so on.
Similarly, washing clothes is not supposed to be done haphazardly (see Deo 1960, pages 260 to 261 for ancient prescriptions). Mendicants must use boiled water, to ensure no living beings are in the water, and, theoretically, no detergent. This reduces the level of unavoidable violence involved.
Moreover, scriptures dealing specifically with rules of monastic life show how clothes were worn depending on circumstances. Generally, the complete outfit is worn when the ascetics go out for their alms-round, for preaching, for pilgrimage and so on. They are allowed to wear lighter clothing when inside the monastic lodgings.
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.
Non-possession, or not having an attachment to possessions. It is the fifth of the Five Greater Vows of mendicants and the Five Lesser Vows of lay Jains.
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.
Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.
Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.
Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
The Book of Ritual attributed to Bhadrabāhu. It has three sections:
A significant sacred text for Śvetāmbara Jains, the Kalpa-sūtra has a central role in the annual Paryuṣaṇ festival.
'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.
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.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
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.
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.
The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858, a period noted for its wealth, overall religious tolerance, and cultural and intellectual achievements, particularly in art and architecture. Originally Muslims who swept down from Central Asia, the Mughals' best-known ruler is probably Akbar the Great (1556–1605).
Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.
A Muslim, or ‘one who submits to God’ in Arabic, follows the religion of Islam, which means ‘peace’. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last in a line of prophets. The complete word of Allah or God was revealed to Muhammad in the sixth century CE and set down in the Arabic Qur’an or ‘recitation’. Nearly all Muslims belong to either the Shia or Sunni sects, with Sunni Muslims comprising around 90% of Islamic believers.
The 22nd Jina of the present age, also called Ariṣṭanemi. His symbolic colour is blue or black and his emblem the conch. There is no historical evidence of his existence.
The Jains hold that Nemi is the cousin of the Hindu god Kṛṣna. The tale of his renunciation and jilting of his fiancée Princess Rājīmati are famous among the Jains.
The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.
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.
Possession or attachment to possessions, which involves desire for something, including emotions and states of mind.
A series of 12 vows that constitute 11 stages of progressive renunciation for a lay Jain. These vows are:
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:
The origin of something, especially its history of ownership. This is used in art and archaeology, in particular, to help establish the age and creator of an artwork or other artefact.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
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.
First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.
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.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
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.
'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay woman, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The masculine form is śrāvakā.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
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.