Article: Monastic clothing

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.

Nudity and clothing

Digambara monks live naked and without possessions as part of their renunciation of the 'householder' life. After they take religious vows to become wandering ascetics, Digambara monks use only a water gourd and a peacock-feather broom to sweep insects

Digambara monk sitting cross-legged
Image by Jainworld ©

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.

The fact that nakedness is one of the 22 disturbancesparīṣahas – which a mendicant has to try to face with equanimity refers to a situation where it was the rule to be followed:

‘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

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, 2: 12–13
translation by Hermann Jacobi, page 11, 1895

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.

Passages found in the scriptures, Digambara as well as Śvetāmbara, show that clothing:

  • protectis the body from heat, cold and insect bites
  • contributes to the sense of shame
  • avoids the disgust that the sight of a naked body may produce.

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.

Concept of possession – parigraha

Detail of a Śvetāmbara monastic broom – rajoharaṇa or oghā. Each Jain monk and nun carries a broom with which to sweep the ground before sitting or lying down. This avoids harming living beings, which is against the key principle of ahiṃsā or non-violence

Detail of a Śvetāmbara broom
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

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 – dānalay people can offer.

Receiving and using 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.

Nun washing clothes
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

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:

  • authorised materials
  • size and number of clothes
  • distance the mendicant may cover in order to get them, and other such details
  • provenance.

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.

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