Article: Monastic clothing

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Nudity, clothing and female ascetics

This painting from a 15th-century manuscript of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra shows the Śvetāmbara nun Rājīmatī and monk Rathanemi in a cave sheltering from a storm. Rājīmatī's beauty makes Rathanemi forget his monastic vows but her sermon inspires him

Rājīmatī and Rathanemi in the cave
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

According to a saying of Jain scriptures frequently quoted in debates about nuns’ clothing, ‘it is not permitted that a nun may go without clothes’ (Bṛhatkalpa, in Jaini 1991: 56). This is mirrored in practice both past and present. Underlying this are the notions that inherently female qualities are denied if women go without clothes and that female nudity weakens self-discipline among males. The issue of female nudity is also strongly connected to the question of whether women can achieve a high enough spiritual level to reach liberation.

In Indian culture nudity signals rejection of bashfulness and shame, which means a nude woman must deny the qualities which society recognises as recommended to females. Female nudity also leads to increased excitement and lack of control in men, especially male ascetics, whose self-control could be endangered.

A well-known instance involves Rājīmatī and the monk Rathanemi, brother of her former fiancé Prince Nemi. After she had become a nun, Rājīmatī was caught in a heavy storm on her way to Mount Girnar. Seeking shelter in a cave, she took off her wet clothes and when she ‘was naked as [the day] she was born, thus she was seen by Rathanemi, whose [peace of mind] became [thereby] disturbed’ (Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, 22: 33–34; Jacobi 1895: 116–117).

These reasons mean a female ascetic cannot renounce clothes. The following statement is a good representative of the dilemma:

The teacher allows clothes for nuns, even though they are a possession, because in abandoning clothes there would be a total abandonment [of all the mendicant restraints], whereas in wearing clothes there is only a minor defect

Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa, verse 33
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 57, 1991

This leads to the conviction among Digambaras that a woman cannot reach emancipation. She must be reborn as a man to be liberated.

In contrast, Śvetāmbaras believe that clothes are not a possession but an aid to emancipation, like other items of monastic equipment. Therefore they believe that women are able to reach salvation.

The best example of the extensive debate between the two camps is the Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa (see Jaini 1991: 41–108). The text’s author is not a Śvetāmbara but a Yāpanīya, a short-lived mendicant order that tried to compromise between radical positions. The position of opponents to female emancipation is best summarised thus:

Nudity must be considered a prerequisite for mokṣa; if this were not so, it would not be obligatory for males also. Being unfit for nudity, a woman must be considered unfit for Siddhahood [= liberation of the soul], like anyone who is unfit to receive initiation

Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa, verse 56
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 57, 1991


Two Śvetāmbara nuns inside their lodgings – upāśraya. One wears the full nun's outfit, ready to begin the alms-round. Strict rules specify that nuns must wear white robes that completely cover them while in public

Śvetāmbara nuns in their lodgings
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Monks and nuns always wear white clothing, though some garments may be a pale cream colour. Some subsects may have identifying bands of colour on their robes.

The regulations on monastic clothing go into detail about the number, type and fabric of garments which Jain mendicants are permitted. Directions on where and how to wear them are also included in the scriptures.

Clothing depends to some degree on rank and status. Since nudity is associated with a high state of spirituality, lower-ranking monks among the Digambaras wear more clothes. Śvetāmbara monks wear three garments. Digambara nuns wear two items of clothing at most while their Śvetāmbara counterparts use up to four.


Pure white is the only colour of Jain monastic clothing, whatever the order to which mendicants belong.

Jains who wear orange or yellow robes are either temple attendants – pujāris – or Digambara clerics known as bhaṭṭārakas. On holy days lay people may also wear orange, which is a sacred colour in India.

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