Article: Monastic equipment

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The items that Jain ascetics carry around are known as upadhi in earlier texts, or, more commonly, as upakaraṇa. It is important to understand that these are not possessions of the monks and nuns, because the principle of non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha – is a crucial one for Jain mendicants. They do not own these items, which are given to them, and they aim to avoid feelings of attachment or possession towards them. These items are considered necessary for living and, in particular, for living according to religious principles.

This monastic equipment has tended to become an identity marker of asceticism. These items also mark out Digambara mendicants from Śvetāmbara ones. Even among Śvetāmbara mendicants, there are some differences in the practices of various monastic orders – gacchas. The equipment has been the starting point of numerous discussions that parallel the emergence of monastic orders in the medieval period. A vast body of literature is devoted to such topics, which are not as superficial as they may look. These sources are still being explored by scholars today.

These daily utensils are simple. But these days it is not forbidden to embellish them in various ways. Śvetāmbara nuns, in particular, may spend a lot of time in such manual activities and transform some of the implements into true artistic objects. The Terāpanthins are especially proud of this and have collected a number of such objects in the museum of the Jain Vishva Bharati, Ladnun in Rajasthan.

In all sects, the implements are normally not private or individual property. Mendicants get them from the laity. They are parts of the religious gifts – dāna – lay people can offer. Other monks or nuns can also pass on implements to their colleagues. There is a tendency, however, to consider the implements that belonged to a famous monastic figure as kinds of relics.

Inspecting the implements – Sanskrit pratilekhanā, Prakrit paḍilehaṇā – is part of the mendicant’s daily activities. There is a specific rule of behaviour which concerns carefulness in taking and putting down monastic equipment – ādāna-nikṣepa-samiti. The reason is the constant concern of non-violence. It is part of the general attitude of vigilance which a mendicant must have.

The use of the broom and of the mouth-cloth often figure in the accounts of European travellers in the 16th and 17th centuries who happened to cross the path of Jain mendicants and were amazed by them. Even now, these two implements are striking for outsider observers, who see them, often with a slightly mocking condescension, as an extreme application of non-violence.

Literary sources

This detail of an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript painting shows a Śvetāmbara monk teaching. As the highest-ranking monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais. The junior mendicants gesture in homage while a bookstand is between them

Monastic teacher and pupils
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Monastic equipment can be seen today but it has also been described and debated in the texts down the centuries. These sources are of three kinds, namely:

  • Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures and their commentaries, such as the Ogha-niryukti, or the Cheda-sūtras, which are books specifically devoted to the rules for monastic life
  • early Digambara scriptures dealing with Jain monks’ way of life
  • medieval and later Śvetāmbara texts in which each monastic order details the rules of monastic behaviour – sāmācārī – in force among its members, reviews points that have become problematic over time – vicāra – and discusses some of the monastic equipment, such as whether the early scriptures encourage their use and whether mendicants should carry them or not.

These texts contain technical terms and technical details of material culture. They are not always easy to understand and still need to be investigated by scholars. Concerned with the shape and characteristics of the implements, the texts distinguish between proper and improper items. These descriptions and prescriptions combine ethical considerations with more general magical concerns or superstitions. Some basic information, however, is sometimes missing. For example, these texts do not say which type of wood is used for the monastic staff.

Monastic equipment and the concept of possession

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Non-possession is the theoretical ideal of Jain mendicants and thus monastic equipment should not be thought of as items that the monks and nuns own. These monastic tools are thought to be the minimum necessary to achieving proper religious life.

The Digambaras take the idea of non-possession literally, believing that monastic equipment should never be more than the minimum. Rejecting clothes and therefore practising total nudity, achieved by their most advanced ascetics, is the most conspicuous sign of this view. The only two objects they admit are necessary are the monastic broom and the water pot.

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 the number of items of monastic equipment. They are all needed for the protection of living beings and they are not ornaments. There is, however, a line between objects required permanently and those that are occasional or secondary. This line is drawn at different points by the various monastic orders, and partly accounts for the fact that the equipment varies among the main Śvetāmbara groups of Mūrti-pūjaka, Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin.

Whatever the items are, this equipment is not property as such. The newly initiated mendicant receives equipment from the laity or other monks. Even if the items carry an identifying mark, they should not become objects of psychological attachment.

Monastic equipment as identity markers

Barefoot and dressed in three simple white garments, Śvetāmbara monks are surrounded by their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa – which consists of brooms, staffs and begging bowls. Every day the monks beg alms from the lay community.

Śvetāmbara monks and equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jains see monastic equipment as outside signs – liṅga – of sectarian identity. Such attitudes are common in many religions. Lengthy debates on the validity of this or that implement are a common topic in the literature from the 14th century onwards.

While being naked or clothed is the quickest way to distinguish between monks< of the two main sects of Śvetāmbara and Digambara, there are other identifying signs. The use of a begging bowl and water pot, and differences in the mouth-cloths and monastic brooms reveal monks’ sectarian identity. Within these two main groupings, the smaller sects also use equipment that marks out their monastic order from others. Items such as bookstands, staffs and seats are used by Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka ascetics.

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