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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
Acknowledgement or declaration of the truth of a statement. In religious terms, it usually refers to admitting sin or wrongdoing to at least one other person in a ritual. It is normally a necessary step before absolution, which is formal release from guilt or consequences of wrongdoing.
'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 principle or system of teachings, especially religious philosophy.
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.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
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.
Title given among Digambaras to a lay person who has taken the vows and observes the same strict rules as a monk but does not practise nudity.
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.
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.
Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.
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.
The ‘supreme beings’ in Sanskrit, also known as the pañca-parameṣṭhin or 'Five Supreme Beings'. A term for the categories of teachers who are paid homage in the Namaskāra-mantra:
A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
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:
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.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
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.
The Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘hall-dwellers’ is used for a Śvetāmbara movement that opposes the worship of images and the building of temples. The term Sthānaka-vāsī, whose origin remains unclear, came into widespread use in the early 20th century. The movement's roots can be traced to the 15th-century reform movement initiated by Loṅkā Śāh, from which the founders of the Sthānaka-vāsī traditions separated in the 17th century. Sthānaka-vāsīns practise mental worship through meditation. The lay members venerate living ascetics, who are recognisable from the mouth-cloth – muhpattī – they wear constantly.
'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 subsect of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin, which originated in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The Terāpanthin do not worship images. One of the sect's best-known leaders was Ācārya Tulsī, who created a new category of ascetics in 1980. These samaṇ and samaṇī are allowed to travel using mechanised transport and to use money.
Dwelling-hall near a Jain temple where wandering ascetics stay. They may stay for a short time during their travels or for the long rainy season. There is usually a main room where lay Jains come to listen to sermons. Lay people may also perform fasts here, such as upadhāna tapas or rituals such as posadha that involve leaving household activities for a while.
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.
British Library. Or. 13524. Matisāra. 1726
British Library. Or. 14290. Gangādāsa. 1792