Article: Monastic equipment

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


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 ©

This has become the most obvious way to differentiate Śvetāmbara and Digambara mendicants, who form the two main Jain sectarian traditions. Śvetāmbara means ‘white-clad’ while the latter means ‘sky-clad’ – that is, naked.

However, nudity applies only to certain Digambara monks – the munis. It applies neither to their nuns – āryikās – nor to those who are not considered full monks or nuns – kṣullakas and kṣullikās. Practising total nudity is considered part of being able to renounce all possessions and live without attachment to anything. In 19th-century British India, nudity was seen as disturbing and this attitude is said to partly explain the reduction in the number of Digambara monks in that period. In today’s India this feeling is also occasionally found so that Digambara monks sometimes avoid public places in daytime. Among the Jains, however, nudity produces great respect because only those who are capable of full detachment from worldly matters can practise it in total freedom.

In Śvetāmbara early scriptures, there is some flexibility regarding the connection of clothes to the idea of non-possession. As suggested by the name, Śvetāmbara monastic robes are white. In Western Indian manuscript paintings of the medieval period, the robe of the Śvetāmbara mendicants is depicted as white or transparent with white dots. In later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.

Śvetāmbara ascetics are allowed to wear three garments – two of cotton, worn inside, and one of wool, worn on top. But the rules on clothing vary according to the status of the mendicant, the age of the texts discussing it and the practice of various monastic orders. The simple clothes are plainly stitched, then folded and wrapped around the body. The mendicants wear the complete outfit whenever they go out of their lodgings.

From time immemorial Jain mendicants have walked barefoot. In recent years, however, a minority has started wearing cotton sandals or socks. This development is usually witnessed only among aged or suffering monks or nuns, but some younger ones wear them, especially in winter in North India.

Alms bowl or begging bowl

Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

This implement is used by Śvetāmbara mendicants to receive and eat the food donated by lay Jains. The Digambara mendicants eat directly from their hands. Hence they are known as pāṇi-pātra – ‘having hands as recipient’.

The common word used for the alms bowl is the Sanskrit pātra, which simply means ‘recipient’.

The bowls used by the Śvetāmbara monks are made of gourds, wood or clay. They are coated using sesame oil, at least in olden times (Deo 1956: 267). Today, begging bowls are generally red or dark orange. But among the Ancala-gaccha, one of the prominent Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders, they are black.

Bowls of different sizes can be piled up one inside the other like Russian dolls. A specific vessel for liquids can also be used. There are various articles connected with the begging bowl, such as a piece of string to use as a carrying handle. Details of these are provided in the Ogha-niryukti or Cheda-sūtras and in the scriptures.

An ornamental motif such as an auspicious symbol or a small design is sometimes painted on the bowls, for decoration. It may be used to distinguish the bowls used by different mendicants. However, according to the vow of non-possession, a bowl is not the private property of a particular individual.

Water pot

Śvetāmbara mendicants carry water or any liquid that they have received as alms in their begging bowls.

Mendicants in the Digambara tradition drink water in their interlaced fingers when receiving alms. But they also carry a special water pot containing boiled water for toilet purposes. This is usually referred to as a kamaṇḍalu.

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