Article: Monastic equipment

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Monastic staff

The monastic staff and broom of a Śvetāmbara mendicant lean against shelves in a corner. Monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara sect use alms bowls, staffs and brooms as their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa

Śvetāmbara monastic equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Ascetics from Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders carry a long wooden staff, known by the Sanskrit word daṇḍa. Mendicants in other Śvetāmbara orders, such as the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins, do not use a staff. Over the centuries Śvetāmbara Jains have had some debates about this implement.

In today’s practice, the staff is made of a variety of woods, particularly sīsam (Dalbergia sisoo), which is hard and long lasting. It has various shades, ranging from beige and light brown to dark brown. The top part can be decorated with a svastika, one of the most important auspicious symbols. The length depends on the mendicant’s height because when held upright the staff should reach the forehead. The staff is about 5 centimetres in diameter.

The staff was originally meant for protection. Mendicants travel only on foot and often have to cross wilderness. A passage of an old canonical Śvetāmbara scripture from the Ācārānga-sūtra describes Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, walking among hostile people and carrying a staff as protection against dogs. He obviously did not harm anyone, but having a stick was enough to deter potential attackers.

Nowadays mendicants use the staff as a tool when walking, for instance to help estimate water depth. Since it is human height, a staff could also have been used like a gnomon, a time-measuring instrument that uses the length of shadows.

Mendicants carry the staff when they go outside, especially when begging alms. On these occasions they have to wear their full equipment. They hold the bowls in their right hand and the staff in their left. They do the same when they are wanderingvihāra.

When ascetics are in their lodgings – upāśraya – the staff is either kept outside resting on the wall or inside in a corner. It is primarily an implement for outdoors.

The top of the staff is an elaborately sculpted knob in four parts. This can be seen in manuscript illustrations. In recent times the decoration on the staff has taken on religious symbolism that makes it more than a mere practical object. Each part is understood in cosmic and doctrinal terms.

Symbols on the mendicant staff

Part of staff

Symbol

small cone

Mount Meru

triple circle

the three worlds or the three jewels

water jug – kalaśa

also found on Jain temples

five rings

five supreme entities or the five great vows

This symbolism does not seem to be found in literature earlier than the 20th century but it is familiar to present-day mendicants, who pass it on orally.

Thus the staff is also a physical emblem of the Jain universe and Jain teachings.

Seats

Mendicants usually sit on the ground itself, after having checked with the monastic broom that they will not hurt any living creature by doing so.

Religious teachers of some rank use a higher seat when preaching. This is a kind of large stool or raised platform. Junior mendicants should always sit lower.

Other objects

A common sight in India, nuns in pairs or small groups walk along the road. Jain mendicants undertake the wandering life – vihāra – which means walking miles most days to find accommodation and alms. They carry monastic equipment in bundles and bags.

Nuns carry their mendicant equipment
Image by Sam Syverson © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Śvetāmbara mendicants going along the roads and carrying bundles wrapped in cotton cloth in their hands or on their shoulders are a commonplace sight in northern, central and western India. When they practise vihāra they take all their monastic equipment and other items. Apart from the usual monastic equipment, they may carry manuscripts, printed books or personal notebooks.

When these bundles are too numerous or too heavy, or when the group of walking mendicants is large, they can be carried in a small van that follows the ascetics. All these practical arrangements are made by the local lay communities.

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