Article: The 'Perfect Ascetic'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The general term for Jain monks and nuns is ‘ascetic’ or ‘mendicant’. They are people who have completed the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā and live according to monastic rules. These include general rules of mendicant life and specific rules according to the mendicant’s sect and monastic order. The ‘perfect ascetic’ is a monk or nun who observes all the rules and does not behave in any way like a lay person.

The life of a mendicant is hard, both physically and mentally, and the rules regulating monastic life are intended to help them fulfil the ‘five great vows’ mahā-vratas – and to gain complete detachment. There are rules for each area of daily life. They are listed in various groups, which overlap to some extent. Meant to be memorised, these lists are strings of key words, each representing detailed content.

One of the main Śvetāmbara works on this concept is the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, a scripture of the Śvetāmbara sect. It deals with 'the true monk' in the 15th chapter and with the 'bad ascetic' in the 17th. The other chapters also set out what monastic life should be. For example, chapter 26 gives the components of 'correct behaviour' – sāmācārī – while chapter 31 describes the 'mode of conduct' – caraṇavidhi – by listing elements of behaviour. The lists are arranged in order of length, starting with the smallest number. Chapter 35 again takes up the subject of the ideal mendicant, discussing what the 'houseless monk' should do.

Monks and nuns have renounced the householder life to make spiritual progress. Underlying a large part of the monastic lifestyle is the principle of detachment, which mendicants try to act out in their lives. They should be constantly aware of their physical and mental actions, so they can exercise full self-control. Renunciation means rejecting or, at least, controlling all attachments to the world, including physical needs and emotions. Being completely detached is necessary to achieving the total calmness or equanimity needed to get rid of old karma and avoid attracting new karma. Only individuals who have no karma can reach final liberation from the cycle of birth. The ‘perfect ascetic’ advances a long way towards this goal.

Carefulness and self-control

Permanent carefulness and vigilance are the main principles underlying ascetic behaviour. Mendicants should always be alert and conscious of what they think, do and say. This is the only way to be self-controlled all the time. Energy is also needed to gain full self-control, as this extract shows:

One cannot quickly arrive at discernment; therefore one should exert one’s self, abstain from pleasures, understand the world, be impartial like a sage, and guard one’s self: thus never be careless.

Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, chapter 4, verse 10
translation by Hermann Jacobi

The 'causes of carelessness' are the focus of chapter 32 of this work.

By and large, all the vows and rules are developments and applications of these principal qualities.

Respect for a superior

This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript shows Śvetāmbara monks listening to a senior mendicant. The teacher is the largest figure, indicating his importance, and he sits on a low dais with a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – in front

Senior monk teaching
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jain monastic communities are organised in hierarchical groups. Where a monk or nun fits into the hierarchy depends on the individual’s length of time as a mendicant, sex and office. Ordinary monks and nuns defer to those who have been monks and nuns for longer and to those who hold an official position. Nuns are always lower in rank than monks, even if they have been mendicants for longer and hold office.

The concept of deference – vinaya – to one’s superior is a basic one in daily life. Mendicants are advised to be silent and ready to learn from more experienced ascetics and also to serve them. When they are rebuked, they should not show anger.

In practice this means that a mendicant’s teacher or superior will sit on a slightly raised seat, whereas junior ascetics will sit on the ground. They are not allowed to sit higher or on the same level as the teacher. Modesty and obedience are the rules for all monks and nuns, but especially for low-ranking mendicants.

Chapter 1 of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, a fundamental scripture of the Śvetāmbaras regarding the basics of the ascetic life, is dedicated to this topic. Conversely, bad ascetics are those who behave disrespectfully towards their superiors, answer inappropriately or even hit them.

'Five Great Vows'

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

'Five Great Vows'
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

As part of their initiation, monks and nuns swear to follow these 'absolute' vows – mahā-vratas:

  1. Non-violencenon-violenceahiṃsā
  2. truth – satya
  3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya
  4. celibacy – brahmacarya
  5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

This is the traditional order in which the vows are listed. They were clearly set out by the 24th Jina Māhavīra. Earlier, in the time of his predecessor, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, there were only four restraints, with the vow of celibacy included in that of non-possession.

Monks and nuns live according to these vows for the rest of their lives. It is often emphasised that the vow of celibacy is the most difficult of all.

It is very rare for a mendicant to return to the householder life.

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