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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fasting or fasting until death, a practice of Jain monks and lay Jains to remove all passions.
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.
Praise of the 24 Jinas, the title of a hymn.
Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.
Either avoiding sexual activity outside marriage or being totally celibate. Chaste can also mean a pure state of mind or innocent, modest action.
Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.
A believer in a system of beliefs, usually religious, that differs from established dogma. A heretic does not normally think his beliefs are heretical, often asserting that his heresies are correct while the orthodoxy has become corrupted from the original.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.
'Absence of concern for the body'. This commonly refers to a standing or sitting posture of deep meditation. In the standing position the eyes are concentrated on the tip of the nose and the arms hang loosely by the body. The individual remains unaffected by whatever happens around him.
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.
The five vows taken by ascetics. Monks and nuns must follow these ‘absolute’ vows of:
The 24th Jina Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to his predecessor Pārśva's four, making the vow of celibacy not just implicit but a separate vow.
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.
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.
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.
'Introspection’ in Sanskrit. The elaborate ritual of confession and repentance that involves reciting liturgical texts and performing set gestures at dawn and dusk. It is one of an ascetic's six daily duties – āvaśyaka. For many lay people, pratikramaṇa is the essence of Jainism.
Brother of the 22nd Jina, Nemi. A Jain monk, he asked the nun Rājimatī, who was his brother's jilted fiancée, to accept him as her lover. He was brought back to the right path by her response.
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.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
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.
The progressive eradication of passions and other negative features in order to reach total spiritual purity. In practice, it is the ritual of fasting unto death.
Equanimity, calm, a mental state where one is able to consider all beings as equal to oneself. The second of the four śikṣā-vratas or vows that lay Jains take. The ritual entails working towards being even-tempered by meditating or reciting mantras for 48 minutes each day. Performing this ritual three times each day is also one of the six duties – āvaśyakas – of a mendicant.
Carefulness, which has five aspects. Ascetics can reduce accidental violence by being careful and observing rules in these five areas:
Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:
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.
Breaking a religious or moral principle, especially if this is done deliberately. Sinners commit sins or may sin by not doing something they are supposed to do.
A term used in ancient scriptures for a non-Hindu mendicant, namely Jain or Buddhist.
'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.
Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.
An ancient Jain text outlining the rules of monastic conduct, said to be Mahāvīra's final sermon. These 36 lectures provide rules for ascetics but also discuss various topics, such as karma and the substances in the universe, and recount the tale of Nemi's renunciation.
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.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS. 83-1963. Unknown author. 15th century
Bodleian Library. Prakrit c.1. Unknown author. 1465 CE