Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Just as other religions have different groups within them, so Jainism has several sects or traditions, which were born as the religion developed. At the beginning of the Common Era, the followers of the Jinas separated into two groups, focusing on practices and beliefs surrounding mendicants. These groups gradually developed distinct doctrines and histories, boasting different canons of sacred writings and significant figures. These remain the main divisions or sects of Jainism.
The Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects each contain smaller subsects, which differ from the mother sect in various points of doctrine and practice. Though they may have fierce differences and disagreements over certain aspects of doctrine or practice, especially regarding the ownership of pilgrimage places, all the groups consider themselves Jains.
Very broadly, all lay and mendicant Jains can be grouped in sects. Monks and nuns are affiliated with various mendicant orders, which can be thought of as more or less a sect or subsect. For instance, a monk belongs to the Tapā-gaccha. For lay Jains, this is not really an accurate description, however. A lay man defines himself as a member of society, of a caste, who may view himself as a follower of mendicants who belong to a given order or sect.
Members of a given tradition claim identical spiritual affiliation. Historically, a mendicant order has mostly been at the root of a sect, attracting lay followers. However, some sects have grown up around a charismatic lay person. Some sects are now extinct while others have emerged in the 20th century.
This fading away of old sects and arising of new ones is the sign of a living faith, one which is not monolithic and inflexible. Changes within the Indian society where most Jains live or in the countries where they have settled have an impact on religious practice and thought. This is compounded by developments in the non-Jain religious landscape. However, promoters of ascetic 'reforms' – which may develop into a new sect – often present their ideas as returns to the original purity that has been challenged or lost in the course of time.
The largest group with which a Jain can be associated is the ‘sect’. This concept can be described using various terms, some of which are broad synonyms while others suggest a slightly different meaning. The two principal traditions of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains use the following Sanskrit terms for the notion of a sect:
The broadest term is saṅgha. It can be used of the whole ‘fourfold community’, made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. However, it can also describe the ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.
Jains use the terms gaṇa or gaccha, both meaning ‘group’, for a ‘monastic order’. Most Śvetāmbara Jains also use gaccha to refer to the largest unit of association, often called the ‘sect’. It is part of the name of certain Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak sects, such as the Añcala-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha. The Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin use sampradāya instead.
Digambara Jains tend to use gaccha or gaṇa to describe their groupings.
Śvetāmbara figures of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva
Image by unknown © Oshwal Association of the UK (OAUK)
The major division within Jainism, between the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras, is likely to have started early in the Common Era and is over 1500 years old. These two traditions or sects take their names from the appearance of their monks. One of the main areas of dispute that was instrumental in the split is that of holy writings. These two sects now recognise different canons of sacred texts.
Within these principal sects are several smaller traditions or subsects. These may be named for characteristic practices or beliefs or after their founder or inspiration. For some of these the chief point of contention, which was probably the seed of the break from the main sect, is that of image worship. The subsects can be classed as either iconic or aniconic and can belong in either of the main sects. The larger category is the iconic tradition, usually dubbed Mūrti-pūjaka – 'image-worshipping' in Sanskrit – which believes that images of the Jinas and other figures should be the focus of worship. The aniconic sects maintain that it is not proper to worship images.
Within the principal traditions, subsects often develop when a new mendicant order forms. Usually created by a charismatic monk and based on different interpretations of scriptures, these monastic orders may attract lay followers. The movement may then develop distinct doctrines and practices that lead it to be described as a new sect.
It can be hard to tease out the full picture of sectarian development, especially those that do not exist today. The biggest source of textual evidence is the records kept by the mendicant orders. For this reason it is particularly difficult to reconstruct the course of the Digambara tradition, which relies less on precedent and rule than the Śvetāmbaras.
The monks of the Digambara tradition – ‘sky-clad’ in Sanskrit – go naked because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers were nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This involves renouncing all worldly items, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white robes and thus, as technically spiritually advanced lay women, they are believed to be inferior to monks.
The major differences between the two traditions are summarised in this table.
Monk – nothing
plus, for Mūrti-pūjak mendicants only:
cannot achieve liberation
can achieve liberation
Sex of Jinas
are all male
the 19th Jina, Malli, was a woman
Images of Jinas
In the course of history, subsects or groups developed within both sects. They formed monastic lineages centring on the figures of successive monastic leaders. Records of such lineages – the paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – are available for several subsects. They represent valuable forms of official monastic history and chronology, and thus can shed light on the growth of the sect.
The belief and practice of avoiding the representation of divinities or other religious figures, which may also include human beings or living creatures. Aniconic followers may use images of abstract shapes or symbols, such as pillars, as the focus of religious worship. Aniconic Jains are opposed to the worship of figures of Jinas and deities.
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.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
Sankrit term meaning 'pontiff'. This title is given to a type of Digambara clergy who are not mendicants. Instead of practising the 'wandering life' – vihāra – of Jain monks and nuns, a bhaṭṭāraka stays in one place, living in a kind of monastery called a maṭha. There are several bhaṭṭārakas in south India, who lead the local Jain community.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Another word for 'scripture'.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.
'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.
Literally a Sanskrit word for 'tree', gaccha is used by Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak Jains to describe the largest groups of their mendicant lineages. It is often translated as 'monastic group', 'monastic order' or 'monastic tradition'. These groups are formed when some mendicants split from their gaccha because of disagreements over ascetic practices.
In modern usage, a small monastic unit. In older sources it could refer to a large division of mendicant lineages. Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin use the term for their undivided mendicant community.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
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.
State in south-west India.
Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century.
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 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
Ascetics are initiated into a tradition handed down from a named religious teacher. Religious instructions and principles are passed on orally and in writings from one generation of mendicants to the next, continuing the monastic lineage.
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.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
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.
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.
A serious split in a philosophical or religious movement or organisation, leading to the establishment of various groups with different beliefs, which may be hostile to each other.
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.
A Śvetāmbara mūrti-pūjaka sect, first established in the 13th century and reformed from the 19th century. Today nearly all mūrti-pūjak mendicants belong to this sect.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
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.
The wealthy city of Valabhī – now Vallabhi – in Gujarat was a major centre of Jain intellectual life in the early medieval period. The final version of the Śvetāmbara canon was written down there under the supervision of the religious teacher Devarddhi-gaṇi Kṣamāśramaṇa in the fifth century CE.
An object offered for religious purposes to a representation of a holy figure or in a sacred place.