Article: Sects

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.


This manuscript painting shows the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina. All four parts of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top rows with monks and a nun below

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

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:

  • saṅgha – community
  • gaccha – group
  • gaṇa – mendicant group
  • panth – path.

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.

Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras

Idols of Ṛṣabha, Māhavīra and Pārśva, in the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. The last of the 24 Jinas, Māhavīra, is in the centre. The first Jina, Ṛṣabha, is on the left while Māhavīra's predecessor, Pārśva, is on the right.

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.

Main differences

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 ©

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.

Both monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara tradition – ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit – wear white clothing.

The major differences between the two traditions are summarised in this table.

Main differences between Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects




Mendicant clothing

Monk – nothing
Novice monks – white clothing
Nuns – white robes

white robes

Mendicant equipment

  • peacock-feather broom
  • water-pot
  • bowls
  • water-pot
  • cotton broom
  • mouth-cloth

plus, for Mūrti-pūjak mendicants only:

  • bookstand
  • staff

Holy texts


  • Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama
  • Kaṣāya-prābhṛta
  • Prathamānuyoga
  • Karaṇānuyoga
  • Caraṇānuyoga
  • Kathānuyoga


  • Aṅgas
  • Aṅga-bāhyas


cannot achieve liberation

can achieve liberation

Sex of Jinas

are all male

the 19th Jina, Malli, was a woman

Images of Jinas

  • closed eyes
  • naked
  • usually lack jewellery and embellishment
  • open eyes
  • wear loincloths
  • often painted and set in ornately sculpted altars and temples

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.

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