Article: Sects

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Digambara traditions

Digambara monks live naked to show detachment from worldly concerns, which is much honoured. A kṣullaka or junior novice wears three white garments while an ailaka wears a loincloth. When an ailaka is ready to become a monk he casts off his loincloth

Digambara monks and novices
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Today full-fledged Digambara mendicantsmunis – are scarce. Continuing the ancient tradition of a senior monk's attracting pupils, the monks tend to gather followers. These are usually junior monks, novices and lay people. Digambara mendicants ‘seem to have an especially weak sense of standard training, of a line of pupillary succession, or of allegiance to an order’ (Carrithers 1989: 230). Instead, there is greater emphasis on the charismatic leadership of individual mendicants who are able to influence the lay communities.

In the past the situation was probably similar in terms of the significance of individual leaders. However, when there were more Digambara mendicants it seems to have been much more complicated. Dundas (2002: 121) has rightly noted ‘the complexity of medieval Digambara ascetic organisation in which a plethora of sects and subsects, many of them totally obscure to us today, emerged on the basis of preceptorial association and geographical connection with particular regions and towns’.

This intricate picture of the Digambara tradition is increased by the fact that, besides monastic lineages, there are regional lineages of the bhaṭṭārakas. These are based on seats of power in particular places. The establishment of a bhaṭṭāraka in certain areas has contributed to the survival of Digambara Jainism.

Information on historical and contemporary monastic lineages is hard to come by. Early lineages seem to have faded, with the present Digambara monastic community tracing its origins to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of the six groups around at that time, only three are now present in contemporary India (Flügel 2006: 350). These are:

  • Śānti Sāgar ‘Dakṣiṇ’
  • Śānti Sāgar ‘Chāṇī’
  • Muni Ādi Sgar ‘Ankalīkar’.

These statistics of Digambara mendicants are based on information on page 355 of Flügel 2006.

Digambara mendicants in 2000 and 2001













Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions

This manuscript painting shows some of Mahāvīra's chief disciples. The 24th Jina had 11 chief disciples – gaṇa-dharas – who were his closest followers. Depicted in Śvetāmbara robes, the monks sit in lotus and demonstrate typical signs of holiness

Five of Mahāvīra's disciples
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London


The main evidence for the origin of Śvetāmbara mendicant lineages is the Sthavirāvalī, which forms the second part of the Kalpa-sūtra, a holy text. It is meant to reflect the situation at the time of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. His direct disciples were the eleven gaṇa-dharas, who were the heads of nine mendicant groups – gaṇas. The difference in number comes from the fact that two groups were managed by two gaṇa-dharas at the same time.

The only one of Mahāvīra’s disciples who founded a monastic succession is Ārya Sudharman. All the later Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions claim descent from him except one, the Upakeśa-gaccha. This group claims descent from the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

The Sthavirāvalī continues the list of successive teachers who claim a common mendicant ancestor. The last one mentioned is Devarddhi Kṣamāśramaṇa, the teacher who organised the writing down of the holy scriptures in the 5th century CE at Valabhī, in Gujarat.

On the other hand, later records concerned precisely with the writing down of the holy scriptures show that two distinct recitations existed. These were associated respectively with the towns of Mathurā and Valabhī. This means that there was some sort of division and disagreement between two schools even at this stage.

From the 11th to 12th century onwards, quite a number of subsects emerged. This ferment was probably linked to the issue of image worship, which became crucial in the late medieval period, causing a major split. The labels that are mostly used nowadays to distinguish among the subsects of Śvetāmbara Jains go back to this relatively late period. They are:

Although there are key points of agreements among all the Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions, there are several areas of dispute.

The Śvetāmbara sects agree on the:

The main cause of the schisms is the correctness of worshipping images. The largest sect, the Mūrti-pūjaks, worship images whereas the Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin Jains do not. There are also other matters of disagreement, which have probably arisen over time partly as a way of distinguishing the sects from each other.

Main areas of Śvetāmbara sectarian disagreement


Mūrti-pūjak sect

Sthānaka-vāsin sect

Terāpanthin sect

Number of authoritative canonical scriptures




Worship of images




Monastic equipment – staff




Monastic equipment – broom handle




Monastic equipment – use of mouth-cloth

worn at certain times

worn permanently

worn permanently

Nuns' status – access to canonical scriptures, to various levels




Nuns' status – permission to preach




Other areas where the sects differ relate to the daily liturgy and recitation of prayers and to the religious calendar.

Image worshippers

Lay women take part in the procession that accompanies the installation of an idol in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava. This is a major religious occasion among the sects that worship images. An idol of Neminath, the 22nd Jina, was at the centre of this day

Celebrating the installation of an idol
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

The largest sect is the Mūrti-pūjaka, which means ‘worshipper of images’ in Sanskrit, referring to images of the Jinas. Synonyms are the modern Indian words Derāvāsī – which literally means ‘staying in temples’ – and Mandir Mārgī – ‘temple-followers’. The Mūrti-pūjaks can be categorised into several subsects – gacchas:

Such terms have to be understood in contrast with the Sthānaka-vāsins, who reject image worship. This explains why these terms became common when the latter came into formal existence, between the 15th and 17th centuries.

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