Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Followers of the Jinas can be categorised into various sects or traditions. All religions have developed similar divisions, often disagreeing on elements of belief and practice. All these groupings remain believers in the central doctrines of the religion. Towards the beginning of the Common Era, the Jains started to separate into two main groups. The disputes between these groups revolved around the practices and doctrine surrounding mendicants. The two sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains take their titles from the clothing practices of their monks.
These groupings slowly elaborated distinct doctrines and histories, with diverse canons of scriptures and significant figures. The principal sects each contain smaller subsects, which split from the original sect over disagreements regarding doctrine and practice.
Sects are usually based on monastic lineages. Tracing sectarian development is particularly difficult for the Digambara tradition. Records kept by mendicant orders – paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – form the largest body of documentary evidence for the development of sects. However, Digambara orders are based in large part on the individual monk and his followers and thus record-keeping is not considered vital.
Regardless of the importance of individual mendicants in the development of Digambara Jainism, significant subsects originated within the lay community, such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth, the Terā-panth and Bīs-panth.
Digambara Jains tend to commonly use the following Sanskrit words for a ‘sect’:
The label saṅgha can refer to two concepts. Firstly, saṅgha can mean the ‘fourfold community’, which comprises monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. Its second meaning describes the ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.
Both meaning ‘group’, the words gaṇa or gaccha are most commonly used for ‘monastic orders’. Most Digambaras tend to prefer gaṇa.
The monks live naked, following the example of the Jinas and their monastic disciples, who they believe rejected clothing as part of their renunciation of all worldly attachments. They are thus 'clothed' – ambara – in 'the directions' or 'the sky' – dik or dig. The sect is therefore known as Digambara, from the Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘sky-clad’. Only full monks – munis – go naked, as it is recognised as a test of complete detachment. Novice monks wear some clothing.
Male mendicant clothing
Female mendicant clothing
cannot achieve liberation
Sex of Jinas
all Jinas are male
Images of Jinas
Full Digambara monks are rare these days. The early tradition of an individual monk’s gathering pupils continues in the present day. Digambara monks ‘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). Junior monks follow a muni, who guides them in their spiritual development. An individual monk is expected to influence junior mendicants and lay people through his learning, personal example and charisma rather than through an official post or discipleship to a famous monk.
The emphasis on individual leaders rather than rule-based succession is likely to have been the case in the past too, though it would have been more complex when monks were more common. Establishing mendicant relationships of the past is even more complicated when the evidence for many Digambara monastic orders is so fragmentary. However, geographical location seems to be a strong factor in the foundation of sects. Dundas (2002: 121) highlights ‘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’.
The institution of the bhaṭṭāraka intensifies the involved nature of Digambara sectarian development. The various bhaṭṭārakas each have their own lineage. Attached to particular places, the bhaṭṭārakas cut across the influence of the wandering mendicants. Their longstanding presence tended to consolidate the Digambara tradition in certain areas and helped ensure its long-term survival.
City in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. One of the capitals of the Mughal Empire, Agra contains many fine examples of Mughal architecture, including the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.
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.
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.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.
Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.
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.
An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.
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.
From the Greek for 'image-breaking', iconoclasm is hostility towards items of religious or political importance, which may lead to their destruction. Iconoclasts hold iconoclastic beliefs.
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.
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.
Digambara monk who lived in the second or third centuries CE. Little is known of his life but his mystical writings, concentrating on the soul and internal religious experience, have been enormously influential in Jain thought. Key works include Samayasāra, Niyamsāra, Pañcāstikāya and Pravacanasāra.
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.
Taken from the Sanskrit term for the dwelling of an ascetic, the term maṭha is nowadays often rendered as mutt in English. Associated with Digambara Jains, maṭhas are complexes of buildings centred on a temple and are similar to a Christian monastery. They usually comprise a manuscript library, mendicant dwelling-hall and pilgrim facilities, such as a refectory and dormitory. A maṭha is the seat of a bhaṭṭāraka, a clerical leader. Most maṭhas are in southern India.
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.
An extraordinary event that cannot be explained by natural causes or human effort and therefore is believed to be caused by divine or supernatural powers.
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.
Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.
A system of contemplative prayer, meditation and complete detachment from worldly affairs in the hope of gaining direct spiritual experience of the divine. In Jainism those who practise mystical techniques hope to gain true self-realisation and thus destroy karma and be liberated.
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.
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.
An omniscient soul that has achieved mokṣa. All liberated souls live in the siddha-śilā, at the top of the universe, in perpetual bliss.
'Hearer’ of the teaching. This commonly refers to the Jain lay man, who follows the teachings of the 24 Jinas and is not a member of the clergy or a religious order. The feminine form is śrāvikā.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
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.