Article: Digambara

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 orderspaṭṭāvalis 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.

This piece is a summary of the article "Digambara". The full article will be available soon.


This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts monks preaching to lay men. The mendicants are Digambara even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Raising scriptures high, the monks sit on low platforms

Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Digambara Jains tend to commonly use the following Sanskrit words for a ‘sect’:

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

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.

Main characteristics

This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Digambara sect is named after one particular practice of its monks.

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.

Female ascetics wear white garments. Forbidden to go naked, they are unable to renounce as fully as men so they are technically lay women who have taken advanced vows.

Characteristics of Digambara sect

Male mendicant clothing

  • Monk – muni – goes naked
  • Novice – ailaka – wears white loincloth
  • Junior novice – kṣullaka – wears three white garments

Female mendicant clothing

  • Nun – āryikā – wears white sari
  • Junior novice – kṣullikā – wears white sari and shawl

Mendicant equipment

  • peacock-feather broom
  • water-pot

Holy texts


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


cannot achieve liberation

Sex of Jinas

all Jinas are male

Images of Jinas

  • closed eyes
  • naked
  • usually lack jewellery and embellishment

Digambara sectarian 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

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.

EXT:contentbrowse Processing Watermark

Related Manuscript Images - All text is © JAINpedia / Institute of Jainology 2021 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 licence The Jain universe online at

Unless images are explicitly stated as either public domain or licensed under a Creative Commons licence, all images are copyrighted. See individual images for details of copyright.