Article: Digambara

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Historical lineages

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The earliest Digambara community was the Mūla-sangha – ‘the Root Assembly’. It is said to go back to the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, through Kundakunda, the most authoritative teacher for the Digambaras, who lived around the second to third centuries CE.

Available accounts, however, show that this main lineage split into four groups – gaṇas:

  • Sena-gaṇa
  • Deva-gaṇa
  • Siṃha-gaṇa
    • Nandi-gaṇa.

These four groups fractured into subdivisions. Each of these produced lineage texts – paṭṭāvalis – that are rather complex because they often reflect different traditions for the same sections of mendicant orders. One of the most developed monastic lineages is the Sarasvatī-gaccha.

The Mūla-sangha seems to have been influential in all the regions where Digambara communities existed from around the fifth to sixth centuries until very late. This is borne out by inscriptions, manuscript colophons and monastic lineages.

Another group was the Drāviḍa-sangha – ‘Dravidian Assembly’. It was founded by Vajranandin in the fifh century CE at Madurai, in Tamil Nadu. There are hints that mendicants of this group may have given up the traditional wandering life.

The Kāṣṭhā-sangha was another group that might have arisen in the seventh century. Its title could be related to a place name. One of their characteristics seems to have been the use of cow-tail brooms instead of the peacock-feather brooms of other Digambara mendicants.

Contemporary lineages

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Information on today’s lineages and their organisation is scarce. But these earlier divisions do not seem to be in force nowadays. Today’s Digambara monastic community goes back to six groups that existed in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Of these only the following three have survived to the present time (Flügel 2006: 350):

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

The following table, giving the numbers of Digambara monks and nuns in 2000 and 2001, is based on the information on page 355 of Flügel 2006.

Digambara mendicants in 2000 and 2001

Year

Male ascetics

Female ascetics

Total

2000

453

365

818

2001

508

394

902

Bhaṭṭāraka monks

The striking maṭha – often 'mutt' in English – in Melsittamur is the main religious centre for Jains in Tamil Nadu. Led by Bhaṭṭāraka Laxmisena Swami, the mutt is at the heart of the Digambara temples in the village.

Maṭha in Melsittamur
Image by Vijayan Teacher © CC BY-SA 3.0

Among Digambaras in southern India, where this sect was historically concentrated, along with central India, there is a special type of monk. The bhaṭṭāraka – 'venerable one' or 'learned one' in Sanskrit – is not bound by the usual mendicant vows.

The bhaṭṭārakas do not practise nudity. They also differ from usual Digambara monks in that they live in a monastery instead of taking up the wandering life, travel using mechanised transport, own lands and estates and act as a kind of community manager.

The longstanding existence of a monastery – maṭha – in an area means that each has developed its own lineage. Successive bhaṭṭārakas have gradually accrued local and influence and have often been a significant regional power. This has contributed to the survival of the Digambara sect, especially when foreign rulers disapproved of the tradition of public nudity.

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