Article: Digambara

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Lay traditions

A Jain lay woman holds up her hands and bows her head in devotion. Jains do not ask for things when they pray. For Jains praying is always joyful and means reverencing the qualities and example of the Jinas

Woman praying
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Sects seem to have followed a similar pattern of development as they originated. Most new sects grow up around a mendicant order that emerges. Strictly speaking, lay Jains are not members of sects because only monks and nuns belong to mendicant orders, which form the groupings known as sects. Lay Jains tend to follow mendicants who claim affiliation with certain monastic orders.

Despite this pattern, new sects have arisen that have lay founders or are oriented more towards lay people than mendicants. Some traditions have been established by men who were lay renunciates, not initiated monks. Other traditions have been founded by mendicants but have not produced monastic lineages.

The three lay traditions in the Digambara sect all originated in the northern and central regions of India. As their characteristic features relate to the practice of worship rituals, this was probably an important point in areas where Digambara Jains were smaller in number.

Taraṇ Svāmī Panth

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Members of the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth are the lay followers of Taraṇ Svāmī (1448–1515), a Digambara thinker who 'took the vows of a celibate and thereby became a formal renouncer' (Cort 2006: 265). In a period where full-fledged naked Digambara monks were rare, such celibate renouncers had an important role to play. Taraṇ Svāmī became a full Digambara monk at the end of his life. He has been presented as a 'Digambara mystic, as Digambara ritual reformer, as trans-sectarian iconoclastic poet, as miracle-worker, and as Jina-to-be' (Cort 2006: 267).

Taraṇ Svāmī is the author of 14 writings, the main message of which is that one has to realise the ultimate purity of the soul as being the liberated soul. This is in line with the teachings of Kundakunda.

There is, however, no continuous literary tradition, so that nothing is known of the period between Taraṇ Svāmi’s death and the 20th century.

Today followers of this lay path, the Taraṇ Svāmi Panthins, are mainly found in central India, especially in the historical area of Bundelkhand, in Madhya Pradesh. Numbering between 20,000 and 100,000, they do not worship Jina images, although their founder’s writings do not seem to really criticise this. Instead they venerate books by Taraṇ Svāmi and Kundakunda and also other Digambara scriptures, especially those that stress the nature of the soul.

Kundakunda’s Samaya-sāra is a key text so this movement is also called Sāmāiya-panth – 'the Path of Sacred Books'. Books and not images are the objects of worship in their temples. The most important temple is known as ‘Nisaījī’, near the village of Malhargarh in Guna district. It is a memorial, as it was the place where the founder spent the last years of his life and died.

Rajneesh, alias Osho (1931–90), an internationally known Indian holy man, was born in a family that followed the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth (Cort 2006: 293ff.).

Terā-panth and Bīs-panth

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

These two Digambara groups are found among the lay communities of north India. Since this division refers chiefly to rituals of worship, it does not really apply to Digambara monastic communities. As full renunciates, they do not perform worship in the same way as lay people.

However, there have been cases of Digambara mendicants being associated with a specific monastery headed by a bhaṭṭāraka. The institution of the bhaṭṭārakas started to be challenged and criticised in 17th-century India, when this division between the two sects emerged. The development of the Terā-panthins and Bīs-panthins thus had some impact on mendicants as well. There was no such challenge in south India and therefore these subsects do not exist there.

Comparing the two subsects, Terā-panthins may be regarded as having views that are more radical or less compromising than Bīs-panthins.

Characteristics of Digambara Terā-panthins and Bīs-panthins



Reject the authority of the Digambara clerics – the bhaṭṭārakas

Accept the authority of the bhaṭtārakas

Worship Jina images

Worship Jina images

Do not worship images of deities that have not achieved liberation, such as yakṣas, yakṣīs and kṣetrapālas

Worship images of deities, who are unliberated

Worshippers do not use any substance considered to contain life in rituals

Worshippers offer the eight objects, such as flowers, fruits and sandalwood

The lamp ceremony is not performed

The lamp ceremony is performed

Followers worship while standing rather than while seated

Followers worship while seated or standing

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