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Article: Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Mūrti-pūjak Śvetāmbaras form the largest group within the Śvetāmbaras, one of the two main sects in the Jain faith. Meaning ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit, the term Śvetāmbara describes the white clothing of monks and nuns in this order. The name Mūrti-pūjaka means ‘worshipper of images’ in Sanskrit, referring to the worship of images of the Jinas. The term arose between the 15th and 17th centuries, chiefly to distinguish members of this sect from Śvetāmbaras who do not worship images, namely the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins.

The largest subsect within the Śvetāmbara sect is the Mūrti-pūjak, who in turn are made up of several smaller subsects.

All Śvetāmbara sects agree on several fundamental areas but hold different beliefs and have diverse practices in some respects. All Jains believe in the central doctrines of the religion, though the sects maintain various interpretations and practices.

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Early development of Śvetāmbara sects

Two Śvetāmbara nuns in white monastic robes – saṃghaḍī – in their lodgings – upāśraya. They are barefoot and hold their monastic brooms – rajoharaṇa or oghā – under their left arms. Jain nuns of all sects wear white robes that cover them from head to toe

Two Śvetāmbara nuns
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The earliest development of the sect is found in one of the most important texts for Śvetāmbara Jains. The Kalpa-sūtra lists mendicant lineages – equivalent to sects – in its second section, called the Sthavirāvalī – the String of Elders. This is the main record of sectarian development, which dates back to the time of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, according to tradition.

While a monk, Mahāvīra had 11 disciplesgaṇa-dharas – who led groups of mendicants – gaṇas. There were nine gaṇas because there were two gaṇa-dharas simultaneously in charge of two groups. These chief disciples did not have any successors to continue the work of spreading Mahāvīra’s teachings, except Ārya Sudharman. All the Śvetāmbara sects claim monastic descent from him, apart from the Upakeśa-gaccha. This group maintains it originated with Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina.

The mendicant lineages in the String of Elders record succeeding religious teachers who claim spiritual descent from a common mendicant ancestor. The latest in the list is Devarddhi Kṣamāśramaṇa. He is the monk who organised the final recitation of the scriptures at Valabhī, in Gujarat, in the fifth century CE. This produced the Śvetāmbara canon.

Even so, later texts on the transition from oral to written scriptures suggest the existence of two different traditions of scriptural recitation. The Gujarati towns of Mathurā and Valabhī appear to have each had separate traditions. This indicates that differing views over certain points of scripture were strongly held even in the first years of the Śvetāmbara sect.

Worship of images

The ritual installing an idol in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava – is a key event for image-worshipping Jains. The idol's snake-hood headdress identifies it as Pārśva, the 23rd Jina. The golden śrīvatsa on the chest is prominent on this Śvetāmbara figure

Idol of Pārśva in procession
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

All the Śvetāmbara sects agree on the:

The major point of contention relates to the correctness of worshipping images. Disagreements on various matters are likely to have always existed within the Śvetāmbara sect. However, during the late medieval period the notion of image worship became the focus of dispute. In the 15th century this led to those who were against image worship splitting from the main Śvetāmbara sect. This group developed into the sect called the Sthānaka-vāsins. Some members later separated from the Sthānaka-vāsins to form the Terāpanthins, who are also opposed to the worship of images.

The Sanskrit term Mūrti-pūjaka thus only came into use from around the time of the schism with the Sthānaka-vāsins. It means ‘worshipper of images’, which refers to the practice of praying to images of the Jinas and perhaps gods and goddesses. Synonyms are the modern Indian words Derāvāsī – which literally means ‘staying in temples’ – and Mandir Mārgī – ‘temple-followers’.

The aniconic or non-image-worshipping sects also demonstrate other differences from the Mūrti-pūjaks. Examples include the number of sacred texts in the canon and the use of the mouth-cloth for monks and nuns. These differences are likely to have developed gradually, partly as a means to strengthen their identities as separate organisations.


Mūrti-pūjaks form the largest Śvetāmbara sectarian tradition. Within the Mūrti-pūjak tradition there are several subsects called gacchas. They all recognise the authority of 45 canonical scriptures.

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