Article: Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin

Contributed by Peter Flügel

The Terāpanthins are the monastic members and lay followers of the Terāpantha, a Śvetāmbara Jain order. Associated with Rajasthan since its foundation in the 18th century, the Terāpantha sect is expanding rapidly among Jains inside and outside India.

The Hindi term terāpantha or terahpantha means either ‘your path’ or ‘path of 13’. Terāpanthins follow 13 main elements of Jain thought. They do not worship images but practise asceticism and ‘insight meditation’. The major characteristics of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect are the concentration of power in a single ācārya and a new type of ascetic – the male samaṇas and the female samaṇis. All Jains believe that they should avoid actions that produce bad karma because it blocks liberation of the soul. Terāpanthins also believe that believers seeking liberation should avoid actions that produce good karma too, because both good and bad karma ultimately obstruct salvation.

There is also a different group known as Terāpantha among the Digambara laity.

Origins

Ācārya Bhikṣu (1726–1803) founded the Terāpantha sect of the Śvetāmbara Jains in Rajasthan. Meaning either 'path of the 13' or 'your group', the sect's name also refers to 13 main elements of Jain doctrine. This sect does not worship images

Ācārya Bhikṣu
Image by Pramodjain3 © PD

The Terāpantha was founded by Muni Bhikhan (1726–1803), who was later known as Ācārya Bhikṣu. He was born in the village of Kantaliya near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. His parents belonged to the Osvāl caste, which has always supplied a large number of recruits to the Terāpantha. Many Osvāls follow the tradition of worshipping idols while many others follow the Sthānaka-vāsins as well.

After his wife’s death, Bhikhan entered the monastic order of the Sthānaka-vāsin, who are against worshipping images. But Bhikhan left and formed a new group with 12 other men. Ācārya Bhikṣu’s opponents scorned it as the 'path of the 13 – terah-panth – but he understood it as meaning 'your group' – terā panth. He also interpreted the number 13 as referring to the following principal points of Jain doctrine:

Monastic organisation

The previous head of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect, Ācārya Mahāprajña preaches to followers. Behind him is a background with a picture of the founder of the sect, Ācārya Bhikṣu

Ācārya Mahāprajña with Ācārya Bhikṣu
Image by Terapanth © PD

The Terāpantha monastic order has an important feature which distinguishes it from other Jain monastic orders. Ācārya Bhikṣu set out the maryādā, a code of practice for ascetics, in which there is a single ācārya, who is a teacher-cum-group leader. He holds all the power in the sect and is chosen by his predecessor. Ācārya Bhikṣu established this rule to prevent schisms and the development of loose discipline.

The ācārya is a central autocratic leader who:

  • initiates all monks and nuns
  • chooses his successor, who is given the title of Yuvācārya
  • decides the number and size of the different groups of mendicants by selecting their members during the annual plenary assembly called Maryādā Mahotsava.

The ācārya takes all important decisions even though he is constantly moving around the country.

Ācāryas of the Terāpantha

Name

Dates

Birth

Ācāryaship

Ācārya Bhikṣu

1726

1760–1803

Ācārya Bharimal

1747

1803–1821

Ācārya Jītmal

1803

1821–1881

Ācārya Maghrāj

1810

1881–1892

Ācārya Manaklāl

1855

1892–1897

Ācārya Dalchand

1852

1897–1909

Ācārya Kālugaṇi

1877

1909–1936

Ācārya Tulsi

1914

1936–1997

Ācārya Mahāprajña

1921

1997–2010

Ācārya Mahāśramaṇa

1962

2010 to present

There is also a chief nun – sādhvī-pramukhā – who is the head of the female ascetics but she is subordinate to the ācārya.

Since it was founded, the Terāpantha monastic order has grown more or less regularly, peaking during the 20th century.

Number of Terāpantha ascetics

Date

Monks

Nuns

Total ascetics

18th century – Ācārya Bhikṣu

21

27

48

1955

180

480

660

1975

151

506

657

1981

164

531

695

1999

145

543

688

Samaṇas and samaṇis

Until 1980 mendicants in the Terāpantha order were either monks – sādhus – or nuns – sādhvīs – as in the other Jain monastic orders. In the modernisation process characteristic of his reign, Ācārya Tulsi created a new intermediate category. The males in this new ascetic class are called samaṇas and the females samaṇis. There are many more samaṇis than samaṇas.

Whereas traditional Jain mendicants are only allowed to go on foot, samaṇas and samaṇis may use transport. This is a very important innovation because it allows them to travel abroad on missionary tours. For many Jains living outside India samaṇas and samaṇis are the only Jain mendicants with whom they can have direct contact.

Number of samaṇas and samaṇis

Year

Samaṇas

Samaṇis

1992

4

51

1996

4

81

1999

4

80

The Terāpanthin monks and nuns wear the usual non-stitched white monastic robes common among Śvetāmbara mendicants. They also permanently cover their mouth with a rectangular mouth-clothmukhavastrikā or muṃhapattī.

The samaṇas and samaṇis, however, wear a different type of stitched outfit and use their mouth-cloths only when speaking. These are not attached to their mouths.

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