Article: Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin

Contributed by Peter Flügel

Scriptures and philosophy

Ācārya Mahāprajña, Ācārya Tulsi and followers discuss the Āgamas. Ācārya Tulsi was leader of the sect of Śvetāmbara Terāpanthins until 1997 and was succeeded by Ācārya Mahāprajña until 2010. This sect believes there are 32 sacred texts

Discussing the scriptures
Image by Amitjain80 © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Terāpanthins recognise the authority of 32 of the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. Influenced by the most recent ācāryas, Tulsi and Mahāprajña, Terāpanthin mendicants have published numerous critical editions, indexes, dictionaries and analyses of these scriptures to a high standard. They have also provided Hindi translations of several texts.

On the other hand, the Terāpanthins are also indebted to early Digambara thinkers such as Kundakunda. Their work promotes absolute renunciation and exposes the difference between the conventional point of view and the religious or absolute point of view. The conventional viewpoint – vyavahāra-naya – sees things from the angle of everyday life while the religious viewpoint – niścaya-naya – focuses on the religious perspective.

Beside that, the Terāpanthin teachers also have to their credit a good number of creative writings where they set out their viewpoints on certain crucial topics. Most of these writings are in Rajasthani and Hindi, their native languages.

For example, Ācārya Bhikṣu's 1787 Poem on CompassionAnukampā rī caupaī – gives the Terāpantha’s specific position on this topic. In his view, because good acts create karma, they also obstruct the liberation of the soul, just as bad acts do. Therefore all acts should be avoided, even acts of compassion. Activities are positive from the social point of view of everyday life, but they create disadvantages from the religious or absolute point of view. For him, pure renunciation of all activity is the highest aim.

Finally, under the influence of Ācārya Tulsī and Ācārya Mahāprajña, increasing numbers of books and pamphlets promoting Terāpanthin ideas in English are being published. This supports the work of the Terāpanthin samaṇas and samaṇis, who undertake missionary tours outside India among the Jain diaspora.

Significant beliefs and practices

The Terāpanthin do not worship images. Formed after a schism within the Sthānaka-vāsin Jains, who are against idol worship, the Terāpanthin sect has rejected image worship from its beginnings.

However, the Terāpanthins worship their living teachers as examples of religious conduct to follow.

Key characteristics of the sect's practices include:

  • 'insight meditation' – prekṣā dhyāna
  • Festival of Restraint – Maryādā Mahotsava
  • modernising outlook, demonstrated in the Aṇuvrat movement, creation of a new mendicant category, stress on female education and the nayā moḍ – 'new turn'.

Insight meditation

Tenth head of the Śvetāmbara sect of Terāpantha, Ācārya Mahāprajña meditates. In 1975 Ācārya Mahāprajña introduced 'insight meditation' – prekṣā dhyāna – which is now one of the principal Terāpanthin ways of worship

Ācārya Mahāprajña meditating
Image by Amitjain80 © CC BY-SA 3.0

Terāpanthins stress fasting, ascetic practices and meditation.

Since 1975, they have placed most emphasis on what they call prekṣā dhyāna – 'insight meditation'. This was introduced by Ācārya Mahāprajña in 1975, after twenty years of experimentation, following the success of the Buddhist meditation known as vipassanā. Insight meditation has become the hallmark of the Terāpanthins. Whether in India or abroad, they conduct classes and produce books to encourage more people to practise it.

Insight meditation aims to purify the practitioner’s mental state, which, according to Mahaprajna 2003:

  • involves 'careful concentration on subtle consciousness by mental insight', starting with perception of the body
  • produces 'spiritual vigilance, or awakening of the consciousness and constant alertness'
  • results in 'total relaxation of the body with self-awareness', which, together with awareness of one’s breathing, enables the meditator to channel and concentrate mental functioning
  • produces perception of body, psychic centres and psychic colours, of the present moment and of thoughts, which leads to self-discipline, which brings willpower.
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