Article: Śvetāmbara

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The Jain faith contains various sects or traditions, as do other religions. All these groupings believe in the central doctrines of the religion, though they vary in interpretation and practice. The two principal sects of Jainism emerged early in the Common Era, splitting over different practices and beliefs regarding monks and nuns. The Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras remain the main divisions or sects of Jainism. They take their titles from the clothing practices of their monks, which distil key doctrinal differences. The Sanskrit term ‘Śvetāmbara’ means ‘white-clad’ and refers to the white clothing of monks and nuns in this order.

Over time these two sects have built up separate doctrines and histories, resulting in different canons of sacred writings and significant individuals. Within the main sect a number of smaller subsects or traditions have arisen over the centuries. Since the late medieval period the issue of image worship has been a major point of dispute among Śvetāmbaras. Disagreements over whether it is proper to worship images eventually led to schisms that formed the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins. The Śvetāmbara Jains who worship images – the Mūrti-pūjaks – are the largest subsect, however. They comprise a number of smaller subsects.

Although most groups that become sects develop around a charismatic individual mendicant, some groups originate within the lay community. The chief such groups among Śvetāmbaras are the Kaḍuā-gaccha and Lonkā-gaccha.

This piece is a summary of the article "Śvetāmbara". The full article will be available soon.


This painting from a Kalpa-sūtra manuscript illustrates the 'fourfold community' – saṅgha. The followers of the Jinas are made up of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns. All elements of the community are vital

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Among Śvetāmbara Jains several Sanskrit terms are used for a ‘sect’:

  • saṅgha – community
  • gaccha – group
  • gaṇa – mendicant group
  • panth – path.

The term saṅgha can express the meaning of the whole ‘fourfold community’, which is composed of monks and nuns, lay men and lay women. It can also be used for the ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.

Organisations of mendicants are known as either gaṇa or gaccha, which both mean ‘group’. Most Śvetāmbara Jains would describe a sect as a gaccha. Indeed, the label 'gaccha' forms part of the title of some Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak sects, such as the Añcala-gaccha, the Kharatara-gaccha and others. The Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin prefer sampradāya to gaccha.

Main characteristics

Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Meaning ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit, the term Śvetāmbara described the white clothing of monks and nuns in this sect. They wear simple white – śveta – cotton robes – ambara.

There are also other key features of doctrine and practice that distinguish members of the Śvetāmbara sect.

Characteristics of Śvetāmbara sect

Mendicant clothing

white robes

Mendicant equipment

  • bowls
  • water-pot
  • cotton broom
  • mouth-cloth

plus, for Mūrti-pūjak mendicants only

  • bookstand
  • staff

Holy texts


  • Angas
  • Anga-bāhyas


can achieve liberation

Sex of Jinas

the 19th Jina, Malli, was a woman

Images of Jinas

  • open eyes
  • wear loincloths
  • often painted and set in ornately sculpted altars and temples

The main Śvetāmbara sect has split into smaller subsects over the centuries. New groups formed around successive monastic leaders, creating monastic lineages. The records – paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – of several mendicant lineages have survived and offer information about the origin and development of the sect.

Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions

This manuscript painting shows some of Mahāvīra's chief disciples. The 24th Jina had 11 chief disciples – gaṇa-dharas – who were his closest followers. Depicted in Śvetāmbara robes, the monks sit in lotus and demonstrate typical signs of holiness

Five of Mahāvīra's disciples
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The significant Śvetāmbara text of the Kalpa-sūtra provides the principal record of mendicant lineages. The second section of the Kalpa-sūtra is the Sthavirāvalī, which supposedly documents the situation at the time of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

Mahāvīra had 11 disciples – gaṇa-dharas, who led groups of mendicants – gaṇas. Two gaṇa-dharas at a time managed two groups, making a total of nine gaṇas. None of the chief disciples had any spiritual descendant except Ārya Sudharman, so that ‘The Nirgranthas Śramaṇas of the present time are all [spiritual] descendants of the monk Ārya Sudharman’ (Kalpasūtra, Jacobi’s translation: 1884 : 287). Another reason for Sudharman's prominence is that he did not achieve omniscience in Mahāvīra’s lifetime and hence was in a position to assume leadership of the mendicant community. All the later Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions claim descent from Sudharman except one, the Upakeśa-gaccha. This group claims descent from the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

The lines of succeeding religious teachers who claim a common mendicant ancestor are listed in the Sthavirāvalī in the Kalpa-sūtra. The most recent is Devarddhi Kṣamāśramaṇa, who arranged for the final redaction of the scriptures at Valabhī, in Gujarat, in the fifth century CE.

However, later documents that focus on the writing down of the holy scriptures indicate that two separate recitation traditions existed. The Gujarati towns of Mathurā and Valabhī seem to have had their own traditions, which implies that strongly held disagreements divided the Śvetāmbara community even in the fifth century.

The question of whether it is proper to worship images emerged as an issue of contention in the late medieval period. Disagreements on this topic caused several subsects to be established over the next few centuries. The present-day names for the main Śvetāmbara subsects date back to this period, when the worship of images became a major sectarian difference. The terms are:

These sects agree on several fundamental areas but hold different beliefs and have diverse practices in some respects.

The Śvetāmbara sects agree on the:

The other disputed topics may have developed gradually, in part as signs of difference from the other sects.

Main areas of Śvetāmbara sectarian disagreement


Mūrti-pūjak sect

Sthānaka-vāsin sect

Terāpanthin sect

Canonical scriptures




Worship of images




Monastic equipment – staff




Monastic equipment – broom handle




Monastic equipment – use of mouth-cloth

worn at certain times

worn permanently

worn permanently

Nuns – access to canonical scriptures, to various levels




Nuns – permission to preach




In addition, the sects have differences regarding the daily liturgy and recitation, and also the religious calendar.

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