Article: Śvetāmbara

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


Śvetāmbara monks walk down a Mumbai street accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra

Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The Sanskrit name Mūrti-pūjaka means ‘worshipper of images’, meaning images of the Jinas. Synonyms are the modern Indian words Derāvāsī – which literally means ‘staying in temples’ – and Mandir Mārgī –‘temple-followers’. Such terms have to be understood in contrast with the Sthānaka-vāsins, who reject image worship. This explains why these terms became common only when the latter came into formal existence, between the 15th and 17th centuries.

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. The subsects are:


A group of Jain nuns walks barefoot up a hill. Dressed in white robes with their heads covered, they all wear cloths fixed over their mouths, attached by strings over the ears. This identifies them as either Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns.

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin or Terā-panthin nuns
Image by arjunstc – Arjun © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The origin of the Sthānaka-vāsin sect goes back to the lay man Loṅkā Śāh, who lived in the 15th century. It is divided into different monastic orders. Today followers of the Sthānaka-vāsins are found mainly in Gujarat and in the Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking areas of north India.

The main distinctive feature of the sect is rejection of image-worship. The term Sthānaka-vāsin literally means 'hall-dweller' in Sanskrit, and should be understood as being the opposite of Mūrti-pūjaka, which means 'image-worshippers'. A 'hall' here is an empty building, contrasted with temples, where images of the Jinas are housed and worshipped. First found in a text written in 1630, the term 'Sthānaka-vāsin' became regularly used only at the beginning of the 20th century. The Sthānaka-vāsins are sometimes considered to be ‘protestant’ Jains. They put emphasis on strict asceticism, meditation and fasting.

Unlike the Mūrti-pūjak traditions, the Sthānaka-vāsins recognise only 32 canonical scriptures as authoritative, not 45. They deny texts they consider do not reflect Mahāvīra’s teaching, and they thus hold 13 works to be apocryphal.

The Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants are split into numerous groups, mainly on account of historical, doctrinal and regional differences they think cannot be overcome.

Their mendicants must always wear the mouth cloth muhpattī.

This table is based on information in Flügel 2006.

Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants in 1996 and 1999


Mendicants in 1996

Mendicants in 1999














Ācārya Tulsi was the head monk of the Śvetāmbara Terāpantha sect for 57 years. He was innovative, establishing the AĀuvrat Movement in 1949 and new types of mendicant in 1980. The samaṇas and samaṇīs can travel outside India, helping the Jain diaspora.

Ācārya Tulsi
Image by Pramodjain3 © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Terāpanthins are the followers of the Terāpantha. This Śvetāmbara tradition was founded in Rajasthan, which remains closely associated with it. Muni Bhikhan (1726–1803), later known as Ācārya Bhikṣu, created it in the 18th century. Born into a family following the image-worshipping tradition, he entered the monastic order of the Sthānaka-vāsins, who oppose the practice. He split from this group and founded a new one, together with 12 other monks.

This fact may give the sect its name, since the Hindi term terāpantha or terahpantha means either ‘your path’ or ‘path of 13’. Ācārya Bhikṣu's establishment of a new sect shows a certain amount of fluidity between monastic traditions and also demonstrates the importance of regional factors in the development of different sects.

The main features of the Terāpanthins are:

  • rejection of image-worship
  • greater stress on meditational practices and contemplation – prekṣā-dhyāna
  • emphasis on social values, such as female education.

The Terāpanthamonastic order has a few notable characteristics, namely:

  • the supremacy of a single ācārya, chosen by his predecessor
  • an intermediate category of monks and nuns, created in 1980, called samaṇas and samaṇīs, who are permitted to use public transport and thus can travel outside India
  • the permanent use of the mouth-cloth among monks and nuns.

Like the other Śvetāmbara aniconic sect, the Sthānaka-vāsin, the Terāpanthins state that the canon consists of 32 scriptures. Their present leader is Ācārya Mahāśramaṇa. In 1999, there was a total of 711 mendicants in this sect (Flügel 2006: 335).

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