Monks and Nuns in Jainism

Posted: 30.04.2012
Updated on: 11.06.2012

Monks And Nuns

It makes no difference, whether you adhere to the orthodox belief that Jainism is a periodically reoccurring religion or to the view, expounded in most books on Jainism by western authors, that it began with Mahavira (599-527 bc) or possibly with Parshva or Parshvanatha (the Sanskrit word natha, meaning 'Lord', is a 'honorific' implying respect) about 250 years earlier - the answer to the query as to how it began remains the same. It began - or began anew - with the appearance of a shramana (ascetic) of outstanding intellectual and moral status. The building of temples and the codification of the doctrines into symbols and written words came later. Even those Jainas, the Shvetambara Sthanakavasi and Terapanthi, who renounced the building of temples and the worship of idols have to this day retained their order of monks and nuns.

In India, one must distinguish between two main streams of religious thought. One tradition, usually called Vedic (a name derived from the oldest books in Hinduism), has its origin in early man's tendency to associate the forces of nature with gods and goddesses.

Gods are, in the belief of humans, somehow resembling themselves. So, when it came to pacifying an angry god, making offerings was considered an effective device for obtaining results. The priest was born, arising from the experience that the preparation and presentation of offerings as well as the wording and enunciation of the accompanying prayers required personalities of a special disposition. They were soon forthcoming; and as the practice of making offerings occasionally does show the desired effect - the law of probability sees to that - the priest was on the way to becoming an honoured and indispensable member of the Vedic community.

The other line of thought, known as the Shramana tradition, has its basis in the perception, arrived at by ascetic individuals after intense concentration and self-observation, that man is by no means that helpless and hapless animal-like creature he is commonly thought to be. On the contrary, he possesses within himself all the resources necessary for leading a life free of fear and mental suffering. All that is required of him is to acknowledge and to develop his mental and spiritual capabilities.

Jainism and Buddhism are both Shramana religions. Both have managed reasonably well without a priestly caste. Both traditions, the Vedic and the Shramana, seem to have existed side by side for thousands of years. Not always peacefully. From the eighth century ad on-wards, in the south of India even earlier, Buddhists and Jainas suffered persecution at the hands of local Hindu and, somewhat later, Muslim zealots. That the Jaina religion - in contrast to Buddhism - survived the calamity of the at times relentless suppression is remarkable.

Wanting to understand Jainism calls for making oneself acquainted with its ascetic tradition. Reading about it is helpful, but this can be rather tedious and might easily lead to misconceptions. Imagine someone who has never met a monk or nun happening to open the Jama-Sutras at the chapter in which the Jaina mendicants are advised not to brush their teeth. What will he make of that? He will, undoubtedly, acquire a false picture of the mendicants' attitude to cleanliness. The reason not mentioned for this extraordinary rule in the Sutras makes sense if one is acquainted with the Indian custom, still in use today, of chewing one end of a freshly cut twig till it resembles a brush suitable for brushing one's teeth. For a Jaina monk or nun to go about it in this way would be a violation of the vow not to harm living beings, plants included: "As our body is born, plants are born. As we grow, so plants grow. As we have consciousness, so plants have consciousness. As our body is damaged when cut, so a plant is damaged when cut." Heeding this statement in the Sutrakritanga (book 1, lect.9, vs. 13), Jaina monks and nuns use their fingers for cleaning their teeth after every meal; and as for them there is no nibbling at sweets between meals their sense of cleanliness is enhanced rather than impaired.

In books on the world's religions one frequently comes across incorrect statements about matters concerning Jainism. The reason for this may to a great extent be due to the circumstance that their authors never had or never tried to find the opportunity of meeting Jaina monks and nuns in person. Those who subscribe to a merely mental picture of monkhood - this would apply to most Westerners - usually have a rather distorted view of religious asceticism.

Only after one has actually met Jaina mendicants, listened and talked to them and observed the matter-of-fact respect and devotion they receive from the laity, only then does one begin to see and comprehend the strong bonds which hold together this ancient but widely scattered community of individualists. There seems to be something of a monk in about every Jaina. To stand apart - a typical ascetic virtue - and be able to circumscribe one's place in the world is more to the liking of a believer in Jainism than to be submerged in a faceless mass of people. The Jaina ideal, moreover, is not the merging of one's soul in a universal 'world'-soul where all individuality ceases, but the unattached singular soul. The Acaranga Sutra, translated by Hermann Jacobi clearly states: "When the thought occurs to a mendicant: T am myself, alone; I have nobody belonging to me, nor do I belong to anybody", then he should thoroughly know himself as standing alone - aspiring to freedom from bonds" (book 1, lect. 7, lesson 6).

There are many books in which Westerners relate their life with Buddhist monks; most of them make good reading. There is as yet (1998), to my knowledge, no book about a Westerner's prolonged association with Jaina ascetics (One exception is a book in French called La voie jaina by N. Shanta, Paris 1985. For the English translation, entitled The Unknown Pilgrims: History, Spiritality, life of the Jaina Women Ascetics, see bibliography). Regrettably, for whenever we chance upon a remark by non-Indians about their encounter with, Jaina monks and nuns we would like to learn more about it. The following extract has been taken from a published letter by Miss June Fog of New York who spent a month as a disciple of the late Jaina head-nun Sadhvi Mrigavati at the Shvetambara Vallabh Smarak in Delhi. She writes:

“I first met Sadhvi Shri Mrigavati Ji in 1976 on a spiritual pilgrimage to India. (...) What endeared me to her so thoroughly was that on my second fortuitous meeting in 1982, as I entered into her presence, she looked at me in the eyes clearly and lovingly and said, T am not perfect!' That's all. I realised she admitted her humanness and her humbleness and her honesty touched me deeply. She saw beyond the persona -the mask. She helped to see me, to love myself as I am, thereby enabling me to love all. (...) She helped me and, I am sure, many by her unparalleled exemplary behaviour. Her selfless, benevolent, inspiring life stands as a beacon for all to follow.”

As the monastic orders constitute the backbone of the Jaina religion, it is but logical that its two major sects have been named after the outward appearance of their respective monks. That community whose monks wear white garments is thus known by the name Shvetambara, meaning 'white (cotton)-robed', the other group whose monks go about naked is called Digambara, meaning 'sky-robed'. The division into these two sects happened a few hundred years after Mahavira's nirvana (death) in the year 527 BC according to tradition. What really caused the split remains an open question. It was, it seems, more a drifting apart due to the vastness of the Indian subcontinent than grave differences in questions of faith.

Sadhvi Shri Mrigavati (1926-1986)


Monks and nuns of the Sthanakavasi and Terapanth sects keep their mouth covered by a so-called muhpatti, not as a precautionary measure against accidentally swallowing or inhaling insects, as many Westerners tend to think, but in order to protect the invisible 'air-bodies'. These minute single-sense creatures, it is believed, are liable to get hurt and even killed by the moist stream of air we cannot help emitting whilst speaking. Shvetambara monks and nuns, who wear no muh-pattis, keep a white cloth at hand with which to cover their mouth while speaking.


The rite of ordination called diksha

It was through acts of renunciations, undertaken by outstanding ascetics at a time long past, that the Jaina religion took its roots and began to grow and blossom. This in turn provides today's followers of the twenty-four Tirthankaras with ample reason for looking upon every new act of renunciation as an event worthy of rejoicing and celebration, regardless of whether the aspirant is a minor or an adult of either sex and any age. Among the Shvetambara the novice must not be younger than eight or nine years. The Digambara aspirant to monkhood has to serve a lengthy period of probation, so he will as a rule have reached adulthood by the time the question of ordination arises.

The initiation ceremony, called diksha, varies little from one sect to another. In its centre stands the candidate's oath of allegiance to the Five Great Vows (maha-vratas), their wording, in the translation of Hermann Jacobi, reads as follows (for the twenty clauses omitted here see, Acaranga Sutra, book 2, lect. 15):

The first great vow, Sir, runs thus:

I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtile or gross, whether movable or immovable. Nor shall I myself kill living beings, nor cause others to do it, nor consent to it. As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body. This is, Sir, the first great vow: Abstinence from killing any living beings.

The second great vow runs thus:

I renounce all vices of lying speech arising from anger or greed or fear or mirth. I shall neither myself speak lies, nor cause others to speak lies, nor consent to the speaking of lies by others. I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech and body. This is, Sir, the second great vow.

The third great vow runs thus:

I renounce all taking of anything not given, either in a village or a town or a wood, either of little or much, of small or great, of living or lifeless things. I shall neither take myself what is not given, nor cause others to take it, nor consent to their taking it. As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body. This is, Sir, the third great vow.

The fourth great vow runs thus:

I renounce all sexual pleasures, either with gods or men or animals. I shall not give way to sensuality, nor cause others to do so, nor consent to their doing so. As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body. This is, Sir, the forth great vow.

The fifth great vow runs thus:

I renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless; neither shall I myself form such attachments, nor cause others to do so, nor consent to their doing so. As long as I live, I confess and blame, repent and exempt myself of these sins in the thrice threefold way, in mind, speech, and body. This is, Sir, the fifth great vow.

These five vows are meant to be observed by laymen and laywomen as well, but in a less strict way. Among them they are known as anuvratas, meaning small vows. If, let us say, a Jaina layman is asked by a hunter the way a fleeing animal has taken, he should lie to him and send him off in the opposite direction. Monks and nuns are not supposed to respond in this way, they are bound to keep silence.

According to Jaina teaching it is more the actual process of one's actions than the underlying good or bad will which determines the kind and amount of karmic matter being drawn onto the soul by the respective deed.

Jaina monks and nuns will never use force, not even in self-defence. Laymen however are no pacifists; if they themselves or their family or country are threatened they are free to fight the attacker and even to kill him, but they should know - and they do know - that by acting in this way their road to salvation is considerably lengthened. This explains why in the Jaina version of the Ramayana epic it is not Rama who finally kills the evil-doer Ravana, as it is the case in the Hindu story of Rama and Sita, but his brother Lakshmana. Herein we may detect one of the major differences between Hindu and Jaina ethics. Traditional Hindu law distinguishes between the killing of a Brahmin - about the most detestable crime - and the murder of a casteless person which is considered much less blameworthy. As to animals, in the view of Hindus some may never be killed, cows for example, others may. To a Jaina this means bad logic, to him all acts of killings are sinful.


Meeting Jaina monks and nuns

Jaina ascetics will never either lock or unlock a door. Their detachment from everyday life as we know it does not make them recluses in the literary meaning of the word. On the contrary. The further they progress on the 'path of purification' (see P. S. Jaini's The Jaina Path of Purification) the more they are in demand by the laity. Jainas think of themselves as belonging to a 'fourfold community' (chaturvidha-sangha) consisting of monks, nuns, laymen (shravakas) and laywomen (shravikas).

Westerners are welcome to both the laity and the ascetics. To comply with the basic rules of conduct when calling on a member of a monastic order is not out-rightly expected from a non-Indian, but gladly appreciated. These rules are, to name a few, removing one's footwear as well as any apparel made of leather or fur, not to wear shorts or sleeveless frocks or blouses, not to hand over any object from hand to hand but to place it on the ground in front of the seated monk or nun. Reciprocally, when being given something, one should not grasp at it but hold out both one's hands palms up. Kneeling down to a monk with folded hands and asking for blessings, a common gesture for Jainas at which no words need be spoken, does at first not come naturally to a Westerner, but will after a while be looked upon and practised as a graceful way of expressing one's esteem.

Occasionally a monk will decline to answer one's questions or suddenly fall silent; his motive for acting that way is not a whim of his but the vow, taken for that day, not to speak for a set lapse of time. Foreign students of Jainism, no matter of which age or sex, will have little difficulties in finding a group of monks or nuns with whom they will be permitted to travel - on foot.


Two Tributes of Respect

From Sketches of God by Carlos G. Valles, S.J., Anand, Gujarat, 1987: 123-141. Carlos G. Valles is a Spanish Jesuit who was sent to India in 1949 to start a university college in the city of Ahmedabad, where he still resides. He has published many books and writes in English, Spanish and Gujarati:

“Once I was giving a lecture to about a hundred Jain nuns, that is, to a hundred half faces and a hundred white veils neatly arranged in rows before me. Now, when I talk I like to see my listeners, and it helps me to watch the effect of my words as reflected on their faces; but here I had only the broken mirrors of the half faces to watch. I said: T am determined to have a good time with you, and I am not going to be satisfied until I get your smiles to show beyond your little white rags.' They laughed so heartily that I realised how when a person really smiles it is not only her lips that smile, but her whole face, as the eyes, brows, foreheads and cheeks of those loveable Sisters burst into sincere joy in person-to-person communication. I had a great time with those splendid Sisters. None of them, however, unlocked the veil from even one ear, and the true ascetical tradition was upheld.”

In her In Memorium to Muni Jayantavijaya, author of the book Holy Abu, Dr. Helen M. Johnson, an American scholar of Jainology, wrote, in 1949, about her encounter with Shvetambara monks (sadhus) the following:

“In the spring of 1922, Shri Vijaya Dharma Suri and his group of disciples were in Indore and there I met Jain sadhus for the first time. I had the two handicaps of being a woman and a foreigner in addition to lack of experience with sadhus, but from the first I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and consideration as well as the scholarly assistance of these monks. (...) From the time that the Jains, sadhus and laymen, knew that I was a student of Jainism, I have had most generous assistance (...).”

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