Shvetambara Asceticism

Posted: 09.07.2012
Updated on: 26.07.2012

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Monks and Nuns of the Shvetambara sect

The Shvetambara sect is divided into a number of sub-divisions, called gaccha, which is a community of monks. The various communities are known after their Acharya, the master. Such an order of monks and nuns is called sangha and is again divided into various parivars, i.e. families. The head of each such family is a senior monk or nun. It is advised that the monks and nuns do not move in isolation and therefore the smallest group should at least consist of two monks or three nuns who observe, control and criticize each other. All monks keep a diary in which they note down all wrong thoughts, expressions and actions, like accidental killing of small creatures, sitting under electric lights, etc. Such a diary is sent at the beginning of the monsoon to the Acharya, who in accordance with the nature of the faults, prescribes penances of various degrees. Seniority of monk hood rather than seniority of age is the criterion for a higher position in the order.

Shvetambara monks and nuns, known as sadhu and sadhvi, wear two white cotton clothes as garments. In addition, they are allowed to use various large wooden pots with strings while begging for food, and also to keep water pots in their monasteries and to possess a long stick, four different kinds of fly-whisks, a small woolen carpet, a thick and a thin shoulder cloth, a cloth to filter water and another one as mouthpiece. They also carry ritual objects, manuscripts, books and writing paraphernalia. Monks and nuns live on food-begging and are not allowed to light a fire and cook food. It is also prohibited for them to take a bath and they are supposed to pluck out their hair twice a year.

 

Daily routine of Shvetambara nuns and monks

In order to sustain the five most important principles, the daily routine of a monk is strictly disciplined through anuvratas (vows) which incorporate not to violate any form of life, not to speak untruth, not to steal, not to possess anything, and to practice celibacy. As observed in a monastery in Surat, the nuns wake up shortly after 4 o'clock in the morning, wash themselves, say their prayers facing the east or north for 25 breathings, and repent for sins committed during the night. Then they greet their leader who tells them to put the bed in order, remove the dust in the room and to pick up creatures tenderly with one small fan of peacock feather. Then the namokara mantra the daily prayer of the Jaina, is said, after which the leader is venerated. The latter in turn greets her teacher installed as sthapana, cross-stand. The nuns greet their superior one after the other. After that each nun decides which vow of the day she will keep; for example, to eat food without salt or sugar; not to speak during the day, not to drink anything, etc. The younger nuns once again turn towards their leader and vow that except the natural motion of the eyelids, they would not undertake any activity without her consent. Then they all go to the temple to worship the Jina. On returning to the monastery or sleeping chambers the nuns repent for all the possible sins; for instance any creature unintentionally killed on the way or wrong thoughts coming to the mind. Then the head-nun allows them to go out to beg for food. But nuns and monks are allowed to beg only in places where there are no pregnant women and no beggars, where no dogs run about, where only strained water is used, and where food is not cooked specially for them. In most cases the nuns eat together from their pots after returning to the monastery. No food is wasted, even the water with which the lacquered wooden pots are cleaned has to be drunk. After the meal, the nuns may wash their clothes, write letters, read religious books, speak to guests or embroider the pato, the cloth with auspicious symbols. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon the bed is again made, dust is removed, insects are collected carefully and removed, and prayers are said. At 4.30 they go out once again to beg for food, for they must eat their evening meal before sunset, as after that they are not allowed to eat or drink anything. After this meal, nuns visit the temple a second time to repent for bad deeds and take a vow that till the next day they will not move beyond 100 steps in any direction. Monks as well as nuns often go on a pilgrimage, i.e. they travel to important holy places, where they lodge in upashraya (temples). During the monsoon months, they are supposed to stay in one place. For this they are helped by the community which invites them formally through beautifully painted long invitation scrolls.

A large number of the Shvetambara monks and nuns, even after fulfilling these daily rites, find enough leisure time to write important philosophical, historical and poetic works. To become a Shvetambara monk an aspirant has to be at least eight years old and has to have the consent of his parents for doing so. In addition he should not have any bodily defects, should not be in debt or facing a trial, etc. But it is not necessary, however, that he belongs to a Jaina family. The person wanting to take diksha (renunciation), should get the company of monks or nuns and should live during this time the life of a brahmacarya (maintain sexual purity). Young people first go through a preliminary of the actual monk. consecration, which is strengthened later on. The initiate keeps complete fast to prepare himself for the ceremony. He is dressed in beautiful garments and ornaments and is taken out in a chariot or an elephant in procession in which the whole community joins. The initiate may throw coins in all directions in a symbolic gesture indicating ritually the distribution of his wealth. Then his acharya, master, plucks out the hair on his head. The initiate is given the monk's robe and a new name which for monks always ends in 'Suri' or 'Vijaya' and he lives in one of the monks' groups. He visits his former family the next day to beg for his first meal.

When monks and nuns have reached the age where their physical existence becomes a burden, they slowly renounce food, i.e., consciously fast till death which is called Sallekhana. During this period the dying monk is surrounded by members of the community who observe him constantly, but refuse to give any food or water and make clear to him how useless his longings are, as his soul now finally will leave the decaying body. The dead body is dressed in fresh clothes and is tied on a bier and carried in a large procession through the streets with great pomp and joy. The dead body is put down in the evening in a crescent-shaped wooden boat and burnt with large quantities of ghee. It is said that the monk has crossed the ocean of life.

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