Article: Women in the Jain tradition

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The religious status of women is one of the chief differences between the two principal sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. It is also a crucial issue in the history of Jainism.

Historically, Jainism’s attitude towards women has shared a view common amongst other Indian and Asian traditions, which see women as innately unequal to men. Counter to these long-established attitudes, Jainism gives women a central role in its ethical and spiritual patterns. For example, the fourfold community that is the foundation of Jain daily life includes lay women as well as lay men, nuns as well as monks. Among Śvetāmbara sects, there tends to be more female mendicants than male. Traditional sources name several distinguished women who play important roles in the tales of the Jinas, while goddesses are significant cultural and religious figures. In addition, the soḷa satī – 16 virtuous women – are female role models whose stories highlight desirable religious qualities.

These conventions are more striking when recalling that historical Jain holy writings were written by men primarily for male readers and listeners. Women’s voices have only been heard since the 20th century and these usually take the form of autobiography rather than philosophical works.

Women lead the key Jain religious activities surrounding food, especially fasting, and often have principal roles in the performance of worship, particularly singing hymns. Jain women are also often the keenest participants in religious festivals.

Despite the vital importance of female activity in Jain religious life and the high proportion of female mendicants, nuns must defer to male colleagues. Frequently, senior nuns have limited authority and are not allowed to preach like monks. One of the most basic Jain beliefs is that each individual is responsible for his or her spiritual condition and thus anyone may read the scriptures, which guide spiritual progress. It is very likely, however, that female Jains generally had lower educational levels than their male counterparts, which must have hindered their scriptural knowledge. Nowadays female education for both nuns and lay women is a focus of disagreement among the sects.

This is partly connected to the main philosophical distinction between the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. The capacity of women to achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth has been hotly debated for around two thousand years, and relates to whether nudity is necessary for salvation. The sectarian dispute over whether the 19th Jina, Mallī, was male or female symbolises disagreements about female liberation.

Centrality of women from the start

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

No sound information is available before the time when Mahāvīra, the main expounder of the Jain doctrine, organised the community of Jains. From the start, this community, known as ‘the fourfold sangha’, included women as two of its components:

The male elements of the community are lay men and monks. Thus both main sects recognise that women form two of the four essential parts of society.

In contrast to Buddhism, the Jain tradition has no text showing that the idea of a nuns’ order could ever have caused difficulty. Nuns have always been there and in fact they always outnumber monks in traditional statistics for Jain communities surrounding the Jinas, at least among Śvetāmbaras.

Indeed, the names of individual respected women appear in early sources and are depicted in the narrative literature as ideal types of virtue and generosity – the satī. Examples include the head nun of Mahāvīra’s community, Candanā or Candanābālā, who had first come to notice by offering him an appropriate gift of food. Sulasā and Revatī were at the head of his female lay followers. Revatī was known for having offered medicine to Mahāvīra when his life was at risk because of his enemy Gośāla.

Male or male-oriented sources

This express recognition of the vital place of women in Jainism is more notable since women’s voices are seldom heard directly. This is because the sources are almost all written by men or are male-oriented.

In the 20th century a few highly charismatic nuns have been able to express themselves through their autobiographies, for example Āryikā Jñānamati, or in religious pamphlets. Yet no woman is known to have composed any truly groundbreaking treatise on dogma.

Even so, a few women are famous for having inspired innovative work. This is the case for Mahattarā Yākinī, a legendary figure who is said to have been the muse of the eighth-century teacher and scholar Haribhadra.

Nuns and religious hierarchy

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate in front of a cloth-wrapped bookstand, used to hold scriptures. To Jains, meditation helps purify the soul of karma and is thus vital for spiritual progress. It is a daily obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – for mendicants.

Śvetāmbara nuns meditate
Image by Claude Renault © CC BY 2.0

The high number of nuns in the Jain orders has not had a positive impact on their rank within these orders. In fact, nuns usually have lower places in the hierarchy of monasticism than monks, with high-ranking nuns having less authority than their male equivalents.

It is rather rare to see female mendicants take part in public activities such as preaching or scriptural discussions.

Monastic codes

A Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak nun holds a mouth-cloth – muṃhpatti – over her face. The mouth-cloth both stops minute beings entering the mouth and protects wind-bodied beings, which are one-sensed living beings according to the Jain classifications of life.

Nun covers her mouth
Image by unknown © Jain Spirit / Institute of Jainology

Women’s difficulties in rising to high rank within the monastic hierarchy are first shown by the texts discussing the monastic code that is part of the Śvetāmbara canon. Even though no statement seems to record any fundamental inequality between monks and nuns, this code rests on the underlying belief that a woman, being unsteady by nature, needs more control and thus more rules than a man.

Individual monastic orders have both men and women members. Small groups of monks or nuns come under the authority of one of them. But female groups as a whole are generally supervised by men members and leading nuns are appointed by monks.

Among the Digambaras, where the place of women is always more inferior than among other Jain orders, a nunāryikā – is initiated by a monk and traditionally becomes a member of a male mendicant’s ‘lineage’. In some cases, a Digambara nun may be an independent group leader and initiate her own disciples, female or even males.

The general rules for monks and nuns are largely similar. There are, however, additional, stricter rules which limit nuns’ options in their daily routine, especially food regulations.

Besides this, their independence and freedom are limited by a broad subordination to the monks, which takes the following forms:

  • even after long years as a nun they may be under the authority of junior monks
  • they need to serve longer than their male colleagues to reach high positions in the religious hierarchy
  • nuns have their own religious titles – guruṇī, gaṇinī, pravartinī – which refer to their function as leader of a small group or unit only. However, they all imply an inferior rank to those of monks.

One exceptional case, which has given rise to controversy, is that of the nun Candanā, who was appointed ācārya. This title was bestowed on her by Amar Muni, the creator of the Veerayatan centre in Bihar.

Example of the Terāpantha

That nuns’ religious titles suggest a lower rank than those of monks is exemplified in the organisation of the Terāpanthin movement, a modern subsect of the Śvetāmbaras mostly active in Rajasthan. When it originated in the 18th century a single teacher – ācārya – was the head of both monks and nuns. The regular increase of nuns resulted in the institution of a female-head or pramukhā who commands smaller units. However, her role is that of a co-ordinator in practical matters and she is not considered the female counterpart of the ācārya. He is the decision-making authority and she remains junior to him.

Access to scriptures and education

A woman passes printed translations of Jinasena and Guṇabhadra’s Mahāpurāṇa, the standard Digambara version of Universal History. These scriptures are exposed for ‘darshan’ or 'sight' at the Bhandari Basadi, Shravana Belgola in Karnataka

Digambara canon on display
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The stress on individual responsibility for spiritual progress is an important Jain belief. Making spiritual progress relies on knowledge and scriptural knowledge is a key part of this. Customarily, women received and passed on religious teachings orally and through taking leading parts in daily practices such as food preparation and ceremonies of worship. Being able to directly read, meditate on and transmit sacred writings were not crucial elements in women’s traditional roles in the Jain faith. These days, the topic of female education in religious matters is disputed among contemporary Jains, with sects varying in their beliefs and practices.

Nuns and scriptures

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

As far as access to sacred scriptures is concerned, there is again no theoretical distinction between nuns and monks. Like Buddhism, Jainism is open to all, differing from the orthodox Hindu tradition, where women are not allowed to read the Vedas. However, the educational level of Jain nuns is very difficult to assess. Hints in manuscript colophons show that some texts were copied to be read by women, whether nuns or lay women, but they remain a minority.

Today, nuns’ and, more broadly, women’s education is a divisive issue, for instance among Jain subsects of the Śvetāmbara group. Some subsects, for example the Terāpanthin and Sthānaka-vāsin, claim that monks and nuns can study all texts. But the Tapā-gaccha sect, for instance, states that nuns’ abilities are lesser and therefore prevents them from studying the Cheda-sūtras, a difficult and controversial group of canonical texts dealing with the monastic code. This same sect does not allow nuns to preach, whereas the Kharatara-gaccha allows it. Even then the number of nuns giving public sermons is limited, considering the global number of nuns. More often, they are seen surrounding the preaching monk and carefully listening to him.

Some prominent nuns of the 20th century, such as Sādhvī Mr̥gāvatī try to use their prestige and influence to promote women’s education. They believe that young girls must undergo a trial period before going through full religious initiation. During this period they should gain at least elementary knowledge not only of Jainism but also of basic disciplines such as Sanskrit and Prakrit grammar or literature.

Promoting women’s education is high on the agenda of the Terāpanthin. This subsect has a special category of nuns called the samaṇi, which is officially free from certain rules restricting their movements and can visit institutions in India or abroad to pursue academic research.

Lay women and scriptures

This manuscript painting shows Indrabhūti Gautama preaching. The white-clad monk is fanned by a servant and sits on a lotus, symbols of worldly and spiritual rank. King Śreṇika and his family sit separately from the lords and ladies of the court

Indrabhūti Gautama preaches
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jain lay women’s book knowledge of the tradition varies according to their social environment. From time to time, resolutions are passed in Jain conferences to encourage women’s education. This was the case during the large lay Jain conference held in 1915 in Sujangadh, near Bikaner in Rajasthan. The ninth resolution passed here called for greater support for women’s education (Cort 1995: 11). In the 17th century one of the conclusions proclaimed during a meeting led by the monk Satyavijaya-gaṇi related to the proper ways to give religious instruction to lay women (Cort 1995: 18).

Principally, women ‘protect or continue the community’ by passing on basic teachings to the younger generations, mainly through telling legends and stories. The old stock is kept alive thanks to new versions in modern-language translations that are widely available in small cheap booklets.

Listening to the daily sermons of monks and nuns, which they normally attend in large crowds, alone or with their family members, is another way in which lay women become familiar with Jain scriptures. They largely outnumber their male colleagues in these circumstances.

Religious hymns form another category of literature in which lay women are prominent. Chanting and reciting hymns are two areas where women take a leading role in both domestic and temple rituals.

Lay women’s roles

Women’s knowledge and place in the community are mostly oriented towards two areas where they dominate, namely the:

  • preparation of food
  • performance of rituals.

Here, in a reverse of the usual situation, men are completely dependent on them. This is chiefly because they mostly spend much less time at home or at the temple than the female members of the family.

Food – feasting and fasting

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

In the Jain tradition, food is a major concern because observing specific dietary rules is one of the clearest marks of Jain identity. Thus the woman at home is a guardian or modifier of the tradition through various roles connected with food. These include:

  • offering alms to the Jain mendicants who beg at her door, which implies mastery of a detailed sequence of ritualised actions and rules
  • preparing meals for the family
  • deciding whether a rule such as the one forbidding eating after sunsetrātribhojana – will be observed or not
  • knowing which foods should be cooked depending on whether, for example, it is an ordinary day or a festival
  • taking full command of the complicated calendar and types of fasts which regulate Jains’ lives. Partly for these reasons, fasting is known as a women’s penance and it is a way for women to gain a reputation for piety and status.

Role of women in worship

Their mouths and noses covered, Jain women stand before a highly decorated idol in a shrine in a temple in Mumbai. Offerings used in worship rituals are behind them, such as rice, coconuts and flowers.

Women and an idol in the temple
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are differences among the subsects as to whether women ought to have the same rights as men in worshipping images.

Fundamentalists among all Śvetāmbara groups hold that they should never be allowed to enter the innermost sanctuary and touch the idols because they can never reach the required degree of purity. The Kharatara-gaccha sect does not authorise women of childbearing years to have direct contact with idols, so, for example, women are not allowed to anoint Jina images with sandalwood paste. Menstruating women, who represent impurity, should not perform worship or undertake pilgrimages to sacred places.

The non-idolatrous groups, however, lay more stress on internal worship so their notions are more egalitarian.

On the other hand, recent studies have stressed that women have true authority in the conduct and performance of ritual itself.

Woman and salvation

The most original contributions of the Jains to world religion are undoubtedly the theological consequences of their conceptions of women and their millennia-old debates about women’s ability to reach salvation.

This contentious issue separates the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras very deeply and is linked to the question of whether nudity is a prerequisite for liberation.

Reading

‘Women in Jainism’
Nalini Balbir
Religion and Women
edited by Arvind Sharma
McGill Studies in the History of Religions series
State University of New York Press; Albany, New York, USA; 1993

Full details


Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

Full details


Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Maṇḍaḷ Singing and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details


Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2009

Full details


Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains
Manisha Sethi
South Asian History & Culture series; volume 8
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group; London, UK and New Delhi, India; 2011

Full details


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