Article: Monks and nuns

Monks and nuns are frequently referred to as mendicants or ascetics. Jain mendicants are people who have completed the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā and live according to monastic rules. They renounce ordinary life, receive the monastic equipment in keeping with the monastic order to which they will belong and after that lead a life observing the ‘five great vows’ – mahā-vrata.

Organised in hierarchies, mendicants also follow the rules of their sect and monastic order. Mendicants belong to one of the two main sects of Śvetāmbara and Digambara. They have strict rules regulating their behaviour and monastic equipment.

In contrast to the Christian concept of monks and nuns, Jain ascetics have a wandering lifestyle most of the time and have daily contact with lay people. This chiefly takes the form of the ritual of seeking alms.

There is a range of terms for Jain mendicants, with the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras normally using slightly different words for the same concepts. An ordinary monk is known as a muni or sādhu while an ordinary nun is an āryikā for Digambaras and is usually called a sādhvī by Śvetāmbaras.

Monks and nuns form two elements of the traditional fourfold community of Jainism, along with lay men and lay women. The proportion of mendicants to lay people is very small. Nuns always outnumber monks in traditional statistics for the communities founded by the Jinas, at least among Śvetāmbaras. For example, according to the Kalpa-sūtra, the fourfold community which the 24th Jina Mahāvīra established was made up of 14,000 monks, 36,000 nuns, 159,000 lay men and 318,000 lay women. There are fewer nuns than monks among the Digambaras.


This detail from a manuscript painting shows the monastic initiation of the former King Yaśogha. The man on the left is nude, showing he is a Digambara monk. He watches Yaśogha performing the rite of keśa-loca – ‘pulling out of the hair’ – which is part o

Yaśogha becomes a monk
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

When a householder decides to become a monk or nun, he or she completes the ritual of renunciation or initiationdīkṣā. The two main Jain sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras follow somewhat different dīkṣā ceremonies. The various mendicant lineages within the sects also have distinct initiation traditions. There may also be rules regarding the age or caste of the initiate and the individual who may carry out the initiation.

Some elements of the initiation take place in private, others in public rituals. Initiation is considered a celebration for all of the Jain community, lay and mendicant, as well as an opportunity to gain meritpuṇya – for lay Jains.

The most striking aspect of initiation for outsiders is the ritual of keśa-loñca. In this rite, the initiate removes his or her hair. Traditionally, this is pulled out in five handfuls and men also pluck out their facial hair. Nowadays, however, among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks usually a symbolic tuft is plucked out and the rest shaved off. The concept of keśa-loñca underlines the ideal ascetic’s indifference to the body and signals a readiness to take on the demands of the mendicant lifestyle.

Among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks, some parts of the dīkṣā ceremony are performed in private, some in public. There are ceremonies in the days before and after the day of initiation, usually involving the local lay community.

Among Digambara Jains, becoming a mendicant takes several stages. In the early stages, the individual takes the 11th stage of renunciation – pratimā – of a lay person and remains a householder. Many devout lay people remain at this stage. Those who wish to become mendicants are then initiated and are considered novice mendicants.

Within all sects, the new mendicant is given a new name and completes a period as a kind of novice mendicant. The final initiation into full mendicancy – including the keśa-loñca – is a public ritual for Digambaras and usually a private ceremony for Śvetāmbaras. It entails taking the ‘Five Great Vows’.

The ‘Five Great Vows’

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

‘Five Great Vows’
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

As part of their initiation, monks and nuns swear to follow these ‘absolute’ vows or mahā-vrata:

  1. non-violence – ahiṃsā
  2. truth – satya
  3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya
  4. celibacybrahmacarya
  5. non-attachment or non-possessionaparigraha.

This is the traditional order in which the vows are listed. They were clearly set out by Māhavīra, the 24th Jina. Earlier, in the time of his predecessor Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, there were only four restraints, with the vow of celibacy included in that of non-possession.

Monks and nuns live according to these vows for the rest of their lives. It is very rare for a mendicant to return to the householder life. Lay people, however, can practise asceticism and take formal vows of renunciation, such as the aṇu-vrata or ‘Five Lesser Vows’.

Organisation of monks and nuns

All Jain ascetics live in small single-sex groups, whose composition and movements are decided by higher-ranking mendicants.

Jain monks and nuns can be thought of as being organised in two ways. Firstly, they belong to one of the sects and, within that, to one of the mendicant orders or lineages. Secondly, each mendicant lineage is organised into communities, in which there is a hierarchy. In this social organisation, lower-ranking mendicants defer to high-ranking members.

Mendicant lineage

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

All Jain mendicants are initiated into one of many mendicant orders within each sect. Early in the Jain tradition, teaching was passed on orally, with leading teachers collecting followers, who then passed on their teachings to their disciples and so on. These different groups descended from various teachers are termed mendicant lineages.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks call these groups gaccha – going or travelling together – while Digambaras know them as sangha.

Mendicant hierarchy

This 2007 painting called ‘Padabhishek’ shows the ceremony in which a Jain monk is promoted to ācārya. Artist: Shanti Panchal. Medium: watercolour on paper.

Padābhiṣeka ceremony
Image by Shanti Panchal © Shanti Panchal

The hierarchy of monks and nuns depends on the individuals’ length of time as a mendicant, sex and office. Ordinary monks and nuns defer to those who have been monks and nuns for longer and to those who hold an official position. Nuns are always outranked by monks, even if they have been mendicants for longer and hold office.

Nowadays, among the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks, each mendicant lineage is headed by a number of ācāryas. Only the sect of the Añcala-gaccha has a single ācārya. The mendicants of the non-Mūrtipūjak sects of Sthānaka-vāsīn and Terāpanthin are also led by a single ācārya in each sect. Official posts deal with different responsibilities in the gaccha, such as the pannyāsa, who is responsible for groups of ordinary monks, called munis or sādhus.

Digambara monks are ranked according to their status as full mendicants, novice mendicants or lay men who have taken some renunciation vows. They have similar official posts to those found in the Śvetāmbara sect.

Nuns have a less strict hierarchy than monks within their own communities of women. Although they usually outnumber monks among the Śvetāmbaras, nuns must defer to male mendicants, even if they have been initiated for longer and have official positions. Among both the principal sects, communities of nuns are usually supervised by monks, who also normally appoint their leaders and initiate new recruits.

Mendicant life

In addition to the Five Great Vows, the lives of monks and nuns are regulated by rules found in scriptures and in the oral tradition. Though these have been discussed and adjusted throughout Jain history, they give rise to several elements characteristic of Jain mendicants. These range from their monastic equipment, their lifestyle, their duties and their clothing or nudity, depending on sect. Jain ascetics do various things each day, ranging from seeking alms to performing the ‘six obligatory actions’ of a mendicant. They may also have other religious duties, although customs vary in the different sects and mendicant lineages.

Monastic equipment

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

In line with their fourth vow of non-attachment to worldly things, monks and nuns do not own anything. The local lay community provides them with monastic equipment, which is believed to be the minimum necessary for correct religious life.

Monastic equipment varies according to the mendicant’s sect and mendicant lineage. Ascetics of all sects use monastic brooms to sweep an area before sitting or lying down so that insects and minute beings are not harmed. This helps them keep their vow of non-harm. The Śvetāmbara broom is made of cotton or wool strands while the broom used by Digambaras is made of peacock feathers.

Śvetāmbara ascetics use an alms bowl, water pot and a mouth-cloth. The mouth-cloth stops minute beings being accidentally inhaled and avoids injuring wind-bodied beings. Monks and nuns from Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak sects may also use staffs, bookstands and seats.

Digambara mendicants eat alms directly from their hands and carry a water pot for toilet purposes.

Wandering lifestyle

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Jain ascetics also are known for their wandering lifestylevihāra. Expected to travel around instead of staying in one place as householders do, monks and nuns may cover up to around 30 kilometres a day. This ‘wandering’ – vihāra – entails walking from one place to another every day or every few days. This custom may also be linked to the vow of non-attachment.

Mendicants wander all the time except during the annual rainy season, when they remain in one place for these four months. There are three principal reasons for this practice. Firstly, travelling is difficult because of floods, poor roads and so on, especially as mendicants traditionally travel on foot. Secondly, it reduces the likelihood of breaking the first vow of non-violence, because the warmth and humidity of the monsoon season result in a great increase in various forms of life. Last, while the monks and nuns stay in one place they have more contact with lay people. This encourages devotion among the local lay community.

Daily activities

Every day monks and nuns perform certain tasks. The most important from a practical point of view is probably seeking alms. From a religious viewpoint the most significant is the six ritualsāvaśyaka – ‘necessary, required’.

Other tasks are practical, such as washing garments, where these are worn, or religious, such as memorising or studying sacred writings. These duties vary according to the monastic order, the place of an ascetic within this order, the sex of the mendicant, age and other factors.

Gathering alms

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jain mendicants are not allowed to cook food themselves. They are also not allowed to get it cooked by anybody in the premises where they stay. Thus they have to go to lay people’s houses to get food. The alms tour takes place twice a day for Śvetāmbara mendicants, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. Digambara ascetics seek alms once a day.

Finding correctly offered alms that are suitable may take hours. However, all food has to be eaten before sunset.

Six daily obligatory rituals

The six rituals each mendicant is supposed to complete every day are known as āvaśyaka – ‘necessary, required’. The most important is the ritual of repentancepratikramaṇa – which takes place at regular periods, at least twice a day.

Clothing or nudity

Digambara monks live naked to show detachment from worldly concerns, which is much honoured. A kṣullaka or junior novice wears three white garments while an ailaka wears a loincloth. When an ailaka is ready to become a monk he casts off his loincloth

Digambara monks and novices
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

This has become the most obvious way to tell the difference between Śvetāmbara and Digambara mendicants. Śvetāmbara means ‘white-clad’ while the latter means ‘sky-clad’ – that is, naked.

However, not all Digambara mendicants go without clothes. Only those who are full mendicants go completely nude because it is considered part of being able to renounce all possessions and have no attachment to anything. Neither male novice mendicants nor nuns go nude. Among the Jains, nudity produces great respect because only those who are capable of full detachment from worldly matters can practise it in total freedom.

In early Śvetāmbara scriptures, there is some flexibility regarding the connection of clothes to the idea of non-possession. As suggested by their name, Śvetāmbara monastic robes are white. In Western Indian manuscript paintings of the medieval period, the robe of the Śvetāmbara mendicants is depicted as white or transparent with white dots. In later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.

Fasting unto death

This manuscript painting shows Dhanya and Śālibhadra fasting to death, among lay people and monks paying homage to them. Dubbed the 'sage's death', this very difficult ritual is believed to purify the mind and destroy negative karma and passions

Dhanya and Śālibhadra fast unto death
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

For Jains the conditions of someone’s death are important because the individual’s mental state at this time helps determine destiny in the next birth. For this reason and also because one should avoid living in circumstances that prevent keeping vows or obligations, it is traditional for Jains to try to exercise control over their deaths. It is especially achieved by mendicants as part of ideal ascetic conduct.

The ultimate method of having some control over one’s death is that of sallekhanā – literally ‘thinning out’ – or anaśana, which means ‘fasting unto death’. It implies gradually giving up food and liquids in order to purify the mind and destroy all negative karma and passions. Fasting to death is not considered to be suicide, which is forbidden in Jain belief. A Jain freely chooses the ‘sage’s death’, which is recognised as a difficult choice and is honoured as an expression of devotion.

The mendicant who makes this decision generally goes to a secluded place on a hilltop. Inscriptions and memorials found in places such as Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa are evidence of this longstanding practice. It is still part of the mendicant’s life today, especially among Digambaras, and is considered to be remarkable and worthy of great respect.

Number of monks and nuns

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

Though the ‘fourfold community’ of the Jains is composed of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women, the proportion of mendicants to laity is likely to have always been very small. A large lay community is probably needed to support a relatively low number of monks and nuns. Estimates of the number of Jains in the world vary from around 5 to 10 million, concentrated in India.

Nearly all Jain monks and nuns are in India because attitudes towards modernity, especially transportation, stop them travelling to Jains outside the country. This results in a handful of mendicants tending to the spiritual needs of over 100,000 lay members of the Jain diaspora. These are chiefly Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin samaṇas and samaṇīs, who are special categories of mendicants permitted to travel, established in 1980 by Ācārya Tulsī.

This table shows the number of Jain monks and nuns in 1999, which is when the figures were last verified.

Number of Jain mendicants in 1999




Total mendicants

Proportion of mendicants (%)

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak





Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin















Adapted slightly from the table in the article by Peter Flügel, ‘Demographic Trends in Jaina Monasticism’ in Studies in Jain History and Culture, edited by P. Flügel, London, Routledge, 2006.


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Shantaram Bhalchandra Deo
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Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute; Pune, Maharashtra, India; 1956

Full details

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Full details

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Full details


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