The term ‘mendicant’ refers to monks and nuns in general. Jain mendicants are people who have become monks or nuns after the official initiation ceremony called dīkṣā. They renounce ordinary life, receive the monastic equipment in accordance with the monastic order to which they will belong.
After that they lead a life conforming to the ‘five great vows’ – mahā-vrata. These vows provide a frame of behaviour for mendicants, but there are many specific rules for each and every aspect of daily life.
Different terms for mendicants
Early Jain writings
Early records that mention mendicants call them by different expressions according to the context. There is a masculine and feminine form of each term.
mendicant as a spiritual person – ‘without knot, without bond’
mendicant as someone begging alms
general term for a sage
Lay men listen to monks
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position higher than that of a kṣullaka because it entails stricter vows
one who lives a sedentary life and does not take the full vows
special category among the Śvetāmbara Terā-panthin sect
The samaṇa and samaṇī have fewer restrictions than full mendicants. For example, they can use transport instead of only walking.
Wandering and sedentary life
Monastic life depends on the season. The year is divided into two parts, consisting of the:
- four months of the rainy season
- eight remaining months.
eight months of the year
wandering life – known as vihāra in modern times
rainy season – about four months
living in the same place without travelling
As part of the mendicant lifestyle, Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. Known as vihāra, ‘wandering’ means walking along the roads from one place to another one, starting very early in the morning. The distances vary, but they can amount to 20 to 30 kilometres a day. Being a Jain ascetic therefore requires physical strength and resilience.
The destination is decided by a leading mendicant of a small group, or by the head of the monastic order in the case of the Terāpanthins. During the ceremony known as māryādā-mahotsava, he decides where the various groups of ascetics should go for the next rainy season. They reach their destinations in stages. Ascetics wander in groups of varying sizes. A mendicant is generally not expected to be alone.
According to traditional rules, mendicants are not allowed to stay more than a few days in the same place outside the rainy season. This rule is still in force today, although the duration of their stay may be longer. In extreme cases, the mendicants would always stay in the same place.
Life in the rainy season
The rainy season is traditionally considered unsuitable for wandering for three main reasons. Mendicants traditionally only go on foot and for the practical reasons of floods, muddy roads and so on travelling is very difficult during this period. It is also a time when numerous minute beings are born because of the combined warmth and humidity. Hence it is believed that hurting living beings is much easier, which makes it easier to accidentally break the fundamental Jain principle of non-violence. Limiting one’s movements is a way to counteract this risk. Finally, staying in one place enables mendicants to meet the local lay communities daily, through preaching, begging alms and so on. Thus lay people are more inclined to study or to keep additional dietary restrictions and so on.
Jain ascetics do various things each day, ranging from seeking alms to performing the six rituals of a mendicant. They may also have other religious duties, although customs vary in the different sects and monastic orders.
Monk receives alms
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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 begging 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
- serenity – sāmāyika
- praise of the 24 Jinas
- offering worship and respect towards mendicants
- repentance – pratikramaṇa
- rejection of the body – kāyotsarga
- vowing special austerities for the future.
The most important is the ritual of repentance – pratikramaṇa – which takes place at regular periods, at least twice a day.
Writing and copying
Mendicants do not necessarily write and copy texts. This activity is connected with monastic education, which depends on the individual mendicant order. Writing in minute script or copying are almost artistic activities.
Recitation and singing
Learning by heart is an important activity for monks and nuns, even today.
All activities that favour memorisation are encouraged but using electricity or even a lamp is not allowed. Memorising keeps the mind busy even in these conditions.
It is common to see lay people visiting the mendicants’ lodgings – upāśraya – to talk with them, to receive their blessing or advice on worldly matters. These can be thought of as consultations, but lay newcomers can come along so these meetings are not private.
The mendicants often answer queries by talking about a more general belief or principle and like to refer to past or present examples, role models, and so on. These are very numerous in Jain story literature.
Jain monks and nuns generally sleep only for a few hours at night, around three to five hours.
The mendicant groups are organised in ranks based on seniority, sex and position. Seniority is based on the number of years spent as a mendicant since religious initiation – dīkṣā – not on the real age of the person.
General principles of this hierarchy are:
- juniors serve and respect senior ascetics
- a mendicant who holds an official position is senior to one who does not
- a monk is always senior to a nun, irrespective of mendicant age or office held.
The titles of the various roles vary among the different monastic orders and they have varied in the course of history. The names found in earlier texts are not necessarily the same as those used today. Among the Śvetāmbaras, sūri and gacchā-dhipati are the highest titles. Among the Digambaras, it is muni and ācārya.
Promotion to higher positions is an occasion for ceremonies and celebrations organised by the lay communities. Promotion comes through appointment from older mendicants or from the head of the sect, if there is one. The various positions take into account the achievements of the mendicants. For example,a preceptor or tutor – upādhyāya – or a pannyāsa – approximately ‘learned’ – are those who have been recognised as having a special proficiency in the knowledge of scriptures.
Attitudes towards modern life
The development of modern technologies is a challenge for today’s Jain mendicants. The great majority of them keep to traditional rules, which means that:
- they do not use any means of transportation and only walk
- they do not use electricity because it is considered a form of fire, and its use endangers fire-beings
- they do not use modern toilets
- they do not accept modern medicine, especially surgery.
There are, however, some exceptions. These are of two kinds – institutional and individual.
Institutional exceptions are the mendicants in the intermediate category of samaṇ and samaṇis among the Śvetāmbara Terā-panthins. In particular, they are allowed to use methods of transportation and travel abroad. They play an important role for the Jain diaspora outside India.
Individual exceptions include leading mendicants in various groups who believe that they have to adjust to changing contexts and make use of modern innovations for the sake of their religion’s future. Such decisions often give rise to heated discussions and criticisms. One example is that of the three brothers known as ‘Bandhu Triputi’. These three men are Śvetāmbara Mūrti pūjaka monks who travel extensively to Europe and America and do not consider that this amounts to breaking the rule.
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volume 29: 4
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; 1991
- ‘The Codes of Conduct of the Terāpanth Samaṇ Order’
- South Asia Research
volume 23: 1
SAGE Publications; 2003
- Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community
- University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada; 2002
- Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
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Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995
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Routledge Taylor & Francis Group; London, UK and New Delhi, India; 2011
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