Article: Mendicant lifestyle

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

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

Depending on the period and sources, there is a wide range of terms for Jain ascetics, most referring to various aspects of their lives.

The two main sects of the Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras normally use slightly different words for their monks and nuns.



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.

Early terms for mendicants




mendicant as a spiritual person – ‘without knot, without bond’



mendicant as someone begging alms



mendicant as a person who practises asceticism and penance



general term for a sage


Other contexts

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts monks preaching to lay men. The mendicants are Digambara even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Raising scriptures high, the monks sit on low platforms

Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

While the different sects tend to use the terms outlined below, members of the two groups might sometimes use terms that are more frequently associated with the other sect.

Contemporary terms for mendicants












Intermediate categories

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

Each sect also has special types of mendicant.

Digambara terms for special types of mendicants




‘junior’ – a state between an ordinary lay follower and a full-fledged mendicant



position higher than that of a kṣullaka because it entails stricter vows


Śvetāmbara terms for special types of mendicants




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:

Mendicant activity by season



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

Wandering life

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

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

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

Called caturmāsa in Sanskrit and comāsa in Gujarati, the rainy season lasts from June or July up to October or November each year.

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.

Daily activities

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.

Gathering alms

In this detail of a painting from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript, a monk receives alms. Though dressed in white like a Śvetāmbara mendicant, the monk makes the ritual gestures of the Digambara sect

Monk receives alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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

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 six rituals each mendicant is obliged to complete every day are known as āvaśyaka – ‘necessary, required’:

  1. serenity – sāmāyika
  2. praise of the 24 Jinas
  3. offering worship and respect towards mendicants
  4. repentancepratikramaṇa
  5. rejection of the body – kāyotsarga
  6. 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.

Other activities

Mendicants usually do other things during the day. What they do depends on the monastic order, the place of an ascetic within this order, the sex of the mendicant, age and other factors.


This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript illustrates a Śvetāmbara monastic teacher and pupils. As the senior monk, the teacher is the largest figure and sits on a dais under an ornate canopy. The lower-ranking mendicants pay homage to him

Monastic teacher
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Ascetics may read and study the scriptures or other subjects, such as grammar, poetry and philosophy. Whether they do this very much depends on the monastic order to which they belong.

Some monastic orders support it for all ascetics while others do not encourage it for nuns. Yet others make a point of promoting female mendicants’ education.

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.

Public preaching

This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows Digambara monks preaching to lay men. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold up scriptures. The bookstands in front underline their role as religious teachers

Monks preach to lay men
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Mendicants who preach generally do this in the morning.

But not all mendicants are allowed or able to preach. In some monastic orders only the monks teach in public.


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.

Manual activities

A Śvetāmbara nun washes monastic clothing in the nuns’ lodgings – upāśraya. Rules in scriptural texts govern all aspects of monastic life, including necessary tasks such as the washing of clothes.

Nun washing clothes
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Like everyone else, Jain mendicants must attend to practical necessities, such as washing monastic robes. Related to this are more artistic activities such as stitching and embroidering. These tasks are done mostly by nuns or junior mendicants.


Jain monks and nuns generally sleep only for a few hours at night, around three to five hours.

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 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 initiationdīkṣā – 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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John Cort
Man (New Series)
volume 29: 4
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; 1991

Full details

‘The Codes of Conduct of the Terāpanth Samaṇ Order’
Peter Flügel
South Asia Research
volume 23: 1
SAGE Publications; 2003

Full details

Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community
Anne Vallely
University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada; 2002

Full details

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995

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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