Article: Mendicant orders

All lay and mendicant Jains are members of sects, which are the largest divisions within the Jain tradition. Monks and nuns are organised into mendicant or monastic orders. These form the largest grouping for mendicants. In Jainism there is no central authority equivalent to a pope, so a mendicant’s relationship with the leader of his or her mendicant order or subgroup – usually called an ācārya – is the most important one. These relationships between teacher and pupil produce a mendicant lineage or monastic order. Succession lists document these relationships and help establish the history and context of a mendicant order.

Members of most Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak groups use the term gaccha for a sect. Within this sect there are smaller sects or subsects, which take gaccha as part of their title. Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin use sampradāya instead.

All monks and nuns live in small groups or communities. Because mendicants have a wandering life – vihāra – they travel in small bands, each with a leader, which are deliberately similar to large families. These leaders are subordinate to higher-ranking mendicants within the same monastic lineage or mendicant order.

The followers of the Jinas split over time and developed into two distinct sectarian traditions with individual histories at the beginning of the Common Era. Describing this process even-handedly is hard because Digambara mendicant orders have developed in a complicated way, still in need of scholarly exploration. Today Śvetāmbara mendicant orders appear fairly organised and structured. Although only the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect has a single leader, other Śvetāmbara sects organise themselves around different leaders and subdivide into various subsects. Digambara mendicants also live in small communities but among the few full-fledged monks there is more emphasis on individualism. Both sects have a strict mendicant hierarchy based on length of monastic life although nuns are always junior to monks, regardless of mendicant rank.

In Mahāvīra’s time living in organised communities was not the only option. Another possibility was to live ‘like a Jina’, that is outside any group, living alone.


This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript shows Śvetāmbara monks listening to a senior mendicant. The teacher is the largest figure, indicating his importance, and he sits on a low dais with a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – in front

Senior monk teaching
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A variety of terms is still used for the subdivisions of mendicant orders within sects. Some signal identities and differences while other are more or less synonyms and are used rather loosely.

Saṅgha is the broadest term. It can refer to the complete Jaincommunity’, with its four components of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. But it is also used in the more restricted sense of ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.

Monastic orders’ are called either gaṇa or gaccha. Both terms mean ‘group’. The first one is technically older. The second one etymologically relates to a root meaning ‘to go’ and thus can be understood as designating ‘monks who go together’ – who travel together and who follow the same rules. Gaccha is the term commonly used among the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaks to refer to the largest unit, often called the ‘sect’. It appears as the second element of various proper names such as Tapā-gaccha, Añcala-gaccha and Kharatara-gaccha. The Sthānaka-vāsins prefer the term sampradāya.

A monastic order is first defined by a common descent, which indicates a lineage. Most Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka orders trace their origin to Sudharman, one of Mahāvīra’s direct disciples.

In modern times, the Terāpanthins are the only Śvetāmbara monastic order with a straightforward history because they have a centrally organised structure with a single leader – ācārya. All other Śvetāmbara sects that have emerged since the 11th to 12th centuries have a complex history of splits, which have generated a number of subsects or sub-branches. These are known as sampradāyas, śākhās or samudāyas. This term means ‘co-arising’ and underlines the creation of a lineage.

Each sect and subsect records the names of its leaders. These succession lists form a special type of literature – paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – of which mendicants are fully aware. Śvetāmbara mendicants place themselves within such lineages in manuscript colophons, inscriptions and in everyday usage. The usual formula names X as ‘pupil of Y, who was / is the pupil of Z, etc., at the time when N was/is the head of the monastic order So and So’. They recite this lineage when a new monk or nun is initiated (Cort 1991: 656), emphasising the sense of continuity and context.

Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka or Sthānaka-vāsin

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

In the 15th to 17th centuries, a major split occurred within the Śvetāmbara sect, which gave birth to two distinct sectarian traditions:

The main issue of contention is the worship of images. The Mūrti-pūjaks practise it while the Sthānaka-vāsin reject the notion.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there are examples of mendicants who took initiation within a monastic order belonging to one of these two traditions and later joined the other one. Becoming a member of another sect may require a mendicant to change his or her name.

Changing mendicant order

Name and dates

Original mendicant order

Second mendicant order



changed name to Buddhivijaya

Muni Jinavijaya



Muni Ātmarām


changed name to Vijayānanda-sūri

Founding new orders

A distinct monastic order within the broader group of a sect is usually founded when a mendicant disagrees with something and his disciples or other mendicants follow him. The grounds for divisions are generally complex and multiple. They relate to:

  • disagreements over interpretations of scriptures that influence practice, recitation, ritual, religious calendar, child-initiation and so on
  • personal conflicts between a senior and junior mendicant, perhaps in a competition of egos
  • individual charisma
  • demography – mendicants generally live in small groups during their wandering life of eight out of 12 months, supervised by the most senior monk, which may eventually produce a new group
  • geography (Cort 1991: 661) – that is, wandering in a specific area
  • the death of a religious leader.

Once a new monastic order is founded, it takes the name of its founder. For example the Nemisūri-gaccha is named after the ācārya Nemi and his title sūri while the Vijayarāmacandra-sūri-samudāya is called after Vijayarāmacandra and his title of sūri. A common element in the names, such as –vijaya or –sāgara may be an identifying sign.

The year when a new order is founded may become the starting point of a new era.

A change of group is fairly formalised in the Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures. A newcomer should be questioned as to why he left his former group and about his motivations for wanting to enter a new one (Caillat 1975: 61–65).


This detail of a manuscript painting shows Digambara novices and monks. Full monks go naked as part of their vow of non-possession while novices wear white garments until they are ready to renounce the world fully

Monks and novices
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Internal hierarchy (Cort 1991: 663) is a characteristic of all Jain monastic orders. Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures show this is not a new phenomenon, but the terms and levels have changed.

Among today’s Digambara munis or naked ascetics, who are limited in number, the hierarchy is generally less marked because the main factor in a band of mendicants is personal charisma. A wandering group of ascetics includes only one muni, together with nuns and novices who are, by definition, subordinate to him.

As a rule monks, and especially nuns, are expected to serve their superiors – sevā or vaiyāvṛttya. They must perform obligatory duties such as confession and repentance in front of him when he or she is present. When he or she is absent, the superior is symbolised by the sthāpanācārya. These are signs of good education and modesty – vinaya. Relations between mendicants in the same monastic order combine such features with devotion and a sense of togetherness.

The monastic hierarchy is based on seniority in religious life, which means how long a mendicant has been a monk or nun, on knowledge of the scriptural tradition or ability to lead. It does not depend on chronological age. A nun is always subordinate to a monk, even though she may have equal or greater monastic seniority.

The Śvetāmbara scriptures that deal with monastic organisation give the levels of mendicant hierarchy.

Śvetāmbara mendicant hierarchy


Meaning in English






elder’, referring to seniority and knowledge



‘teacher’ or ‘superior’

vajjhāya – Prakrit
upādhyāya – Sanskrit


‘preceptor’ or ‘tutor’



‘promotor’, in charge of discipline



leader of a group of monks

niggantha – Prakrit
nirgrantha – Sanskrit
bhikkhu – Prakrit
bhikṣu – Sanskrit
sāhu – Prakrit
sādhu – Sanskrit


ordinary monk or nun

This is a rough picture, as the terms may be used differently and may not match this ranking. For instance, a teacher can be an elder and so on. Even so, the presence of teachers, preceptors and ordinary monks among the ‘Five Entities’ praised as part of the ‘Fivefold Homage’ – Pañca-namaskāra-mantra or Navakār-mantra – suggests that these three terms are fundamental.

Among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak monastic orders, the members are ranked as shown in the table.

Contemporary Śvetāmbara mendicant hierarchy


Meaning in English




gacchādhipati or sūri


head of the main gaccha
There is no such position in the Tapā-gaccha



‘teacher’, though usually translated as ‘mendicant leader’
The old title of pravartinī for nuns is seldom used, and there is no equivalent to ācārya among nuns



‘leader of a group’
The second term is equivalent to pandit and in practice indicates years of study



Now fallen into disuse, but common formerly



Now fallen into disuse but common formerly, for example Yaśovijaya Upādhyāya in the 17th century



ordinary monk or nun

Monastic ‘families’

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

The basic frame of mendicant life has always been a small group centring on a religious teacher. This entourage is called parivāra or kula, which in common parlance means ‘family’. Indeed, especially among Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak monastic orders, there is ‘a replication of many elements of the [lay] social order’ (Cort 1991: 652).

Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures detailing rules for daily monastic life – the Cheda-sūtras – are well aware of this and consider it a guarantee of harmonious religious life:

The entourage (parivāra) of an instructor [= ācārya], compared to the father, includes on the one hand his ‘descendants’ (pupil, pupil’s pupil, and also pupil of the pupil’s pupils) and on the other his ‘ancestors’. […] A lineage is thus constituted by seven generations […] The monks who have been brought up in the same ‘families’ and the same ‘flocks’ – and consequently in the same religious customs (pravrajyā), and those who have received the same teaching (śruta) from the same teacher are ‘members of the same party’. An educational community produces the strongest affinities

1975, pages 27–28

The head of the working unit is always a monk, with nuns dependent on him. But as nuns live in monastic lodgings – upāśrayas – that are separate from monks, in practice one of them is the leader of the other nuns on the same premises, at least temporarily.

Evidence from the past as well as the present shows that groupings at these levels are quite fluid. Close disciples of a given teacher tend to travel and stay together, but groups may be rearranged. For instance members of various bands may be combined into different groups before the rainy season, when mendicants have to reside in one place.

Among Terāpanthins, who have a central organisation, the head of the sect decides which mendicants will form each group and their destinations for the coming rainy season. This takes place in the ceremony known as Māryadā Mahotsav.

Living like a Jina

This manuscript painting depicts Mahāvīra's initiation. Mahāvīra pulls out his hair in the rite of keśa-loca, which forms part of the ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – that begins life as a monk or nun. Śakra, king of the gods, watches him

Mahāvīra’s initiation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

During the fifth century BCE, approximately the time of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, living in organised communities – sthavira-kalpa – was not the only option for monks. They could choose the ‘Jina’s mode of life’ – Jina-kalpa. This meant living outside any social structure, either alone or in small groups without any hierarchy. It implied the desirable condition of increased detachment, and could involve total nakedness or not using alms bowls. In this respect the Jina-kalpika monks imitated the mode of life followed by the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, and the last, Mahāvīra.

This mode of life requires great moral strength and is typical of early Jainism. Monks who lived as the Jinas did are exceptional cases and are perceived as representing extreme asceticism. Both Śvetāmbara and Digambara traditions agree that the Jina-kalpa came to an end ‘with the death of Jambū, which took place 64 years after the death of Mahāvīra’ (Wiley 2004: 108).


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Colette Caillat
L. D. series; volume 45
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1975

Full details

‘Naked Ascetics in Southern Digambar Jainism’
Michael Carrithers
Man (New Series)
volume 24: 2
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; June 1989

Full details

‘The Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak Jain Mendicant’
John Cort
Man (New Series)
volume 29: 4
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; 1991

Full details

History of Jaina Monachism from Inscriptions and Literature
Shantaram Bhalchandra Deo
Deccan College Dissertation series; volume 17
Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute; Pune, Maharashtra, India; 1956

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

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

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The Digambara Jainas of South Maharashtra and North Karnataka Since the Late 19th Century: Towards the Establishment of a Collective Religious Identity and a Digambara Jaina Community
Sabine Scholz
PhD dissertation submitted to University of Manchester in 2011

Full details

‘The Revival of the Digambara Muni Tradition in Karnataka during the Twentieth Century’
Sabine Scholz
The Jaina Heritage: Distinction, Decline and Resilience
edited by Julia A. B. Hegewald
South Asian and Comparative Studies Heidelberg series; volume 2
Samskriti; New Delhi, India; 2011

Full details

The Unknown Pilgrims: The voice of the sādhvīs – the history, spirituality, and life of the Jaina women ascetics
N. Shāntā
translated by Mary Rogers
Sri Garib Dass Oriental series; volume 219
Sri Satguru Publications; New Delhi, India; 1997

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details


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