Even though the two major Jain sects take their names from their respective mendicant clothing practices, lay people of all Jain sects wear clothes. The issue of nudity or clothing is discussed only for mendicants. Monastic clothing has become the most obvious way to differentiate male mendicants of the Śvetāmbara and Digambara sects, which form the two main Jain sectarian traditions. The former means ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit while the latter means ‘sky-clad’ – that is, naked. It is not as superficial a topic as it may appear, because wearing or not wearing clothes symbolises attachment or non-attachment to the world respectively.
Both male and female mendicants take a vow of non-possession when they become monks and nuns. As the ideal to which mendicants aspire, the ‘perfect ascetic’ demonstrates total detachment from the things of the world. This includes not just objects but emotions of all kinds, since complete detachment enables spiritual progression towards omniscience and liberation from the cycle of births. Disagreements over the interpretation of the vow of non-possession – aparigraha – support the different practices of the sects when it comes to whether their mendicants wear clothing and, if so, what kinds of clothing are permitted.
The sectarian attitudes towards mendicant clothing can be seen most clearly in the issue of female nudity. Female mendicants of all sects wear white robes. However, Digambara nuns are not considered to be the female equivalent of monks because they are not permitted to be nude. Since, for Digambaras, mendicants must renounce clothing to achieve salvation, nuns are not considered capable of the level of spirituality required for liberation. In contrast, Śvetāmbaras believe that nuns are just as capable of gaining emancipation as monks, even though both wear clothes. For them, detachment involves having no feelings of attachment to monastic equipment, not in using the items themselves. Both sects consider certain items vital to living a religious life.
Examples of both clothed and nude figures can be found in Jain art. Early depictions of Jinas show them naked but loincloths appear around the fifth century. Since then idols created by the Digambara and Śvetāmbara sects have usually demonstrated representative attitudes towards mendicant nudity. This results in Śvetāmbara images wearing loincloths while Digambara images are naked.
To non-Jains, being nude in public for any reason can be disturbing, shocking or even wrong from a religious point of view. This has led to periods when rulers of India discouraged or banned public nudity. The official disapproval of nudity in the 19th century weakened as Digambara monks revived the custom in the early 20th century. Though there is a national law against nudity in public, the principle of religious nudity is legally accepted. However, attitudes towards public nudity today vary and Digambara monks may try to adapt to the traditions of the local population.
Nudity and clothing
The Sanskrit terms for nudity are nagnatva or a-celakatva, the latter meaning literally ‘absence of clothing’. Partly in recognition that living naked is difficult, not all Digambara mendicants go nude. Full monks – munis – among the Digambaras go without clothing, while novices and juniors wear garments. Digambara nuns wear white robes, as do monks and nuns of the Śvetāmbara sect.
For the Digambaras, nudity is a symbol of perfect detachment from everything, whether material possession or moral defilement. Therefore it is necessary stage in the theoretical possibility of reaching salvation. This is stated very clearly by Kundakunda, one of the most famous authoritative Digambara voices, who lived around the first century of the Common Era:
According to the Teaching of the Jina, a person wearing clothes cannot attain mokṣa [emancipation] even if he be a Tīrthaṃkara. The path of mokṣa consists of nudity (nagna); all other paths are wrong paths
Suttapāhuḍa, verse 23
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 35, 1991
In the Śvetāmbara tradition, absolute nakedness is the rule only for spiritually advanced monks who live according to the rule of Jinas – jinakalpikas – or for Jinas themselves. For example, according to the Kalpa-sūtra, when Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, renounced worldly life in order to become an ascetic, ‘for a year and a month, he wore clothes – cīvara-dhārī; after that time he walked about naked – a-cele, and accepted the alms in the hollow of his hands’ (Jacobi 1884: 260). The first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, also lived most of his monastic life without clothing. The other 22 Jinas, however, wore clothes after renunciation.
‘My clothes being torn, I shall [soon] go naked’, or ‘I shall get a new suit’, such thoughts should not be entertained by a monk. At one time he will have no clothes, at another time he will have some; knowing this to be a salutary rule, a wise [monk] should not complain about it
Another argument in favour of nudity is that clothes may attract minute living beings through dirtiness. Since these beings could be destroyed, even involuntarily, clothes hinder the practice of perfect non-violence, one of the key principles of Jainism.
For average ascetics, however, the use of clothing is the rule.
Passages found in the scriptures, Digambara as well as Śvetāmbara, show that clothing:
- protectis the body from heat, cold and insect bites
- contributes to the sense of shame
- avoids the disgust that the sight of a naked body may produce.
Such statements underline the fact that going nude is not something easy and that not all ascetics can do it. Being able to go naked without feeling embarrassed requires detachment with regard to both the body and onlookers’ eyes. Hence nudity means being invulnerable to the ‘passions’ or emotions, to which shame and pride belong (Dundas 2002: 50). For instance, a Digambara commentator recommends that male ascetics can use clothes if they have genital or other deformities (quoted in Jaini 1991: 100). This, however, seems quite unusual, as the rule is normally that people with deformities are not allowed to receive monastic initiation.
In general, nudity produces great respect among the Jains because only those who are capable of full detachment can practise it in total freedom and have inner purity.
Concept of possession – parigraha
Non-possession or non-attachment is the theoretical ideal of Jain mendicants. The question is then whether wearing clothes contradicts this ideal or not. In fact neither Śvetāmbaras nor Digambaras regard clothing as a possession – parigraha. Both sects view certain items as essential to a proper mendicant lifestyle, but their interpretations of whether clothing is one of them vary.
The view of the Digambaras is rather radical in that they take this literally. From their perspective, rejection of clothes to live in total nudity is the clearest example of non-possession. Therefore only the most advanced ascetics can achieve this.
Śvetāmbaras promote a different interpretation of possession and non-possession. For them parigraha is attachment or feeling of ownership. Thus it is not related to clothing or to the number of monastic equipment ascetics use. This equipment, such as brooms and staffs, is viewed as necessary to live a religious life and such items are not embellishments.
Monastic robes are normally not private or individual properties. They are part of the equipment the newly initiated mendicant gets at the time of initiation – dīkṣā. During this ceremony clothes play a symbolic role. Before initiation the candidate is dressed richly, like a prince or a princess. After initiation he or she wears only the sober white monastic robes. These robes are also part of the religious gifts – dāna – lay people can offer.
Receiving and using clothes
Nun washing clothes
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
Ascetics receive monastic clothes from lay people in the same way they accept food or other monastic equipment from them as alms. One chapter of the Ācārānga-sūtra, the first of the Śvetāmbara scriptures, is devoted to this topic and provides rules that have to be followed. They relate to:
- authorised materials
- size and number of clothes
- distance the mendicant may cover in order to get them, and other such details
Only natural fabrics made from plants are permitted, such as wool and cotton. Animal products, such as furs, or any material using animal hair is forbidden. Expensive, perfumed or embroidered clothes are also not allowed. When monks and nuns receive clothing, they should not do anything to it, such as washing or dying.
Mendicants should not request clothes belonging to the donor, as it would amount to theft.
These rules are meant to eliminate reasons for quarrelling, mutual envy, attachment, breaking of self-control and so on.
Similarly, washing clothes is not supposed to be done haphazardly (see Deo 1960, pages 260 to 261 for ancient prescriptions). Mendicants must use boiled water, to ensure no living beings are in the water, and, theoretically, no detergent. This reduces the level of unavoidable violence involved.
Moreover, scriptures dealing specifically with rules of monastic life show how clothes were worn depending on circumstances. Generally, the complete outfit is worn when the ascetics go out for their alms-round, for preaching, for pilgrimage and so on. They are allowed to wear lighter clothing when inside the monastic lodgings.
Nudity, clothing and female ascetics
According to a saying of Jain scriptures frequently quoted in debates about nuns’ clothing, ‘it is not permitted that a nun may go without clothes’ (Bṛhatkalpa, in Jaini 1991: 56). This is mirrored in practice both past and present. Underlying this are the notions that inherently female qualities are denied if women go without clothes and that female nudity weakens self-discipline among males. The issue of female nudity is also strongly connected to the question of whether women can achieve a high enough spiritual level to reach liberation.
In Indian culture nudity signals rejection of bashfulness and shame, which means a nude woman must deny the qualities which society recognises as recommended to females. Female nudity also leads to increased excitement and lack of control in men, especially male ascetics, whose self-control could be endangered.
A well-known instance involves Rājīmatī and the monk Rathanemi, brother of her former fiancé Prince Nemi. After she had become a nun, Rājīmatī was caught in a heavy storm on her way to Mount Girnar. Seeking shelter in a cave, she took off her wet clothes and when she ‘was naked as [the day] she was born, thus she was seen by Rathanemi, whose [peace of mind] became [thereby] disturbed’ (Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, 22: 33–34; Jacobi 1895: 116–117).
The teacher allows clothes for nuns, even though they are a possession, because in abandoning clothes there would be a total abandonment [of all the mendicant restraints], whereas in wearing clothes there is only a minor defect
Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa, verse 33
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 57, 1991
The best example of the extensive debate between the two camps is the Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa (see Jaini 1991: 41–108). The text’s author is not a Śvetāmbara but a Yāpanīya, a short-lived mendicant order that tried to compromise between radical positions. The position of opponents to female emancipation is best summarised thus:
Nudity must be considered a prerequisite for mokṣa; if this were not so, it would not be obligatory for males also. Being unfit for nudity, a woman must be considered unfit for Siddhahood [= liberation of the soul], like anyone who is unfit to receive initiation
Strīnirvāṇaprakaraṇa, verse 56
translated by Padmanabh S. Jaini, page 57, 1991
Monks and nuns always wear white clothing, though some garments may be a pale cream colour. Some subsects may have identifying bands of colour on their robes.
The regulations on monastic clothing go into detail about the number, type and fabric of garments which Jain mendicants are permitted. Directions on where and how to wear them are also included in the scriptures.
Clothing depends to some degree on rank and status. Since nudity is associated with a high state of spirituality, lower-ranking monks among the Digambaras wear more clothes. Śvetāmbara monks wear three garments. Digambara nuns wear two items of clothing at most while their Śvetāmbara counterparts use up to four.
Pure white is the only colour of Jain monastic clothing, whatever the order to which mendicants belong.
Jains who wear orange or yellow robes are either temple attendants – pujāris – or Digambara clerics known as bhaṭṭārakas. On holy days lay people may also wear orange, which is a sacred colour in India.
Although the Digambara sect is known for the nudity of its monks, not all mendicants in the sect live naked. Men who are initiated into the Digambara mendicancy pass through novitiate stages. They may not become fully-fledged monks, who are the ones who go nude.
Digambara nuns are not technically mendicants, since they cannot renounce clothing and thus cannot fully renounce the world. As spiritually advanced lay women, they wear white robes. However, they follow the same rules of mendicant lifestyle as the male ascetics.
Digambara monks and novices
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya
The three stages of male monastic hierarchy among Digambaras are reflected in whether clothes are worn or not. The stages depend on the man’s level of spiritual advancement.
Digambaras connect these stages with the general scheme of the pratimās, recognised by both Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. This scheme defines a progression of 11 degrees, by which a lay man slowly renounces household life (Jaini 1991: 38–39; Wiley 2004: 245). As the table makes clear, nudity thus represents the culmination of a graduated path.
novice – kṣullaka
Three pieces of clothing:
But Carrithers (1989: 222) states that ‘he wears only two garments: a loincloth and an upper cloth. He may not use a blanket’.
10th – stage of leaving the household, or becoming a monk
junior – ailaka
monk – muni
Post-pratimā stage – has climbed the full scale
A female novice – kṣullikā – keeps two pieces of clothing. She wears a white sari and covers the top part of her body with a long shawl. She removes this shawl while eating.
Śvetāmbara ascetics of both sexes wear clothing, which is closely defined by scriptural rules. Monks’ clothes are much simpler than nuns’ robes. Nuns’ garments are loose-fitting and almost entirely cover them.
Since time immemorial all Jain mendicants have walked barefoot. In recent years, however, a minority of Śvetāmbara mendicants has started using cotton sandals or socks. Usually, only aged or suffering monks or nuns wear them but younger mendicants sometimes use them too, especially in winter in northern India, when it gets very cold.
Śvetāmbara monks are allowed the following three garments:
- two of cotton, worn underneath
- one of wool, worn on the top (Deo 260: 258).
But there are different rules according to the status of the mendicant, the age of texts (see Deo 1960) and the practice of various monastic orders. The passage from the Ācārānga-sūtra mentioned above refers to a context which could be that of the fifth century BCE. Today’s monastic clothes are not identical to the prescriptions in such a text. Stitched or unstitched, the robes are folded and wrapped around the body. The mendicants wear the complete outfit whenever they go out of their lodgings. When inside their lodgings, they may take off the outer garment.
Śvetāmbara scriptures have a variety of technical terms for nuns’ garments, which are much more complicated than monks’ clothes. Nuns have to be covered more than monks because:
- they need more protection against potential dangers of the wandering life
- their physical attractions should be covered, to reduce the temptation to break celibacy.
The holy writings go into great detail about nuns’ clothing because of this. As an example, the table summarises material provided by Deo (1960: 480-–82), which indicates the clothing used in the first centuries of the Common Era.
to cover private parts, being broad in the middle and thin at the ends
fastened over the waist, covering the uggahaṇantaga
to cover the two previous garments and the entire waist
from the waist down to the knees
from the waist to halfway down the thighs
from the waist down to the ankles
to cover the breasts
tied on the left shoulder, covering the back and breasts
tied on the right shoulder, to cover the two previous pieces of clothing
saṃghaḍī – ‘robes’
four robes were used
for protection against a strong breeze. It could be used for ‘giving an appearance of dwarf[ish]ness to beautiful nuns by placing it at their backs and tying it with the garments’ (Deo 1960: 482) thereby making them unattractive
Today the clothing of Śvetāmbara nuns is made of cotton and comprises three different pieces (Shântâ 1997), for which the older word saṃghaḍī can be used as a generic term. According to Shântâ, every nun has three skirts, three blouses and four veils. Most of the time the nuns cover their heads with their veils.
sāḍā or colapaṭṭo
long, full skirt, to cover from waist to feet
kaṃcavo or kaṃcuka
long blouse with sleeves or a long sleeveless blouse
pacheḍī or cādar
light veil to cover the head, which falls on the shoulders and can reach the waist
woollen shawl used in the winter, which is always white or light cream. In some monastic orders, it has a red line along the hem.
Nudity and monastic clothing in art
Both nude and clothed mendicants and Jinas are widespread in Jain art. Though practically all idols of Jinas share certain features, such as body pose and individual emblem, artistic representations of them have differed according to sect from the early medieval period. Since then Digambara images are easily identified from their severe style, nudity and downcast eyes. Śvetāmbara images have wide open eyes and are often richly painted, wearing loincloths and jewellery.
Though the symbolism of clothing is important in the Jain religion, depictions of mendicants in art vary widely. In addition, as artistic conventions have changed over the centuries, identification of sect and even status as a mendicant are often hard to prove conclusively.
As for depictions of ascetics in art, on the pedestals of some Jina images they are shown ‘with a small piece of cloth draped over their left forearms to hide their nudity’ (Wiley 2004: 142) and have thus been called ardha-phālaka – ‘with partial covering’. Despite various attempts (for example Jaini 2000), it is difficult to know for sure to which sect these monks belong and whether they could represent Yāpanīya ascetics.
In western Indian manuscript painting of the medieval period, the robes of Śvetāmbara mendicants are always depicted as white or transparent with large white dots. But on earlier palm-leaf manuscripts and in later times, the robe is simply shown as white, as it is today.
Nudity is not shown if the character is a nun. Paintings of the episode where the monk Rathanemi sees Rājīmatī naked do not depict her nude when she has taken off her wet clothes. The nun is shown at least half-covered by a piece of cloth or sometimes wears an odd garment that symbolises nudity.
Rather unusually, a Digambara monk may be shown with clothing, but this is difficult to interpret.
Attitudes towards mendicant nudity
Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir
Even though there is a longstanding association of nudity with advanced spirituality in wider Indian society, the public nudity of Digambara monks has been and sometimes still is an issue in public. A society led by non-Jain religions has often banned or discouraged public nudity at different periods.
Public nudity was not allowed in certain areas ruled by Muslims during late medieval times and made the circulation of Digambara monks problematic. Śrutasāgara, a 16th-century commentator, reports the case of a Digambara monk who allowed his group of monks to cover themselves with a mat or a piece of cloth when they went out seeking alms or for other purposes (quoted in Jaini 1991: 101). This, however, was felt to be an exceptional toleration of the sensitivities of another faith. Though it was intended to adapt practice to unexpected circumstances, covering any part of the body for Digambara monks was still considered wrong behaviour.
During British rule, this was again an issue (Scholz 2011: 260). It is said to partly explain the decline of Digambara monastic communities. The authorities ruled that Digambara monks had to wear clothes or keep some covering with them when they were in public, to put on if someone objected to their nakedness.
In the early 20th century, however, the tradition of monastic nudity was revived through three men who decided to initiate themselves (Wiley 2004: 159).
Ācārya Ādisāgara (1868–1943)
Ācārya Śāntisāgara (1873–1955)
(Wiley 2004: 192; Scholz 2011: 258–279)
Ācārya Śāntisāgara (1888–1944)
Since then Digambara monks have adopted the three stages of monkhood, progressing to full nudity. This process was customary before the Mughal period.
There is a law against public nudity in India, although nudity for religious purposes is customary among the mendicants of some Hindu sects as well as Digambara Jains. Nowadays occasional press reports show that the nudity of Digambara monks can be a source of conflict between the Jain community and non-Jains. This is particularly the case in areas where there are not many Digambara Jains and thus the general population is not used to the sight of naked Digambara monks, finding public nudity disturbing. The monks therefore may try to avoid public places in daytime. This happened, for instance, in 2008 in Puducherry.
In 2003 the late Digambara Jain activist Bal Patil made an official complaint to the Press Council of India about an article published on 2 March 2003 in the Sunday Times of India. Entitled ‘Privacy, Nudity & Jazz’, it included the following statement: ‘A certain sect of Jains – Digambars – who move about uncovered in public invoke their right to religious freedom’. No prosecution was made because the journalist’s argument that the sentence has to be read in context and was written in good faith was accepted. However, it was recognised that the feelings of a minority could have been hurt by this statement.
Such examples show that the nudity of Digambara monks can be a sensitive issue in today’s India as well as in the past, even though it is not a common sight given the small number of munis.
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