Article: Śvetāmbara Stānaka-vāsīn

The Sthānaka-vāsin are a specific sectarian tradition of the Śvetāmbara Jains which includes monastic orders and lay followers. They are found mainly in Gujarat and in the Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking areas of North India.

The word Sthānaka-vāsin literally means ‘hall-dweller’ in Sanskrit and should be understood as being the opposite of mūrti-pūjaka or ‘image-worshippers’. A ‘hall’ here is an empty building, contrasted with temples where images of the Jinas are housed and worshipped. First found in a text written in 1630, the term ‘Sthānaka-vāsin’ became regularly used only at the beginning of the 20th century. The Sthānaka-vāsins are sometimes considered to be ‘protestantJains.

Origins and early history

The Sthānaka-vāsinsect can be traced to the reform movement started by Lonkā (circa 1415–1489), also called Lunkā, Lumpāka and Loṅkā Śāh. Born in Rajasthan, Loṅkā was from an Osvāl background.

A lay man founding a reform movement is remarkable because mendicants usually start reforming factions. As a copyist of Jain scriptures for monks, Loṅkā read the texts himself and looked at the behaviour of the ascetics around him. He made some observations on the oldest Śvetāmbara scriptures, which proved the starting points of his reform. He found the following things were not in the holy texts:

  • the practice of merit-making by giving money as religious gifts to build temples
  • the performance of image-worshipmūrti-pūjā – or similar ostentatious rituals involving the breaking of flowers and other acts of violence
  • the notion of ascetics staying in one place.

According to Loṅkā, strict asceticism and total non-possession are the key words of the scriptures. Asceticism is made up of practising non-violence, self-restraint and penance. Therefore he denounced the legitimacy of the existing Jain sects that were in favour of image-worship, and started to follow the oldest textual prescriptions himself. Though he lived as an ascetic, he had not been initiated by any mendicant so he formed his own group.

There are few reliable sources on Loṅkā, partly because rival groups suppressed information about him. But there is overall agreement that Loṅkā:

The Loṅkā-gaccha – ‘Loṅkā’s monastic order’ in Sanskrit – was not founded by Loṅkā himself, but by his first disciple, Bhāṇa, who initiated himself and 45 followers of Loṅkā’s doctrine. This happened some time between 1471 and 1476. The new Loṅkā-gaccha took the ‘five great vowsmahā-vrata – of the Jain monks and nuns.

From the 16th century until the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of the order is that of successive splits creating many subgroups. Most of them comprised an intermediate category of lay-ascetics called yati, who did not accept all of the monastic vows and returned to worshipping images.

The tradition now known as Sthānaka-vāsins derives from five monks who separately split from different lines of the Loṅkā-gaccha tradition during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Monastic organisation

Two Śvetāmbara Stānaka-vāsīn nuns walk along a road in India. The monks and nuns of the Śvetāmbara Stānaka-vāsīn sect wear permanent mouth-cloths to avoid harming minute life forms. Like all Jain mendicants, they use their brooms to sweep before they sit

Śvetāmbara Stānaka-vāsīn nuns
Image by Anishshah19 © public domain

The Sthānaka-vāsin monks and nuns are split into numerous groups, mainly on account of historical, doctrinal and regional differences they think cannot be overcome. There were unsuccessful attempts at promoting unity before the Śramaṇa-saṅgha was founded in 1952. This still unites the majority of the Hindi-speaking Sthānaka-vāsin orders.

At present, there are 26 mendicant orders, which have a very complex history. Their origins can be traced to one or more of the five principal reformers – pañca munis – of the aniconic Jain tradition.

First is Jīvarāja, who was probably born in Surat in Gujarat and lived some time between 1524 and 1641. Some Sthānaka-vāsin scholars believe that he launched the innovations that are crucial to Sthānaka-vāsin identity:

  • selecting the 32 scriptures that are agreed to be canonical by all Sthānaka-vāsins
  • introducing various monastic items characteristic of Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants, namely the square mouth-cloth – muṃhpatti – which is used permanently, and the long broom – rajoharaṇa.

The second main reformer is Dharmasiṃha (1599–1671), who founded the Āṭh-koṭī or ‘Eight Class’ tradition. He was a scholar and wrote Gujarati commentariesṭabo – on the Prakrit scriptures. He introduced a special pratikramaṇa rites for his lay followers and taught that there is no accidental death, because the life span of a living being is determined by its karma.

The third reformer is Lava or Lavjīṛṣi (circa 1609–1659), who was also born in Surat. He is the founder of the Ḍhuṇḍiyā or ‘Seeker’ tradition. According to their mūrti-pūjak opponents, this name comes from the early mendicants, who looked for other accommodation rather than stay in buildings in temple grounds used by mendicants from Śvetāmbara mūrti-pūjak sects. Sthānaka-vāsins interpret the word as a term for those mendicants who seek the true path of salvation.

Fourth is Dharmadāsa (1645–1703), who also founded his own tradition. He initiated himself in 1660, launching the Bāīstolā or ‘Twenty-Two Schools’ group.

Lastly, Hara created his own branch of Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants in 1668 or 1728.

The most recent statistics show that Sthānaka-vāsins represent 27.5% of all Jain mendicants. In 1999, there were 3,223, divided into 533 monks and 2,690 nuns.


The Sthānaka-vāsins recognise 32 canonical scriptures as authoritative. This compares with 45 canonical scriptures for other Śvetāmbara groups. The Sthānaka-vāsins consider that the other 13 do not reflect the teaching of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, and are apocryphal.

The Sthānaka-vāsin canon comprises:

Sthānaka-vāsin views are expressed in the commentaries or creative writings authored by some of their teachers and written in local languages such as Gujarati and Hindi.

Significant beliefs and practices

Doctrinally, only Dharmasiṃha’s Āṭha Koṭi tradition in Gujarat differs significantly from the other four schools, which disagree only on minor points of philosophy and ritual.

A common religious activity for the Sthānaka-vāsin laity is dayā dharma. This is compassionate help – dāna – for animals and human beings. Establishing, funding and working in shelters for animals and people accumulates merit and advances the active Jain along the path of salvation.

There are three doctrinal characteristics shared by all the Sthānaka-vāsin traditions.

Rejection of image-worship

A Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditates. Meditation – dhyāna – is very important for all Jains but is one of the main methods of worship for members of the Sthānaka-vāsin sect. They reject the worship of images in favour of mental worship – bhava-pūjā

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditating
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

The laity generally rejects material forms of worship such as performing rituals and praying to idols. Instead they worship mentally, through meditationdhyāna – and study – svādhyāya. Practising the austerities – tapas – of fasting and asceticism is also a focus of religious practice.

As with the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin sect, which was formed after an 18th-century schism within the Sthānaka-vāsin, the Sthānaka-vāsin laity focuses worship on individual ascetics, as symbols of the ideal life.

Nowadays, an elaborate infrastructure of halls – sthānakas – which double as monasteries for visiting mendicants, exists for communal performance of these practices.

Strict ascetic conduct

Some Sthānaka-vāsin sects are known for following strict rules of behaviour in accordance with the prescriptions in the 32 accepted Jain scriptures. The monks and nuns are not allowed to wash their clothes, to use flushing toilets or electricity, to publish books and so on.

Compulsory use of a mouth-cloth

Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants must always wear a mouth-clothmuṃhpatti – to prevent their accidentally swallowing living beings such as insects and dust. They may remove the mouth-cloth while eating or drinking.

The square white mouth-cloth is the main visible sign of identity for Sthānaka-vāsin monks and nuns.


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