Article: Śvetāmbara

The Jain faith contains various sects or traditions, as do other religions. All these groupings believe in the central doctrines of the religion, though they vary in interpretation and practice. The two principal sects of Jainism emerged early in the Common Era, splitting over different practices and beliefs regarding monks and nuns. The Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras remain the main divisions or sects of Jainism. They take their titles from the clothing practices of their monks, which distil key doctrinal differences. The Sanskrit term ‘Śvetāmbara’ means ‘white-clad’ and refers to the white clothing of monks and nuns in this order.

Over time these two sects have built up separate doctrines and histories, resulting in different canons of sacred writings and significant individuals. Within the main sect a number of smaller subsects or traditions have arisen over the centuries. Since the late medieval period the issue of image worship has been a major point of dispute among Śvetāmbaras. Disagreements over whether it is proper to worship images eventually led to schisms that formed the Sthānaka-vāsins and the Terāpanthins. The Śvetāmbara Jains who worship images – the Mūrti-pūjaks – are the largest subsect, however. They comprise a number of smaller subsects.

Although most groups that become sects develop around a charismatic individual mendicant, some groups originate within the lay community. The chief such groups among Śvetāmbaras are the Kaḍuā-gaccha and Lonkā-gaccha.

This piece is a summary of the article "Śvetāmbara". The full article will be available soon.


This painting from a Kalpa-sūtra manuscript illustrates the 'fourfold community' – saṅgha. The followers of the Jinas are made up of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns. All elements of the community are vital

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Among Śvetāmbara Jains several Sanskrit terms are used for a ‘sect’:

The term saṅgha can express the meaning of the whole ‘fourfold community’, which is composed of monks and nuns, lay men and lay women. It can also be used for the ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.

Organisations of mendicants are known as either gaṇa or gaccha, which both mean ‘group’. Most Śvetāmbara Jains would describe a sect as a gaccha. Indeed, the label ‘gaccha’ forms part of the title of some Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjak sects, such as the Añcala-gaccha, the Kharatara-gaccha and others. The Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin prefer sampradāya to gaccha.

Main characteristics

Made of gourds, wood or clay, Śvetāmbara begging bowls – pātra – are usually red or dark orange and are often stacked up inside each other when not being used. String is wound around jars for liquids to create carrying handles.

Śvetāmbara monastic bowls
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Meaning ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit, the term Śvetāmbara described the white clothing of monks and nuns in this sect. They wear simple white – śveta – cotton robes – ambara.

There are also other key features of doctrine and practice that distinguish members of the Śvetāmbara sect.

Characteristics of Śvetāmbara sect

Mendicant clothing

white robes

Mendicant equipment

plus, for Mūrti-pūjak mendicants only

  • bookstand
  • staff

Holy texts


  • Angas
  • Anga-bāhyas


can achieve liberation

Sex of Jinas

the 19th Jina, Malli, was a woman

Images of Jinas

  • open eyes
  • wear loincloths
  • often painted and set in ornately sculpted altars and temples

The main Śvetāmbara sect has split into smaller subsects over the centuries. New groups formed around successive monastic leaders, creating monastic lineages. The records – paṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – of several mendicant lineages have survived and offer information about the origin and development of the sect.

Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions

This manuscript painting shows some of Mahāvīra's chief disciples. The 24th Jina had 11 chief disciples – gaṇa-dharas – who were his closest followers. Depicted in Śvetāmbara robes, the monks sit in lotus and demonstrate typical signs of holiness

Five of Mahāvīra’s disciples
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The significant Śvetāmbara text of the Kalpa-sūtra provides the principal record of mendicant lineages. The second section of the Kalpa-sūtra is the Sthavirāvalī, which supposedly documents the situation at the time of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra.

Mahāvīra had 11 disciples – gaṇa-dharas, who led groups of mendicants – gaṇas. Two gaṇa-dharas at a time managed two groups, making a total of nine gaṇas. None of the chief disciples had any spiritual descendant except Ārya Sudharman, so that ‘The Nirgranthas Śramaṇas of the present time are all [spiritual] descendants of the monk Ārya Sudharman’ (Kalpasūtra, Jacobi’s translation: 1884 : 287). Another reason for Sudharman’s prominence is that he did not achieve omniscience in Mahāvīra’s lifetime and hence was in a position to assume leadership of the mendicant community. All the later Śvetāmbara sectarian traditions claim descent from Sudharman except one, the Upakeśa-gaccha. This group claims descent from the 23rd Jina, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva.

The lines of succeeding religious teachers who claim a common mendicant ancestor are listed in the Sthavirāvalī in the Kalpa-sūtra. The most recent is Devarddhi Kṣamāśramaṇa, who arranged for the final redaction of the scriptures at Valabhī, in Gujarat, in the fifth century CE.

However, later documents that focus on the writing down of the holy scriptures indicate that two separate recitation traditions existed. The Gujarati towns of Mathurā and Valabhī seem to have had their own traditions, which implies that strongly held disagreements divided the Śvetāmbara community even in the fifth century.

The question of whether it is proper to worship images emerged as an issue of contention in the late medieval period. Disagreements on this topic caused several subsects to be established over the next few centuries. The present-day names for the main Śvetāmbara subsects date back to this period, when the worship of images became a major sectarian difference. The terms are:

These sects agree on several fundamental areas but hold different beliefs and have diverse practices in some respects.

The Śvetāmbara sects agree on the:

The other disputed topics may have developed gradually, in part as signs of difference from the other sects.

Main areas of Śvetāmbara sectarian disagreement


Mūrti-pūjak sect

Sthānaka-vāsin sect

Terāpanthin sect

Canonical scriptures




Worship of images




Monastic equipment – staff




Monastic equipment – broom handle




Monastic equipment – use of mouth-cloth

worn at certain times

worn permanently

worn permanently

Nuns – access to canonical scriptures, to various levels




Nuns – permission to preach




In addition, the sects have differences regarding the daily liturgy and recitation, and also the religious calendar.


Śvetāmbara monks walk down a Mumbai street accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra

Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The Sanskrit name Mūrti-pūjaka means ‘worshipper of images’, meaning images of the Jinas. Synonyms are the modern Indian words Derāvāsī – which literally means ‘staying in temples’ – and Mandir Mārgī –‘temple-followers’. Such terms have to be understood in contrast with the Sthānaka-vāsins, who reject image worship. This explains why these terms became common only when the latter came into formal existence, between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Mūrti-pūjaks form the largest Śvetāmbara sectarian tradition. Within the Mūrti-pūjak tradition there are several subsects called gacchas. They all recognise the authority of 45 canonical scriptures. The subsects are:


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

The origin of the Sthānaka-vāsin sect goes back to the lay man Loṅkā Śāh, who lived in the 15th century. It is divided into different monastic orders. Today followers of the Sthānaka-vāsins are found mainly in Gujarat and in the Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking areas of north India.

The main distinctive feature of the sect is rejection of image-worship. The term Sthānaka-vāsin literally means ‘hall-dweller’ in Sanskrit, and should be understood as being the opposite of Mūrti-pūjaka, which means ‘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. They put emphasis on strict asceticism, meditation and fasting.

Unlike the Mūrti-pūjak traditions, the Sthānaka-vāsins recognise only 32 canonical scriptures as authoritative, not 45. They deny texts they consider do not reflect Mahāvīra’s teaching, and they thus hold 13 works to be apocryphal.

The Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants are split into numerous groups, mainly on account of historical, doctrinal and regional differences they think cannot be overcome.

Their mendicants must always wear the mouth cloth muhpattī.

This table is based on information in Flügel 2006.

Sthānaka-vāsin mendicants in 1996 and 1999


Mendicants in 1996

Mendicants in 1999














Ācārya Tulsi was the head monk of the Śvetāmbara Terāpantha sect for 57 years. He was innovative, establishing the AĀuvrat Movement in 1949 and new types of mendicant in 1980. The samaṇas and samaṇīs can travel outside India, helping the Jain diaspora.

Ācārya Tulsi
Image by Pramodjain3 © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Terāpanthins are the followers of the Terāpantha. This Śvetāmbara tradition was founded in Rajasthan, which remains closely associated with it. Muni Bhikhan (1726–1803), later known as Ācārya Bhikṣu, created it in the 18th century. Born into a family following the image-worshipping tradition, he entered the monastic order of the Sthānaka-vāsins, who oppose the practice. He split from this group and founded a new one, together with 12 other monks.

This fact may give the sect its name, since the Hindi term terāpantha or terahpantha means either ‘your path’ or ‘path of 13’. Ācārya Bhikṣu’s establishment of a new sect shows a certain amount of fluidity between monastic traditions and also demonstrates the importance of regional factors in the development of different sects.

The main features of the Terāpanthins are:

  • rejection of image-worship
  • greater stress on meditational practices and contemplation – prekṣā-dhyāna
  • emphasis on social values, such as female education.

The Terāpanthamonastic order has a few notable characteristics, namely:

  • the supremacy of a single ācārya, chosen by his predecessor
  • an intermediate category of monks and nuns, created in 1980, called samaṇas and samaṇīs, who are permitted to use public transport and thus can travel outside India
  • the permanent use of the mouth-cloth among monks and nuns.

Like the other Śvetāmbara aniconic sect, the Sthānaka-vāsin, the Terāpanthins state that the canon consists of 32 scriptures. Their present leader is Ācārya Mahāśramaṇa. In 1999, there was a total of 711 mendicants in this sect (Flügel 2006: 335).

Lay traditions

In this detail from a manuscript painting Śvetāmbara monks receive alms from lay people. This manuscript of the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra, a major text outlining the rules of monastic life, dates back to the 16th century

Giving alms to Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Historically, a new sect has arisen only after a new mendicant order has been founded. Certain groups, however, prove that lay communities can give rise to new sects. Strictly speaking, lay Jains are not members of sects because only monks and nuns belong to mendicant orders, which form the groupings known as sects. Lay Jains tend to follow mendicants who claim affiliation with certain monastic orders.

However, new Śvetāmbara lay groups seem to have been formed principally in reaction to what members perceive as lax or unscriptural practices, whether among the laity or ascetics. Early members are noted for living by strict ascetic principles while remaining lay people. Associated mendicant orders may be established at later dates, creating a more traditional mendicant-based sect.


Set up in the 15th century by Kaḍuā Śāh (1438–1507), the lineage of the Kaḍuā-gaccha was a redefinition of ascetic behaviour.

Kaḍuā Śāh was originally a lay man who was a follower of the Añcala-gaccha. Since he observed that mendicants did not live the life of total renunciation prescribed in scripture, he saw no meaning in becoming one formally. Hence he was never initiated and never wore mendicant clothing. However, he followed an ascetic lifestyle, characterised by celibacy and dietary restrictions. The title he took – saṃvarī – underlines this perspective, because it means ‘keeping control and restrictions’.

In 1467 Kaḍuā became a founder and initiated other saṃvarīs, who followed the code of conduct he elaborated. This was a combination of ‘idealized ascetic and lay behavior’ (Wiley 2004 : 115). References to his ‘lineage’ – gaccha – the same term as the one used for mendicant orders, are found up to the 17th century. But it seems to have had some existence until the 1950s in Gujarat.


Chamundaraya Basti on Candra-giri, Shravana Belgola, which holds images of the Jinas Nemi and Pārśva. This temple is named after Cāmuṇḍarāya, the man who commissioned it, an important royal official in the 10th century.

Chamundaraya Basti
Image by HoysalaPhotos © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Śvetāmbara lineage from which the Sthānaka-vāsins originated, the Loṅkā-gaccha was a reform movement that emerged in the 15th century.

The lay man Loṅkā Śāh (c. 1415–1489) had direct access to the Jain scriptures, which he used to copy in manuscript form for monks. He made observations based on the oldest Śvetāmbara scriptures, which he believed do not mention the practices of:

  • gaining merit by giving money as religious gifts for the construction of temples
  • worshipping imagesmūrti-pūjā – or similar ostentatious rituals involving the breaking of flowers and other acts of violence.

These were the starting points of his reforms.

According to Loṅkā, strict asceticism, comprising non-violence, self-restraint and penance, and total non-possession are the keywords of the scriptures. Therefore he denounced the legitimacy of the existing orders that favoured the worship of images, and started to live as an uninitiated ascetic. He followed the oldest textual prescriptions.

The Loṅkā-gaccha – ‘Loṅkā’s monastic order’ – was not founded by Loṅkā himself, but by his first disciple, Bhāṇa. He initiated himself and 45 followers of Loṅkā’s doctrine, who all took the Five Great Vowsmahā-vratas – of Jain ascetics. This happened some time between 1471 and 1476.


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Full details

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Full details

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Full details

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Paul Dundas
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Peter Flügel
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Padmanabh S. Jaini
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Full details

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Padmanabh S. Jaini
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Full details

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N. Shāntā
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Sri Garib Dass Oriental series; volume 219
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Full details

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Kristi L. Wiley
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Full details


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