Significant Status of Women Ascetic in Jaina Terāpantha Order

Published: 08.12.2013
Updated: 30.07.2015

Among religions, Jain Religion has contributed some original ideologies to the world. The most significant aspect of it is that it has always respected the smallest of the insects among living organisms and this attitude extends even to the inanimate world. So it is natural for such a religion to cultivate an attitude of respect towards women. Jainism opposes the inhuman class distinction and glorifies the soul that dwelt within each human being. Obviously, therefore, it emphasizes equality between men and women. Jain religion considers the women as equal partners of men. It states that there is no difference or distinction as far as the souls of a man and a woman are concerned, on the spiritual plane. 

Women were always allowed to enter the Jain monastic order. According to the Svetāmbara Jain books of discipline (the corpus of the so called cheda sūtra) only two types of women are forbidden to receive initiation - those who are pregnant and those who are still very young (under eight years old) or have a small child.[1]

In this paper I will describe the status of women ascetic in one of the modern Jain sects known as terāpantha, but before that I would like to mention the position of nuns in Jain order of ancient time too.

Ṛṣabha, the founder of Jainism in this time cycle, and Pārśva and Mahāvīra who are both historical figures, all had among their followers numerous female ascetics. It is interesting that the number of nuns given in the texts is always more than twice the number of monks. This is probably a distinctive feature of Jainism. If comparative study regarding the numbers of sādhus, sādhvis and śrāvakas, śrāvīkās of twenty four Tīrthankaras is done, we will find number of women ascetic and lay women almost double than the male ascetic and lay followers.

 Following table shows the number of women ascetics in the ancient period.[2]

Time Leadership Number of Women Ascetic
Ṛṣabha dev Brāhmī and Sundarī 300,000
Mallināth Bandhumatī 55,000
Ariṣtanemi Yakṣinī 40,000
Pārśvanāth Puṣpacūlā 38,000
Mahāvīra Candanā 36,000

Even though we cast aside the existence of the nun order of the time of the first Tīrthankara, which seems is more a legendary figure than a historical one, the antiquity of the order can go back safely to the times of Pārśvanāth.[3]

Jain tradition proved the equality of men and women by giving place to the later in four fold religious order i.e tīrtha. To be a Tīrthankara one has to establish a tīrtha and until women ascetic order and lay women order are not established one cannot be Tīrthankara.

Women ascetics have set an example for the society in matters relating to the ultimate achievement of spiritual progress. The liberation of women, the freedom of women and the advancement of women are integrated in Jain religion. It clearly stated in Uttarādhyayanasūtra, Jñātā Dharmakathā and Antakṛtdaśā that men and women both are able to attain highest goal liberation. In Uttarādhyayanasūtra, under the list of types of siddha, there is mention of strīlinga siddha (to attain liberation having female gender)[4].

In Jñātā Dharmakathā,[5] Antakṛtdaśā and Āvaśyaka cūrni,[6] there is mention of many females who attained liberation.

Kalpasūtra mentions about the liberation of 3000, 2000 and 1400 women ascetics in the time period of Ariṣtanemi, Pārśvanāth and Mahāvīra respectively.[7]

Organization of the Monastic order

In Jain tradition, nuns were brought at management level too. Lord Mahāvīra appointed Sādhvi Candanabālā as the chief of whole nun order. After lord Mahāvīra administration of the order was distributed amongst several office holders. They were:

Ācārya - one who directed the organization and taught the sūtra and their meanings to the monks and nuns.

 Upādhyāya - One who was responsible for imparting the knowledge

 Sthavira - one who was responsible for the spiritual progress of the initiated monks

Gaṇī - Who led the small groups of the monks

Gaṇādhara - who managed the journeys on foot undertaken by nuns

Gaṇāvachedaka - Who looked after the spreading of the mission and the development of the order

Pravartaka - one, who looked after the management[8]

As a head of nun one more post was decided and that is the post of Pravartinī [9](woman head who looked after the nun's affairs)

The designation of Pravartinī shows that women were honoured at the time of Mahāvīra too.

Spiritual Guidance by Women Ascetic to the Men Ascetic

In Jain scriptures we find incidents where male ascetics got enlightened by women ascetics. Women ascetic played a great role of providing inspiration to male ascetics and made them stable on the path of spiritual development. We find the description regarding preaching of Rajīmatī to monk Rathanemi in Uttarādhyayanasūtra[10] and Preaching of Brāhmī and Sundarī to monk Bahubalī in Āvaśyaka cūrni[11].

In Jain literature, we find incident related to Ācārya Haribhadra who was considered as an eminent scholar. He had a proud on his knowledge. Once while passing by the ladies' Upāśraya, he heard the nun reciting a verse.  He could not understand the meaning of that verse and decided that whoever will explain the meaning of verse, he will become the disciple of that person. He asked the nun about the meaning, what she had uttered and also requested her to accept him as a disciple. That nun was called Yākinī Mahattarā. Ācārya Haribhadra recognised her as his spiritual mother.

Thus Jain heritage shows that how great ācāryas honoured the knowledge and conduct of women. Jainism gives right to a woman to be a Tīrthankara too which is considered as a highest designation in Jain Tradition. In Svetāmbara tradition  Mallikumārī  is stated as Tīrthankara.[12] In Isimandaltthu (Ṛṣimandala Stava) Brāhmī, Sundarī and Candanā are also regarded as revered nuns.[13]

At present also great ācāryas play an admirable role to provide an honourable status to women ascetic. In this paper now I will focus on terāpanthi nuns who received respectful position by their ācāryas.

Position of Nuns in Terāpantha Order

In most sects, nuns live in small groups under the leadership of one of them conform to well defined seniority rules. However, an interesting example of the way the nuns order is structured in organised Terāpantha sect established in the 18th Century in Rajasthan, as a reaction to the 'lax' discipline of the time.

In the beginning, the patriarchal structure was centered around a single ācārya. He was the head of the monks and nuns who were equally proportionate. But the regular increase of nuns led to the institution of a so called Pramukhā, a female head who became the religious superior of the smaller units. She is however, by no means the equal of the ācārya, who makes all the important decisions, but is rather a kind of co-ordinator, also subordinate to him.[14] Till today eight Sādhvi Pramukhās led the nuns group in terāpantha order. At present  Sādhvī Pramukhā Kanakaprabhā is leading it.  

 Sādhvī Pramukhā Kanakaprabhā and her Contribution

Sādhvī  Kanakaprabhā  was initiated by the 9th head of Terāpantha sect,  ĀcāryaTulasī. She had been declared as the 8th Sādhvī pramukhā (head of nuns) at the young age of only thirty (1972). Looking at her hard work, fruitful guidance and successful leadership  Ācārya Tulsi awarded her with the title of Mahāśramaṇī (head of sādhvīs - in 1979)[15]. She is a qualified editor and author in Sanskṛta, Prākṛta and Hindi language. She has translated many books from Prākṛta into Hindi language.  She edited more than 50 books written by Ācārya Tulasī.

A collection of poems called "Sargama" was also released by her. She has authored an epic on travelling "Yātrā Grantha" which is recognised as one of the great books of Hindi literature. Few of her prominent books are listed as below

1. Pānva- Pānva  Calanewālā Suraja 2. Jaba Mahaka Uthī Marudhara Mātī 3. Ghara Ᾱye Santa Pāhuṇe 4. Sānson Kā Iktārā (Poetry Collection) 5. Santa Caraṇa Gaṅgā kī Dhārā

She has written biography of Ᾱcārya Tulasī entitled "Merā Jīvana Merā Darśana in 23 volumes. She is known as Mahadevi Varma of Terapnth Sect.

She is the member of Core Committee of FUREC (Foundation of Unity of Religions and Enlighted Citizenship). FUREC is a Non-Profit Organization set up to under the mentorship of former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam & Spiritual Leader Ācārya Mahaprajña with the aim to sustain the human spirit on the basis of the acceptance of, and respect for, all religions, spirituality, economic well being and the practice of Non-Violence.

Looking at the dedication of Sādhvī Pramukhā for the development of the monks and nuns of the terāpantha  order,  Ācārya Tulasī started to involve her in all the decisions being made for order. Even while writing the designation letter for his successor,  Ācārya Tulasī took her signature as a witness.[16]

 Ācārya Tulasī was a saint who did many revolutionary works and contributed the society in various ways. His guru  Ācārya Kālū made him the head of the Terāpantha Dharma Saṅgha at relatively young age of 22 years.

ĀcāryaTulasī and his Efforts for the Development of Women Ascetic

The mark of a man's greatness lies not in the loftiness of the position he holds but in the impact of his life and work done for society. When we apply this yardstick to measure the greatness of some living personage of our age,  ĀcāryaTulasī is placed in the foremost rank of effulgent souls. [17]   He dedicated his whole life for the noble cause of human welfare and work dispassionately for the accomplishment of the ultimate goal. Dr. Radhakrishnan in his "Living with Purpose" included him in the world's 15 great persons. The right minded people said, "We do not consider you merely the  Ācārya of Terāpantha Dharma Saṅgha, we think of you as the  Ācārya of Dharma."

 Ācārya Kālū, the Guru of Muni Tulasī encouraged him to develop the education system for nuns of terāpanth order so that they can also express their talent and contribute actively in all the fields for the development of Jainism. To fulfil the dream of his Guru,  Ācārya  Tulasī established the Pārmārthika Śikṣana Sansthā, a spiritual training centre for female aspirants who wanted to lead the Jain monastic lifestyle[18]. Today this training centre is working successfully providing all the facilities of teaching and practising spirituality. Mumukṣu sisters stay in this training centre for few years and after getting the permission of present  ācārya, they take initiation as nuns in the order.

Under his leadership, he involved not only sādhvī pramukhā but also many common nuns into various works like translation of Jain literature, editing of Jaina Āgamas, writing books regarding Jain history and values, composing poems, doing research on relevant subjects etc. Today in Jaina Terāpantha order, we find good women orators, authors, poets, scholars, editors and translators. Ascetic order has its limitations. Jain ascetics walk bare feet and cannot cross the boundaries of country. That is the reason; Jain religion cannot flourish outside India. To protect the Jain culture and values amongst Jain community living abroad and to spread Jain principles throughout the world,  Ācārya Tulasī felt necessity to establish a new rank of ascetics.

Samaṇa: A New Category of Ascetics

 In an effort to bring the ascetic order more in congruence with modern society and its conditions,  Ācārya Tulasī decided to create a class of mendicants, which would fall somewhere between the category of lay followers and monks and nuns with respect to renunciation. This category of samaṇas and samaṇīs was established on 1980[19]. Through the creation of this new cadre of 'semi ascetic ' well trained in Jain philosophy and practicing a life of almost complete renunciation who can travel freely throughout India and abroad to spread the message of non-violence, a revolutionary change was brought about in the field of propagation of religion. This cadre has to renounce the worldly life and march on the path of spiritual development.  It is exempt from the Jain Ascetic life, such as, not to accept alms specially prepared for them, travelling on foot, uprooting hair etc. Since its inception, about three decades ago, this category has been tremendously successful in its mission both within and outside India. So far, more than 150 men and women have accepted this initiation. After some time, some have been promoted to the ascetic order. In samaṇa order also the number of samaṇīs remained always more than samaṇas. Under the auspicious guidance of the Ācārya, members of this order practice spirituality for the self development as well as move around the country to preach the Jaina values to the community people. At present, in abroad also, there are four centres where samaṇīs stay throughout the year and conduct various activities for all Jainas and non jainas to teach them non-violence, peace and other human values.  These centres are established in New Jersey, Orlando, Houston (USA) and London (EUROPE) by the rigorous efforts of samaṇīs and required assistance of community people.

Samaṇīs are educated and able to lead the sessions on Jainism in different universities and colleges. They take part in various national and international conferences and seminars. This participation in various fields is one of the best ways to explore the Jain principles among the mass. In terāpantha order nuns and samaṇīs are taught various ancient and modern languages as well as eastern and western philosophies so that they can work on ancient literatures and present them in modern way. The training to nuns and samaṇīs are given in Jain Vishva Bharati Institute, situated in Ladnun. Ladnun is the birth place of late ninth Ācārya Tulasī and recognised as a capital of terāpantha order. JVBI is only the Institute which is called Jain  Institute. This  Institute offers many courses regarding ancient languages called Prākṛta and Sanskṛta, Jaina religion and comparative philosophy, Prekśā dhyāna and yoga, nonviolence and peace etc. Many nuns, monks and lay followers of whole Jaina order as well as non Jaina community do study and research work from this university. The Ᾱcārya of terāpantha order is the anuśāstā (patron) of  Institute and he appoints a samaṇī as a vice chancellor of university. At present Samaṇī Charitra Prajñā is a vice chancellor of the university.

Ᾱcārya Mahāprajña introduced one more designation called Mukhya Niyojikā. Sādhvī Viśruta Vibhā has been chosen as a first Mukhya Niyojikā. She   supports  Sādhvī  Pramukhā  to take necessary decisions for the sādhvis of the order. Sādhvī  Pramukhā and Mukhya Niyojikā are directly connected with the group of sādhvīs. Though, even for sādhvīs all the decisions are made by Ᾱcārya, Sādhvi Pramukhā and Mukhya Niyojikā are responsible to make the plans for the development of Sādhvīs. Mukhya Niyojikā is also responsible for spiritual development of samaṇīs. She plays an important role to decide the journey, education, spiritual practice etc of samaṇīs. She is a good writer. She has edited and translated many books written by Ᾱcārya Mahāprajña.

For the administration of Samaṇī group, one samaṇī is selected as Niyojikā, who remains directly connected with all the samaṇīs. Sādhvi Pramukhā, Mukhya Niyojikā and Niyojikā - such significant administrative positions for female are only found in Terāpantha order. Not only this much, Ᾱcārya also honours sādhvīs with  upādhis called Śāsana śree (Wealth of the Order), Śāsana Gaurav (Proud of the Order) by evaluating their work for spreading of Jainism as well as their personal spiritual practice.  

Apart from administration part, if we reflect over the academic position of sadhvis and samaṇīs in terāpantha order, it proves that how the ācāryas of this order brought the women ascetic forth by giving them honourable designations. By the sincere efforts in the field of education, a chair for Jainism (Bhagavāna Mahāvīra Professorship of Jain Studies) has been established in Florida International University, Miami. samaṇīs have been regularly teaching Jainism and Preksha Meditation to foreign students under the semester courses of "Religious Classics of Asia " and "Meditation and Spiritual Development".

The aim of establishing the new category of ascetics was not merely to help and facilitate the spread of Jainism abroad but it was also felt that it would open up new avenues of work, since they would not have to observe the vow of travelling on foot. Their mobility would result in the rapid expansion of constructive projects. Samaṇī order of terāpantha sect has achieved success to shape those imaginations by indulging themselves in various activities and doing tremendous work for the propagation of Jain values. 

Thus in conclusion it can be said that in Jain order woman ascetics were always respected. In terāpantha sect, at present also we can see the significant status of a women as a Pramukhā, Mukhya Niyojikā, Niyojikā Vice chancellor, Professor, Assistant professor, Doctorate of philosophy, Editor, Writer, Translator etc.


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