North Indian Digambara Jainism (13th-17th century): The Age of the Bhaṭṭārakas

Posted: 17.04.2014

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Jaina Studies at Ghent University


North Indian Digambara Jainism (13th-17th century): The Age of the Bhaṭṭārakas

Research project funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (2012-2016)

From at least the thirteenth century onwards to the late 19th century we find only scattered references to the naked, peripatetic male ascetics (Munis) which now seem so emblematic for the Digambara Jaina tradition. For several centuries, the backbone of the Digambara tradition was formed by clothed and domesticated Bhaṭṭārakas, who took only the lesser vows, and were allowed to possess property and manage temple estates and donations. Islamic mores prohibiting public nudity, and the harassment of naked Munis by Muslims are often stated as main factors in the appearance of the clothed Bhaṭṭārakas. However, the institution of the Bhaṭṭāraka arose as part of an earlier ongoing process of sedentarisation, and we find references to Bhaṭṭārakas in some lineages as early as the 9th century.

Bhaṭṭārakas were often learned men, and some were prolific authors. They oversaw the copying and preservation of texts, consecrated images and organized pilgrimages. In later centuries, and particularly in the South, Bhaṭṭārakas became a kind of caste guru, associated with a particular caste, sometimes with judicial power. Surrounding the Bhaṭṭārakas was often a circle of pupils consisting of celibate Brahmacārīs and lay ritual specialists called Paṇḍitas. It appears that the Bhaṭṭārakas often chose their successor from amongst the Brahmacārīs in their entourage, and some Brahmacārīs and Paṇḍitas were great litterateurs in their own right.

The institution of the Bhaṭṭāraka gradually spread to all Digambara monastic groupings, the Senagaṇa, Kāṣṭhāsaṃgha, and Balātkāragaṇa or Mūlasaṃgha. Bhaṭṭāraka seats (gaddī or pīṭha) of the various lineages and their sublineages were situated in what are today the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Several south Indian Bhaṭṭāraka seats still exist. The north Indian lineages, however, have all been discontinued. Many disappeared after the erosion of the Bhaṭṭārakas’ influence by the consecutive, seventeenth century reform movements of Adhyātma and Terāpanth, which rejected the Bhaṭṭārakas’ authority, criticizing them for their worldly involvement and conduct, particularly their domestication, and their laxity and ritualism. Only the adherent of the older Bīsapanth remained faithful to the Bhaṭṭārakas. Modern reform movements later repeated some of the earlier argumentations against the Bhaṭṭārakas’ authority, similarly opposing them for their pomp and laxity. After the regeneration of the lineage of fully initiated Munis by Ācārya Śāntisāgara in the first half of the twentieth century, naked ascetics also reappeared on the scene, attracting much of the laity’s attention, and those few Bhaṭṭāraka seats which had continued up to the twentieth century eventually also succumbed.

Bhaṭṭārakas had by then however been at the center and apex of Digambara Jainism for several centuries. It is not surprising then that here is vast legacy testifying to their power and influence. Large manuscript collections, countless icon inscriptions and archeological sources remain as the main sources for the study of the North-Indian Bhaṭṭāraka traditions. 


Detige, Tillo (2014) "Worshipping Bhaṭṭārakas", Jaina Studies: Newsletter of the Centre for Jaina Studies, no.9 (March, 2014), p.27-30. (PDF)

De Clercq, Eva & Tillo Detige (forthcoming) “Colossi and Lotus Feet: Paṇḍitas and Bhaṭṭārakas in the north Indian Digambara Legacy” In: Julia A. B. Hegewald (ed.) “Text, Image and Circulation: Jaina Art in India and the Pianarosa Library in Bonn” [working title], Studies in Asian Art and Culture (SAAC), Vol. 3, EB-Verlag, Berlin.

De Clercq, Eva, (2011) “Bhaṭṭārakas and Digambara Monastic Lineages of Fifteenth Century Gwalior: Glimpses from Raïdhū’s Writings.” Journal of Asian History. Vol. 45, pp. 63-83.

De Clercq, Eva (2010) “On Jaina Apabhraṃśa Praśastis.” Acta Orientalia. Vol. 63(3), pp. 275-287.

De Clercq, Eva (forthcoming) “Apabhraṃśa as a literary medium in fifteenth century North India.” In: F. Orsini and S. Sheikh (eds.) After Timur Left. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

De Clercq, Eva (forthcoming) “Memories of Yoginīpura: Delhi’s Digambara merchant community after Timur came.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.


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