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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 2.4 ► The Jain Sangha and Early Ascetics

Published: 17.11.2015

As described earlier, Mahavira was a superb organiser and the organisation which he developed continues even to-day. He developed the four orders of his community: male ascetics (saadhu), female ascetics (saadhvi), laymen (sraavaka) and laywomen (sraavika), and the community is collectively known as the sangha, which has supreme authority in all matters. Mahavira gave overall responsibility for guidance and instruction of the sangha to eleven chief disciples of which Indrabhuti Gautam was the most senior. They were overall normally in charge of groups (ganas) of 250 to 500 ascetics.

To facilitate a smooth administration, the sangha conferred leadership responsibility upon the ablest male ascetics who were given the title of aacaarya. Other members of the community were given formal titles and responsibilities including: upaadhyaaya (responsible for organising education and teaching scriptures to ascetics as preceptor), sthavira (responsible as a senior to motivate self-discipline), pravartaka (responsible for the promotion and dissemination of the religion), and gani (responsible as a group leader for the administration of smaller groups of ascetics). Ascetics, who are proficient in aagamas (Jain canon) and are able to teach, are given the title of panyaasa. Deserving female ascetics were given the titles of mahattaraa (the great), and pravartini (promoter). All these titles are in use today. For precise explanation of each term, see the glossary.

Laypersons have a special reverence for the ascetics and are guided by them in matters pertaining to their spiritual welfare. Other social and religious activities are governed by a group of the laity and trustees (mahaajana). The organisation of the Jain community into the Jain sangha has enabled it to make a valuable contribution in terms of personal devotion, for e.g. self-discipline, and collectively in education, literary activities, the establishment of places of worship, and the promotion of the teachings of Mahavira.

Immediately following the liberation (moksa) of Mahavira, Gautam became omniscient, but the Digambar and Svetambar traditions preserve different accounts of his life after achieving omniscience. Sudharma was Gautam's successor as leader of the sangha until, after 12 years, he became omniscient. He went on to achieve liberation at the age of 100. The other nine chief disciples obtained liberation in Mahavira's lifetime. Jambu succeeded Sudharma and headed the sangha for forty-four years, until he became omniscient. He achieved liberation at the age of eighty.

Then came, in succession, five 'scriptural omniscients', who possessed full and complete scriptural knowledge but could not attain the higher spiritual status of the omniscients. Their leadership of the sangha lasted 100 (or 116) years (Jain J. P.1964: p.102), but after the last, Bhadrabahu, the leadership succession diverged into two sects, the 'white-clad' (Svetambar) and the 'sky-clad' (Digambar).

The early Jain ascetics were very conservative in so far as the writing down of the scriptures was concerned, as they feared that the act of creating writing materials involved transgression of their vow of non-violence (ahimsaa). Their vow of avoiding possessions and the rigid rules of asceticism forbade them to reside in any one place for very long or to associate unduly with householders and urban life, and this made it almost impossible for them to pursue literary activities. Moreover, they considered the religious order to be so well organised that it would vouchsafe the integrity of the original teaching of Mahavira, which continued to be preserved orally. Yet, soon after the time of Bhadrabahu, a gradual deterioration in the original canonical knowledge began which was made more pronounced by the break-up of the unified order and the emergence of schism, and the growth of minor differences of dogma, doctrine, traditions, practice and usage.

Attempts were made to rehabilitate the canon and a number of councils were called, including one at Pataliputra (modern Patna in Bihar), to attempt to organise the sacred teachings. This was necessary following famines in Bihar, which had led to the emigration to the south of Aacaarya Bhadrabahu and his followers. About the middle of the second century BCE, a council was held at the Kumari Parvata (UdayagiriKhandagiri hills) in Kalinga (Orissa) at the invitation of the Emperor Kharavela. It appears to have been attended largely by leaders from the south and from Mathura, and members of the council were given responsibility for the redaction of the surviving canon and the production of written literature. In the following two hundred years or so, the efforts begun at the councils led to the compilation of a large number of treatises based on the original teaching of Mahavira. These took on a quasi-canonical status, and preeminent among these early writers were Gunadhara, Dharasena-Pushpadanta, Kundakunda and Umasvati. Svetambars resisted attempts at redaction for many centuries. However, they eventually bowed to the inevitable and about the beginning of the fourth century CE, Svetambar leaders convened two councils simultaneously, one at Mathura and the other at Valabhi (in Saurastra). Yet it was only about the middle of the fifth century CE that they, under the leadership of Devarddhigani, in a council at Valabhi, finally redacted an acceptable canon. These pioneering activities, involving both Digambar and Svetambar scholars and stretching over many centuries, encouraged an exegetical literature and numerous independent works on diverse subjects, religious as well as secular, written in a number of languages, which has continued for the last two thousand years.

With the passage of time, both Digambar and Svetambar communities have continued to develop, almost independently of each other, into a number of sects, subsects, divisions and subdivisions, evolving their respective rituals and practices. Yet, there are no fundamental ideological differences between these two principal sects. Most of the places of pilgrimage, festivals and fairs, and several important religious texts, are still held in common, and until roughly the beginning of the medieval period of Indian history (about the 10th century CE) temples and images were almost similar. The ascetic orders have no doubt differed in some of their outward practices, but so far as the laity is concerned there has hardly been any noticeable distinctions.

Modern historians, who accept the historicity of Parsvanatha, also believe that Jainism may have existed before his time, although they usually date the beginning of Jain history to the time of Mahavira. Even if the missionary activities of Mahavira were limited to Bihar and the surrounding area, adherents of the religion following the earlier tirthankaras existed in other parts of India. When circumstances such as natural calamities or persecutions caused mass emigrations of Jain ascetics from Magadha or Ujjain to Gujarat, Kalinga, the Deccan, Karnataka and other parts of southern India, they found a welcome among their co-religionists. There is evidence indicating that as early as the beginning of the fourth century BCE, flourishing Jain communities existed in Sri Lanka (Chaterjee 1978: p.118), but in time Jainism spread throughout India as the Jain philosophy and its ascetic discipline attracted many people. The strength of the fourfold order enabled Jainism to survive and keep its integrity to this day.

For some centuries after the liberation of Mahavira, the internal history of Jainism is characterised by schismatic tendencies, growing complexity in the sangha organisation, gradual decline in the effectiveness of the collective memory of the ascetics, and the development of religious dogmas. In those centuries, Jainism spread slowly from Magadha to the west and south. A number of Jain Pattaavalis (succession lists), canonical texts such as the Kalpa Sutra Jambudvipa Prajnapti, Painnas (miscellanea), Dhavalaa, Jaydhavalaa and their commentaries and early literary works such the Tiloyapannati, Puraanas, Kathaakosas (story literature) and Prabandhas (biograhical accounts) help us to reconstruct the early history of the Jain Sangha. The saadhus and saadhvis are not 'monks' and 'nuns' in true sense, as they, unlike the monks or nuns, wander from place to place and do not live in monasteries.

Male ascetics (Saadhus)

In early centuries, the leadership of the sangha was in the hands of a succession of ascetics who had 'perfect knowledge', described below. According to both older and current texts, the first eight omniscients and 'scriptural omniscients' after Mahavira are, other than Indrabhuti Gautam:

Sudharma (c.607 to 506 BCE): Sudharma entered the order of ascetics at the age of fifty, was the chief disciple of Mahavira for thirty years, and succeeded Mahavira, attaining omniscience at the age of 92 and liberation at the age of 100.

Jambu (c.543 to 449 BCE): Jambu was Sudharma's successor and the last ascetic to achieve omniscience and liberation in this descending era.

Prabhava (c.443 to 338 BCE): Prabhava succeeded Jambu 64 years after Mahavira's liberation; remarkably, he was a leading bandit before his conversion by Jambu. He had come to burgle Jambu's palace on Jambu's wedding night, but his experience of meeting Jambu changed his life.

Shayyambhava (c.377 to 315 BCE): Prior to becoming the head of the sangha, Shayyambhava was a respected Vedic scholar, but after initiation as a Jain ascetic, he mastered the fourteen pre-canonical texts (purvas) through Prabhava. He is remembered for composing the Dasavaikalika Sutra in 340 BCE.

Although Shayyambhava was married person and his wife was pregnant, he decided to renounce and became an ascetic. After he was initiated into the order, his wife gave birth to a son, who was named Manaka. When Manaka was eight years old, on learning that his father was Shayyambhava, he desired to be his father's disciple. Shayyambhava initiated the boy, but by means of his prognostic knowledge Shayyambhava perceived that Manaka would die within six months. For the sake of his son, Shayyambhava condensed the essence of the sacred scriptures into ten lectures, which Manaka learned and then died as predicted.

Yasobhadra (c.351 to 235 BCE): After Shayyambhava's death, Yasobhadra became his successor and the head of the sangha.

Sambhutavijaya (c.347 to 257 BCE) and Bhadrabahu (c.322 to 243 BCE): After a most exemplary life of an ascetic and as a teacher, Yashobhadra died leaving the management of the sangha to his two principal disciples Sambhutavijaya and Bhadrabahu. This saw the beginning of the two lineages with two heads in the sangha. There seems to be some confusion about Bhadrabahu; Svetambar tradition maintains that he went to Nepal to observe the difficult mahapraana meditation, while Digambars believe because of the predicted twelve-year famine, Bhadrabahu migrated to the South with twelve thousand ascetics and the Mauryan King Candragupta. Scholars are doubtful about Candrgupta becoming Jain ascetic, as according to some the dates of Candragupta Maurya do not coincide with the dates of Bhadrabahu (Sanghmitra 1979: p.74), while other scholar Smith in Oxford History of India, pp.75-76, writes 'I am disposed to believe that Candragupta really abdicated and became a Jain ascetic'.

It was a period when royal patronage became significant in the development of Jainism. Kunika became the King of Magadha in Mahavira's time. Because of the sad associations of his deceased father's capital at Rajagriha, Kunika moved the capital to Champa. When he died, out of a similar sadness, his son Udayin who was a devout Jain, established yet another new capital at Pataliputra. He built a fine Jain temple in the centre of this city. In c.467 BCE, the agent of a rival king murdered the childless Udayin. Following this incident, Udayin's ministers proclaimed Nanda as the King. Nanda's chief minister was Kalpaka, a devout Jain, who became famous for his practice of nonviolence, and he is said to have sacrificed his life for peace. The Nanda dynasty and its successor Mauryan dynasty were very sympathetic to Jainism. After the Mauryas the Sungas came in power. They were said to be antagonistic to Jainism and Buddhism and are credited with the revival of Brahmanism.

After Bhadrabahu, the succession of the leadership of the Sangha diverged; the precursors of Svetambar and Digambar ran independent of each other. Because of royal antagonism, some migrated to Ujjayin in the West and Valabhi in Gujarat, while others went to the South and spread all over the Deccan, Karnataka, Andhra, Trikalinga, Tuluva and Tamil regions. Mathura, however, remained a sort of meeting place for divergent sects.

Sthulabhadra (c.297 to 198 BCE): Nanda's dynasty lasted another seven generations. Kalpaka's descendants were appointed successive chief ministers. Sakadala became the Chief Minister of the last Nanda. Sakadala had two sons: Sthulabhadra and Sriyaka. Sriyaka became the personal bodyguard of the king, whose confidence and love he had gained. Sthulbhadra fell in love with a royal dancer Rupkosa, and lived with her for twelve years. He was so much in love with her that he ignored the feelings of his family and requests to return home. His father, Sakadala, was a popular, well-respected and faithful chief minister. However, on one occasion, through the scheming of Varichi, a political opponent of Sakadala, the King believed that Sakadala was manufacturing weapons in order to take over the kingdom. In fact, the weapons were intended as a gift to the King on the joyous occasion of forthcoming royal wedding. To spare the whole family from the king's anger, Sakadala told his son, Sriyaka, to chop off his (Sakadala's) head, when he was bowing down before the King. Sriyaka reluctantly did as his father ordered. To save Sriyaka from the sin of killing his own father, Sakadala had already taken a poisonous pill, ensuring his death. The King was shocked when he eventually learned the truth about the weapons. He offered Sriyaka the seal of the Chief Minister, but he refused it in favour of his elder brother Sthulabhadra. So the same offer was made to Sthulabhadra, who said that he would consider the matter. The king pressed him to make up his mind without delay. Then Sthulabhadra's reflections took an unexpected turn; he recognised the vanity of the world and resolved to give up its empty pleasures. He plucked out his hair and told the king of his resolution to become an ascetic, and became a disciple of Sambhutavijaya.

After twelve years of resolute ascetic life, Sthulabhadra mastered his passions and became detached from worldly surroundings. He considered encouraging Rupkosa to adopt the spiritual life and sought the permission of his guru to spend four months of the rainy season at Rupkosa's home. While he was there, Rupkosa used all her dancing skills and allurements to try to attract him back to his former life, but she could not break his determination. Seeing his resolve, she overcame her pride and took the vows of a laywoman from him. When Sthulabhadra returned to Sambhutavijaya, the guru applauded him by saying 'Duskar, Duskar' (most difficult task done). It is said that the following year another ascetic, thinking that staying with a royal dancer was an easy undertaking, persuaded Sambhutavijaya to permit him to spend the rainy season at Rupkosa's home. But within a few days he could not control himself. It was Rupkosa who swiftly brought this ascetic to his senses.

Jain seers appreciate the remarkable control of Sthulabhadra over himself. Along with Mahavira and Gautam, (Svetambar) Jains venerate Sthulabhadra in their daily prayers The Jain scriptures state that Sthulabhadra will be remembered for 84 half-cycles of time (tirthankaras like Risabhdeva and Mahavira will be forgotten in a few cycles).

At the insistence and order of the sangha, Bhadrabahu, who was in Nepal, became the teacher of Sthulabhadra. After mastering ten pre-canonical texts, Sthulabhadra tried to demonstrate his knowledge to his sisters (this is regarded as vain and misuse of knowledge). Following this incident, Bhadrabahu refused to teach him further. When Sthulabhadra prayed for forgiveness and, under pressure from the sangha, he consented to teach the last four pre-canonical texts to Sthulabhadra on condition that Sthulabhadra would not teach these to anyone else. On Bhadrabahu's death, Sthulabhadra became the head of the sangha. He was the last scriptural omniscient. His disciples Mahagiri and Suhasti succeeded Sthulabhadra; they have been described in the next chapter where the history of prominent aacaaryas continues. The account of the aacaaryas is based on the work of Sanghamitra (1986), Chatterjee (Vol.1 1978, vol.2 1984), Jain J (1964), Roy (1984) and the Kalpa Sutra.

Female Ascetics (Saadhvis)

In the fourfold order created by Mahavira, women make a significant contribution to the maintenance of Jain traditions, playing leading roles as ascetics and as lay followers. Female ascetics have always outnumbered males by at least two to one ever since the time of Mahavira. Among Indian religions, the institution of female ascetics is unique to Jainism, demonstrating the equal status of women. Women have realised all the positions that men can attain, for example, Candana was the leader of the female ascetics in Mahavira's time and an important figure in the sangha, and Svetambar texts note some female ascetics attaining omniscience.

We have little in the way of historical record about female ascetics. Among the Svetambars there were three types of female ascetics: group leader (mahattaraa), 'promoter' (pravartani), and ordinary female ascetic (saadhvi). Sthanakvasis, a nonimage-worshipping sect, call their female ascetics 'great sacrificers' (mahaasatis), the word used for a female ascetic among the Terapanthis is saadhvi, while the principal female ascetic is called the saadhvi pramukha. Digambars recognise two levels of female ascetic. The lower level, which is still generally a householder, though celibate, is known as brahmacaarini. The senior level female ascetic is a group leader called the aryika ganini. In the present day, there are more than six thousand Svetambar female ascetics, while Digambar aryikas probably number only a few hundred.

The reasons why female ascetics outnumber male ascetics are complex: it may be that the traditional female role in the household, with responsibility for care of the family, in some ways inclines women to be more 'religious'. Women have more daily contacts with the ascetics and they have also played a traditional role in promoting spiritual teachings among the family. Whatever the reasons behind the choice of the ascetic life by women in the past, in modern times female ascetics have widened their sphere of activity. Some of them are involved in modern education and contribute to Jainological research and literature. Many female ascetics have published books and have earned high academic qualifications. They play an important role in motivating laymen and laywomen to carry out temple rituals, to perform incantational recitations and to observe the minor vows. Their example and encouragement lead many to be initiated as ascetics.

In recent years some female ascetics are active in promotion of Jainism, for example, Mahattaraa Mrugavati in creating the Vallabh Smarak (a magnificent temple dedicated to her guru Vallabh), Ganini Jnana Matiji, the author of more than 150 books, in motivating the construction of the Jambudvipa model at Hastinapur, Mahaasati Shardabai as an outstanding orator and the reader of sermons. and Saadhvi Sanghmitra, the author of many books as a foremost Terapanthi group leader.

Yatis and Bhattarakas

There have been a number of periods in history in which the Jain community has been inordinately wealthy; sometimes wealth brings power and arrogance. One such period occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. At that time, unsurprisingly, a substantial part of the wealth of the community found its way into temples and associated institutions such as schools and libraries. Jain ascetics became increasingly involved in the administration of these resources and became, their critics argue, corrupted by the wealth with which they came into contact. As this scenario developed, the power of these selfappointed 'administrators' increased and they asserted control over temple rituals and, through this, over the lives and conduct of laypeople. Both the main Jain groups, the Svetambars and the Digambars, experienced this unwelcome development in the role of such semi-ascetics, Svetambars called them yatis, while the Digambars respected them as bhattarakas. The institution of bhattarakas survives today, but the modern bhattarakas are highly respected figures, celibate but not the ascetics in the strictest sense. The institution of bhattarakas was first established at Delhi in the middle ages, and later at other places such as Sravanbelgola and Mudabidre in Karnataka; Punugonda and Kanchi in south India; Nandani, Kolhapur, Nagpur, Karanja and Latur in Maharastra; Idar and Sojitra in Gujarat; and Gwalior, Jaipur and Dungarpur in Rajasthan.

The yatis and bhattarakas filled a role midway between ascetics and laypeople, a kind of semi-ascetic. Their social and religious roles made them respected, but also powerful in their locality. Today, bhattarakas administer a wide range of the needs of the community, temporal and spiritual, acting as spiritual guides and religious functionaries for rituals in temples and homes. They officiate at consecration ceremonies of temples and images and deliver religious discourses. Among Svetambars, ascetics officiate in consecration ceremonies and deliver sermons in place of the yatis. The social and pastoral functions are discharged by laypeople.

The corruption of the ascetic order contributed to the weakening of the entire sangha and, eventually, Jainism suffered. Fortunately, over the course of several centuries, reformers succeeded in restoring the original ascetic ethos of the orders, which had always been one of the great moral strengths underpinning the sangha. The Jain laity play a not inconsiderable part in holding ascetics to their vows, for a backsliding male or female ascetic loses all respect in the community.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aagamas
  2. Anger
  3. Aryika
  4. Bhattarakas
  5. Bihar
  6. Buddhism
  7. Delhi
  8. Digambar
  9. Discipline
  10. Gani
  11. Ganini
  12. Gujarat
  13. Guru
  14. Gwalior
  15. Hastinapur
  16. Idar
  17. Indrabhuti
  18. Indrabhuti Gautam
  19. Jain Philosophy
  20. Jain Temple
  21. Jainism
  22. Jaipur
  23. Jambudvipa
  24. Jnana
  25. Kalpa
  26. Kalpa Sutra
  27. Kanchi
  28. Karnataka
  29. Kolhapur
  30. Kundakunda
  31. Latur
  32. Magadha
  33. Mahavira
  34. Mathura
  35. Meditation
  36. Moksa
  37. Nagpur
  38. Nandani
  39. Non-violence
  40. Nonviolence
  41. Omniscient
  42. Omniscients
  43. Orissa
  44. Parsvanatha
  45. Patna
  46. Pride
  47. Purvas
  48. Rajagriha
  49. Rajasthan
  50. Saadhu
  51. Saadhvi
  52. Sangha
  53. Sthanakvasis
  54. Sutra
  55. Svetambar
  56. Tamil
  57. Terapanthi
  58. Terapanthis
  59. Tirthankaras
  60. Ujjain
  61. Vedic
  62. Yatis
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