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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 2.9 ► The Schisms

Published: 22.11.2015

It is a commonplace that living religions only survive and progress by being adaptable and undergoing change. Among the changes which religions often experience are schisms, and the Jain sangha is no exception. Egoism is a characteristic of human society: it may be at the personal, family, social, regional, or religious strata, at the individual or the level of the community. The egoism of the community strata, if it is for a region or a country, we term as 'patriotism'; if it is for a religion, it is 'fundamentalism'. The egocentric propensity created at a community level is the begetter of schism. From what we know of the history of the Jain religion up to the time of Mahavira, it seems that no sects or sub-sects had emerged; yet later, they did emerge and, as a result, Jainism became irreconcilably divided into many sects. Why did this happen?

During the lifetime of Mahavira Jainism's compass was limited, and it seems to have been mainly confined to the kingdoms of Anga and Magadha, which comprise modern Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. After the death of Mahavira, his successors and followers succeeded in extending Jain influence throughout the whole of India, among the ruling classes as well as the people. Once this occurred, Jainism encountered a wide range of customs, languages, manners and ways of life that prevailed in different parts of the sub-continent. Over time, these encounters gave rise to changes in religious practices and, more importantly, in beliefs. Ultimately, this resulted in variations in the form of Jainism which inevitably was to become a source of conflict and, with the successful spread of Jainism throughout India, religious leaders found it increasingly difficult to foster and organise their widely-dispersed community.

The situation in which variations of practice and belief were appearing was aggravated by the lack of agreed authoritative scriptures. As the doctrines, principles and tenets of Jainism were not committed to writing during the lifetime of Mahavira, his religious teachings were memorised by his immediate successors and handed down from one generation to next, and were not finally canonised until the council of Valabhi in 453 or 466 CE. Even then, the decisions of the Valabhi council were not acceptable to all, as the Digambars maintained that the canon did not contain the actual teachings of Mahavira and designated them as the Svetambar canon. The Digambars produced their own canon in the 6th century CE, although their earlier writers do not hesitate to quote from the Svetambar canon (Chatterjee 1978: p.395). Long before Valabhi, differences of opinion had arisen regarding the interpretation of many tenets, and these disagreements led to the establishment of separate schools of thought, which eventually crystallised into sects and sub-sects.

From Mahavira to Shayyambhava the sangha was led by only one aacaarya, but Yasobhadra introduced the system of two aacaaryas in 205 BCE. This separation of the leadership may have been felt necessary due to the geographical spread of Jainism; however, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that it exacerbated to the development of schismatic tendencies in the community.

Early Jain literature (Avasyaka Niryukti) notes seven minor schismatic 'schools', although these failed to generate substantive divisions, and no trace of them is found in the Jain community (Roy 1984: pp. 86-87), but it was the eighth schism which came to predominate in the first century CE and eventually led to an irreconcilable division of the Jain community. The two groups, the result of this schism, are known as Svetambars and Digambars, a division well documented in the historical sources, but the schism, which originated during the fourth century BCE, was an accomplished fact by the first century of the Common Era.

According to the Digambar version (Harsena 931: Brihatkathakosha), in the fourth century BCE, Aacaarya Bhadrabahu realised that a long and severe famine was imminent in the kingdom of Magadha. In order to avoid its terrible effects, he and thousands of ascetics migrated from Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha, to Sravanbelgola in southern India. Candragupta Maurya abdicated his throne in favour of his son, joined Bhadrabahu's entourage as disciple, and resided with him at Sravanbelgola. Candragupta lived for twelve years after the death of his teacher, and died according to the strict Jain ritual of sallekhanaa on the hill at Sravanbelgola - a 'holy death'. This traditional account is not supported by earliest Digambar epigraph found in Sravanbelgola which says that Bhadrabahu had predicted the famine in Ujjayini, hence some believe this incident occurred later in the time of Bhadrabahu II and the king concerned was Candragupta, the emperor of Avanti and not Candragupta Maurya.

When some ascetics of the Bhadrabahu sangha eventually returned after a twelveyear absence, they found two significant changes that had taken place among the ascetics of Magadha under the leadership of Aacaarya Sthulabhadra. First, the rule requiring ascetics to wear no garments had been relaxed, instead, ascetics wore a simple piece of white cloth; second, a council had been convened at Pataliputra with the intention of editing the canon of the Jain literature. This council was the first of five councils, which were to undertake the work of editing the Jain canon over subsequent centuries, a process that was to be the focus of much disagreement.

The group of returned ascetics would neither accept the change concerning garments, nor were they agreed upon the proposals of the Pataliputra council regarding the canon, rather they proclaimed themselves as the 'true' followers of Mahavira. Eventually, the Jain sangha split into two distinct sects: the Digambar and the Svetambar.

According to other accounts of the first century CE, Sivabhuti founded the Bodiya sect, which argued nudity for the monks on the example of Jinakalpi ascetics; later, the Bodiyas were designated as Digambars. Svetambars believe the eighth schism occurred in 83 CE (Roy 1984: p.41). It is worth reminding readers that the monks who followed Parsvanatha wore garments while some ascetic followers of Mahavira kept total nudity. The modern German scholar Hermann Jacobi believes, the separation of the sangha took place gradually and, he maintains, there was and is little difference in their articles of faith. With the passage of time, the attitudes and approaches of the two sects began to harden and distinctive sectarian outlooks arose.

The iconographic evidence supports the theory that the two sects actually parted company shortly after the Valabhi council. By the Kusana period (3rd to 4th century CE), images found at Kankali-tila in Mathura depict the tirthankaras either in standing position and nude or in sitting position in such a way that neither genitals nor garments are visible, and were worshipped by both sects, and this can be proved by the epigraphic inscription of the donors who belonged to sakhas and ganas of the Svetambar sect. The earliest image of a tirthankara with lower garment is a standing Risabhdeva discovered at Akota in Gujarat from the later part of the 5th century CE of the period shortly after the Valabhi Council (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, vol. 10: p.8).

The Digambar and Svetambar Sects

From the earliest times, the majority of Jains living in South India, Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas were Digambars, while those living in Gujarat and Rajasthan were Svetambars. The geographical separation made both the sects to discord.

There are no fundamental doctrinal differences between these two main Jain sects and both accept as canonical the major sacred text of Umasvati known as the Tattvartha Sutra. The differences in certain beliefs, are of historical importance and are described thus:

The Digambars insist upon their ascetics going unclothed (sky-clad) as an absolute pre-requisite of the mendicant's path and the attainment of salvation, but the Svetambars assert that the practice of complete nudity is not essential to attain liberation. The dispute centres upon the question of whether the possession of an item of clothing signifies attachment to that garment. The Digambars assert that attachment is implied and therefore reject clothing, but the Svetambars refer to the example of Parsvanatha's disciples, who wore clothing, to defend their view.

Digambars believe that women lack both the physical and mental strength necessary to attain liberation; hence women must be reborn as men before such an attainment is possible, but the Svetambars hold the view that men and women are equally capable of attaining liberation; in the Svetambar tradition, the nineteenth tirthankara, Malli(natha), was a woman, and Marudevi, Risabhdeva's mother, was the first person to attain liberation in this aeon.

Digambars, believe once someone becomes omniscient, he (not she) has no need of food; Svetambars believe that, as even an omniscient still has a body, it is necessary to sustain it.

Svetambars believe that Mahavira was born of a ksatriya woman, Trisala, although conception took place in the womb of a Brahmin, Devananda. The 'migration' of the embryo from one woman's body to another is believed to have been effected on the order of the deity Indra, on the eighty-third day after conception, but Digambars, dismiss the whole episode as unreliable and absurd.

Svetambars believe that Mahavira married Princess Yasoda at a young age, and that they had a daughter named Priyadarsana, Digambars do not even accept that he was married.

The Svetambar tradition depicts images of tirthankaras wearing loincloths and jewels, the images have eyes inserted made of a variety of materials, Digambars represent images of tirthankaras as unclad, unadorned and with eyes downcast in contemplative mood.

Svetambars believe in the validity and sacredness of the collection of forty-five canonical texts, and they have been accepted over many centuries; Digambars dispute the validity of the Svetambar canon, holding that many original and genuine texts were lost over the centuries.

Svetambars regard the records of the great Jain personages of the past as 'biographies'; Digambars prefer the term 'legends' for these accounts.

Svetambars perform their daily meditation practices in the presence of a representation of Sudharma and venerate Sthulibhadra in the benedictory prayers, while in their prayers Digambars venerate Kundakunda, who is believed to be the disciple of Bhadrabahu II and who has composed 84 Digambara sacred books including texts such as the Samayasaara, Pravacanasaara and Pancastikaayasaara.

The Digambars made Bahubali one of their most important luminaries building colossal statues to him, while Svetambars revere the images of the tirthankaras and Bahubali is hardly worshipped at all in their temples.

Svetambar ascetics live on food given freely to them by householders in the community. As they go from house to house and collect their food, they use bowls and similar vessels to contain food and may eat more than one meal in a day; ascetics, as well as observant Jain laypeople, eat only in daylight hours. By contrast, Digambar ascetics eat a single dish from just one household each day, and receive food in their cupped, upturned hands.

In principle, ascetics renounce possessions. However, the practicalities of life and religious ritual do allow some concessions: the Svetambar ascetics are allowed up to fourteen possessions including articles such as a loincloth and shoulder-cloth; Digambar ascetics are allowed only two possessions: a whiskbroom made from peacock feathers and a wooden water-pot. Both sects allow ascetics to carry scriptures.

Differences between the sects over rituals, customs and manners are trivial and do not play a spiritually significant role. Until the middle of the fifteenth century CE all members of both sects were image worshippers, after which iconoclastic and other influences led to the emergence of offshoots which ceased to worship images. Most scholars agree that Digambars embrace a more severe ascetic life-style and are conservative with regard to doctrine. Svetambars are more 'liberal', pragmatic and concerned with maximising the influence of Jainism within society. It is this attitude which has led Svetambars to play an important role in shaping large areas of the culture, history, politics and economic development of India.

During the medieval period, subdivisions arose among both sects: differences in the interpretation of religious texts, the observance of rituals, and discontent over authoritarian trends in religious leadership, were among the contributory factors. While Jains were characterised by a strong spiritual discipline, political pressures and religious fervour led many towards forms of ritualism as a means of counteracting Hindu devotional (bhakti) movements.

In the course of time, some in the community became disillusioned with ritualism and turned away from the established temples and its rituals. They saw the conduct of the temple 'authorities' as without merit. Increasing Muslim influence brought with it iconoclastic trends and encouraged the growth of non-image worship in both Jain sects, leading to yet further internal subdivisions.

Digambar Sects

From earliest times the Digambars called their main body, the Mula Sangha, which was further, divided in the four major sanghas such as the Sinha, Nandi, Sena and Devas; none of these exist today. The main sub-sects that are found today are:

Bisapantha: The followers of Bisapantha (Twenty-fold Path) support the institutions of bhattarakas, worship the images of the tirthankaras, and celestials (ksetrapala, Padmavati) and other guardian deities. They worship these images with offerings such as saffron, flowers, fruit, sweets and incense sticks, and while performing these acts of ritual, the Bisapanthis sit on the ground. They offer the flame to the images (aarati), and distribute to other worshippers the gifts offered to the luminaries (prasaada). The Bisapantha, according to some, is the original form of the Digambar sect and today practically all Digambar Jains from Maharastra, Karnataka and South India, together with a large number of Digambar Jains from Rajasthan and Gujarat, are Bisapantha.

Terapantha: The Terapantha (Thirteen-fold or Your Path) movement arose in northern India in the year 1626 CE as a result of dissatisfaction with the domination and conduct of the bhattarakas, and are most numerous in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (There is also an unrelated major Svetambar sect of the same name, discussed below). In their temples, the Terapanthas install only the images of tirthankaras, worship images with dried materials, for example: sacred white rice and rice coloured with sweet-smelling sandalwood paste, cloves, sandalwood, almonds, dry coconuts and dates. They avoid using flowers and fruits, which are regarded as living, whereas the dried products are not; and as a rule, they do not perform aarati nor distribute prasaada in their temples. The Terapanthas are reformers, opposed to some ritual practices, which they do not accept as authentic.

Taranapantha: The Taranapantha takes its name from its founder Tarana Svami or Tarana-tarana Svami (1448 to 1515 CE) and this sub-sect is also known as the Samaiya-Pantha as its followers worship sacred texts (Samaya Saara) and not images. Tarana Svami died at Malharagarth, Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, which is the central place of pilgrimage for the Taranapanthis.

Taranapanthis have scripture-halls in which they keep their sacred texts for worship, but besides the scriptures common to all Digambars, they regard as sacred the fourteen books written by their founder Tarana Svami. They attach great importance to inward spiritual practices, such as meditation and the study of sacred literature, and as a result of this emphasis, they practise little outward religious ritual. Tarana Svami was religiously 'liberal', even by Jain standards, and welcomed all, including Muslims and low-castes into the sect. The Taranapanthis are few in numbers and they are mainly found in Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra.

Gumanapantha: The Gumanapantha is a numerically small sub-sect about which very little is known, and it was founded by Pandit Gumani Rama or Gumani Rai, a son of the Jain scholar Pandit Todaramal. According to this pantha, the lighting of lamps in the Jain temples is a violation of ahimsaa, and hence they do not perform aarati. Gumanapanthas revere the images in their temples but do not make offerings to them.

Totapantha: The Totapantha came into existence as a result of differences between the Bisapantha and Terapantha sub-sects. Many sincere efforts were made to strike a compromise between the Bisa (i.e. twenty) pantha and the Tera (i.e. thirteen) pantha. The surprisingly (or not surprisingly) arithmetical outcome gave the Jain world the sadhe solaha (i.e. sixteen and a half) pantha or 'Totapantha', whose followers believe in some doctrines of the Bisapantha and some of the Terapantha. This sub-sect is small in numbers and is found only in Madhya Pradesh.

Kanjipantha: In recent years, a new Digambar sub-sect known as the Kanjipantha, followers of Kanji Svami, has been formed and is growing in popularity, especially among the educated. Kanji Svami, a Svetambar Sthanakvasi ascetic, left the Svetambars to become a Digambar layman. He succeeded in popularising the ancient sacred texts of Aacaarya Kundakunda, which stressed an idealistic position, rather than the practical observances of daily religious life. The influence of the Kanjipantha is steadily increasing, and Sonagadh in Gujarat and Jaipur in Rajasthan have become the sub-sect's centres of religious activity; both Digambars and Svetambars have been attracted to the Kanjipantha. There are Kanjipantha temples in Nairobi and in London.

Svetambar Sects

From the tenth century, literary evidence suggests that Svetambars were divided into various groups, known as gacchas (a group of monks), formed by important ascetics, although there was no recognisable doctrinal difference between them. By the thirteenth century it is said that there were 84 such gacchas in existence. However, as time passed, most gacchas either did not survive or merged with one another. At the present time, the Svetambars sects are:

Murtipujaka: While it is not clear when the worship of images of the tirthankaras first began, it is the case that from earliest times all Svetambars were image-worshippers; the majority of Jains are Svetambar Murtipujaka (image worshippers). The followers of this tradition are also known by terms such as Deraavaasi, Caityavaasi (both mean 'temple residents'), Mandirmargi ('temple goers') or Pujera ('worshippers').

They make ritual offerings including flowers and saffron paste to their images and they adorn them with rich clothes and jewelled ornaments. Rice, fruit, incense and sweets are also offered during prayers. Both in India and outside, such edible items are not used by the Jains, but are given to the temple employees (pujaaris) or distributed to the needy. Murtipujak worshippers cover their mouths when washing, anointing or touching the images and perform aarati. Their ascetics also cover their mouths with a muhupatti (mouth kerchief) while speaking; this is otherwise kept in the hand. The purpose of this practice is to avoid harm to airborne microscopic life.

Svetambars reside in all parts of India, especially in large urban centres where they are engaged in modern businesses, although the largest populations are found in Gujarat, Maharastra and Rajasthan. Many have migrated abroad and settled successfully in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States, East Africa, the Far East, and even Israel.

Sthanakvasi: Although now generally counted among the Svetambars, the Sthanakvasis (hall dwellers) arose originally as reformers among the Lonka sect of Jainism. Lonkasaha, a well-read merchant of Ahmedabad, founded the Lonka sect in 1460 CE. The main reform instituted by this sect was a total rejection of image worship. Later, members of the Lonka sect, led by Lavaji Rishi, disapproving of the lax way of life of Lonka ascetics, insisted upon reform based more closely upon the teachings and example of Mahavira.

A Lonka layman, Viraji of Surat, received initiation as a yati and won great admiration for the assiduity of his asceticism, and many devotees of the Lonka sect followed Viraji's example. They took the name Sthanakvasis, meaning those, whose religious activities are not in temples but in places known as sthanaks or prayer halls. They are also known as 'searchers' (dhundhiya) and 'followers of ascetics' (saadhumaargis). Except on the crucial point of image worship, Sthanakvasis do not greatly differ from other Svetambar Murtipujaka Jains.

What differences occur between the Sthanakvasi and the Murtipujaka Svetambars in the observance of religious practices, are minor; for example, the ascetics of the Sthanakvasi always keep their mouths covered with a muhupatti. The Sthanakvasi admit the authenticity of only thirty-two of the forty-five scriptures of the Svetambars; they reject the practice of pilgrimage, and do not participate in the religious rituals or festivals of Murtipujaka Svetambars. In practice, today, many Sthanakvasi do partake in these religious activities. The Sthanakvasis are found in the major business centres in India but most live in Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharastra and some have settled outside India.

Terapanthi: This sub-sect arose among the Sthanakvasi. It was founded by Muni Bhikhanji (later on known as Aacaarya Bhiksu), formerly a Sthanakvasi holy man, who was initiated by his guru, Aacaarya Raghunatha. He had differences of opinion with his guru on several aspects of Sthanakvasi ascetic practices and when these differences took a serious turn, he founded the Terapantha in 1760 CE. As Bhikhanaji stressed thirteen religious principles: five major vows, five carefulness and three guards, his sub-sect was named as the Tera (thirteen) pantha.

The Terapanthis are non-image worshippers and are well organised under the direction of a single aacaarya. In its history of little more than 200 years, the sect has had only ten aacaaryas, from the first (founder) Aacaarya Bhiksu to Aacaarya Mahaprajna, who took office, in 1994. The ninth Aacaarya Tulsi was given the special title of 'head of the group of ascetics' (ganaadhipati), in appreciation of his services to the sub-sect.

This practice of having a single aacaarya is a characteristic feature of this subsect. Ascetics and female ascetics of the Terapantha follow the instructions of their aacaarya scrupulously. They observe a remarkable annual festival, the Maryaadaa Mahotsava (festival of restrainment) where all ascetics and lay disciples, male and female, meet together in one place to discuss the events of the past year and plans for the future.

The Terapanthis are considered as reformists who believe in simplicity; for example, they do not construct monasteries for their ascetics, who inhabit part of the home of ordinary householders, instead their efforts are directed towards two activities: meditation and the literary work of translating and interpreting the scriptures. Like Sthanakvasi ascetics they also wear a muhupatti.

Aacaarya Tulsi promoted the anuvrata movement ('minor vow'), that attempts to utilise the Jain spiritual teachings for the moral improvement of the whole population. Terapanthis have established a worldwide peace and 'non-violent action' organisation and a university, the Jain Vishva Bharati, which has achieved provisional recognition by the Indian government.

The Terapanthis are growing in number, and though they are present in many cities of India, they are mainly concentrated in Rajasthan. They are progressive in thought and action: recently they have developed a semi-ascetic group (samana and samani) among their followers, who are permitted to use modern transport, travel overseas, and cook in emergencies. The (male) samanas and (female) samanis visit the West regularly and undertake the propagation of Jainism and the message of their founder, Aacaarya Tulsi.

Minor Divisions of Murtipujakas

From about a century prior to Hemcandra, we find evidence for the Svetambar divisions: these groups, called gacchas, comprised the followers of the leading ascetics. The gacchas evolved from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, and reputedly eighty-four gacchas were formed, however, most gacchas did not survive their founders and others would have amalgamated. Today, most Svetambars of Gujarat and Rajasthan belong to the following three gacchas: the Kharataragaccha, Tapaagaccha and Ancalagaccha. Each gaccha has its own temples, ascetics and aacaaryas.

Kharataragaccha: There is no reliable history of the formation of this group, though epigraphic evidence suggests that it was formed before 1090 CE, the evidence is taken from the special residences for ascetics, a feature of many towns in that period. One legend claims that Aacaarya Jinesvara Suri defeated the temple-dwelling ascetics (caityavaasis) in a religious debate at the court of King Durlabharaja of Anahilavada in 1022 CE, winning thereby the title of 'person of bold character' (kharatara). Another legend says that Jinadatta Suri in 1147 CE started this group. A third variant of the story holds that Jinavallabha Suri started it. This gaccha is very popular in Gujarat and Rajasthan. It is known for establishing socio-religious institutions, called dadawadis or dadabaris in the major cities of India.

Tapaagaccha: The legend about the origin of this group is that aacaarya Jagacchandra Suri, had earned the epithet 'austere' (tapa) in 1228 CE, from King Jaitrasinha of Mewar, for his severe austerities. Thereafter his disciples and followers have been called Tapaagaccha. The members of this, the largest gaccha, are found all over India but largely in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharastra, Punjab and Haryana.

Ancalagaccha: The ascetics of this group use a small strip of cloth (ancala) in place of a full muhupatti to cover their mouth at the time of daily penitential ritual, thus they take the name Ancalagaccha. Also known as the 'upholders of sacred rituals' (vidhipaksha), it is said to have been formed in 1156 CE in Northern India. There are very few members of this group.

In addition to Digambars and Svetambars, there was, in the past, another sect of Jainism, which flourished in Karnataka at least from the 5th to the 14th century CE with some royal patronage. It was known as Yapaniya, which was begun by a Svetambara monk in the 2nd century CE (Roy 1984: p.128). Yapaniyas accepted practices of both Svetambars and Digambars, followed Svetambar sacred texts and tried to bring about reconciliation between Svetambars and Digambars. It is believed that Umasvami, the author of the Tattvarthagima Sutra, was a Yapaniya and Sakatayana, a Yapaniya monk, composed the Sabdaanusasana (a grammar), Stri-mukti-prakaran and the Kevali-bhuktiprakaran. At the end of the 14th century Yapaniyas are presumed to have merged with the Digambars, but there is no evidence for this amalgamation.

The above account is based on Roy (1984: pp.99-149), Sangave (1990: pp. 74-87) Jain J (1964: scattered references), Chatterjee (1978 and 1984 scattered references), and Modi (1977 scattered references).

In spite of these divisions, all Jains believe in the same basic principles and philosophy, and for many years they have sought to celebrate major functions together and to promote the teachings of Mahavira. Some differences, however, remain between Svetambar and Digambar Murtipujaka groups, largely concerned with the ownership of certain temples and places of pilgrimage.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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