Jain Legend : Jain Dharma ka Maulika Itihasa (2): Tradition Of Female Monks (Female Ascetics) From Omniscient Era To Pūrvadhara Era

Published: 28.05.2016

From times immemorial, the unique feature of Jainism is that, it gave women, the full right to progress on the path of Spiritual-exertion. Similarly, just like men, even women of any class, caste or creed, in accordance with her stamina and desire could take initiation for either as female-votary or female-monk. Jain religion never showed discrimination like, 'Strī śūdrau Nādhiyetāma' (women and untouchables are not eligible). From the very beginning, the Tīrthaṃkaras, while establishing the Jain Order, considering that women too, just like men are eligible & capable for Spiritual-exertion, created a four-fold order including them also.

The women using the invaluable right conferred by all Tīrthaṃkaras, like men, with great courage, practiced the Holy Path. They uplifted themselves in the spiritual path and helped others progress in the Holy Path as well. Apart from this, they significantly contributed for the propagation, expansion and elevation of the Jain religion.

By the comparative analysis of the number of men & women ascetics, men & women lay devotees of all the 24 Tīrthaṃkaras, it appears that women were always ahead of men in the path of spiritual practices.

Nevertheless, the Digambara sect, (except the Yāpanīya congregation) held that women were not eligible for liberation. In the Śvetāmbara Canon 'Jambū dwīpa Prajṅapti' (the sixth text of Upāṃga), it is described that the 4000 Female monks of Lord Vṛṣabha Deva attained salvation. Similarly in the Kalpasūtra it is mentioned that the 3000 Female monks of Ariṣtanemi, 2000 Female monks of Pārśvanātha and 1400 Female monks of Mahāvīra, attained total liberation. The number of lady ascetics who attained liberation in the period of the aforementioned four Tīrthaṃkaras is double than that of the male monks.

While propounding the Holy Path & founding the Dharma-tīrtha, Lord Mahāvīra initiated Candana Bālā and other women into the Śramaṇī Dharma. He also initiated other women who were desirous of salvation, into the female-votary Dharma (lay women observing minor vows).

Thus, he proclaimed that women also are equally entitled to the practice of Spiritual-exertion and can help themselves and others for spiritual elevation.

If the very influential ācāryas like Ārya Mahāgiri, Ārya Suhastī, Ārya Vajra, Yākini Mahattarā Sūnu, Ārya Haribhadra, etc., were able to do significant services to the Jain Order, and for the welfare and progress of their people, and could succeed in their missions, it is because of the immense contribution of female-ascetics.

Introduction about important Śramaṇīs like Candana Bālā, Mṛgāvati, et al, who lived before Mahāvīra's nirvāṇa, is given in brief in the first part of this volume; and introduction about the important Śramaṇīs from after nirvāṇa to 1000 years V.N., whatever available information about them is presented in the current text.

Candana Bālā

Āryikā Candana Bālā was the first woman ascetic disciple of Lord Mahāvīra. She was the head and administrator of a vast community of Śramaṇīs. Candana Bala was the daughter of Dadhivāhana, the King of Campā Nagari and Queen Dhāriṇī Devī. Lord Mahāvīra during his 'Chadmasta' time (imperfect stage or prior to 12th stage of spiritual purification, when absolute knowledge was not yet attained), performed a very long penance with a very severe pre condition for breaking the fast (abhigraha) and broke the fast, accepting food from the hands of Candana Bālā. Hence, it is not an exaggeration to say that of all female monks of the current descending half cycle of time; Candana Bālā is the most fortunate one (meritorious).  She had to undergo terrible adversities even in her childhood, as dreadful political calamity took place in Campā Nagari. The life of Candana Bālā was described briefly in the first volume of this series. The young celibate and great lady ascetic Candana Bālā gave initiation to thousands of women like princesses, daughters of merchants, queens, wives of attendants and the salvation-desirous women from all walks of life, into Śramaṇī Dharma and led them through the path of deliverance. Lord Mahāvīra himself appointed her as the head of the Śramaṇī community and in that capacity she managed very efficiently a very large Female monk-congregation of 36,000 female-ascetics. The propagator Candana Bālā never allowed even slightest Devī action or negligible errors in the observance of conduct and austerities. She felt that these small mistakes may serve as the root cause for future grave mistakes or calamities. So, to maintain discipline and for the good and benefit of the Śramaṇī community, she never hesitated to fondly warn the Śramaṇīs even if they were quite older to her. She did not even think twice to reprimand the highly elevated female-votary Mṛgāvatī, when she remained in the holy assembly of the Lord beyond the stipulated time. On her part, even Mṛgāvatī too underwent contrition with simple and pure heart and immediately attained omniscience.  Serving the Jain Order for a long time, and helping herself and others progress in the spiritual path, the propagator Candana Bālā attained omniscience after she had destroyed the four obscuring Karmas and later by destroying the remaining four no obscuring Karmas, she attained absolute, blissful, eternal liberation. Out of the 36,000 Female monks of Lord Mahāvīra, 1400 including Candana Bālā attained liberation.

Mother of Jambū Kumāra - Dhāriṇī & Others

When Jambū, the son of a wealthy merchant got disdained of the worldly pleasures after hearing the preaching of Ārya Sudharmā and took initiation in V.N. 1, simultaneously 17 women of noble birth also took initiation into Śramaṇī Dharma from Āryikā Suvratā. Their names are as follows:

Mother of Jambū Kumāra Mothers-in-law of Jambū  Kumāra Wives of Jambū Kumāra
1. Āryikā Dhāriṇī 2.Padmavatī 10. Samudraśrī
3.Kamalamālā 11.Padmaśrī
4.Vijayaśrī 12.Padmasenā
5.Jayaśrī 13.Kankasenā
6.Kamalāvatī 14.Nabasenā
7.Suseṇā 15.Kankaśrī
8.Vīramatī 16.Kankavatī
9.AjayaSenā 17.Jayaśrī

These 17 women impressed by the logical, beneficial, appealing and detachment-oriented discussions with the great ascetic Jambū Kumāra, took initiation into Śramaṇī Dharma from Āryikā Suvratā and observed with the best feelings, pure penance and temperance all through their lives. The wives of Jambū Kumāra relinquished all the sensual pleasures, comforts and luxuries and immense wealth, in their prime youth, when one loves to enjoy them. The way they nurtured their unswerving love till their last breath for Jambū Kumāra, whom they had once chosen as their husband in their hearts is by itself the greatest, unparalleled, incomparable, unique and amazing phenomenon that served and will continue to serve as a perennial source of inspiration to the women desirous of liberation.

Female monk Dhāriṇī
(Approximately 24–60 V.N.)

Dhāriṇī was the wife of Rāṣṭravardhana, the younger son of Avantī King Pālaka (grand daughter-in-law of Canda Pradyota). The life of female monk Dhāriṇī is considered in Jain history as the symbol of an ideal woman. Before taking initiation into Śramaṇī Dharma, she had to sacrifice great riches and even sever the loving bond towards her children to protect her chastity. After taking initiation, she prevented the probable merciless killing of people in the two kingdoms and gave an inspiring message of Non-violence & non-war to the world.

Female monk Vijayāvatī & Vigatabhayā
(Approximately 44 V.N.)

There is a mention of Female monk Vijayāvati and her disciple Vigatabhayā in Āvaśyaka Cūrṇi. A short time before Avantīsena invaded Kauśāmbi, Female monk Vigatabhayā observed Saṃlekhanā in Kauśāmbī. On the occasion of her Saṃlekhanā, the community of Votaries and Female-votaries organized a spiritual festival and showed their respect towards this noble Mahasatī.

An anonymous Female monk & Muruṇda Princess
(3rd to 6th Century V.N.)

It was mentioned that Cilāta Rājā, who was considered as a foreigner in those days, took initiation from Lord Mahāvīra; similarly it is also mentioned that after nirvāṇa, in the 5th or 6th century a foreign lady took initiation into Śramaṇī Dharma.

According to Viśeṣāvaśyaka Bhāṣya and Niśītha Cūrṇi, the widow sister of Muruṇda, the Śaka ruler, expressed her desire to renounce. Before giving permission to his sister, Muruṇda wanted to find out which religion is the best one, so that she could in a true sense uplift her soul. He carved out an idea for testing the same. He ordered his elephant's coach to ride on his largest elephant and wait at the cross road near the palace, and goad it on to any female monk of any religion coming that way, while simultaneously warning her in harsh words to Strip off all her clothes at once and stand naked, else the elephant will crush her to death.

The king stood near the window of her palace, watching whether the elephant coach was strictly following his orders or not. The female monks passing by that way, seeing the heavy-bodied elephant rushing towards them at lightning speed, were removing their clothes as warned by the coach. Seeing this, Muruṇda felt depressed that there was not even a single commendable female monk from whom his sister could take initiation.

Just as this thought was going through his mind, at that very moment he once again heard the coach's warning. Through the window he saw that the elephant was goaded towards a very lean-bodied Śvetāmbara (white clothed) female monk. The female monk, without any fear continued her walk towards her destination in a peaceful and composed manner. When the elephant was just a little away from her, she threw her muṃhapattī (a small piece of cloth worn over the mouth by the Śvetāmbaraa Jains) at the elephant. The elephant stopped at once and held the muṃhapattī with its trunk, looked all around, threw it aside and renewed its menace towards the female monk. The coach shouted again; but this time the female monk threw her flywhisk (Rajoharaṇa) towards the elephant. Once again the elephant stopped, and holding the flywhisk with its trunk, spun it in the air and threw it aside. In this manner when the elephant again came near her, the female monk threw her bowl and other monkhood implements one by one on the elephant and curbed the speed of the elephant. Looking at this miracle, the astounded crowd was completely taken away by her courage and confidence. Finally the female monk was left only with the clothes on her body and nothing else.

The enraged crowd shouted at the coach, "Enough of your wicked act! Now stop it". The coach looked at Muruṇda and receiving a signal from him, brought the elephant under control.

After this incident, Muruṇda told his sister, "Sister! You can take initiation under this extremely brave and efficient female monk. It has been proved beyond doubt that her religion is the best propounded by the omniscient". Taking the permission of her brother, she took initiation from the female monk. Both of them were venerated by thousands of people with the great applause.  The teacher and her disciple thus created an eternal source of reverence in the hearts of the people. Despite the fact that their names are unknown to the world, yet they inspire a life of temperance and courage.

Highly influential female monk Yakṣā and others
(2nd and 3rd century V.N.)

It is already mentioned that during the ācārya tenure of Saṃbhūtavijaya, the seven daughters of Śakadāla, the Prime Minister of Dhanānanda took initiation. The memory power of these seven sisters was very acute and sharp. Yakṣā could immediately repeat without missing a single word, even the toughest and longest prose or poetry, just by listening to it once. Similarly, the other six sisters by listening 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 times respectively, could replicate and repeat prose or poetry of any length with great accuracy. These seven sisters, with the miracle of their incredible memory power, crushed the arrogance of a scholar named Vararuci, in the court of the last Nanda.

Ārya Mahāgiri and Ārya Suhastī stayed with the great scholar Āryikā Yakṣā from childhood and obtained thorough knowledge in the eleven Aṃgas.

Sometime after the initiation of Sthūlabhadra, Yakṣā and their six sisters, their younger brother Śrīyaka also took initiation into the Śramaṇa Dharma. Yakṣā suffered from excessive guilt and was distraught for encouraging her younger brother to observe Ekāsana (one meal per day) and later complete fasting, which resulted in the death of the delicately-disposed Śrīyaka.

Yakṣa, blaming herself for the death of Śrīyaka, started severe penance. Many of the preceding ācāryas stated that worried about the severe penance of Yakṣā, the congregation invoked 'Śāsana Devī' (Guardian Goddess).  With the help of the goddess, Female monk Yakṣā arrived at Śrī Simandhara Swāmi in Mahāvideha Kṣetra.  Proclaiming her as innocent, the Swāmī granted her the knowledge of four chapters as a Cūlikā (gift).

Thus the seven sisters - Yakṣā, et al, took initiation during the time of Saṃbhūtavijaya and established a remarkable place for themselves in the history of Jainism.

Āryā Poiṇī
(Approximately 300-330 V.N.)

The information about the great female monk Poiṇī, the Head of the Order of the Female monks and a scholar, and about 300 other detached Female monks of the time of descriptive-ācārya Ārya Balissaha, is available in the Sthavirāvalī written by Himavanta.  During early 4th century V.N., Mahāmeghavāhan Khāravela, the emperor of Kaliṃga, convened a council on Kumāra hills. Descriptove-ācārya Balissaha and group-ācārya Ārya Susthita with their respective entourage of 500 Śramaṇas and ascetics, and 300 detached Śramaṇīs, under the leadership of Āryikā Poiṇī, etc., attended the council.

One can assess the depth of knowledge and authority on Āgama scriptures, the excellent wisdom and unparalleled intellect of Female monk Poiṇī, by the fact that her contribution was requested and received by the council, for the pious and remarkable task of systematically compiling and protecting the Āgama literature.

She was respected and honor ed by monks and nuns, votaries and Femalevotaries of the congregation for her profound canonical knowledge. She enjoyed a prominent place in the congregation.

Female monk Sarasvatī.
(Approximately 5th Century)

Approximately in the first half of the 5th century (in the times of Ārya Guṇākara), along with Kālakācārya-II his sister Sarasvatī also took initiation. Complete information about Sarasvatī is given in the section on Kālakācārya II. Female monk Sarasvatī bravely faced the difficulties which came on her way. Though imprisoned by Gardhabhilla in his palace, and later coerced, threatened, harassed and lured by him, she did not budge from the Holy Path. After being freed from the shackles of Gardhabhilla, Āryā Sarasvatī with full purity of heart and soul performed severe austerities, penance and practiced self-restraint throughout her life, and finally attained heaven.

Female monk Sunandā
(In the beginning of 6th Century V.N.)

After Sarasvatī, who lived during the 2nd and 3rd phase of the 5th century after V.N., Āryā Sunandā, the mother of Ārya Vajra took initiation into Śramaṇa Dharma in V.N.Y 504, from a Sthavira female monk who was the disciple of Ārya Siṃhagiri. Her name will always be written in golden letters in Jain history, as she was the wife of a great renouncing and recluse Dhanagiri, and also the mother of a famous epochal-ācārya Ārya Vajra. She gave permission to her eager husband to renounce even though she was pregnant and in the prime of her youth thus setting an example of an ideal Indian wife seldom seen anywhere. Elaborate information about Āryikā Sunandā is given in the chapter on Ārya Siṃhagiri.

Young Celibate – Female monk Rukmiṇī

Female monk Rukmiṇī's name also occupies a high place among the highly elevated votive nuns. Rukmiṇī's sacrifice itself is unique. Just a minute ago she was in the intoxication of love and the very next moment renouncing everything, she became an ascetic. This is the uniqueness of female monk Rukmiṇī, the only daughter of a millionaire father, a merchant. This has already been described in the chapter on Ārya Vajra.

Female monk Rudrasomā

If a family is bestowed even with one member, who is completely bent towards spiritualism with all his soul, utmost devotion and faith, that person uplifts the entire family in the true sense. The life of Rudrasomā is a living example of this fact.

Rudrasomā was the wife of Somadeva, a scholar in Vedas. Somadeva was a royal priest to the king of Daśapura. He was immensely honoured and loved by the royal family, courtiers, society and people. Rudrasomā was a staunch devotee of Jain religion.

Rudrasomā gave birth to a very fortunate child in V.N. 522, named Rakṣita, who became an influential propagator epochal-ācārya of the Jain congregation. The second son of Rudrasomā was Phalgu Rakṣita. After finishing his primary education, Somadeva sent his son Rakṣita to Pāṭalīputra for further studies. Studying there for many years, the very intelligent and perspicacious Rakṣita learnt all the Vedas including the six Aṃgas.  After being well-versed in all the disciplines, when Rakṣita returned to Daśapura in V.N. 544, the king and the people honoured him by giving a grand welcome and celebrating his entry into the city. However, Rudrasomā did not show any enthusiasm at all. When Rakṣita asked about her indifference, she answered in a composed manner, "Son! Is there any mother in this world who does not feel happy at the success of her son? Everyone is happy with your success. Your education is helpful in providing familial comforts and happiness. It is also helpful in securing the necessities of your kith and kin in order to take good care of them. It is limited to that extent only. But it is not at all helpful for uplifting one's own soul or that of others or for spiritual enhancement. Son! To tell you the truth, I would have experienced real happiness had you returned after studying the Dṛṣṭivāda, which is full of spiritual knowledge".

The innate desire of his mother expressed with benevolent feelings got completely imprinted in his heart. He questioned his mother, "Where can I learn Dṛṣṭivāda?" Rudrasomā told him about Ārya Toṣaliputra who camped in Ikṣuvāṭikā, outside the town. At dawn, Rakṣita paying respects to his mother went to Ārya Toṣaliputra with great zeal to learn Dṛṣṭivāda.

After listening to Rakṣita's request, Ārya Toṣaliputra informed him that Dṛṣṭivāda could be taught only to a monk who took initiation as a detached Śramaṇa. The moment he listened to this, Rakṣita without any hesitation, accepted initiation into Śramaṇa Dharma.

After learning the eleven Aṃgas from Ārya Tosaliputr, Rakṣita approached Ārya Vajra and studied the nine and half Pūrvas and their meaning. His parents sent their younger son, Phalgu Rakṣita to bring Rakṣita back home. Rakṣita initiated his brother to the Śramaṇa Dharma. Acquiring the knowledge of the nine and half Pūrvas, Rakṣita came back to his Guru Ācārya Toṣaliputra. As he was the most worthy monk, his Guru conferred him the rank of ācārya and later observing Saṃlekhanā, Ācārya Toṣaliputra attained heavenly abode.

After his Guru attained heaven, Ārya Rakṣita who had by then become an ācārya, as per his mother's word, which she sent through her second son Phalgu Rakṣita, yielded finally and went to Daśapura, for the benefit of the devotees and would be ascetics.

Rudrasomā herself & inspired by Rudrasomā the royal priest Somadeva, and many members of their family who were desirous of salvation, took initiation as monk from Ārya Rakṣita.

Āryā Rudrasomā carrying out severe penance, practised pure selfrestraint. The two sides of Āryā Rudrasomā, one as a householder and the other as a nun, are a great source of inspiration to mankind. Except for the elevation of one's own self and that of others, Āryā Rudrasomā did not give any importance to the typical beliefs, like the family progeny should prosper and that the family lineage and its name should continue forever. She thought that continuation of one's own lineage is not a criterion to assess the success of a person. To her, self-realisation and helping others to realise their own self in the spiritual path were the requisites to evaluate the success of a person. She never bothered or worried if her lineage would continue or not; instead she imparted her sons with righteous traits and habits and encouraged them to tread on the path of spiritual practice and also to lead others. But for the encouragement of Rudrasomā, Ārya Rakṣita would not have become epochal-ācārya. The credit for the spiritual success of Ārya Rakṣita goes completely to his mother. In Jain history, along with the name of Ārya Rakṣita as a compiler of the Anuyogas, the name of the priest Somadeva and more specially the name of Rudrasomāa will remain forever.

Female monk Īśwarī
(Last Decade of 6th Century V.N.)

Right from the descent into the mother's womb till death, man is constantly surrounded by problems, either big or small. When the moments of grief and misery pass by, man forgets about the grief Stricken days and runs in search of the mirage of happiness. Once more he is encircled by sorrow and grief and once more he forgets them. Out of lakhs of people, seldom there is a person who learns from sorrows and difficulties and engages himself in the quest of eternal happiness.

The name of female monk Īśwarī appears first in the list of such rare personalities. The horrible famine resulted in the immense scarcity of food. Unable to bear the of pangs of hunger, Jinadatta, a wealthy merchant of Sopāraka Nagara, his wife Īśwarī and their four sons decided to die by consuming poison mixed food. Even after spending one lakh coins, Jinadatta with great difficulty could procure only two handfuls of grain for their last meal. Īśwarī prepared the food and was about to open the packet of lethal poison to mix in it. At that very moment, Vajrasena, the then epochal-ācārya, appeared at the door. Considering that at the vicious moment of nearing-death, the manifestation of a monk at their door-step was an auspicious omen, Īśwarī with overwhelming joy, offered salutations to the monk.

Seeing the lethal poison which was still in the hands of Īśwarī, Ārya Vajrasena asked the reason. When he came to know the actual situation, he recalled the words predicted by his Guru. On the basis of the prediction of his teacher, Ārya Vajrasena said, "O Noble Lady! There is no need to mix poison in the food. Plenty of food will be available starting tomorrow".

Having immense faith in the words of the monk, Īśwarī kept the packet of poison aside. Giving in to the repeated entreaties of Īśwarī, Ārya Vajrasena partook two morsels of the unblemished food.

The same night some ships loaded with grains arrived at the seaport of Sopārakpura. In the morning plenty of food grains were distributed among all the people. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief with the crisis of the famine being resolved.

Even Jinadatta received food grains. Analysing the fatal situation, Īśwarī addressing her husband and four sons said, "Had the monk Ārya Vajrasena arrived a little late, we would have met with untimely death and would have ruined ourselves. In the transitional period of life and death, the monk manifested like a deity of liberation and salvaged us from being swallowed by the deity of death.  Hence I feel that it is most befitting for us to take initiation from Ācārya Vajrasena and to destroy our Karma in the fire of penance and self-restraint and try to liberate ourselves from this terrible wildfire of misery". Praising the apt suggestion of Īśwarī, Jinadatta and others determined to renounce.

Jinadatta, Īśwarī and their sons - Nāgendra, Candra, Nivṛtti and Vidyādhara, renouncing their immense wealth and all worldly pleasures and luxuries, accepted initiation into aṃgar / monk Dharma with Sarvavirati (absolute restraint) from Ārya Vajrasena. Īśwarī learnt a lesson from that calamitous situation and her appropriate analysis converted the bane into a boon for herself and her family members too.

As a matter of fact, the life of Īśwarī is a source of great inspiration for all the devotees. It always motivates mankind towards a proper and virtuous direction, "O man, reform yourself; from this very moment, Strive hard towards the direction from where you will never again find any sorrow or grief."


Title: Jain Legend: Jain Dharma ka Maulika Itihasa (2)
Acharya Hasti Mala
Shugan C. Jain
Publisher: Samyakjnana Pracaraka Mandala, Jaipur
Edition: 2011
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhigraha
  2. Bhāṣya
  3. Body
  4. Candra
  5. Cycle of Time
  6. Cūrṇi
  7. Deva
  8. Dharma
  9. Digambara
  10. Discipline
  11. Dṛṣṭivāda
  12. Ekāsana
  13. Fasting
  14. Fear
  15. Guru
  16. Haribhadra
  17. Jainism
  18. Karma
  19. Karmas
  20. Kṣetra
  21. Lakh
  22. Mahāvīra
  23. Nagari
  24. Nirvāṇa
  25. Nivṛtti
  26. Niśītha
  27. Non-violence
  28. Omniscient
  29. Pārśvanātha
  30. Sarasvatī
  31. Saṃlekhanā
  32. Soul
  33. Vedas
  34. Yakṣa
  35. Yāpanīya
  36. Ācārya
  37. Āgama
  38. Āryā
  39. Āvaśyaka
  40. ācāryas
  41. Śvetāmbara
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