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History of Jainism ►Shvetambar Terapanth [2]

Published: 12.07.2011
Updated: 04.10.2012


History and Doctrine of Shvetambar Terapanth

1. Doctrine

Acarya Bhiksu took the concept of ahimsa, non-violence, to an extreme that alienated his sect from the Jain community. An important influence for the inspiration of both Terapanthi and Sthanakvasi doctrine came from Lonka, who lived in the fifteenth century. The Terapanthis follow some Sthanakvasi doctrine, including the permanent wearing of the muhpatti, mouth-shield, and rejection of image-worship and certain scriptures. The maryada is a fixed code of practice for Terapanthi ascetics, whose most important rule is the central power in the sect of the acarya, the overall leader.

Jain commitment to ahimsa is reflected in real and active concern for the prevention and alleviation of suffering for humans, animals, and all forms of life. Bhiksu was a rebel Sthanakvasi monk whose sect was based on the doctrine of total non-assistance to any living being except fellow monks and nuns. His theory was that saving the life of a dog or a cat, for example, makes one responsible for all the violence committed by that dog or cat in the future. Such action should therefore be avoided. He claimed further that helpful action of this kind almost always involves some personal interest in the result, thus increasing karmic attachments. Bhiksu exploited the doctrinal split between the ideals of total renunciation and moksha (salvation from the cycle of birth and death) on the one hand, and compassionate behaviour on the other.

Pushed to a logical extreme the Jain canon might be thought to justify the Terapanthi interpretation, but in fact this violates the spirit of anakantavada ('the doctrine of manifold aspects' - the comprehensive Jain view of reality), and has been considered a form of ekanta ('one-sided'; ekantavadins hold an absolutist doctrine) by most Jains.

Bhiksu made a distinction between the laukika (worldly), and lokottara (transcendent), religious spheres. Religious practices to gain merit and exercise ahimsa, such as buying and freeing animals from a butcher, being on the laukika level, have no value to the Terapanthis except as purely social action. Lokottara giving is the teaching of the path of restraint to all creatures. Bhiksu was using the very oldest Jain scriptures in saying that a true monk's duty is not to rescue other creatures but to purify his own soul by ahimsa.

The modern Terapanthi based Anuvrat movement founded by Tulsi has a doctrine similar to the Moral Rearmament Movement in the West. If an anu, atom, can destroy the world, then the anuvrata, a small or atomic vow, will counter the threat of an atomic bomb. The lay Lesser Vows is a modified form of the anuvratasto cause a moral reformation and inspire people to cultivate self-restraint irrespective of their caste, colour, creed, country and language, to establish the values of friendship, unity, peace and morality, to create an unfettered society free from exploitation.

The modern Jain meditation, prekshadhyana, 'insight meditation,' which the Terapanthis have introduced, is similar to Buddhist insight meditation. Under Acarya Tulsi, "the Terapanth has in general accepted that all religions share certain basic ideals and aspirations" (Paul Dundas, The Jains, London 1992, p. 224).

2. History

Acharya Bhiksu was born in 1726 in the region of Marwar in Rajasthan. a harsh desert environment that may have influenced his extreme form of Jainism. The Terapanth maintains a Rajasthani ethos despite a universalist image. Bhiksu is often known by the Rajasthani version of his name, Bhikhanji. The people of Marwar were of a rural and small shop-keeping background. Bhiksu's family were involved in renunciation, as is common with Shvetambara ascetics. However, he found the subsect of his parents lacking in moral qualities and he followed Raghunathji. a leading Sthanakavasi acarya, taking initiation in 1751. Though Bhiksu stayed a disciple of Raghunathji for eight years, he finally broke away from the Sthanakvasis, criticising them for worldliness and a lack of commitment.

The name Terapanth had been used in the seventeenth century by a Digambara sect of similar doctrine. Terapanth means "the path of the thirteen" (Tera is Rajasthani for thirteen) and relates to a poem of when they were thirteen monks and thirteen laymen. It also means 'your' and can be interpreted as coming from "you, Lord Mahavira." Thirteen is as well the number of the basic parts of ascetic practice which Bhiksu wanted to restore.

At first life was hard for the new sect. Raghunathji turned lay people against them and they spent the first caturmas, four-month ascetic monsoon retreat, in a cave. Bhiksu thrived on difficulties and was a hard teacher who developed elaborate lengthy fasting, still an important part of Terapanthi life.

For forty-four years Bhiksu preached his radical Jainism as a monk in Marwar and Mewar. Gradually his small group became a community and was formally constituted in 1764. Bhiksu died in 1803, having initiated fifty-six nuns and forty-nine monks, thus making the Terapanth a reasonably sized Jain sect.

The continuation of the sect was largely due to Bhiksu devising the maryada, which was codified by the fourth acarya, Jaya. A festival of allegiance to the maryada still takes place after the monsoon retreat. Bhiksu's institution of the powerful maryada has prevented fission of the sect, except for a few breakaway monks recently, and has served to unite the sect and maintain its lineage and integrity to the present day. Jaya consolidated the sect, collected stories of Bhiksu, introduced sacred days, and started the copying of manuscripts to make libraries. In 1853 the office of sadhvipramukha, the chief nun, subordinate to the acarya, was introduced, and the nuns were divided into forty-three groups.

Acarya Tulsi is the ninth, and he has since 1936 been responsible for rapid expansion of Terapanthi activity, giving the sect a high profile in post-independence India. He has carried out more initiations than any other acarya, started a development programme in Ladnun in Rajasthan - his birthplace - with plans for the first Jain university, and in 1949 founded the Anuvrat movement to provide a code of moral conduct to penetrate Indian and world society and revolutionise ethical behaviour. In the 1980's Tulsi was criticised for bringing the Terapanth sect into disrepute through his dealings with businessmen and politicians - inevitable when trying to present Jainism to a wider audience - and a breakaway group called the Nav Terapanth (New Terapanth) was formed. The Nav Terapanth appears as the latest division within Jainism (see: History and Doctrine of Nav Terapanth).

Of great importance for the world-wide Jain community and perhaps for the world is the breaking by the Terapanthis of the longlasting Jain prohibition on ascetics travelling in 'non-aryan' countries. Since the early 1980's lower-order male and female ascetics called samans and samanis have been trained with special dispensation to travel abroad, and are allowed to use mechanical transport and accept specially prepared food.

3. Symbols

At the diksha, initiation, ceremony the Terapanthi ascetic (and the Sthanakvasi ascetic) receives a robe, a whisk for brushing away insects, an alms bowl, and a muhpatti, mouth-shield, which are both of practical use and serving as symbols of the sect.

Terapanthis and Sthanakvasis do not worship images and they do not have a system of holy places. However, their ascetics are regarded as pilgrimage places in themselves and lay people will journey to see an ascetic. Apart from this, devotional activity is focused on bhavapuja, mental worship.

4. Adherents

In 1981 the total Terapanthi population was estimated at 50,000. Of this 577 were nuns and 150 were monks (Nalini Balbir, cited in Paul Dundas, The Jains, London 1992, p. 254, n. 41). Most adherents are members of the Bisa Oswal caste (as was Bhiksu himself), especially in Marwar and the adjacent region of Mewar.

5. Main Centre

Marwar region, Rajasthan, India.


Compiled by PK


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              Page glossary
              Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
              1. Acarya
              2. Acharya
              3. Ahimsa
              4. Anu
              5. Anuvrat
              6. Anuvrat Movement
              7. Anuvrata
              8. Bhikhanji
              9. Bhiksu
              10. Caturmas
              11. Digambara
              12. Diksha
              13. Ekanta
              14. Environment
              15. Fasting
              16. Jainism
              17. Jaya
              18. Ladnun
              19. London
              20. Lonka
              21. Mahavira
              22. Marwar
              23. Maryada
              24. Meditation
              25. Mewar
              26. Moksha
              27. Muhpatti
              28. Nalini Balbir
              29. Nav Terapanth
              30. Non-violence
              31. Oswal
              32. PK
              33. Paul Dundas
              34. Prekshadhyana
              35. Raghunathji
              36. Rajasthan
              37. Rajasthani
              38. Sadhvipramukha
              39. Samanis
              40. Samans
              41. Shvetambar
              42. Shvetambar Terapanth
              43. Shvetambara
              44. Soul
              45. Sthanakavasi
              46. Sthanakvasi
              47. Sthanakvasis
              48. Terapanth
              49. Terapanthi
              50. Terapanthis
              51. Tulsi
              52. Violence
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