Indian Philosophy – The Jains, Whiteclad & Skyclad

Jain monk broom

The two most ancient sects of Jains are the Shvetambaras (the White-clad) and the Digambaras (the Sky-clad).  The two sects diverged and hardened against each other over the years, with the Digambara saying the Shvetambara aren’t dedicated enough and the Shvetambara saying the Digambara are too puritanical.  Shvetambara monks and nuns wear simple white robes and carry a begging bowl, much as many Buddhist monks and nuns own only a robe and bowl for receiving food from the community.  Shvetambaras also sometimes carry a small broom for clearing paths and open areas of insects.  These White-clad (clothed in white) make up the majority of Jain monks and nuns.

jain guru teaching

The Sky-clad are even more hardcore, and own nothing.  They often carry a broom like the White-clad for sweeping insects away from potential trampling, but these brooms, like other things used by White-clad Jain and Buddhist monks and nuns, are communal property.  Friends who went to a Jesuit Catholic high school tell me that their teachers, who are educated Jesuit priests, drive decent cars that are owned by the Jesuit order, not by the priests as individuals.  Unlike Jesuit priests or Buddhist monks, Sky-clad Jain monks do not own or wear clothes, much like the original ascetics who left traditional life to train in the jungle.  Digambara monks also do not own or use a bowl, and only eat what they can hold in their hands.  The famed Greek cynic Diogenes, who lived a somewhat Jain-like existence outside the marketplace of Athens in a large jar around 400 BCE, is supposed to have smashed his bowl, one of his only possessions, when he saw a poor boy using his hands to drink from a fountain.  The Yapaniyas were a third Jain group that survived until the 1400s, who wore white in public but practiced naked.

jain nuns

Sadly, Digambara nuns are not allowed to be naked and are thus considered inferior.  The Digambara argue that only those who go without clothes can obtain full enlightenment, and because women cannot be naked without problems arising, Digambara nuns wear clothes and must await being reborn as a man to have a shot at being a Digambara monk and then being enlightened.  Some Digambara texts argue that women are more physically complex than men, are host to more microorganisms and experience the violence of menstruation.  The Digambara also believe that all Shvetambara, monks and nuns, are incapable of total moksha wearing clothes, which means that Digambara monks, according to themselves, are the only Jains who are capable of being full Jains and having a shot at the final goal.

Naga women

There is a Mahayana Buddhist story of the dragon princess who heard a Buddhist chant, became enlightened, and went to monks to confirm her awakening.  On hearing that she couldn’t be completely enlightened as a dragon or a woman, she levitated into the sky, transformed into a man (dragon?) and shot up into the higher heavens in front of the monks’ eyes.  This story shows the Mahayana extending enlightenment popularly to women beyond the earlier Theravadins, much as the Shvetambara do beyond the stricter Digambaras.

jain nun

The Shvetambara believe that both women and men are capable of obtaining enlightenment and liberation in this very life without needing to be reborn into a more favorable existence, such as a lower-class Hindu being reborn a Brahmin, a woman being reborn a man, or a Shvetambara being reborn as a Digambara.  The Shvetambaras believe that the 19th of the 24 Tirthankaras, Mallinatha, was a woman, unlike the Digambaras who think s/he/they was/were a man.  Sadly, the Shvetambaras believe that Mallinatha was born a woman because she had been a man in his previous life who lied to his fellow Jains and snuck off into the (deeper?) jungle to be even more hardcore in secret.  The Shvetambaras believe that Mahavira’s mother Trishala also achieved enlightenment as a woman.

Jain Monks 1800s

Mahavira did practice meditation and asceticism naked, but only because he was so detached from his body that his white loin cloth slipped off one day.  This can be interpreted by the Digambara as the universe itself leading Mahavira to truly proper conduct and by the Shvetambara as accidental and inessential.  The Shvetambara texts record Mahavira speaking and acting after obtaining enlightenment, while the Digambara do not believe that Mahavira did anything other than sit in tranquility after his liberation.  According to the Digambara, when Mahavira obtained total enlightenment he did not speak or act, but his body emitted a sound that his closest followers were able to understand as the final Jain teaching.