Jain World
Sub-Categories of Passions - ASPECTS OF JAINA RELIGION

Front Page

Fore Word




From the history of Jaina religion upto Mahavira it appears that sects and sub-sects had not arisen till that time. But later on we find that various schisms arose in Jaina religion as a result of which Jainism was divided into several sects and sub-sects. There were various reasons which contributed to the splitting of Jainism in small sects and sub-sects.

(1) Increase in the extent of Jainism

In the first place it may be mentioned that during the lifetime of Mahavira the spread of Jainism was limiteo and it did not seem generally to have crossed the boundaries of kingdoms of Ariga and Magadha, comprising modern Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, where Mahavira mainly lived and concentrated his attention; but after the death of Mahavira, his successors and followers succeeded to a large extent in popularising the religion throughout the length and breadth of India, so that it did not fail to enlist for a long period the support of kings as well as commoners. As the number of adherents to Jaina religion fast increased and as they were scattered practically in all parts of the country, the Ganadharas, that is, the religious leaders and the religious pontiffs must have found it very difficult to look after and organise their followers. Naturally, different conditions, customs, manners and ways of life prevailing in different parts of the country in different periods of time might have influenced in giving rise to various religious practices which might have ultimately resulted in creating factions among the followers of Jainism.

(2) Interpretation of Jaina Canons

Secondly, the religious doctrines, principles and tenets of Jainism as they were enunciated and taught by Mahavira were not committed to writing during the lifetime of Mahavira or immediately after his death. The important fact was that the religious teachings of Mahavira were memorised by his immediate successors and they were thus handed down by one generation to another, till they were canonised at the council of Pataliputra in the early part of the 3rd century B.C: By this time much water had flown down the Ganges and what was canonized was not acceptable to all, who vigorously maintained that the canon did not contain the actual teachings of Mahavira.

Again, there was the question of interpreting what had been cannonised. As time passed on, differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of many doctrines arose and those who differed estab�lished a separate school of thought and formed themselves into a sect or sub-sect:

(3) Revolt against Jaina�s Religious Authorities

Thirdly, it may be maintained that sects and sub-sects arise a� a direct result of the revolts against the actions and policy of ruling priests or religious authorities including the heads of the Church. Those who are at the helm of religious affairs are likely to swerve from their prescribed path and debase themselves or they are likely to be too strict in maintaining and preserving the religious practices in a manner they think proper, without taking into account the needs of the changing conditions. In both the cases natural indignation is bound to occur on the part of the elite and there should not be any surprise if this accumulated indignation and discontent took a turn in formulating and organising a separate sect. For example, Martin Luther revolted against the high-handed policy of Popes and Priests in Christian religion and founded the section of Protestants W that religion. Generally, the same thing happened in Jaina religion also.

As a result of these factors the Jaina religion which was one and undivided upto the time of Tirthankara Mahavira and even upto the beginning of the Christian Era got divided first into the two major sects, viz., Digambara and Svetambara, and later on into many sub�sects in each sect. This has given rise to a number of sections and sub-sections in Jainism and the process, in one form or another, is still going on.


The history of Jaina religion is full of references to the various schisms that had taken place from time to time and some of these schisms contributed to the rise of sects and sub-sects in Jaina religion. There is, however, no unity of opinion on the manner and nature of such schisms. It is maintained that there were eight schisms, of which the first was caused by Jamali during Tirthankara Mahavira�s life�time, and the eighth took place during the first century of the Christian Era, that is; after the lapse of nearly six hundred years after the nirvana of Tirthankara Mahavira. Among these schisms, the eighth schism was more important as it ultimately split the Jaina religion into two distinct sects of Digambara Jainas and Svetambara Jainas. In this connection it may be noted that in order to prove the antiquity of their particular sect, both the sects have put forward their own theories regarding the origin of the other sect.

According to the account of the eighth schism, known as the great schism, which is corrobarated by historical evidence, the process of the split continued from the third century B.C. upto the first century of the Christian Era. In the third century B.C. famous .Iaina saint Srutakevali Bhadrabahu predicted a long and severe famine in the kingdom of Magadha (in modern Bihar) and with a view to avoid the terrible effects of famine Bhadrabahu, along with a body of 12,000 monks, migrated from Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha, to Shravanabelagola (in modern Karnataka State) in South India. Chandragupta Vlaurya (322-298 B.C.). who was then the Emperor of Magadha and was very much devoted to Acharya Bhadrabahu, abdi�cated his throne in favour of his son Bindusara, joined Bhadrabadhu�s entourage as a monk-disciple, and stayed with Bhadraba-hu at Shravana�belagola. Chandragupta, the devout ascetic disciple of Bhardraba-hu, lived for 12 years after the death of his teacher Bhadraba-hu, in about 297 B.C. and after practising penance died according to the strict Jaina rite of Sallekirarur on the same hill at Shravanabelagola. This Bhadraba-hu�Chandra&pta tradition is strongly supported by a large number of epigraphic and literary evidences of a very reliable nature.

When the ascetics of Bhadraba-hu-sangha returned to Pataliputra after the end of twelve-year period of famine, they, to their utter surprise, noticed two significant changes that had taken place during their absence, among the ascetics of Magadha under the leadership of Acharya Sthu labhadra. In the first place, the rule of nudity was relaxed and the ascetics were allowed to wear a piece of white cloth (known as Ardhaphalaka). Secondly, the sacred books were collected and edited at the council of Pataliputra specially convened for the purpose. As a result the group of returned monks did not accept the two things, introduced by the followers of Acharya Sthu-labhadra, namely, the relaxation of the rule of nudity and the recension of the sacred texts, and proclaimed themselves as true Jainas. Eventually, the Jaina religion was split up into two distinct sects, viz., the Digambara (sky-clad or stark naked) and the Svetambara (white-clad)

In connection with this Great Schism it is pertinent to note that the practice of nudity, strictly observed by �I�u-tharikara Mahavira and the ascetic members of his sarigha, was later on found impracticable and discarded gradually by some sections of the Ascetic Order of the Jainas. That is -why Dr. Herman Jacobi, the pioneer of Jaina studies in Germany, has made the following observation :

�It is possible that the separation of the Jaina Church took place gradually, an individual development going on in both the groups living at a great distance from one another, and that they became aware of their mutual difference about the end of the first century A.D. But their difference is small in their articles of faith.�

In this regard Dr. A.L. Basham, the renowned authrity on Oriental Studies, has given his positive opinion as follows : �Out of this migration arose the great schism of Jainism on a point of monastic discipline. Bhadraba-hu, the elder of the community, who had led the emigrants, had insisted on the retention of the rule of nudity, which Mahavira had established. SthuZabhadra, the leader of monks who had remained in the North, allowed his followers to wear white garments, owing to the hardships and confusions of the famine. Hence arose the two sects of Jainas, the Digambaras and the Svetambaras. The schism did not become final until the first century A.D.�

(vide �The Wonder that was India�, pp. 288-89).

Further, it is worth noting that in the beginning when the schism materialised, the differences between the two sects were not acute and did not take the form of a dogmatic and doctrinaire rigidity as is clear from the fact that the Jainas by and large agreed that nakedness was the highest ideal as it is the characteristic of a Jina. Accordingly, they adored the nude images of Tirthankaras without any reser�vation. In this context it is pertinent to note that all the early images of Ti�rtharikaras found at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh are nude. But slowly the question of clothing became important and accordingly different views and approaches were put forward in regard to various aspects and practices of the religious life. As a result with the passage of time and changed conditions, attitudes and approaches began to stiffen, doctrines to ossify and the sectarian outlook to dominate. This phenomenon is found among the other religious sects of that time. Naturally, it affected the Jaina religion also.


It is worthwhile to see what the exact differences between the Digambara and Svetambara sects of Jainism are. Literally, the monks of the Digambaras are naked while those of the gvetimbaras wear, white clothes. In fact there are no fundamental doctrinal differences between the two sects. For example, the most authoritative sacred text of all Jainas is the Tattvarthadhigama-sutra by Umasvati. How�ever, there are some major as well as minor points on which the two sects are opposed to each other.

(A) Some Points of Differences

Some of the points of differences between the Digambaras and Svetambaras are as follows :

(i) Practice of Nudity

Digambaras stress the practice of nudity as an absolute pre-requisite to the mendicant�s path and to the attainment of salvation. But the gvetimbaras assert that the practice of complete nudity is not essential to attain liberation.

(ii) Liberation of Woman

Digambaras believe that a woman lacks the adamantine body and rigid will necessary to attain moksa, i.e., liberation: hence she must be teborn as a man before such an attainment is possible. But the Svetambaras hold the contrary view and maintain that women are capable. In the present life time, of the same spiritual accomplishments as men.

(iii) Food for Omniscient

According to the Digambaras, once a saint becomes a kevali or Kevala jnani, that is, omniscient, he needs no morsel of food. But this view is not acceptable to the Svetambaras.