The Solitary Path of the Jain Digambara

Characteristic of the world's organized religions is a formal distinction between laity and clergy, between householders and priests, monks and nuns. Most religions associate nature and reality with deities or divine beings or gods whom humans propitiate through that priesthood, which has the exclusive functions of offering rites and prayers, and codifying and interpreting scriptures.

In Jainism (and Buddhism), however, the source of spiritual authority originates in an ascetic experience, the insight of which is then proposed or shared as an authoritative path that holds a higher priority than ritual or scripture. The priest or monk system that develops is based on the ascetic example of the founder. In Jainism, the founder is Mahavira (6th century BCE).

Unlike Buddhism, Jainism has a continuous social and community presence in India since antiquity. Jainism is as ancient as the Vedic religion of India's Aryan invaders, unabsorbed and filled with a pristine theology and cosmology  far more exact than the fertile mythology of Hinduism. Hence the monastic tradition of Jainism reflects both the antiquity of Hinduism and the asceticism of Buddhism.

The Jain monk is called a sadhu, which means mendicant or saint in Sanskrit, signifying ascetic renunciation of attachments or possessions. The monks of Jainism are of two traditions: Shvetambara and Digambara. These two orders have minimal doctrinal differences and both uphold the same vows or acts of renunciation, namely, renunciation of killing, lying, grasping or taking, sexuality, and attachment or possession.

The obvious difference between the orders is to be found in the names. Shvetambara means white-clad, and refers to the color of the plain cotton garment worn by members of this order, both male and female. Digambara means sky-clad, and refers to the fact that the males of this order are without clothes. (The nuns of the Digambara order are clothed like the Shvetambara). How this difference came about no one knows, but the early centuries CE provide the earliest evidence in literature and archaeology. Other clues may be gathered from the example of Hindu sadhus, sects of which are naked.

The story of Alexander the Great's encounter in India with "naked philosophers" may refer either to Hindus or Jains. Plutarch calls them Gymnosophists. Here is Arrian's version from his Campaigns of Alexander, circa 117 CE:

In Taxila once, Alexander met some members of the Indian sect of wise men whose practice it is to go naked, and he so much admired their powers of endurance that the fancy took him to have one of them in his personal train. The oldest man among them, whose name was Dandamis (the others were his pupils), refused either to join Alexander himself or to permit any of his pupils to do so.

"If you, my lord," Dandamis is said to have replied, "are the son of God, why -- so am I. I want nothing from you, for what I have suffices. I perceive, moreover, that the men you lead get no good from their world-wide wanderings over land and sea, and that of their many journeyings there is no end. I desire nothing that you can give me; I fear no exclusion from any blessings which may perhaps be yours. India, with the fruits of her soil in due season, is enough for me while I live; and when I die, I shall be rid of my poor body -- my unseemly housemate."

These words convinced Alexander that Dandamis was, in a true sense, a free man; so he made no attempt to compel him.1

Of course, the words assigned to Dandamis approximate the thoughts of an ancient Greek Cynic like Diogenes, but the sentiment is not too badly placed.

The usual historical explanation for the chief difference between Shvetambara and Digambara is one of geography, that the ascetics of northern India could not tolerate cold or were not as isolated from other people, while those of southern India were mostly forest recluses and wanderers.  Author Kurt Titze elaborates:

Natural caves on the sides or tops of hills situated away from human habitation, served as temporary refuges and places of stay for them [i.e., the earliest Digambara]. Even the early artificial caves were simple and often contained polished stone beds for those who performed sallekhana [i.e., ritual fasting by the infirm to promote death]. From the third-fourth century AD the practice of living more or less permanently in out-of-the-way temples or establishments gradually began to gain ground with a large section of Jain ascetics, and it gave encouragement to the making of rock-hewn cave temples.2

Note here, then, the assumption that the Digambara preceded the Shvetambara as reclusive ascetics who found suitable dwelling in remote areas, implying that the Shvetambara later mingled among villagers because of their being clothed. The evidence for two separate orders falls anywhere from the third century BCE to the third century CE.

In fact, at Ennayiramalai in Tamilnadu, a complex of six caves of thirty-five smoothed rock slabs on a hill of boulders, may have housed hundreds of Digambara ascetics, but it is not possible to date it strictly.

A curious remnant sect of ascetics in India called Ajivikas has been proposed as the possible precursor of the Digambara. Founded by Makhai Gosala, a contemporary of Mahavira and Gautama (Buddha), it is said that they retained the pristine sense of asceticism and nakedness that convinced Mahavira to renounce the begging bowl and use of clothing. The Ajivikas maintained a primitive philosophy of predestination and rejected the compromises of all other religious sects. Their absolutism destined them to die out as a sect, officially in the fourteenth century CE, but essentially they became the Digambara, in contrast to whom no doctrinal distinctions were ever made. Since the Ajivikas are only known through casual references in Sanskrit and Pakrit texts, their role is a matter of speculation.

But the fact that both the Shvetambara and the Digambara accept the belief that Mahavira, the great Jain sage-founder of the sixth century BCE was naked does suggest a later pragmatism that split the monks and created the white-clad order. Furthermore, the epic story of King Rishabha and his two sons also suggests this primordial asceticism of the Digambara. The myth is as follows:

Eons ago, when humans were 500 bows in height, King Rishabha had two wives, and an elder son by each wife: Bharata and Bahubali. Rishabha decided to retire to an ascetic life and split his kingdom between his sons. In the armory he inherited, Bharata discovered an invincible discus, which he took as a sign that he should rule all of his father's kingdom. As reports of his secret weapon spread, the many princes came to him ceding power, but Bahubali did not. As war between the brothers loomed, the respective ministers proposed a more benign resolution, a series of contests between the brothers: a contest of eye-staring, of water-splashing, and of wrestling.

Bahubali won each contest, infuriating Bharata, who seized and hurled the discus at his brother's head. To the astonishment of the on-lookers, the discus harmlessly circled the head of Bahubali  as if asserting his victory. The humiliated Bharata fell to his brother's feet and offered him the kingdom. But Bahubali experienced an insight about attachment and possession. He renounced the kingdom and instead remained standing in the forest for a year, naked and silent. The vines and creepers grew about him as he remained oblivious to food, people, and elements. (This was to become the Jain model of standing meditation). A year later, at the plea of his sisters to stop his standing at the risk of pride, Bahubali quit. His brother raised a full length golden statue to Bahubali (that is, 525 bows high) at Podanupura, where, eons later (about 1000 CE), a master sculptor recovered the statue from the mountain that had absorbed it and recreated the statue in stone.

Statues of Bahubali, like statues of all the jinas or sages, culminating in depictions of Mahavira, are always depicted naked; those of Bahubali also show vines and creepers entangling legs and arms.

The path of the Jain monk is a rigorous one. The great vows already enjoin non-killing or non-violence (ahimsa), but this practice is enjoined less absolutely on the householder than the monk. In the case of external austerities (tapas) the monk observes the following practices more rigorously:

  1. fasting one or more days per week (anasana)
  2. eating less than what hunger demands (avamaudarya)
  3. reducing possessiveness (vrttisamksepa)
  4. renouncing non-necessaries (rasapartiyaga)
  5. residing in isolated places (viviktasayyasanasamlinata)
  6. mortifying the body (kayaklesia)

In the case of the Digambara, these austerities define daily life and practice; many overlap with Shvetambara. They usually live alone, typically in temples and in forest reclusion. They travel alone (unlike the Shvetambara). They have no possessions except a whisk of found peacock feathers for dispersing insects and a bowl for hygiene water: washing of feet and hands only is permitted. Sometimes they may carry a parasol. Neither order can use any conveyance but must walk from place to place on foot. They must not stay anywhere more than a day except during the rainy season, and must accept whatever vegetarian food offered by the villagers they encounter upon entering a village. Unlike the white-clad who carry bowls for begging food, Digambara neither beg nor carry a bowl for food, accepting what is offered into open cupped hands, eating without utensil. The Digambara says nothing, but if requested may give a spiritual talk to the assembled people. And, perhaps overarching everything, is his nakedness. Such is the solitary path of the Digambara.

By the restraining of the senses, by the extermination of attachment and aversion, and by not injuring living beings, he becomes fit for immortality.  -- Manusmrti (VI, 60)

The Digambara are a radical assertion of eremitic asceticism. Jains accept the totality of this path without asserting its necessity. The only essential point is that when one attains the state of perfect non-attachment, one definitely attains liberation, irrespective of one being a nude or not.3


  1. Arrian: Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Harmondsworth; Baltimore: Penguin, 1971. p. 350.
  2. Titze, Kurt: Jainism, a Pictorial Guide to the Religion of Non-violence. 2nd rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001. p.60-61.
  3. Nyayavijayaji, Munisri: Jaina Philosophy and Religion, Translated by Nagin J. Shah, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998. p. 393.