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Dec 31, 2008

The Structure of Jain Community

Mrs. N. R. Guseva

As is already indicated, the entire Jain community is divided into two sects-Digambaras and Shvetambaras.

Digambaras in their turn are divided into five subsects-bisapanthi, terapanthi, taranapanthi (or samayapanthi), gumanapanthi and totapanthi.

The difference between them consists mainly in observance or non-observance of one or the other fine point of ritual (thus, bisapanthi present flowers, fruits and sweetmeats to the images of Tirthankars and Terapanthi present only rice), but the first two subsects do not visit the temples of other subsects.

Shvetambaras have three subsects: pujera (or murtipujaka or deravasi or mandirmargi), dhundia (or bistola or sthanakvasi or sadhumargi) and terapanthi.

Pujeras dress up and richly adorn Tirthankars in their temples, their ascetics bind their mouths with white cloth but they can wear yellow dress. The dhundias have not got images of Tirthankars at all, and their ascetics wear only white. Terapanthi is rather a big subsect and strictly observes ascetism. They also do not worship the images of Tirthankars.
The spiritual life of all these subsects is led by the heads-Acharyas. Still petty groups, headed by their mentors-Acharyas-exist in the subsects. These groups are called sanghas and still smaller subgroups-gana, gachcha and sakha-exist in those sanghas. Contradictions and disputes constantly arise amongst them about various questions of ritual. Many groups have their own temples and separate schools for religious education of the young. These schools are called gurukulas or patha shalas.

Every group has its own ascetics. The interesting feature of the internal structure of these groups is the system of mutual control between laymen and ascetics. For breach of rules of conduct or prohibitions, not only the laymen but also the ascetics can be expelled from the community and this practically takes place sometimes in our days too. Even Shripujya (head of ascetics of a given group) can be expelled by its members.

Some such sanghas also arose which strove to even out contradictions inside the community and they elevated this to the level of their programme of religious teaching. Thus, the sangh, known as the yapya, existing in Andhra accepts, as the Shvetambaras do, the truth of canonic books and the possibility of salvation of women also, but like the Digambaras, it upholds the customary ritualistic nudity of body and all the rules prescribed for the ascetics.

As has been already mentioned, division into castes penetrated in the Jain community and the custom of inheriting the profession in each caste (mainly by the north Indian Jains) got partially established. Here it is quite in place to remember the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, which briefly and aptly characterise this process. It is exceedingly interesting and significant that during the stretch of a protracted segment of Indian history, the great people more than once warned against priest-hood and the rigid caste system, and strong movements took place against them. Nevertheless, as though it was predestined, castes slowly developed and almost imperceptibly spread and caught in their pernicious clutches all the spheres of Indian life . The rebels, rising against the old religion and which was in many respects highly distinctive from it, reconciled with the caste system as a result of which, it continues to exist in India almost as a branch of Hinduism.

As distinct from Hinduism, there are no rigid caste prohibitions or prescriptions in Jainism. No caste enjoys privileged position, even though a stratum of Brahmins proper has formed amongst Jains. Judging from the traditions which have come down from word of mouth and the works of Jain literature, a numberless subsects and castes arose mainly in the medieval period, commencing from the 2nd half of the 1st millennium. It is apparent that the historical process of settlement of the Jains in India, conversion of individual groups of population and also the process of adoption of the caste system by the Jain community was reflected in the rise of such petty subgroups in that community.

This idea is confirmed by the fact that the Jain tradition preserves the names of tens of preachers, who supposedly formed those groups and moreover, interpreted canon in various ways and prescribed different religious practices to their groups.

But the makers of the religious canons of Jainism, in no way expressed their own attitudes to castes and did not introudce any prohibitions or prescriptions in this connection.

Some of the castes of Jains are extremely small in number. Thus amongst the Shvetambaras, almost no caste (excluding the five strong castes) has more than 500 members. Amongst both the sects, there are some castes which consist of 10-12 persons each.

Notwithstanding the fact that not all the caste institutions were adopted by the Jains, the ideas about higher and lower position of this or that caste exists all the same. Thus many castes of the Jains are divided into two groups-visa and dasa. Scholars are unable to explain the origin of these groups, but it is certain that these groups are endogamous and that the position of the latter group is lower than that of the former. The members of the latter group are not even allowed to enter the temples in some places, even though untouchability practically does not exist amongst Jains.

Marriages of widows are allowed amongst the castes of visa group, while amongst the castes of dasa group, such marriages are prohibited. It is possible to assume that the dasa caste goes back genetically to those ancient groups of Jains which had their origin in the non-Aryan people, while visas have their origin in groups of Jain-Aryans, which were formed much later.

It is characteristic that marriages of members of visa castes with those of the dasa castes are prohibited, while marriages between the members of visa castes of Digambaras and Shvetambaras and equally between those of the dasa castes of both the sects are not censured.

In several castes of Western India, in which a part of members profess Jainism and another part, Hinduism, Jains as a rule belong to the visa group and Vishnuites belong to the dasa group. It is obvious that here members of higher castes were converted into Jainism in those times, when the rulers patronised this religion (as it happened, for example, in Rajasthan and Gujarat).

Marriages between such Jains and Vishnuites are allowed.

Jain castes, like the Hindu castes, are divided in exogamus group-gotras. Gotras are traced to kin groups and exogamy is observed rigidly to the present day.

Osaval (or osvala), shrimali, poravada (partially Digambaras) of the Shvetambaras castes and agarvala, khandelvala, paravara. Khumbada (partially Shvetambaras) of the Digambara castes are the most numerous ones in northern and western India. In south India, where practically all the local Jains belong to Digambara sect, such fractional division into castes does not exist amongst them. Here there are four big castes-saitavala (this caste is not in Mysore), chaturtha, panchama and bogara or kasara and three small castes-upadhyaya, kamboja and harada.
The Digambaras of the south do not marry and do not practically keep any connection with members of Jaina community living in all the other regions of India. Apparently ancient and deep differences divide this group from other Jains.

An interesting feature of the life of south Indian Jaina community is that here the priests are the high caste Hindus, tracing themselves to ancient Aryans, support patrilineal system of inheritance and while giving daughters in marriage give dowry, but the rest of the Jains have no such institutions. As distinct from priests, the rest of the Jains (so-called laymen) support most ancient customs, which are preserved even to this day by the Dravidian peoples (as by the hill and jungle tribes). Sister's son and not his own children inherit by right the property of the deceased.
Along with these survivals of matriarchal relations, Jains preserve the custom of payment of 'dahej' (bride-price) in monetary form and also in the form of presents and transfer of part of property to the father of the bride in conformity with the marriage contract.

Amongst the priests in the south, marriages of widows are prohibited and amongst the rest of the Jains, they are allowed (with the exception of regions towards the south of the city of Madras).

Marriages between priests and laymen are prohibited.

Each of the four big castes in the south is led by its own spiritual leader (bhattaraka) who, occupying intermediary position between ascetics and laymen, can individually resolve disputes between the members of the caste and expel from it whomsoever he considers it necessary.
The institutions of bhattarakas arose in medival ages amongst the Digambaras of north India and spread our from there wider and wider and flourished in southern regions.

In the course of several centuries, leadership of everyday life of the members of the community and control over their conduct and performance of religious obligations was concentrated in the hands of the bhattarakas. Specially trained students directly helped them.

But in course of time bhattarakas started to claim divine power, and came in conflict with one another, dragging in this enmity the groups, led by them and gradually exhausted their authority. Manifestations of dissatisfaction with the power of bhattaraka began. Thus the subsect of Digambaras viz. terapanthi appeared in the beginning of the eighteenth century in the form of a group, expressing its protest against this dominance.

Side by side with the temple-priests there is a chief village priest-gramopadhyaya in each Jain village. He as well as all the other priests-non-ascetics-can marry. But the head priest of the district-dharmadhikari-is an ascetic and all the priests of this district are subordinate to him.

All the priests and heads of the castes must see whether the members of the community follow the correct mode of life and observe the correct conduct. Great attention is paid to correct conduct, since it must ensure perfection of the soul on its path to salvation. The conduct of ascetics must be perfect-'sakala' and such perfection is not demanded of a layman (the mode of their conduct is called vikala).

Every Jain believes that his life consists of various stages of existence of his bodily envelopes and he must rationally satisfy the requirements of his body in conformity with each stage.

Entering into marriage is fully obligatory for all except ascetics. Marriages of Jains take place according to the selection by the parents, as is common with the members of other religious communities in India.
It was prescribed in ancient times, in conformity with the Jain philosophy, to give the daughter in marriage, soon after attaining puberty, since unproductivity is tantamount to murder and this stands in contrast with the doctrine on non-violence. That is why, child marriage was widespread in the community. Such marriages were stopped comparatively recently, after the Sarda Act in India about instituting criminal proceedings against person guilty of child marriage adopted in 1931 by the British administration was brought strictly in operation.
Special religious ceremonies are performed in connection with various incidents in life. Marriage is the most serious and important step in the life of a Jain and is accompanied by many rites. As distinct from Hindus, Jains do not consider marriage a god-pleasing act but a feature of service to society, since people who do not marry are subjected to all sorts of temptations. They remain childless, which undermines the principles of society's life.

As distinct from Hindus, Jains do not consider that it is preferable to have only sons who are supposed to perform funeral ceremonies, since they do not prescribe sacrificial offerings to the spirits of the ancestors and do not regard the cult of the ancestors as a path towards liberation of the soul.
The Jain canonical books do not support the prescriptions regarding marriage rites. That is why these rites widely depend on local customs.
If Hindu acknowledge eight forms of marriage, described in the 'Laws of Manu' (brahma, daiva, arsha, prajapatya, asura, gandharva, rakshasa and paishacha), the Jains regard only the first four forms as acceptable, because these marriages take place with the consent of the parents of the bridegroom and the bride. The Jains consider remaining four forms of marriage sinful, since the gandharva form of marriage takes place only with mutual consent of the young and the remaining three forms are connected with 'dahej' (bride-price) or with her forceful abduction (rakshasa). However, in ancient times, rakshasa form of marriage was widespread amongst Jains, from which once more one can venture to reflect upon the initial connection of this religion with non-Aryan peoples.
Most often marriages of brahma and prajapatya forms mean handing over of the bride to the bridegroom by her father in the presence of witnesses.

In the south of India, cross-cousin marriage is preferred and the very best form of it is the marriage with the daughter of mothers's brother, while in the north cross-cousin marriages are not recommended and not practised.

Until recently the form of marriage, in which there is exchange of sister was widely prevalent, but with the spread of western education it is almost forgotten, as it is at variance with the interests of girls.
Amongst almost all the families dowry is given for the daughter but among the lower castes of Jains, the asura form-a marriage with 'dahej' (bride-price-this form is often met with also among lower casts of Hindus) is practised.

All marriage negotiations must be confirmed by the panchayat of the caste.

In general outlines the marriage rites of all the Jains are similar.
Usually a month before the marriage, bethrothal takes place. On that day the father of the bride presents gifts to the father of the bridegroom in the presence of witnesses. Soon after this, the father of the bridegroom gives ornaments as gifts to the bride. On the marriage day both the fathers ask all those present whether they agree with the proposed marital union. Then the father of the bride joins the young couple's hands, asking them to observe all the precepts of the faith. As with Hindus, the marriage rite ends with the couple passing seven times round the holy fire and during this time, the couple takes on oath to lead a highly moral life and to be friendly. After completing the last of the seven circles, the marriage is considered to have been performed. This ceremony also indicates that the marriage is indissoluble. Marriage ceremony takes place everywhere in the home of the bride.

Polygamy is not rejected in Jainism but is very rarely found at present. While judging from references to this custom in Jain texts, it can be said that earlier it was much widespread. Usually the reason for bringing a second wife in the house is childlessness of the first wife or lack of vitality of her children. But her consent for her husband's second marriage while she is living is necessary. There are practically no divorces, though the usual right allows divorce, provided either of the couple detects secret defect of the other. Only in the saitavala and bogara castes in the south, divorces can be effected more or less freely.

As a whole, the position of women in the Jain community is never humiliating and although the rules regarding their entry into the nuns' order are stricter than those for men, it is considered all the same that women can even become Tirthankars and preachers of the faith (Digambaras consider that the 19th Tirthankar Malli was a woman).
In the sphere of education, chances for both boys and girls are almost equal, although girls are brought up more as housewives and would-be mothers than as specialists in some sphere of social activity.

It is worth emphasising that widows have the right to inherit husband's property-a fact testifying to the preservation by the Jains of the survivals of the high social position of women. According to Jain law, a widow has a right to inheritance, even though sons are born in marriage (there is no such right in Hinduism) and even the division of children's portions depends on the desire of the widow.

Jain religion prescribes performance of various ceremonies in the course of family life, directed to ensure satisfactory conception, normal development of foetus and satisfactory birth. Not earlier than twelve days after its birth, the child is named and special ceremonies are performed on this occasion. Special rites are also performed on the day on which the child starts to sit, on the day when it is given solid food for the first time, on the first birthday and on the day of commencing learning (at the age of 5). At the age of 8, children pass through the ceremony of dedication in the temple (this rite does not exist in Gujarat) and holy threads are placed through the shoulders of the children. This is also done amongst higher Hindu castes. The completion of learning at the age of 14 to 16 is also observed by special rite. After this, they are ready for marriage.

After having married, every Jain is obliged to think of good earnings, so as to support his family, to support the community, to help monks and to engage in philanthropy. This is considered as one of the reasons for engaging themselves in trade and enterprises.

After fulfilling all the obligations of family life, the head of the family passes through the rite of dedication to asceticism and after leaving home, can lead the mode of life of an ascetic, performing various rites and ceremonies prescribed in the holy book Adi Purana (ninth century A.D.).

For the Digambaras, fulfilment of 53 rites, or passing through 53 stages are prescribed. Death and access to heaven and descent on the earth, are considered such stages, which will enable a Jain to be born as a would-be Tirthankar and to gradually turn into arhata and secure full liberation-Moksha. Shvetambaras, in conformity with the holy book Achharadinakara (beginning of sixteenth century) must pass only 16 such stages, the last amongst which is death.

Digambaras and Shvetambaras burn the bodies of the dead, bathing and then wrapping them in new clothes before burning. The ashes are prescribed to be thrown in water, as in the case with Hindus. The nearest relatives of the dead are considered 'impure' for ten days.

There are no funeral ceremonies amongst the Jains of the north and the south but in Karnatak those ceremonies are performed one month in a year. In general, the Jain law prescribes mourning the death of an ascetic for not more than a minute, of Kshatriya not more than five days, of Brahmin not more than 10 days, of Vaishya not more than 12 days, and of Shudra not more than 15 days.

All these rites are performed in different regions of India with different degree of relativity, since for the most part, these rites were introduced in Jain practice in medieval period and were borrowed mainly from Hinduism.

Jains are liable to expulsion from the community for committing murder, adultery, falsehood, stealing and for amorous affairs with non-Jains.
Jain ascetics must lead the life of a wanderer, not living in one place for more than a month (only in the rainy season they can live in one place up to four months). They must move about only on foot and only during daylight. In the dark period of the day and night they must not walk and must not eat also, because being unable to see, they may crush or swallow some insect .

Amongst Digambaras, ascetics are divided in three classes, anuvrata, mahavrata and nirvana. To be an anuvrata, it is necessary to leave the family, to clean-shave the head, to give up holy thread and live at the temple. An anuvrata must dress himself in clothes of saffron colour and must always carry with him earthen vessel for alms. While moving about, he must sweep the road before him with a bunch of peacock feathers (so as not to crush some insects).

The mahavrata ascetics may wear only loin-cloth. The hair on his head are pulled out from their roots by his pupils. He must eat rice only once in a day on his palm.

The nirvana ascetic must be always nude, eat rice, placed in his palm by somebody and must not move after sunset. His hair is also pulled out from the roots by his pupils (for this custom, even the Buddhists ridiculed Jains, saying that they thus violate their own concept of not subjecting living beings to evil and pain).

Shvetambara ascetics differ in that they wear white dress, bind their mouths with white stripes (according to one explanation, so as not to swallow some insect, according to the others, so as not to profane air with their breath) and carry in their hands whisks on sticks to sweep the road. Monks and nuns must have their hair pulled out.

They must feed themselves on alms. Moreover, they must not ask for alms and wait until given voluntarily (they called this means of collection of alms , 'madhukari'). By this term they mean, they treat themselves like bees, which take very little honey without depriving the flowers of it, and yet finally gather enough quantity for themselves.

Members of Shudra caste cannot be ascetics.

Jainism does not prescribe ceremonial purification from sins, as is done in Hinduism. That is why Jains must avoid sin in the strictest manner. In as much as causing harm to living beings is regarded as the greatest sin, Jains are prescribed strict observance of extreme caution in all their work, especially household work, such as chopping wood, sweeping floor, cleaning vegetables, cleaning hearths etc.

Not only ascetics but many laymen also filter water through cloth, so as not to swallow even the minutest living beings, which may turn out in it and they do not move about with the coming of darkness.

See also:

The Structure of Jain Community (Article by Mahavir Sanglikar, discussing different facts of Jain community)

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