Apr 12, 2008


The first nun

By Prof. Yashwant Malaiya

To see a group of Jain nuns pass by is awe-inspiring. Barefoot, clad simply in a pure white garment, white garment, with a gentle demeanor but firm in following a noble but arduous code of conduct, the order of nuns(sadhivs) has been a major source of inspiration for Jain shravakas throughout the centuries. They are following in the footsteps of the first nun, Aryika Chandana.
Over 25 centuries ago, Lord Mahavira, having established the final Tirtha of this declining era, attained Moksha in 599 BC. The Kalpa Sutra mentions that at that time Mahavira’s Sangha consisted of 14,000 monks,36,000 nuns,159,000 shravakas and 318,000 shavikas. Able Aryika Chandana, who was also known as Chandanabala, led the congregation of nuns.

Chandana was born into a royal family. Tragically, as the result of a war, she was taken into slavery and sold. She was purchased by Seth Dhanadatta for use as a domestic servant. When the seth’s wife saw Dhanadatta treat his slave kindly, she became jealous of the beautiful Chandana. While Dhanadatta was away, she had Chandana’s head shaved and her legs chained to the door of her slave quarters where she cried in anguish for days. When hungry, she was given half-cooked lentils (urd) in a flimsy bamboo container used for winnowing grain called a supa. Chance awaited her in this miserable condition.

Lord Mahavira was a Jain monk, and Jain monks may often take a vow to accept food only when it is possible to observe a set of pre-determined special conditions. The practice originates with Mahavira himself. A few months before he attained Keval Jnan, continuously fast until offered food by only that individual who met 10 untold and seemingly impossible conditions. He would accept (1)only urad lentils,(2) offered in a winnowing basket, (3) given by a person standing sideways with one foot on the threshold of a dwelling place and the other foot outside, (4) who was a princess turned in to a slave, (5) who had a shaven head, and (6) whose legs were bound by chains. She had to be (7) a chaste woman, (8) at the time performing the penances of attham (3 days’s fast), and would serve him (9) only after all other mendicants had rejected her food offering, (10) with tears in her eyes.

Many would have cherished the honor of giving food to Mahavira. Five months and 28 days lapsed, and no donor fulfilled his secret conditions. But Chandana, a princes sold as a slave, shackled and humiliated by the jealous wife of a depraved merchant, fulfilled his secret conditions. But Chandana, a princess sold as a slave, shackled and humiliated by the jealous wife of a depraved merchant, fulfilled all the other conditions except weeping. As Mahavira passed by, he turned his face away at the last moment without accepting her humble alms. Already tormented and abused, Chandana began to cry.

And thus the final condition was met. To the amazement of onlookers including her captors, in his bare palms Mahavira accepted the food Chandana offered from her simple winnowing basket, breaking his six-month fast with a small handful of the rough slave fodder that Chandana had been living on for weeks. Chandana was released and she joined Lord Mahavira’s monastic order. She thus became the first nun of the Mahaviran Jain tradition and eventually the leader of thousands of Aryikas.

The significance of Chandana’s leadership may be judged by comparing the order of Jain nuns with the Buddhist nun. Buddha agreed to ordain nuns only after considerable hesitation and persistent pressure from his aunt. Within a few centuries of Buddhist nuns was completely done away with in the Theravada sect. Some scholars believe this lack of female leadership contributed significantly to Buddhism’s eventual extinction in India.

Thousands of jain nuns today walk all over India and now travel the world, presenting the message of Lord Mahavira and following the path of Aryika Chandana.

1 comment:

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