Jain monks: “Action, not devotion”

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Jain monks and nuns belonging to Jain monasticism follow the religion of Jainism, or Jain Dharma. The ancient Indian religion has over seven million followers across the globe and the communities are steadfast in their culture. Jainism is said to have existed before 367 BCE thus is one of the worlds oldest religions. Jain scriptures describe the religion as eternal, constantly revealed and reincarnated over the centuries by Tirthankaras, or conquerors of karma.

There are two  types of Jainism, Digambara and Svetambara, which slightly segregated due to a difference of opinion on certain ideas such as clothes, women status, and rituals. Whilst Svetambara is respected, Digambara is seen as stricter.

Vows and lifestyle

Digambara monks live their life following the five great vows known as Maha vratas. These vows are Ahimsa, Truth, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. In layman’s terms these rules mean the ascetics, the monks and nuns, must not injure any living being in action or in thought, must only speak good and truthfully, must not take anything unless it is given, must be celibate, and must reject all possessions. These five vows are part of a greater twenty-eight vow lifestyle which can be summed up when looking at the day-to-day life of a Jain monk.

The International Digambu Jain Organisation, known as IDJO and set up in 2005 to bring American Jains together, described a day in the life of a Jain monk superbly: “Normally a monk gets up before sunrise to carry out his daily routine. In an open field he finds a clean patch of grass devoid of insects, to perform his daily necessities. After washing his hands and feet (a monk is not allowed to take a bath) he comes back to his monastic chamber where he undertakes his daily Samayika or study of texts and sits in meditiation to identify his faults. After this he goes to a nearby temple to perform worship. On return he goes out for food […] A monk keeps the thumb and the four fingers of his right hand joined together while resting on his shoulder. This is called Ahara Mudra. If he loses this posture on his way to the host-house-holder he is not supposed to eat on that day. This way the monk does not rest assured about the pleasure of obtaining food.”

Jain monks. Source: Brian Hoffert

The IDJO continue, “A Digamabara monk eats in standing posture from the hollows of his hands. The standing posture is prescribed because if a man cannot stand anymore due to old age or illness the body is to be discarded by fasting til death (known as Salekhana). For eating or drinking he does not use any pots or pans. He eats the prescribed vegetarian food irrespective of preference. After having eaten, the monk goes back to the temple to practice Samayika […] in order to train his mind so that neither pain nor joy may affect him. If he then does not continue his journey on the same day he stays on and his admirers, the lay community, gather around him and listen to his preaching. The monks usually spend the night in a cell near the temple. They sleep on the floor on a wooden board.”

The above passage points out how some of the vows are put into practice. Pratishtapan, to dispose of bodily waste away from living beings thus the monk found a clear spot. Asnana, not to take a bath hence the monk does not, Pratikramana, driving oneself away from karma so the monk reflected on his faults. The monk then accepted food from a householder, Eshna, before eating upright in a vow called Stithi-bhojan. There are no pots or pans and the monk eats out of his hands due to Aparigraha, the renunication of possessions. The aforementioned Samayika then takes place in the form of meditation and thought, the day is then ended with the monk sleeping on the floor, known as Bhushayan.


This enactment shows just how harsh life as a Jain is. The basis of Jainism is self improvement and sacrifice, this is evident in worship. Jainism does not deify their priests or monks in temples, they are only there to help run the service smoothly and to help with rituals and prayers. The ‘non-deification’ of Jain priests and temple workers may lead you to wonder why Jain monks worship and pray as they do not believe in praying to a higher power. Some segments of Jain society are even against temple worship.

Ranakpur Jain Temple
Ranakpur Jain temple

Jains worship in order to better themselves by looking, not to God, but within themselves and at great examples around them. They believe that prayer does not influence ones karma and if one prays in order to get something they will not get it. But they do believe that worship enhances spiritual focus, allowing them to acknowledge the virtues of Jainism and those they wish to mimic in their own lives. Jainism has been described as “a religion of action, not devotion”, whilst the Jain worship thought process is stated excellently by Acharya Kundakunda, a thoroughly respected Jain monk who produced many sacred Jain texts and who passed away in 150 AD, who claimed that “some religions preach that an individual can be saved by devotion to God, the saviour, or to God’s incarnations and intermediaries. Jainism teaches that we can attain true peace and happiness only through behaving and thinking rightly.”

The Jain daily prayer known as Namaskara Sutra involves worshipping and paying respect to those who have achieved self realisation, those who have good karma, and those who truly understand spirituality. Jains focus their attention on good examples to follow and those that have ‘achieved’ rather than pouring out their emotions to a higher power that may or may not help their case.


In 1974 all sections of the Jain community came together to pick an emblem for their religion, choosing a collective image containing several important symbols. The first thing that most will observe is the swastika. Before its use by the obviously deplorable Nazi campaign, the swastika was amd still is a symbol of spirituality and religion amongst Asian cultures. Thus the swastika for the Jains symbolises their perceived four states of existence (heaven, human, hell, fauna) and the four characteristics of the soul (infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite happiness, infinite energy). The three dots located just above the swastika symbolise the ‘triple gems’ of Jainism called Ratnatraya. These dots represent right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct which are seen as the rules to move your soul up spiritually hence the dot in the semi-circle above, representing the place above heaven where all divine souls rest.

The symbol of Jainism

The hand symbol makes up the rest of the symbol and is known as Ahimsa meaning non-injury. This relates to the Jainism vow of not causing harm to any other living being. They take this so seriously that there is a ‘ritual’ called Chaturna. Chaturna is the monsoon season usually lasting around four months in which Jain monks and nuns stay in one place in order to reduce the possibility of them killing or harming insects which flourish in this season. Some also cover their mouths as to not harm organisms in the air. The wheel-like image in the hand is said to portray Dharmachakra which are rules set out to enlighten your soul, eventually halting the process of reincarnation and sending your soul to a divine resting place. The wording at the bottom translates to “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence.”

Samani Pratibha Pragya, a practicing Jain monk living in London who runs Atmadharma.com, sums up the Jain lifestyle perfectly: “To appreciate good music in life you need to understand what silence is too.”

Further information and links

Below is a video showing the Jain lifestyle and exactly how it works:

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