The Digambara and Svetambara sects

The Digambara and Svetambara sects

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 Svetambaras 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. However, there are some major as well as minor points on which the two sects are opposed to each other.

Some Points of differences

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

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 Svetambaras assert that the practice of complete nudity is not essential to attain liberation.

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 reborn 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.

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.

Minor points of Differences

Leaving aside the trivial differences in rituals, customs and manners, the following are some of the minor points on which the two sects of Digambaras and Svetambaras do not agree:

Embryo of Mahavira

The Svetambaras believe that Mahavira was born of a Ksatriya lady, Trisala, though conception took place in the womb of a Brahman lady, Devananda. The change of embryo is believed to have been effected by God Indra on the eighty-third day after conception. The Digambaras, however, dismiss the whole episode as unreliable and absurd.

Marriage of Mahavira

The Svetambaras believe that Mahavira married Princess Yasoda at a fairly young age and had a daughter from her by name Anojja or Priyadarsana and that Mahavira led a full-fledged householder’s life till he was thirty, when he became an ascetic. But the Digambaras deny this assertion altogether.

Tirthankara Mallinatha

The Svetambaras consider Mallinatha, the 19th Tirthankar as a female by name Mall; but the Digambaras state that Mallinatha was a male.

Idols of Tirthankars

The Svetambara tradition depicts the idols of Tirthankars as wearing a loin-cloth, bedecked with jewels and with glass eyes inserted in the marble. But the Digambara tradition represents the idols of Tirthankars as nude. Unadorned and with downcast eyes in the contemplative mood.

Canonical Literature

The Svetambaras believe in the validity and sacredness of canonical literature, that is, the twelve angas and sutras, as they exist now. While the Digambaras hold that the original and genuine texts were lost long ago. The Digambaras also refuse to accept the achievements of the first council which met under the leadership of Acharya Sthulabhadra and consequently the recasting of the angas.

Charitras and Puranas

The Svetambaras use the term ‘Charitra’ and the Digambaras make use of the term ‘Purana’ for the biographies of great teachers.

Food of Ascetics

The Svetambara monks collect their food from different houses while the Digambara monks take food standing and with the help of knotted upturned palms and in one house only where their sankalpa (preconceived idea) is fulfilled.

Dress of Ascetics

The Svetambara monks wear white clothes. but the Digambara monks of the ideal nirgrantha type are naked.

Possessions of Ascetics

The Svetambara ascetic is allowed to have fourteen possessions including loin-cloth, shoulder-cloth, etc. But the Digambara ascetic is allowed only two possessions (viz., a the pichhi, a peacock-feather whisk-broom) and a kamandalu (a wooden water-pot).