The Great Schism of Jainism

The Great Schism of Jainism

The history of Jaina religion is full of references to the various schisms that had taken place from time to time, and some of these schisms contributed to the rise of sects and sub-sects in Jaina religion. There is, however, no unity of opinion on the manner and nature of such schisms. It is maintained that there were eight schisms, of which the first was caused by Jamali during Tirthankara Mahavira’s lifetime, and the eighth took place during the first century of the Christian Era, that is after the lapse of nearly six hundred years after the nirvana of Tirthankara Mahavira. Among these schisms, the eighth schism was more important as it ultimately split the Jaina religion into two distinct sects of Digambara Jainas and Svetambara Jainas. In this connection it may be noted that in order to prove the antiquity of their particular sect, both the sects have put forward their own theories regarding the origin of the other sect.

According to the account of the eighth schism, known as the great schism, which is corroborated by historical evidence, the process of the split continued from the third century B.C. up to the first century of the Christian Era. In the third century B.C. famous Jaina saint Srutakevali Bhadrabahu predicted a long and severe famine in the kingdom of Magadha (in modern Bihar and with a view to avoid the terrible effects of famine Bhadrabahu, along with a body of 12,000 monks, migrated from Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha, to Shravanabelagola (in modern Karnataka State) in South India. Chandragupta Maurya (322-298 B.C.). who was then the Emperor of Magadha and was very much devoted to Acharya Bhadrabahu, abdicated his throne in favor of his son Bindusara, joined Bhadrabahu’s entourage as a monk-disciple, and stayed with Bhadrabahu at Shravanabelagola. Chandragupta, the devout ascetic disciple of Bhardrabahu, lived for 12 years after the death of his teacher Bhadrabahu, in about 297 B.C. and after practicing penance died according to the strict Jaina rite of Sallekhana on the same hill at Shravanabelagola. This Bhadrabahu Chandragupta tradition is strongly supported by a large number of epigraphic and literary evidences of a very reliable nature. 

When the ascetics of Bhadrabahu-sangha returned to Pataliputra after the end of twelve-year period of famine, they, to their utter surprise, noticed two significant changes that had taken place during their absence, among the ascetics of Magadha under the leadership of Acharya Sthulabhadra. In the first place, the rule of nudity was relaxed and the ascetics were allowed to wear a piece of white cloth (known as Ardhaphalaka). Secondly, the sacred books were collected and edited at the council of Pataliputra specially convened for the purpose. As a result the group of returned monks did not accept the two things, introduced by the followers of Acharya Sthulabhadra, namely, the relaxation of the rule of nudity and the recension of the sacred texts, and proclaimed themselves as true Jainas. Eventually, the Jaina religion was split up into two distinct sects, viz., the Digambara (sky-clad or stark naked) and the Svetambara (white-clad).

In connection with this Great Schism it is pertinent to note that the practice of nudity, strictly observed by Tirthankar Mahavira and the ascetic members of his sangha, was later on found impracticable and discarded gradually by some sections of the Ascetic Order of the Jainas. That is why Dr. Herman Jacobi, the pioneer of Jaina studies in Germany, has made the following observation:

“It is possible that the separation of the Jaina Church took place gradually, an individual development going on in both the groups living at a great distance from one another, and that they became aware of their mutual difference about the end of the first century A.D. But their difference is small in their articles of faith.”

In this regard Dr. A.L. Basham, the renowned authority on Oriental Studies, has given his positive opinion as follows: “Out of this migration arose the great schism of Jainism on a point of monastic discipline. Bhadrabahu, the elder of the community, who had led the emigrants, had insisted on the retention of the rule of nudity, which Mahavira had established. Sthulabhadra, the leader of monks who had remained in the North, allowed his followers to wear white garments, owing to the hardships and confusions of the famine. Hence arose the two sects of Jainas, the Digambaras and the Svetambaras. The schism did not become final until the first century A.D.”

(vied “The Wonder that was India”, pp. 288-89).

Further it is worth noting that in the beginning when the schism materialized, the differences between the two sects were not acute and did not take the form of a dogmatic and doctrinaire rigidity as is clear from the fact that the Jainas by and large agreed that nakedness was the highest ideal as it is the characteristic of a Jina. Accordingly, they adored the nude images of Tirthankaras without any reservation. In this context it is pertinent to note that all the early images of Tirthankars found at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh are nude. But slowly the question of clothing became important and accordingly different views and approaches were put forward in regard to various aspects and practices of the religious life. As a result with the passage of time and changed conditions, attitudes and approaches began to stiffen, doctrines to ossify and the sectarian outlook to dominate. This phenomenon is found among the other religious sects of that time. Naturally, it affected the Jaina religion also.