top of page

Two Sides of the Same Coin: The Sub-Sects of Jainism- Digambara and Shvetambara

Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the Indian subcontinent, which dates back to the mid-first century B.C.E. It is followed and practiced by millions of people even today. The name is derived from the word ‘Jina’ which literally means ‘Conqueror’, and Jaina or Jains are the ‘Followers of the Conquerors’. Here, conqueror refers to a person who has attained spiritual liberation rather than somebody who has won material conquests. Jains believe in reincarnation and the doctrine of Karma i.e. belief that one’s intentional actions influence their cycle of birth and rebirth. Their main aim is to break free from this cycle, exhaust all the karma and achieve liberation or moksha.

Image via Pixabay

Jains believe that moksha can be attained through ahimsa or non-violence towards every living being on the planet. Like Buddhists, they do not worship any specific God, and instead revere the 24 Tirthankaras. The Tirthankaras are not Gods themselves. They were born as ordinary humans, who were believed to have attained moksha, by following the path of austerity and meditation. They helped people bridge the gap between the material world and the spiritual realm, by preaching Jain philosophy in a way which was relevant to the time and age they lived in.

There are 24 Tirthankaras or prophets. Rishabdeva was the first, and Mahavira was the 24th. The Jain Dharma believes in 5 principles: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (not stealing), and Aparigraha (detachment to worldly things) were preached by the 23rd Tirthankara, Parshvanatha, and Brahmacharya (celibacy) was added by Mahavira.

Division of Sects in Jainism- Digambara and Shvetambara

Jainism is divided into two sects - Digambara (Skyclad) and Shvetmabara (White clad). The division occurred mainly due to famine in Magadha which forced the group led by Bhadrabahu to migrate to South India.

The famine lasted for 12 years. While the group that had migrated to South India chose to follow strict practices and came to be known as Digambaras, the group in Magadha adopted a relatively lax attitude and started wearing white clothes, and were called Shvetambaras.

After the famine, when the Southern group returned back to Magadha, the differences in practices led to the division of Jainism into two sects. Although the two sects agree on the basic Jain philosophy, they differ on the following grounds:

1. Dress Code

Digambaras believe that to walk on the path of salvation, one must renounce all worldly possessions, including clothes. This is why they live completely naked. It also represents indifference to worldly emotions such as shame, which, according to them, can act as a hindrance to the attainment of nirvana.

On the contrary, Shvetambaras wear white clothes. They believe that it is not necessary to practice nudity to attain liberation. However, nuns of both sub-sects wear white clothes.

2. Possessions

Digambara monks are not permitted to have any kind of possessions because of their vow to let go of all material things. However, they carry three things with them: Picchi- a broom made of fallen peacock feathers to carefully remove insects without harming them, Kamandalu- a water pot used to carry clean, drinking water, and Shastra- scriptures.

Shvetambara ascetics meditating via Wikimedia Commons

Shvetambaras are permitted to carry only 14 specified items, which include white clothes, books, a begging bowl, and Rajoharana- a broom made up of soft wool attached to a white handle that is used to remove insects from their path without harming them.

3. Liberation of Women

Jain Dharma is an egalitarian religion. Men and women coming from all walks of life are encouraged to actively participate and practice their sadhana. The Digambaras or the sky-clad believe that a woman cannot attain salvation unless she’s born as a man in her next birth. They opine that to attain salvation, one needs to renounce every worldly object, including clothes. They believe that if women do that, shame would act as an obstacle, and also attract sexual attention from men. This would deter everyone from seeking the ultimate goal. Digamabaras also believe that menstrual blood kills microorganisms and makes women innately less non-violent.

Image via Unsplash

On the contrary, Shvetambaras oppose this belief. They believe in Sabastra Mukti- that women, too, have the potential to attain salvation. According to them, anyone can attain liberation irrespective of whether they are a monk or a householder.

4. Scriptures

Agamas are the scriptures that consist of the teachings of Mahavira. His disciples systematically arranged his words into short texts and paragraphs and memorised them to pass them on to future generations. They were neither allowed to own or keep books as a part of their vow of renunciation nor were they allowed to write.

Through the years, most of the scriptures were forgotten, while others were misremembered, and this greatly concerned the Jains.

In 350 BCE, many Jain monks lost their life to a famine, and with them, various Jain scriptures were also lost. While Digambaras believe that the Agamas were lost during the famine, the Shvetambaras claim that a majority of the scriptures survived.

5. Depiction of Tirthankaras

Digambara idols of tirthankaras via Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of Parshvanatha in a Svetambara Jain Temple via Wikimedia Commons

Digambara idols of Tirthankaras are portrayed nude, without any decoration and have downcast eyes. However, Shvetambaras decorate their Tirthankara idols with jewels, with prominent staring eyes, wearing a loincloth.

6. Marriage of Mahavira

Shvetambaras maintain that Mahavira married Princess Yasoda before he took to the path of asceticism. It is believed that he even had a daughter named Priyadarshana (also known as Anojja).

Digambaras do not accept this interpretation. According to them, Mahavira was a Bal Brahmachari. He rejected Yasoda’s marriage proposal and practiced abstinence throughout his life.

7. Food

Digambaras have food only once a day. They refrain from using a bowl and use only their hands to collect and eat food. They take their meals only from one household at a time. It is believed that once a monk attains Kevala Jnana, they do not require food to stay alive. Shvetambaras are allowed to collect and eat food from a bowl. They are also allowed to take food from more than one household and can eat more than once a day.

As one of the most peace-loving religions, Jainism played an important role in the Indian Society. Not only did they condemn the caste system but also emphasized on the principles of non-violence and truthfulness. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was born a Hindu admired Jain teachings. Its philosophy is relevant even today. Jainism encourages us to be self-disciplined, treat everyone equally and be kind to all living beings around us.

Divya Balvally is a content writer at Pratha.


Divya Balvally

Pratha Content Writer


bottom of page