Addressing some misconceptions w.r.t. the Shwetambar sect of Jainism

Recently, after a few discussions with some of my non-Shwetambar friends and even reputed well-known scholars, I realized that there were a lot of pre-conceived notions and misconceptions with respect to the Shwetambar sect of Jainism and some of its practices. Although, most of these had already been addressed in my various blogs, I thought to make them more comprehensive and compile them in one place to provide easy answers to some ‘controversial’ and/or ‘difficult’ questions which even some Shwetambars are unaware of. 

Note: The author would like to inform the readers that this post doesn't claim the superiority of any sect over the other and the intent is not to injure any matter/ practice/ belief of tradition or faith. The only intent is to give rational and meaningful explanations to misconceptions which have come up with respect to the Shwetambar tradition based on philological and archaeological evidences. References for the same have been provided at the end of the post.

The author is also thankful to Dr. Renuka J. Porwal for her path breaking research on Kankali Tila Stupa at Mathura. References from her book, "The Jaina Stupa at Mathura" have been used in this article to address a few misconceptions.  

Misconception 1- Shwetambar sect emerged out of the original Nirgranth tradition as they started wearing white robes.

There is a misconception that only the naked Jain monks were a part of the Jain sangh established by the Tirthankars and the Shwetambar sect was a reformist tradition, which was created after Acharya Bhadrabahu migrated south. In brief, the non-Shwetambar version states that, Shwetambars branched off after the time of Acharya Bhadrabahu who migrated with his disciples to the southern parts of India due to a twelve-year famine in the Magadh region. Acharya Sthulibhadra and his disciples who stayed back in the north started wearing "white clothes" which lead to the formation of the Shwetambar sect. This story accepted among the non- Shwetambars and some western scholars also agree with it. However, this is not entirely true as Lord Mahavir’s Sangh had both cloth wearing as well as naked monks. The same can be derived not only from the Shwetambar Jain Agams but also from Buddhist scriptures and archaeological evidences.

1. Buddhist Scriptures (5th Century BC to 1st Century BC) - Saṃyutta Nikāya[1] and Majjhima Nikāya[2] from the Buddhist Pali Canon mention that there were monks in Lord Mahavir’s sangh who were known as Eksatakas (i.e. who wore one garment) apart from Achelaks (who were naked). The Dhammapada Aṭṭhakathā (Theravadin Buddhist commentaries) states that monks of the Nirgranth (Jain) tradition covered their frontal nudity with cloth whereas the monks of the Ajivika tradition were completely naked.[3] The Samantapāsādikā (which is a commentary on Vinaya Pitaka) uses the term “Setapata Ardhapalaka Niganthato represent monks who used a single piece of white cloth to cover their nudity[4]

2. Hathigumpha Inscription - The famous Hathigumpha inscription in Kalinga (Odisha) records that in 156 BC (i.e. during the 13th year of his reign) Emperor Kharavel offered white clothes to the Jain monks who by their austerities had extinguished the round of lives.[4a]

3. Shwetambar Jain Agams - Although the authority of Shwetambar Agams is not accepted among the non Shwetambar sects (barring the Yapaniya tradition) there are some references from the Acharang Sutra and the Uttaradhyayan Sutra which match the description of monks in Buddhist scriptures as well as from the archaeological evidences.

The 23rd chapter of Uttaradhyayan Sutra specifically states that the monks belonging to the tradition of Lord Parshwanath were clothed[5] and the earliest dated Agam, Acharang Sutra (~5th Century BCE) classifies three types of monks based on their clothing preferences[6] [7]-

1. Achel – Who did not wear clothes (i.e. Jinkalpi’s)
2. EksatakaWho wore one piece of cloth (or a loin cloth)
3. SantrottarWho wore two or three pieces of cloth and/or with a blanket

Further, Acharang Sutra also states that a physically fit young monk should keep only one cloth[8] and those monks who can win over shyness/ shame (lajja) and can bear the cold, heat and insect bites etc. should remain naked[9]. Those monks who cannot win over shyness and cannot bear the cold, heat and insect bites etc. should use one piece of cloth (Cholpatta)[10]

4. Archaeological evidences – The description of Jain monks in the Acharang Sutra as well as the Buddhist Pali canon matches exactly with the depiction of monks seen from the Jain images excavated from the Kankali Tila Stupa at Mathura. The excavations have revealed Jain Tirthankar images dating back to the 2nd century BC to 3rd Century AD from the early period. The pedestals of these idols show images of Jain monks wearing no clothes or one piece of cloth or a loin cloth or even two pieces of cloth. The belongings used by these monks – i.e. Rajoharan, Patra, Jholi, Mukhvastrika etc. were also represented on the carvings which are even used today by Shwetambar Jain monks. Interestingly, the inscriptions give the names of the Kula-Gana-Shakha of the monks which match exactly with the Kalpasutra Sthaviravali which prove that these images were of Shwetambar Jain monks[11].

Depiction of a Shwetambar Jain monk with one piece of clothing and Rajoharan at Kankali Tila Jain Stupa, Mathura (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monk with two pieces of cloth (extreme left) with monks using one piece of cloth with the Rajoharan and Mukhvastrika at Kankali Tila Jain Stupa, Mathura

Ayagapatta depicting monks wearing a loin cloth at Kankali Tila Jain Stupa, Mathura

Depiction of a Shwetambar Jain monk with one piece of clothing at Kankali Tila Jain Stupa, Mathura

Depiction of a Shwetambar Jain monk with one piece of clothing and Rajoharan at Kankali Tila Jain Stupa, Mathura 

Naked Shwetambar monk (right) with Jholi (to carry alms bowls) and nun (left) with Patra (alms bowl)  

4. Refutation of the Migration theory – The Shwetambar scriptures record a detailed biography of Acharya Bhadrabahu, but nowhere do they mention that he migrated to the southern regions with Chandragupta Maurya. The scriptures record that Acharya Bhadrabahu was in Nepal for a 12-year penitential vow for practicing the Mahaprana Dhyan when the Pataliputra conference took place in 3rd century BC[12]. The Himavant Sthaviravali composed in ~2-3rd Century AD also states that Acharya Bhadrabahu Swami attained Kaldharma by practicing Anshan of 15 days of fasting without even consuming water at Kumari Parvat (Udaygiri-Khandgiri) in Odisha[13].

On the other hand, the Digambar accounts of Acharya Bhadrabahu Swami and Chandragupta Maurya migrating to the south first appear from 10th century AD onwards, which were written more than 1,200 years after Chandragupta's death. This incident is recorded in texts such as Brihakathā Kośa (931 CE) of Harishena, Bhadrabāhu Charita (1450 CE) of Ratnanandi, Munivaṃsa bhyudaya (1680 CE) and Rajavali Kathe[14] [15] [16]. Further, several late Digambar Jain inscriptions dating from the 7th–15th century refer to Bhadrabahu and a Prabhacandra or Samprati Chandragupta migrating south - which are inconsistent with each other. The later Digambar tradition has identified the Prabhacandra as Chandragupta, therefore some scholars call it misidentification of different individuals with the same names: Bhadrabahu, Prabhacandra, and Chandragupta[17] [18] [19]. Several of the late Digambar inscriptions and texts in Karnataka, state the journey started from Ujjain and not Patliputra (as stated in some Digambar texts). In the epigraphical versions, Acharya Bhadrabahu never came to Shravanabelagola and he attained Kaldharma near Ujjain. Before his own death, he sent other Jain monks to south India.[20] [21]

Misconception 2- Archaeologically, no clothed (Shwetambar) Tirthankar idol before the period of 5th Century AD has been found, whereas naked Tirthankar idols can be found even prior to the beginning of the Christian era. Therefore, Shwetambar sect is a later tradition.

To understand this misconception, we have to go back to the history, which has changed its course in the passage of time. History shows us that all the Jain sects, viz. Shwetambars, Digambars and Yapaniya’s did not have different temples and used to worship the same idols. While many Shwetambars would not agree with me on this, but archaeologically and historically it can be proven that Shwetambars also worshipped unclothed and naked Tirthankar idols. The facts are as below-

1. The Tirthankar idols excavated from Mathura, Kankali Tila Jain Stupa dating from 1st century BC to 1st Century AD have no depiction of clothes. The idols in the sitting posture (Padmasan mudra) did not show nudity nor did they have any depiction of clothes (Katisutra/ Kandora) and those in the standing posture (Kayotsarg Mudra) specifically depicted the nude state. However, the inscriptions show that these idols have been installed by monks belonging to the Shwetambar sect as the names of their Kula-Gana-Shakha match exactly with the Kalpasutra Sthaviravali (Kottiya Gana, Varana Gana, Udhikiya Gana etc). [22] [23] [24] As discussed above, the monks have also been shown with their belongings i.e. Rajoharan, Patra, Jholi, Mukhvastrika etc used by Shwetambars and some inscriptions have specific reference of Shwetambar Mul Sangh and Shwetambar Mathuri Sangh[25]. Thus this is the prime evidence which shows that Shwetambar monks, installed unclothed idols of Tirthankars from the period of from 1st century BC to 1st Century AD.

Some of the Jain Tirthankar images excavated from Mathura Kankali Stupa

2. The second Kadamba inscription dating back to the late 5th Century shows that King Mrugeshvarman granted a village named Kālavaṅga in Karnataka for three purposes - One part was for the holy Arhat temple (which was used for worship by members of all the sects) and the second and third purposes were for the enjoyment of the sects of ascetics belonging to Shwetpaṭtas (Shwetambars) and Nirgranthas (Digambars) respectively[26] [27]. This shows that both the Shwetambars and the Digambars used to worship in the same temple[28] [29].

3. The “Pethad-tirth-yatra-dvay-prabandh” in the Sukrutsagar Granth by a Shwetambar monk known as Ratnamandan Ganivarya records an event of dispute over the ownership of Girnar hill between the Digambars and Shwetambars. Once, Pethadshah, a noted minister of Mandavgadh arrived with a pilgrimage sangh of Shwetambars to Girnar. On the same day, a nobleman close to Allaudin Khilji named Purnachandra Agarwal from Delhi arrived with a pilgrimage sangh of Digambars to Girnar. Both stopped each other’s convoy at the base of the hill and heated arguments followed. As the Mulnayak idol of Shri Neminath Bhagwan did not have the carvings of Katisutra and Kandora, both the Digambars and Shwetambars claimed ownership of the idol and the Tirth. As the dispute turned ugly, elders from both the sects asked Pethadshah and Purnachandra to stop arguing and provided a solution – ownership of the Tirth would be decided on who would bid the highest for the Indramala after offering their rituals to Lord Neminath.  The text specifically mentions that pilgrims from both sects ascended the hill and on reaching the temple of Lord Neminath, they conducted Janma Abhishek, Pujan, Dhwajaropan, Nrutya etc. on the mulnayak (main) idol. This again shows that not only the same idols were worshipped even the ritualistic practices were same for both the sects during the period. After making their offerings, the bids for the Indramal started and eventually Pethadshah won the bid by bidding a huge amount of 56 Ghadis of gold (1200 kilos)[30] [31]

4. A Shwetambar monk Upadhyay Shri Dharmasagarji Maharaja in his work Pravachanpariksha states that after the dispute regarding the ownership of Girnar Hill, it was decided that all idols Shwetambar idols would be made with a Katisutra-Kandora (carving of cloth) to avoid such disputes in the future.

This shows that there were no differences between the idols of the Shwetambar and the Digambar sect in the ancient era; However, to prevent future disputes it was decided to carve Katisutra-Kandora on Shwetambar idols. Therefore, nude idols of Tirthankars before the 5th century AD cannot only be attributed to the Digambars and Yapaniyas, some of them had been installed by the Shwetambars as well. 

Misconception 3- Shwetambars worship the princely state of the Tirthankars (Rajya-avastha) and not the Veetrag Avastha (completely detached state)

Barring the idols of Jivantswami’s which depict the princely state of a Tirthankar, all the other Shwetambar idols depict the phase of a Tirthankar after Kevalgyan (enlightenment). Secondly, to understand whether the idol is in the Veetarag avastha or not, we have to understand the real meaning of the word “Veetrag”. Veetrag is a title given to a Veetaragi, i.e. the one who has won over the bondages of Raag (attachment/ desires), Dvesh (hatred/ aversions) and Moh (fascination/ endearment). This means that all the Tirthankar’s are Veetaragi’s as they have no attachments, desires, hatred, aversions or endearment towards anything[32].

The Shwetambar tradition based on their Agam literature believes that during Diksha of any Tirthankar, the demi-god Indra places a divine cloth called “Dev-Dushya” on his shoulder, which is the only garment that he uses thereafter. Although none of the Tirthankars have any attachment towards any garment, it is only at the behest of Indra, (who, for his satisfaction that the cloth would protect the Lord from harsh weather and aboriginal tribals) that the Tirthankar drapes the Dev-dushya. This was also represented from the fact that Lord Mahavir (the 24th Tirthankar) gave away his Dev-Dushya to a poor Brahmin named Soma after 13 months of his initiation.

Further, one of the earliest physical descriptions of a Tirthankar occurs in Aupapatik Sutra which states that every limb of the Tirthankar is radiant with light (equal to the radiance of a sun) and thus, his genitals are concealed, like those of a fine stallion (due to the bright glow). Even the Bhaktamar Stotra and Digambar scriptures like Samayasarakalasha describe the brilliant radiance of the Tirthankars.

A Shwetambar monk, Upadhyay Shri Meghavijayji in his text Yuktiprabodh argued that a naked idol of the Tirthankar wrongly depicts the Arihant because it could cause improper thoughts in the viewer. He argued that a woman, looking at the naked idol may have improper thoughts. Meghvijayji, in his text further recalls that one of the attributes of the Tirthankar’s body is that his every limb is radiant with light and his genitals are therefore concealed. Therefore, the Shwetambar sect does not show a naked idol of Tirthankars and represents them with carvings of a bottom garment[33]

A typical Shwetambar idol representing the Veetaragi state

By this discussion, we can understand that mere carvings of Katisutra-Kandora on the idols do not mean that the Tirthankar is shown with an attachment to the piece of cloth and thus not in the Veetragi state.

Misconception 4- Shwetambars decorate their idols (during Aangi). Therefore, they do not worship the the Veetrag Avastha (completely detached state) of the Lord.

The Shwetambar texts allow adorning the idol not only out of devotion, but also for the purpose that a layperson could reduce his affection for wealth. Not just Shwetambars, the Digambar text, Adipurana also describes the worship with jewelry and unguents as an act of deep devotion during the Janma-Abhishek (ritual bath by demi-gods at the time of birth) of the Tirthankar –“aviliptasugandhas tvam avibhūṣitasundaraḥ, bhaktair abhyarcito ‘smābhir bhūṣaṇaiḥ sānulepanaiḥ”. Translated, it would mean - “Though your body is naturally fragrant without the use of unguents and beautiful without the need for jewels, out of devotion we still worship you with jewels and fragrant substances.”

However, adorning the idol of the Tirthankars is not just an act of devotion but is also a representation of the true beauty of the Tirthankars. As per the Aupapatik Sutra (which was discussed earlier), every limb of the Tirthankar is radiant with light. Even the 37th verse of the Bhaktamar Stotra by Acharya Shri Mantung Suri states the beauty of the Tirthankar –“No one else has the splendor that you have, O Lord of the Jinas, as you teach the dharma. After all, how could the radiance of the sun, which destroys the darkness, be shared by even the brightest star?

The Digambar philosopher Shri Amuṛtchandra in his Samayasarakalasha, explicitly highlights the radiant beauty of the Tirthankar:“Praise be to the Jinas, who bear one thousand and eight auspicious marks! Truly worthy of our praise, they bathe the universe with their light; with their glorious radiance they surpass the light of even the brightest heavenly bodies. They steal the minds of the people with their physical beauty, while their divine words drip the nectar of immortality into the ears of all who hear them, bringing them joy.

Upadhyay Shri Meghvijayji in Yuktiprabodh mentions that a stone idol alone is not a sufficient representation of the glorious Tirthankar. The statement that a plain stone image is by itself radiantly beautiful and therefore able to lead the viewer to a religious experience is simply contradicted by perception. How can anyone upon seeing a bare stone idol visualize the glorious extraordinary body of the Tirthankar, which is said to be bright as a thousand suns? Given that the stone lacks any such shining luster, one has to assume that the viewer mentally supplies it in the form of gold and jewels that he mentally heaps on the stone image. The adorned idol, with light radiating from all the jewels, reflects most perfectly the Tirthankar himself and that seeing the image therefore leads the viewer to pious thoughts of the Lord’s greatness. 

An adorned image of Shri Dharmanath Bhagwan with jewels

Although it is a seeming paradox that the Tirthankar who is a renunciant is resplendent with jewels, but, it is a paradox that all Jain texts acknowledge. Bhupalastotra, a Digambar text celebrates the unfathomable greatness of the Jina, who though a renunciant, sits on a throne of precious gems, while the rays coming from the crest jewels of the worshipping gods add to the brilliant splendor of the Tirthankar – ūhātigas tvādṛśas sarvajñānadṛśaś caritramahimā lokeśa lokottaraḥ

The Digambar text Adipurana also states that the Tirthankar is the perfect exemple of someone who is without desire for worldly things at the same time as he possesses the splendor of the eight miraculous traits: prātihāryamāyīm bhūtim dadhāno py ananyagām/vītarāgo mahāṃścāsi jagaty etaj jinādbhutam

Therefore, decorating the idol during Aangi is done for a specific purpose to display the true radiance of Tirthankars and therefore, even when adorned, the idol represents the Veetrag avastha.

Misconception 5- Shwetambars worship the Tirthankar idols with open eyes whereas the Digambars worship the Tirthankar idols with semi-closed eyes representing the true detached meditative posture.

While this is true to some extent, one thumb rule cannot be made applicable for all. There are Shwetambar images with eyes in meditative posture and there are also Digambar images with eyes wide open. 

Shwetambar image with eyes in meditative posture - Kshatriyakund, Bihar

Shwetambar image with eyes in meditative posture - National Museum New Delhi

Shwetambar image with eyes in meditative posture - Pindwada Rajasthan (Vasantgarh)

As discussed earlier, the Shwetambar idols depict the phase of a Tirthankar after Kevalgyan (enlightenment). Therefore, while delivering a sermon in the Samavasaran, the Tirthankar is represented with open eyes (as he is not engrossed in meditation at that time). Further, the tradition of pasting Chakshu’s (external eyes) started because the Shwetambar sect believes that the open external eyes allow the worshipper, (through an act of meditative projection) to imagine that he/she is actually in the presence of the living Tirthanakar. The eyes provide a powerful “as if” experience, and thereby enhance the worshipper’s efforts to achieve the state of perfection similar to that of the Tirthankar.

Misconception 6- There is no Shwetambar history in South India. 

It is generally believed that the southern region was a stronghold of Digambar sect and there was no Shwetambar presence; however, it is not entirely true. References in literary treatises suggest that the Mauryan emperor Samprati sent emissaries to the region [34] and even settled some Shwetambar followers in Paithan also known as Malkhed in Deccan. The penetration of the Shwetambar sect deeper into the south is attested by an inscription recording the grant of a village made by Kadamba king Mrigeshvarma in 488 AD which was discussed earlier. However, post this period the presence of Shwetambar sect declined in the south. Various ancient Shwetambar Jain tirths in Andhra Pradesh/ Telangana belt (Kulpakji, Gudivada and Peddatumbalam) also highlight it's antiquity.


[1] Nalini Balbir, Journal of the Pali Text Society Volume XXVI, Pg. 13
[2] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons Pg. 105
[3] ajivako ti nagga-pabbajito, nigantho ti purima-bhaga- patichanno (MP III 334 off. on A III 276 – Quoted by Schlingloff, op.cit. Pg. 71)
[4] Nalini Balbir, Journal of the Pali Text Society Volume XXVI, Pg. 15 
[5] Jaina Sutras, Part II (SBE45), tr. by Hermann Jacobi, [1895]
[6] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons Pg. 103
[7] Dr. Sagarmal Jain, Sagarmal Jain Abhinandan Granth, Pg. 584
[8] Ayarchula 5/1/2
[9] Prof. Ravjibhai Devraj, Acharanga Sutra, Shlok 434
[10] Prof. Ravjibhai Devraj, Acharanga Sutra, Shlok 433
[11] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons Pg. 103-108
[12] Paul Dundas, The Jains, Pg, 46–49, 67–69
[13] Jain Tirth Sarva Sangrah, Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi, Part II - Pg. 504
[14] Mookerji, Radha Kumud Chandragupta Maurya and his times (4th ed.), Pg. 39-40
[15] Samuel, Geoffrey, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century; Pg. 60
[16] Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300, Pg. 178
[17] Dikshitar, V. R. Ramachandra, The Mauryan Polity, Pg. 264–266.
[18] Wiley, Kristi L., The A to Z of Jainism, Pg. 50-52
[19] Fleet, J.F., Bhadrabahu, Chandragupta and Shravanabelagola (Indian Antiquary), Pg. 156–162.
[20] Wiley, Kristi L., The A to Z of Jainism, Pg. 50-52
[21] Fleet, J.F., Bhadrabahu, Chandragupta and Shravanabelagola (Indian Antiquary), Pg. 156–162
[22] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons
[23] Dr. Sagarmal Jain, Jin Pratima ka Prachin Swarup ;
[24] Jain Tirth Sarva Sangrah, Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi, Part II - Pg. 411
[25] Dr. Renuka J Porwal, The Jaina Stupa at Mathura: Art & Icons Pg. 160
[26] Indian Antiquary Vol VII, Pg. 38
[27] Vibha Tayal, Royal Patronage of Jainism under the Kadambas of Banavāsi: c. Fifth and Sixth Centuries CE
[28] Dr. Sagarmal Jain, Jin Pratima ka Prachin Swarup Pg. 66
[29] Nathuram Premi, Jain Sahitya aur Itihas Pg. 477
[30] Ratnamandan gani virachit Sukrutsagar, by Jain Atmanand Sabha Bhavnagar, Pg. 105
[31] Nathuram Premi, Jain Sahitya aur Itihas Pg. 471
[32] Acharya Siddhasendiwakarsuri Virachit Vardhaman Shakarastav; Sadhvi Padmalatashriji Pg. 41
[33] The perfect body of the Jina and his imperfect image by Phyllis Granoff
[34] Jain Tirth Sarva Sangrah, Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi, Part II - Pg. 373 


  1. Very nicely written with apt examples for everything 👍

    1. Thank you maalik, for ur inputs as well:)

  2. Some of Jain sects other than Shwetambar Murtipujak critisize and deprecate KESAR POOJA and use words like "some pretender started the custom of KESAR POOJA for pretence".
    I request you to write a article Specialy on Keasr pooja, not to oppose any one but to enhance knowledge and purpose behind the custom followed by shwetambar Murti pujak sangh.

  3. Ohh Dear Friend... You write in such a details... This writing in English will help the new generation. Thanks.

  4. I am impressed with your blog.

  5. Really good work!!

    Need to propagate this to many

    1. Thank you ! Sure please share with as many as possible

  6. Jai Jinendra, This is really amazing. Shows the hardword it would have taken to collect and represent the facts in the right way. Keep posting sir !!


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