© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, PhD
The Jaina tradition of India is said to go way back in time,
thousands and thousands of years ago.
Sushrī N. Shāntā, a French laywoman and scholar who has lived in India
for a number of years, speaks, in line with the traditional Jaina view, of the
appearance of Jainism in the more-or-less historical past:
“About eight hundred years before Jesus Christ there was a prince of Varanasi who renounced everything and gave himself to prolonged meditation. He became omniscient, and began to preach the way of asceticism that leads to liberation. His name was Pārshva [Pārśvanātha]. Princes and princesses, both young and older, abandoned everything and followed the doctrine. These ascetic women [the former princesses] are probably the first sādhvīs [“virtuous” female renunciates] we hear about in history.” 
It is said that a woman named Puspacūlā was given the authority to head this community of women renunciates/ascetics evidently the first on the planet to band together in this way. About two hundred years after Pārśvanātha, Jainism was propagated for the “current age” by the sage Vardhamana Mahāvīra (599-527 BCE), another former prince who lived in the region of Bihar, and whose community preceded by a few decades the rise of Siddhartha Gautama’s Buddhist saṅgha. Mahāvīra was said to be the last of twenty-four especially recognized Tīrthaṅkaras, “Way openers,” great sages who clear the way to liberation. They are also called Jīnas, Arhats, Kevalins, Nirgranthas, or Śramaṇas. Mahāvīra’s teachings are contained in the Jaina Āgama (Canon), emphasized a nontheistic, highly ascetic path of liberation of consciousness via attainment of the “Three Jewels”—right vision (samyak-darśana), right knowledge/wisdom (jñāna) and right conduct (cāritra), also emphasizing harmlessness (ahimsā), sinlessness (sāmyāmika), concentrative meditation (dhyāna), and the four virtues—universal friendship (maitrī), seeing the good in others (pramoda), universal compassion (karunā) [and service to the needy], and tolerance of the wicked (mādhyaṣṭha).
Through this path of ascesis, virtue and selflessness, one would be completely liberated (mokṣa or nirvāṇa), returning to abide in one’s original state as “pure Subject (Jīvā/Ātman),” characterized by the Four Perfections—infinite knowledge, infinite perception, infinite bliss, and infinite power. Unfortunately, because of the extremely world-transcending and anti-sexual orientation of the Jaina scriptures, and the fact that these works are addressed to monks first, nuns second, and laity third, one hears some of the traditional kind of androcratic sentiments expressed concerning the danger for monks of associating with women: according to the Sūtakṛtāṅga (I.4.1) one must “avoid women knowing them to be like a poisoned thorn”; sex causes a fall, and marriage entraps the man in all the “errands” the wife makes him do; the Akārāṅga Sūtra misogynously declares: “The world is greatly troubled by women.” 
On a more positive note it is refreshing to find that—in contrast to the Buddhist tradition, wherein all the legendary Buddhas of the past ages preceding Siddhartha were male—the 19th of the 24 Tīrthaṅkaras of the distant Jaina past is said to have been a woman. This was the princess Mallinātha. Her legend is told at some length in the Jaina Āgama (Canon) of the more liberal Śvetāmbara sect (which split from the Digambaras, the other major Jaina sect, around the beginning of our common era): she dissuaded her many royal suitors from fighting for her hand in marriage by reminding them of the ultimately “foul and filthy” composition of the material body (blood, phlegm, guts, fecal matter and so forth) “beneath her external charms.”  (This blunt, “reality-oriented” teaching is typical of the Buddhist and Jaina method of conquering attachments to sensuality, and is applied to both male and female bodies.) In terms of iconography, Mallinātha is not honored nearly as much as the first and last two tīrthaṅkaras—though, of course, this is true of the other, male tīrthaṅkaras (in some Jaina centers, the 24 are venerated together fairly equally); I have noticed a relative scarcity of images of her at a number of Jaina shrines in India (probably the most popular spot for honoring her is her triple temple at Girnar Hill, near Junagadh, Gujarāt, built in the late 12th century). However, on this topic of Jaina iconography, the mothers of the twenty-four jinas are paid considerable veneration, and images of them on stone plaques, holding the infant jinas on their laps, are still being revered in the Jaina temples at Mt. Abu, Girnar, Patan, Oshia, and other places.  A time-honored Jaina legend holds that Marudevī, the mother of Ṛṣabha (the first Tīrthaṅkara), upon coming to see him after his spiritual breakthrough, herself attained the state of “omniscience,” kevala-jñāna, right on the spot and then died! (Omniscience is said by the Jaina-Āgama to be the highest stage possible in this life, and it culminates in the full liberation, mokṣa, attained when the body dies.) Speaking of ancient, legendary Jaina figures, it is said that Sundarī, the sister of prince Bāhubali, both of them the children of the first tīrthaṅkara, Adinātha, catalyzed Bāhubali’s liberation by pointing out the pride inherent in his ascetic rigors. Whether or not she, too, realized enlightenment, or was already enlightened, is not made clear. 
Honoring of the feminine principle occurs in other ways: the sixteen vidyā-devīs (goddesses of knowledge) of the Jaina pantheon have been worshipped by various jinas (and sometimes by Jaina believers over the years) in order that different kinds of knowledge (vidyā) may be obtained. And then there are tales—and much sculptural imagery—of male yakṣas and female yakṣīs, celestial god/goddess attendants of tīrthaṅkaras, who are derived from the Hindu pantheon, and who occasionally help and guide Jaina aspirants: the yakṣī Padmāvatī, for instance, helped inspire the building of Sravanabelagola (perhaps the most famous Jaina shrine, located in Mysore district of Karnataka) through her appearances in a dream and in the guise of an old woman teacher to one of the fellows who worked on it; one also frequently encounters in sculptural form the yakṣī Ambikā, especially at Sravanabelagola, where there is a particularly beautiful image of her in pregnancy; here one also finds the bewitching image of the smiling maiden, Sālabhañjikā. Yakṣas and yakṣīs began to attain cult status from the 5-10th century CE, and have had temples devoted to them from about the 14th-15th century onward. Today yakṣīs like Padmāvatī and Kusmāndinī are as popular as the Tīrthaṅkaras among certain circles of the Jaina laity, whose “popular” strand of Jainism, with its temple cult and rich iconography of celestials, exists virtually as a “second religion” within the tradition, one with which most of the monks and nuns are not much associated. 
On this last point, the Jaina tradition, even more than other religions, has idealized the renunciate lifestyle—it is not considered possible for a layperson, no matter how ascetically and virtuously he or she lives, to attain complete liberation in this life from the dross of karma (the burdensome, soiling effects of past egocentric actions); he or she may only hope to be reborn as someone who then becomes a renunciate. The highly conservative and strict Digambara sect of Jainism goes so far as to assert, rather unconvincingly, that Jaina nuns are also not able to achieve mokṣa in this life, but must be reborn as monks to work out their complete liberation; and it is further said by many Jaina authorities that in this current decadent age, no one, male or female, can hope to attain omniscience or liberation. Scholars think the order of Jaina nuns to be older than the order of Buddhist nuns, and they say that whereas the Buddha was somewhat reluctant to found an order of nuns, Mahāvīra was quite receptive to women joining his order of renunciates. History records that Princess Chandanā, later known as Āryā Chandanā, was Mahāvīra’s first woman disciple, and became the leader of the thousands of Jaina sādhvīs (nuns), who, moreover, were over twice as numerous as Jaina monks, numbering around 36,000 (compared to 14,000 monks; laywomen followers were also said to greatly outnumber men, 358,000 to 150,000). 
And whereas the Buddhist bhikṣuṇī-saṅgha of India grew weak and then utterly died out with the Muslim invasions, the community of Jaina female renunciates survived down through the centuries in India—though, unlike Buddhism, Jainism did not spread to other countries, and so no Jaina women renunciates ever came to dwell outside India in any significant numbers. Shāntā observes that the most ancient inscriptions concerning Jaina women go back to the beginning of our era, and are found at Mathurā, in Uttar Pradesh; these give the names of a number of women ascetics preceded by the title Āryā. Inscriptions at Sravanabelagola in Mysore district and in the Tamil region indicate the existence of an influential sisterhood of Jaina nuns with monastic establishments spread practically all over South India. They also seem to have flourished in Bihār, Rājasthān, Gujarāt, Mahārāshtra, and Madhya Pradesh. 
Swāmi Ghanānanda mentions a number of prominent women from the earliest days: Jayantī and Mrigāvatī, sister and queen of King Satānīka, who renounced their wealth and prestige to become nuns under Mahāvīra; the seven sisters of Sthūlabhadra (about 150 years after Mahāvīra) including Yakṣā, et al, who became renunciates; Yākinī Mahattarā (7th century) who powerfully disseminated Jaina teachings, even winning over a learned Hindu brahmin, Haribhadra Sūri, to the Jaina way; and various scholarly nuns who wrote influential works (Guna Sādhvī‚ of the 9th century MahānandāŚrī Mahattarā‚ and Ganinī Vīramatī‚ of the 12th century, and Gunasamriddhi Mahattarā‚ of the 14th century.)  Shāntā mentions the female āryikā (ascetic) of the Digambara sect, Kavunti Atikal, who aided the hero and heroine of the famous epic, the Cilappatikāram (2nd-5th century C.E.). Elsewhere we hear of two other outstanding Jaina holy women of the early centuries of the Common Era: Gunamatī, the saintly mother of a great Jaina monk, Ajjanandi, and Pattina Kurattī, who evidently had a large circle of disciples (note that kurattī is the feminine noun form for one of the Jaina words for guru, kuravar).  Laywomen (śrāvikās) supporting the monks and nuns, as in Buddhism, have been important in Jaina tradition, and we hear of remarkable women such as Sāntalā, a 12th century queen, who was a highly-accomplished musician and dancer, and who was a woman capable of ecumenically honoring the different religions of her day (Jainism, and Śaiva and VaiṣṇavaHinduism).
Sushrī N. Shāntā has written the definitive profile on Jaina women ascetics in her 600-page opus entitled La voie jaina (1985) which was published in 1992 in an English-language edition as Unknown Pilgrims by Cistercian Publications.  Therein she has collected a number of biographies of renowned Jaina male and female renunciates and depictions of the lifestyle of the saṅgha of renunciates. From several of her English-language articles already in print, and a few other sources, we attempt to draw a profile of Jaina women religious. A figure from 1982 stating that the number of Śvetāmbara renunciate women (sādhvīs) was 5,879. The female ascetics of the Digambara tradition are known as āryikās, and numbered only about sixty (twenty of these live somewhat less austerely than the āryikās, and are known as ksullikās).  Acarya Sushil Kumarji, an internationally known Jaina leader now residing in the U.S., estimates from his sources that there are about 7,000 Jaina nuns at present living in India (including both Śvetāmbara and Digambara women renunciates), and roughly 3,000 monks, thus making a total of 10,000 members of the Jaina saṅgha  (the number of Jaina laity in India today, after centuries of decline, has begun to grow again and now numbers over two million).
There are actually three main divisions of the Śvetāmbara (“white clad”) sect (the Mūrtipūjakas, or temple-worshippers, and the 18th century reform group, the Sthānakavāsīs and its offshoot, the Terāpanthīs, who do not worship in temples or revere images); similarly, the Digambaras have three divisions (the Terāhpantha, who observe stricter discipline and worship more simply; the more liberal Bīspantha, which adheres to the institution of the saffron-robed pontifs known as Bhattarakas; and the Samayya or Teranapanthā, who reject temple-worship). The Śvetāmbara schools admit their sādhvīs to full monastic vows, whereas two of the three Digambara (“sky-clad”) schools strictly require their renunciates to go naked and will not permit their women to do this, thus only allowing males to become “full” renunciates, though their āryikās live a nearly equally austere, disciplined, devoted, and meditative life. In any case, as Jyoti Prasad Jain writes, “A Jaina ascetic, male or female, of whichever sect or subsect, has no home, no worldly possessions, no intimate associations with householders, takes meals only once in a day, and does not stay in any one place for more than a few days except during the four-months rainy retreat when they abide in any one place.” 
Shāntā has more specifically outlined the lives of the Śvetāmbara and Digambara women ascetics. The Śvetāmbara sādhvīs (also sometimes called sātīs or mahāsatīs, virtuous ones, or yatinīs, strivers or vigilant ones) have a probation period of several months to several years as vairāginīs (dispassionate ones), usually training in an institute under a woman spiritual mentor known as a gurunī, after which they undergo a preliminary initiation (dīkṣā): herein the woman’s head is shaved (among the Terāpanthīs, the hair is actually plucked out!), and the woman receives the small soft broom to move insects out of the way, the begging bowl, and a volume of scripture; among the Mūrtipūjakas, the woman receives also a walking staff and a new name (a new name is optional in the other Śvetāmbara schools). Some days or months later, the new sādhvī obtains the great dīkṣā, which entails adoption of the five great vows (mahāvratas): permanent abstention from all injurious action, deceit, theft, sexual activity, and attachment to possessions. After this, the sādhvī takes up the itinerant life in full, never staying in one place for more than a month—except when ill, extremely old, or engaged in a special period of study, or during the cāturmāsya, the four-month monsoon period. The cāturmāsya becomes a period of retreat, study, and lecturing on the Scriptures to the laity, men and women. The sādhvīs’ perpetual itinerancy brings them into fairly close proximity to the laity, and there exists a natural cycle of give and take between them: the sādhvīs teach and edify the laity, and the laity support the ascetics. While traveling around the eight months out of each year, the sādhvīs lodge in a refuge (upāśraya), where laymen and women come to perform their spiritual exercises; one large room or several rooms are made available to the sādhvīs. Certain upāśrayas are reserved exclusively for the sādhvīs. The spiritual activities of the sādhvīs include: 1) repetition of mantras, especially the “Namaskāra-mantra” (offering salutations to all the spiritual masters, the free beings whose consciousness abides as utter bliss and peace and awareness, and to all the adepts who are close to realizing this perfect state); 2) daily inspection of one’s clothing and utensils for any bugs who might accidentally be injured otherwise; 3) inward devotion, including hymns of praise to the jinas; 4) meditative study and repetition of scripture and of other edifying matters; 5) the morning and evening āvaśyaka rite (in which the sādhvīs form a circle around their gurunī, recite scriptural passages, perform certain prostrations and movements, and adopt a period of motionless silence, inwardly reciting the Namaskāra-mantra); from time to time the sādhvīs also engage in 6) counseling or instructing the laity, performing charitable or scholarly works, establishing and/or running groups for women and girls. Because of lack of training by the male ācāryas, only a relative few sādhvīs authentically practice the subtlest of all spiritual activities: concentrative meditation on the nature of their intrinsically pure consciousness. The sādhvīs’ time is also occupied with collecting food from the laity three times a day (milk or tea in the morning, a vegetarian meal at lunch, and a light meal before sunset), laundering clothes, sewing, mending, making rosaries and the little brooms, and creating art and handicrafts. 
The lifestyle of the much smaller number of Digambara āryikās, who wear simple white cotton garb (while their brothers, the monks, go naked) is very similar to that of the Śvetāmbara sādhvīs, except that 1) they do not stay in an upāśraya, but in a room in the proximity of a temple or given to them by a family, sleeping only on a wooden plank; 2) they take only one meal a day—in their hands, without a bowl, in the home of one of their lay patrons, not in group with other āryikās—and they ingest no food or liquids any other time of day; and 3) their āvaśyaka-vidhi rite is more elaborated and hymns of praise play a bigger part of their religious life.  According to Swāmi Ghanānanda, the women renunciates of today are still “pious, highly austere and self-sacrificing. They are well known for the practice of the ideals of non-injury [ahimsā] to living things. Fasting is considered an act of merit; the longer the fasting-period, the more meritorious it is.”  Ghanānanda and Shāntā explain that many Jaina female ascetics, especially in Karnātaka state, undergo the “Great Departure” through the ritual act of samlekhanā, fasting unto death, considered to be the most meritorious of all human acts. Of course, this “heroic” practice (also termed samādhi, arādhana, pañcanamaskāra, inginī, etc.), which dates back about 1500 years, is not likely to be emulated by spiritually-minded women in the twentieth-century Western world—where it would probably be misconstrued and diagnosed by some as a masochistic anorexia, not sanctity. But with the Jaina women ascetics, there is a profound altruistic intention underlying this kind of behavior, a pure resolve to stop harming sentient beings and to bless all beings through the spiritual power engendered by such austerities. This resolve, if not the form it takes, is highly laudable—indeed, it is quite moving to hear of such utter self-sacrifice, performed out of love for living beings.
Many of the Śvetāmbara sādhvīs and Digambara āryikās are true saints and honored as such by the Jaina communities which they visit, but they may not be well known elsewhere. According to Shāntā, a number of Śvetāmbara sādhvīs are writing books on Jaina doctrine, composing poems, translating scriptures, and, notable for our purposes, writing biographies of eminent gurunīs. Mahāsatī Śrī Pannādevī‚ (n.d.) for instance, was a leading gurunī of modern times whose biography has been authored by another Jaina nun, Mahāsatī Śrī Saralā. Shāntā mentions that “Āryikā Śrī Jñānamatī is a very learned and fervent ascetic the author of numerous works and several translations, and also foundress at Hastināpura (Uttar Pradeśa) of a study-centre of Jaina cosmography.” She also names Mahāsatī Śrī Mohanadevī and Sādhvī Nirmalā Śrī as enlightened gurunīs who founded mahilāsaṅghas (women’s and girls’ groups, schools, camps). Sādhvī Punya Śrī was one of a number of “highly intelligent and enlightened gurunīs [who] strove to give their disciples a thorough training” and thereby effect an empowerment and renewal of the Jaina women religious.
“When one knows the degree of opposition to reform prevalent in the society to which they belonged one can say without hesitation that these pioneers were true heroines. Subsequently a large number of present-day sādhvīs have been expressing a desire for renewal and for adaptation to contemporary needs. It is no easy task both to remain loyal to so ancient a tradition and to be open to change.” 
Previously, because of an age-old taboo on traveling in vehicles, only a very few Jaina teachers, all male, had traveled to the West, and thus links between the Jaina tradition and Western scholars and practitioners were scanty. Now more teachers are beginning to visit, including nuns. Acarya Sushil Kumarji has especially recommended to me two sādhvīs, Jaismitaji and Madhusmitaji, the latter a gifted speaker and singer who speaks English. These two women and their sisters are bringing to the West the ancient message of Jainism, emphasizing moral virtues, nonviolence, vegetarianism (some emphasize a dairy-free veganism), meditation, and the means of moving through the fourteen stages of diminishing karmic bondage, the gunasthānas, and thus achieving in this life the perfected state of spiritual omniscience (yogi kevalī-jñāna) which, after bodily passing, is known as ayogi kevalī, mokṣa, or nirvāṇa.