Which are the different sects in Jainism

  • By Dr. Vilas A Sangave
  • January 5, 2024
  • The list of sects and sub-sects of Jaina Darsana along with their key practices is simply explained.

Introduction by Editor - Who is a Jaina?

Munisri Nyayavijayaji wrote, “The term ‘Jaina’ is derived from the term ‘Jina’. And the term ‘Jina’ is the common name for the supreme souls who are totally free from all the feelings of attachment, etc that defile the soul. It is a noun from Sanskrit verbal rcot ‘ji’ meaning ‘to conquer. And devotees of Jina care called Jaina’. 1


This is an extract from ‘Aspects of Jaina Religion’ published by Bharatiya Jnapith, New Delhi. eSamskriti has obtained permission to share. Part 1 of chapter is sects of Jainism. Part 2 is The Great Schisms of Jainism. We start with part 3. To read part 1 and 2


3. The Digambara and Swetambara Sects

It is worthwhile to see what the exact differences between the Digambara and Swetambara sects of Jainism are. Literally, the monks of Digambaras are naked while those of the Swetambara 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.

(A) Some Points of Differences

(i) 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 Swetambaras assert that the practice of complete nudity is not essential to attain liberation.

(ii) Liberation of Women

Digambaras believe that a women lacks the admantine body and rigid will necessary to attain monks, i.e., liberation: hence she must be reborn as a man before such an attainment is possible. But the Swetambaras hold that women are capable, in the present life time, of the same spiritual accomplishments as men.

(iii) 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 Swetambaras.

Palitana Mandir Gujarat.

(B) Minor Points of Differences

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

(i) Embryo of Mahaveera

The Swetambaras believe that Mahaveera was born of a Kshatriya lady, Trisala, though conception took place in the womb of a Brahmana 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.

(ii) Marriage of Mahaveera

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

(iii) Tirthankara Mallinatha

The Swetambaras consider Mallinatha, the 19th Tirthankara as a female by name Malli but the Digambaras state that Mallinatha was a male.

(iv) Idols of Tirthankaras

The Swetambaras tradition depicts the idols of Tirthankaras as wearing a loin-cloth, bedecked with jewels and with glass eyes inserted in the marble. But the Digambar tradition represents the idols of Tirthankaras as nude, unadorned and with downcast eyes in the contemplative mood.

(v) Canonical Literature

The Swetambaras 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.

(vi) Charitras and Puranas of the Swetambaras use the term 'Charitra' and the Digambaras make use of the term 'Purana' for the biographies of the great teachers.

(vii) Food of Ascetics

The Swetambara 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.

(viii) Dress of Ascetics

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

(ix) Possession of Ascetics

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

Bahubali at Sravanbelgola. Pranams 

4. The Digambara Sub-Sects

The division of the Jaina religion into two sects was only the beginning of splitting the religious order into various sub-sects. Each of the two great sects viz., the Digambara sect and the Swetambara sect, got sub-divided into different major and minor sub-sects according to the differences in a acknowledging or interpreting the religious texts and in the observance of religious practices. These major and minor sub-sects gradually sprang up for the most part on the canonical texts from time to time and due to revolt or opposition by sections of people against the established religious authorities and the traditional religious rites and rituals.

Rock-cut Jain, Gwalior Fort. 

The Digambara sect, in recent centuries, has been divided into the following sub-sect;

(A) Major sub-sects

(i) Bisapantha

(ii) Terapantha

(iii) Taranapantha or samaiyapantha.

(B) Minor Sub-Sects

(i) Gumanapantha

(ii) Tolapantha

(1) Bisapantha: The followers of Bisapantha support the Dharma-gurus, that is, religious authorities known as Bhattarkas who are also the heads of Jaina Mathas, that is, religious monasteries. The Bisapanthis, in their temples, worship the idol of Tirthankaras and also the idols of Ksetrapala, Padmavati and other deities. They worship these idols with saffron, flowers, fruits, sweets, scented 'agara-batis', i.e., incense stick, etc. while performing these worships, the Bisapanthis sit on the ground and do not stand. They perform Aarti, i.e., waving of lights over the idol, in the temple even at night and distribute prasada, i.e., sweet things offered to the idols.

The Bisapantha, according to some, is the original form of the Digambara sect and today practically all Digambara Jainas from Maharashtra, Karnataka and South India and a large number of Digambara Jaina from Rajasthan and Gujarat are the followers of Bisapantha.

(2) Terapantha: Terapantha arose in North India in the year 1683 of the Vikram Era as a revolt against the domination and conduct of the Bhattarakas, i.e., religious authorities, of the Digambara Jainas. As a result in this sub-sect, the Bhattarakas are not much respected. In their temples, the Terapnathis install the idols of Tirthankaras and not of Ksetrapala, Padmavati and other deities. Further, they worship the idols not with flowers, fruits and other green vegetables (known sachitta things), but with sacred rice celled 'Aksata', cloves, sandal, almonds, dry coconuts, dates, etc. As a rule they do not perform Aarti or distribute Prasada in their temples. Again, while worshipping they stand and do not sit.

From these differences with the Bisapanthis it is clear that the Terapanthis appear to be reformers. They are opposed to various religious practices, as according to them, these are not real Jaina. The Terapanatha had performed a valuable task of rescuing the Digambaras from the clutches of wayward Bhattarakas and hence the Terapanthis occupy a peculiar position in the Digambara Jaina community. The Terapanthis are more numerous in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

 It is pertinent to note that even though the name Terapantha sub-sect appears both among the Digambara and the Swetambara sects, still the two Terapanthis are entirely different from each other. While the Digambara Terapanthis believe in nudity and idol-worship, the Swetambara Terapanthis are quite opposed to both.

(3) Taranapantha: The sub-sect Taranapantha is known after its founder Tara-Swami or Tarana-tarana-Swami (1448-1515 A.D.). This sub-sect is also called Samaiya-Pantha because its followers worship Samaya, i.e., sacred books and not the idols. Tarana-Swami died at Malharagarh, in former Gwalior State in Madhya Pradesh, and this is central place of Pilgrimage of Taranapanthis.

The Taranapanthis strongly refute idolatry but they have their own temples in which they keep their sacred books for worship. They do not offer articles like fruits and flowers at the time of worship. Beside the sacred books of Digambaras, they also worship fourteen sacred books written by their founder Tarana-Swami.

Further, Taranapanthis give more importance to spiritual values and the study of sacred literature. That is why we find a complete absence of outward religious practices among them. Moreover, Tarana-Swami was firmly against the cast-distinctions and in fact threw open the doors of his sub-sect even to Muslims and low-caste people.

The three main traits of the Taranapanthis, namely, (a) the aversion to idol worship, (b) the absence of outward religious practices, and (c) the ban on caste distinctions, were evolved as a revolt against the religious beliefs and practices prevailing in the Digambara Jaina sect, and it appears that Tarana-swami might have formulated these principles under the direct influence of Islamic doctrines and the teachings of Lonkasaha, the founder of non-idolatrous Sthankavasi sub-sect of the Swetambara sect.

Taranapantha are few in number and they are mostly confined to Bundelkhand, Malwa area of Madhya Pradesh and Khandesh area of Maharashtra.

(4) Gumanapantha: The Gumanapantha is not so important and in fact very little is known about it. It is stated that this sub-sect was started by Pandit Gumani Rama or Gumani Rai, who was a son of Pandit Todarmal, a resident of Jaipur in Rajasthan.

According to this Pantha, lighting of candles or lamps in the Jaina temples is strictly prohibited, because it regards this as a violation of the fundamental doctrine of Jaina religion, viz., non-violence. They only visit and view the image in the temples and do not make any offering to them. 

This pantha became famous in the name of suddha amaya that is pure or sacred tradition, because its followers always stressed the purity of conduct and self-discipline and strict adherence to the precepts.

Gumanapantha originated in the 18th Century A.D. and flourished mainly during that century. It was prevalent in several parts of Rajasthan, and it is found now in some areas of Rajasthan around Jaipur.

(5) Totapantha: The Totapantha came into existence as a result of differences between the Bisapantha and Terapantha sub-sects. Many sincere efforts were made to strike a compromise between the Bisa (i.e., twenty) pantha and Tera (i.e., thirteen) pantha and the outcome was Sadhesolaha (i.e., sixteen and a half) - pantha or 'Totapantha'. That is why the followers of Sadhesolaha Pantha or Totapantha believe to some extent in the doctrines of Bisapanbtha and to some extent in those of Terapantha.

The Totapanthis are extremely few in number and are found in some pockets in Madhya Pradesh.

In connection with the account of the major and minor sub-sects prevailing among the Digambara sect, it is worthwhile to note that in recent years in the Digambar sect a new major sect known as ' Kanji-pantha' consisting of followers of Kanaji Swami is being formed and is getting popular especially among the educated sections. Saint Kanaji Swami (from whom the name 'Kanaji-pantha' is derived), a Swetambara-Sthankavasi by birth, largely succeeded in popularising the old sacred texts of the great Digambar Jaina saint Acharya Kundakunda of South India. But Kanaji Swami's efforts, while interpreting Acharya Kunda's wrings, to give more prominence to nishchjaya-naya, that is realistic point of view, in preference to vyavhara-naya, that is, practical point of view, are not approved by the Digambaras in general as they consider that both the view point are of equal importance. However, the influence of Kanajipantha is steadily increasing and Sonagarh town in Gujrat and Jaipur in Rajasthan have become the centers of varied religious activates of the Kanajipanthis.

Ranakpur Temple near Udaipur is probably the best Jain Mandir in the world. 

5. The Swetambara Sub-Sects

Like the Digambaras sect, the Swetambara sect has also been split into three main sub-sects:

(i) Murtipujaka

(ii) Sthanakavasi

(iii) Terapanthi

(1) Murtipujaka: The original stock of Swetambars is known as Murtipuja Swetambaras since they are the thorough worshippers of idols. They offer flowers, fruits, saffron etc., to their idols and invariably adorn them with rich clothes and jeweled ornaments.

Their ascetics cover their mouth with strips of cloth while speaking, otherwise they keep them in their hands. They stay in temples or in the specially reserved building known as upasryas. They collect food in their bowls from the sravakas or householders' houses and eat at their place of stay.

The Murtipujaka sub-sect is also known by terms like (i) Pujera (worshippers), (ii) Deravasi (temple residents), (iii) Chaitya-vasi (temple residents) and (iv) Mandira-margi (temple goers)

The Murtipujaka Swetambaras are found scattered all over India for business purposes in large urban centers, still they are concentrated mostly in Gujarat.

(2) Sthankavasi: The Sthankavasi arose not directly from the Swetambaras but as reformers of and older reforming sect, viz., the Lonka sect of Jainism. This Lonka sect was founded in about 1474 A.D. by Lonkasaha, a rich and well-read merchant of Ahmadabad.

The main principle of this sect was not to practice idol-worship. Later on, some of the members of the Lonka sect disapproved of the way of life of their ascetics, declaring that they lived less strictly than Mahaveera would have wished. A Lonka sect layman, Viraji of Surat, received initiation as Yati, i.e., an ascetic, and won great admiration on account of the strictness of his life. Many people of the Lonka sect joined this reformer and they took the name of Sthankavasis, meaning those who do not have their religious activities in temples but carry on their religious duties in places known as Sthanakas which are like prayer-halls.

The Sthankavasis are also called by terms as (a) Dhundhiya (searchers) and (b) Sadhumargis (followers of Sadhus, i.e., ascetics). Except on the crucial point of idol-worship, Sthanakavasis do not differ much from other Swetambara Jainas and hence now-a-days they invariably call themselves as Swetambara Sthankavasis.

However, there are some differences between the Sthankavasi and the Murtipujaka Swetambaras in the observance of some religious practices.

The Sthankavasis do not believe in idol-worship at all. As such they do not have temples but only sthanaks, that is, prayer halls, where they carry on their religious fast, festivals, practices, prayers, discourses, etc. Further, the ascetics of Sthanakavasis cover their mouth with strips of cloth for all the time and they do not use the cloth of yellow or any other colour (of course, except white). Moreover the Sthankavasis admit the authenticity of only 31 of the scriptures of Swetambaras. Furthermore, the Sthankavisis do not have faith in the places of pilgrimage and do not participate in the religious festivals of Murtipujaka Swetambaras.

The Swetambara Sthankavasis are also spread in different business centers in India but they are found mainly in Gujrat, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

It is interesting to note that the two-idolatrous sub-sects, viz., Taranapanthis among the Digambaras and Sthankavasis among the Swetambaras, came very late in the history of the Jaina Church and to some extent it can safely be said that the Mohammedan influence on the religious mind of India was greatly responsible for their rise.

Jain Mandir Delwara near Udaipur. 

In this connection Mrs. S. Stevenson observes: "If one effect of the Mohammedan conquest, however, was to drive many of the Jainas into close union with their fellow idol-worshippers in the face of iconoclasts, another effort was to drive others away from idolatry altogether. No oriental could hear a fellow oriental's passionate outcry against idolatry without doubts as to the righteousness of the practice entering his mind. 

Naturally enough it is in Ahmadabad, the city of Gujarat, that was most under Mohammedan influence, that we can first trace the stirring of these doubts. About 1474 A.D. the Lonka sect, the first of the non-idolatrous Jaina sects, arose and was followed by the Dhundhiya or Sthankavasi sect about 1653 A.D., dates which coincide strikingly with the Lutheran and Puritan movements in Europe." (vide Heart of Jainism, p.19)

(3) Terapanthi: The Terapanthi sub-sect is derived from the Sthankavasi section. The Terapanthi sub-sect was founded by Swami Bhikkanaji Maharaj. Swami Bhikkanaji was formerly a Svanakavasi saint and had initiation from his Guru, by name Acharya Raghunatha. Swami Bhikkanaji had differences with his Guru on several aspects of religious practices of Sthankavasi ascetics and when these took a serious turn, he founded Terapantha on the full-moon day in the month of Asadha in the year V.S. 1817. i.e. 1760 A.D.

As Acharya Bhikkanaji laid stress on the 13 religious principles, namely, (i) five Mahavratas (great vows), (ii) five samitis (regulations) and (iii) three Guptis (controls or restraints), his sub-sect was known as the Tera (meaning thirteen)-pantha sub-sect. In this connection it is interesting to note that two other interpretations have been given for the use of the term Terapntha for the sub-sect. According to one account, it is mentioned that as there were only 13 monks and 13 layman in the pantha when it was founded, it was called as Tera (meaning thirteen)-pantha. Sometimes another interpretation of the term Terapantha is given by its followers. Tera means yours and pantha means path; in other words, it means, "Oh ! Lord Mahaveera! it is Thy path".

The Terapanthis are non-idolatrous and are very finely organised under the complete direction of one Acharya, that is, religious head. In its history of little more than 200 years, the Terapantha had a succession of 9 Acharyas from the founder Acharya Bhikkanaji as the First Acharya to the present Acharya Tulasi as the 9th Acharya only has become a characteristic feature of the Terapantha and an example for emulation by other Panthas. It is noteworthy that all monks and nuns of the Terapantha scrupulously follow the orders of their Acharya, preach under his guidance and carry out all religious activities in accordance with his instructions. Further, the Terapantha regularly observes a remarkable festival known as Maryada Mahotasava. This distinctive festival is celebrated ever year on the 7th day of the bright half of the month of Magha when all ascetics and lay disciples, male and female, meet together at one predetermined place and discuss the various problems of Terapanthis.

The penance to Terapanthis is considered to be very severe. The dress of Teapanthi monks and nuns is akin to that of Sthankavasi monks and nuns. But there is a difference in the length of mumhapatti, i.e., a piece of white cloth kept on the mouth. The Terapanthis believe that idolatry does not provide deliverance and attach importance to the practice of meditation.

Further, is may be stressed that the Terapantha is known for its disciplined organisation characterised by one Acharya (i.e., religious head), one code of conduct and one line of thought. The Terapanthis are considered reformists as they emphasise simplicity in religion. For example the Terapanthis do not even construct monasteries for their monks, who inhabit a part of house which the householders build for themselves. Recently their religious head, Acharya Tulsi, had started the Anuvrat Andolana, that is, the small vow movement, which attempts to utilise the spiritual doctrines of Jainas for moral uplift of the masses in India.

The rise of Terapantha is the last big schism in the Swetambar sect and this Pantha is becoming popular. The Terapanthis are still limited in number and even though they are noticed in different cities in India, they are concentrated mainly in Bikaner, Jodhpur and Marwar areas of Rajasthan.


1. Jaina Philosophy and Religion by Munisri Nyayavijayaji

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