--> Skip to main content

Women In Jainism

Women in general are held in high regard in Jainism. However, the two sects of Jain Religion, Digambaras and Svetambaras, have different approach to the question of salvation of women. Digambaras hold that women have no chance of attaining salvation until they are reborn as men; also they cannot enter monasteries and temples. Shvetambaras, however, believe that women can get liberation; they can become nuns and enter temples and monasteries. Digambaras strongly believe in the virtue of a celibate life and rate it higher than a married one.

When a woman becomes a nun, she is subject to a rigorous discipline. Nuns are not expected to stay alone without the protection of monks. They should always live together in groups and should avoid the company of dubious characters. Only monks can preach before nuns. Nuns are supposed to go out only with an experienced matron.

Nonetheless, women are not compelled to choose a monastic life. The pativrata ideal is held for married women. The wife is expected to be dutiful and obedient to her husband. Married women may aspire for individual salvation through self-denial. All Jainas, whether Digambaras or Shvetambaras, maintain that a layman is inferior to a monk, a woman, and also to a nun.

Though they have followed different paths and held different views, both branches of Jaina religion hold women in high respect and a lot of freedom is accorded to them. Women can appear in public without any restriction. They can go out to visit friends and relatives, shrines and festivals. In emergencies such as floods, fire and robbery, they are to be rescued first.

Jainas adore the mother of the 24 Tirthankaras. Ajja (Arya) Candana was the first disciple of Mahavira and head of a Jaina order of nuns. Jaina literature records the names of several Jaina nuns and laywomen who have contributed to the promotion of the Jaina faith. Among these are seven sisters of Sthulabhadra (about 150 years after Mahavira’s nirvana), Yaksha, Arya Vajra and Yakini Mahattara. Many Jaina women are celebrated for their chastity, including Rajimati (heroine of a ballad) and Kannaki (heroine of a Tamil epic, Silappadikaram). Shantaladevi, queen of Hoysala king Vishnuvardhanadeva (1123 CE), is described in epigraphic records as an expert in singing, instrumental music and dancing. She is hailed as a crest jewel of perfect faith, and a pillar of Jaina faith.

There were nuns of great learning. Guna Sadhvi prepared the first copy of monumental allegorical work of Siddharshi, Upamitabhava-prapanca-katha, in 905 CE. In the 12th century, Mahanandashri Mahattara and Ganini Viramati contributed to Hemachandra’s commentary on Viseshtavasyaka Bhashya of Jinabhadra. In Karnataka, Jaina women helped to build temples in serving the cause of Jainism. A Rashtrakuta king (10th century CE) appointed a woman, Jakkiyabbe, as a district officer.