The Making of a Sadhvi

Published: Thu, 11/08/2012 - 08:34

Book:  Escaping the World – Women Renouncers among Jains 

AUTHOR: Manisha Sethi

PUBLISHER: Routledge

PAGES: 240

PRICE: 695

YEAR: 2012 

Indeed, the ritual value of sadhvis is considerable. They give sermons, conduct prayers and take general charge of the spiritual needs of the laity

Namrata R Ganneri Mumbai 

Jainism, which has a strong presence among merchant communities, primarily in northern and western India and the Deccan, is characterised by a very strong mendicant order. Broadly divided between the Digambars (the sky-clad/naked)  and the Shwetambars (the white-clad), all Jain  renouncers — bound by the  five mahavratas (great vows), ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (chastity) and aparigruha (detachment) —practise severe austerity. This process includes gochari (seeking food from householders every day), vihara (incessant travel, usually on foot), loch (plucking of hair) and chaturmas (residence in one place during the four monsoon months, which also offers opportunities for intense interactions between the ascetics and the laity). Significantly, while renunciation is unequivocally masculinised in orthodox traditions, Jainism not only recognises women as rightful soteriological agents but, right from the time of Mahavir, has had large female mendicant orders. In fact, Jain nuns — variously known as sadhvi, mahasati and aryika — outnumber monks.

In Escaping the World, Manisha Sethi, who teaches at the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilisations, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, draws readers into the world of the Jain female nun through her ethnographically rich description, evocative prose, and plethora of photographs and material culled from interviews with female renouncers of various Jain sects, all a product of her fieldwork in North India. We are thus alerted to the fact that Jainism has a rich institutionalised tradition of female ascetics who enjoy a degree of authority within the community, while serving as powerful role models for young women of the community.

Indeed, the ritual value of sadhvis is considerable. They give sermons, conduct prayers and take general charge of the spiritual needs of the laity. Sadhvis are widely respected figures, they interact with the community, especially with lay women during chaturmas and thus shore up adherence to the Jain dharma. Many senior nuns play an important role in the community’s life, resolving factional conflicts and advising the laity on business deals. Some play a lead role in running institutions of philanthropic service and performing seva in cow shelters, monastic retreats, ashrams, temples, dharamshalas,
and even conduct campaigns advocating adherence to Jain norms/ritual practices.

Nevertheless, most Jain scriptures and sacred literature, quite like Brahmanical literature, picture women as essentially ‘libidinous’ and fickle creatures. Sethi quotes extensively from Jain texts to show that there is particularly harsh criticism of the female body as the site of infinite violence. Even most didactic literature is virulently misogynist.

Certainly, the divide between Digambars and Shwetambars is sharpened over the question of female asceticism; since Digambars refute the validity of clothed mendicancy, women are disqualified from ‘full mendicancy’. Interestingly, even here, there is no categorical denial of strimoksha, women may attain the goal of ‘liberation’, though only in subsequent rebirth as a male, which, in turn, may result from her extreme asceticism during her female birth. Sethi also accords space to the voices of female renouncers — women who share this extreme gynophobia. Yet, despite these deep-seated patriarchal leanings of renunciant discourses, women are permitted to seek atmakalyana (spiritual uplift). Besides, women swell the mendicant orders.

One of the chief aims of this theoretically sophisticated work is to dispel the commonsensical assumption that asceticism is resorted to only by widows, unmarried girls or destitute women. Sethi has mapped the reasons of renunciation as well as the family background of Jain sadhvis in the chapter, ‘The Making of a Sadhvi’. This chapter constitutes the core of her research and concludes that women choose to join the order wholly ‘volitionally’ (p-93). Of the 65 sadhvis interviewed, 61 were ummarried, three were widows and only one had left her family after marriage. The author establishes that more often a sadhvi comes from a religious family, emulates other women renouncers from within her kin network, and, in case of familial opposition, practices severe austerity to convince her family of her vairagya (sense of exile).

Women may attain the goal of ‘liberation’, though only in subsequent rebirth as a male, which, in turn, may result from her extreme asceticism during her female birth. Sethi also accords space to the voices of female renouncers — women who share this extreme gynophobia


Sethi concedes that while for young single women renunciation may offer “freedom, independence, unhindered pursuit of scholarship and atma kalyana”(p-201), for married women, the benefits of whose productive and reproductive labour accrue to the marital family, there is no easy ‘escape’. Significantly, in most recent academic literature, female renunciation is taken to be a critique of ‘heterosexual relations in a deeply patriarchal society’ and the sadhvi’s critique of samsara (domesticity) perhaps mirrors this resistance. Thus, Sethi’s work is an important intervention in the ongoing dialogue on ‘indigenous feminism’ first initiated by Lawrence Babb in a discussion about the Brahmakumaris in India. 

Renunciation is not an isolated endeavour, and the ascetic orders replicate, to some extent, the ways of the world. The community of the sadhvis is internally ordered and differentiated with elaborate rules of conduct and relations with the guru are akin to those in the family. The monastic orders are dependent on the lay community for material support, safety and security; notably, even the initiation (diksha) ceremony is a sign of expressing community solidarity. Sethi perceives this mendicant-lay interaction as extremely crucial to sustain female renunciation.

However, in the absence of a discussion on the contours of interaction between the male monastic order and the lay community, one is not clear about the salience of this imbrication for female monasticism, in particular. It is evident that by emphasising the continuities between the householders’ and renouncers’ lives, this work  seeks to complement the larger theoretical debates about  renunciation in general.

The monastic world reinforces worldly norms in the case of gender inequality as well. In several monastic practices, the superiority of monks over nuns is emphasised, most importantly, in the practice of vandana vyavahara (ritual salutation) — sadhvis always venerate sadhus, the latter never extending the greeting to even the most senior of sadhvis.

As the author locates and repeatedly mulls over these discriminatory practices, it is evident that hers is a feminist engagement with religion. By her own admission, she spends maximum time in the field with the sadhvi, Dr Manju sri, known as ‘Krantijyot’ (light of revolution) for her progressive views. She is propelled towards documenting the initiative of Manju sri in mobilising sadhvis to reject the inequitable vandana vyavahara, which in turn underscores her own position in this debate.

Most Jain scriptures and sacred literature, quite like Brahmanical literature, picture women as ‘libidinous’ and fickle creatures. Sethi quotes from Jain texts to show that there is particularly harsh criticism of the female body as the site of infinite violence. Even most didactic literature is virulently misogynist

This attractively produced monograph has an eye-catching dust jacket. This work delineates discourses and practices of Jain asceticism and is a welcome addition to Jain studies, women’s studies and to South Asian studies.

Indeed, the ritual value of sadhvis is considerable. They give sermons, conduct prayers and take general charge of the spiritual needs of the laity
Namrata R Ganneri Mumbai 

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