Shwetambar & Digambar: Jain Sects Difference

Jainism, one of the oldest religions in the world, holds a unique place in Indian spirituality. It is characterized by its emphasis on non-violence (ahimsa), truth (Satya), non-possessiveness (aparigraha), and asceticism. Within Jainism, there are two major sects – Shwetambar and Digambar, each with its own distinct beliefs, practices, and interpretations of Jain philosophy.

In this article, you will learn about the Digambara and Shwetambar sects of Jainism. We will explore their historical origins, and distinctive features, including sub-sects, and introduce you to the significant leaders of these sects. Lastly, we cover the core differences between the Shwetambar and Digambar sects.

Emergence of Jain Sects: Shwetambar and Digambara

Before the split between Digambara and Svetambara sects, there was a unified Jain community under Lord Mahavira’s teachings. He lived in the 6th century BCE, alongside Gautama Buddha, emphasizing non-violence, truth, non-possessiveness, and asceticism.

Jainism gained popularity, drawing diverse followers seeking spiritual enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. As the community grew, interpretations and practices diversified, especially regarding asceticism. These differences eventually led to the division of beliefs and practices.

Approximately 160 years after the passing of Lord Mahavira, the first Jain council convened in Pataliputra (modern-day Bihar) around 300 BC. Presided over by Sthulabhadra, this council brought together learned Jain scholars to deliberate on matters of doctrine and practice.

During this council, profound differences in interpretation and practice emerged among the attendees. These disparities led to a momentous split within the Jain community. The religion, once united, is now divided into two distinct factions:

  • Svetambara
  • Digambara

Leaders of the Digambara & Svetambara Sects

1. Bhadrabahu

Bhadrabahu, the final Acharya (spiritual leader) of the undivided Jain community, emerged as the leader of the Digambara sect. Faced with the dire consequences of the famine, he and his followers embarked on a journey to seek refuge in Shravanabelagola, Karnataka. This relocation was a pivotal step in the establishment of the Digambara tradition, characterized by its ascetic practices and belief in complete nudity as a form of renunciation.

2. Sthulabhadra

Meanwhile, Sthulabhadra, a prominent figure in the council, emerged as the leader and progenitor of the Svetambara sect. He and his followers chose to remain in Magadha, modern-day Bihar. The Svetambara tradition, distinguished by its belief in wearing white robes and possessing certain essentials, took root in this region.

Shwetambar and Sub-Sects

The Svetambara sect, translating to ‘white-clad’ in Sanskrit, believes that salvation does not necessitate complete nudity. Hence, they wear white robes and carry other necessary possessions.

The Svetambara sect is further divided into three main sub-sects:

  1. Murtipujaka: Followers predominantly worship idols of Tirthankaras and other deities. They are known by various names such as Pujera, Deravasi, Chaitvyasi, and Mandira-Margi.
  2. Sthanakvasi: Founded by Viraj in the 18th century, this sub-sect avoids worshiping images or idols. Adherents reside in prayer halls called Sthanakas instead of ornate temples.
  3. Terapanthi: A division within Sthanakavasi, Terapanthi follows thirteen principles. They emphasize simple living and reject the physical and mental worship of images.

Digambara and Sub-Sects

The Digambara sect, meaning ‘sky-clad’ in Sanskrit, practices complete nudity as the highest form of renunciation.

This sect is divided into several sub-sects, each with its own interpretations of Jain teachings:

  1. Bisapantha: The sub-sect relies upon the services of religious authorities known as Bhattarakas. They worship the images or idols of Tirthankaras and other deities.
  2. Terapantha: Similar to Bisapantha, but with minor differences. They worship only the idol of Tirthankaras and not of any other deities.
  3. Taranapantha/Samaiyapantha: Followers of this sub-sect worship the sacred books of Diagambara and not idols. They also don’t offer anything at the time of worship.
  4. Gumanapantha: A minor sub-sect, Gumanapantha was founded by Pandit Gumani Rama. According to Gumanapanaths, the lighting of candles or lamps is strictly prohibited in Jainism temples.
  5. Totapantha: This sub-sect results from differences between Bispantha and Terapantha. The followers of Totapantha follow both doctrines to some extent.

Difference Between Digambara and Shwetambar

The following table shows the difference between the Digambar and Shwetambar sects:

AspectDigambar SectShwetambar Sect
Meaning of Sect NameSky-clad, meaning nudityWhite-clad, referring to white robes worn
Belief on AttireComplete nudity is essential for salvationWhite robes are worn, and nudity is not required
Views on WomenWomen cannot attain salvation due to nudity vowWomen are equally capable of attaining salvation
Worship PracticesWorship books of Digambara, not idolsIdol worship, including Tirthankaras
Leadership FiguresBhadrabahu is a prominent leaderSthulabhadra played a significant role
Ascetic PracticesStrong emphasis on asceticismAscetic practices, but less emphasis on nudity
Famine and MigrationFaced famine, migrated to Shravanabelagola, KarnatakaNo major migration due to famine
Founding PrinciplesFirm belief in complete nudity for spiritual advancementEmphasis on non-violence, truth, non-possessiveness


In conclusion, this article comprehensively covered the Digambara and Shwetambar sects of Jainism. We explored their historical roots, differences, sub-sects, and the pivotal figures who shaped their identities.

his understanding offers valuable insights into the rich diversity within Jain philosophy and the enduring legacy of these sects in the modern world.

Thank You!

Also read: History of Buddhism

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