While Mahavira is regarded as the most popular proponent of Jainism, it was only in the Digambara tradition that his preachings were implemented. The Svetambara sect relied mostly on teachings of Shri Parshvanatha Swami, the 23rd Tirthankara.

Going by the dictionaries of Jainism, the Sanskrit word ‘Tirthankara’ generally corresponds to a ‘ford maker’. The basic duty of his, after attaining enlightenment and preaching what is regarded to be the highest learning, is extended to helping his people or disciples cross the samsara (transmigration or reincarnation in some form, in some realm of existence) by directing them through a ford passageway, so as to help them attain moksha or freedom from the cycle of deaths and rebirths.
Mahavira, unarguably the most popular proponent of this religion, came to be the 24th in succession to attain enlightenment and popularise the Jaina philosophies. With his demise, Jainism, not unlike Buddhism, did segregate into different sects that began to believe in different principles of keeping up with their once integrated philosophical upbringing.
The two major schools that came to be formed (with much evisceration), were the Digambaras and the Svetambaras.
Digambaras, the school that moved south under the leadership of their exponent Bhadrabahu, did, in no time, oppose what came to be called the Svetambara ideals, formulated by Sthulabhadra (an earlier disciple of the former).
Although various sub sects came to be gradually dismantled from these two schools, the basic differences always stressed on four major points that can be classified as under:
Clothes: The Digambaras restrained themselves from wearing any clothes. They remained uncovered at all times, a crucial representation of this being the Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. The Svetambara monks were called so because they took up the tradition of wearing white simple clothing, hence refraining from following what Bhadrabahu preached. Discipline: Monastic Order forms an integral component of any new formed religion. Although both had their own monastic principles, the Digambaras were way more rigid in following these principles, than their successors.
Preacher: While Mahavira can be considered to be the most popular proponent of Jainism, it was only in the Digambara tradition that his preachings were implemented. The Svetambara sect relied mostly on teachings of Shri Parshvanatha Swami, the 23rd Tirthankara.
Women: One of the most popular and prolonged debates between these two sects have always been with regard to women. Digambaras, the stricter monastic school of philosophy, considered that women could never attain moksha and that Mallinatha, the 19th Tirthankara was a man and not a woman as claimed by various scholarly researches. Svetambaras, on the other hand, were far liberal, when it came to gender equality and they believed that a Tirthankara could be anyone, irrespective of his/ her gender or position in the societal hierarchy. That Mallinatha was a woman and not a man as claimed by Digambaras, was stressed upon by the Svetambaras.
Mallinatha is a Prakrit word that literally translates to the “Lord of Jasmine”. Although scholar Vijay K. Jain, in his work, “Acarya Samantabhadra’s Svayambhustotra” confirms that the Tirthankara lived for ‘56,000 years, out of which 54,800 years less six days, was with omniscience (Kevala Jnana)’, little is known about the early life and ancestry of the Tirthankara.
Digambara traditions regard Mallinatha to be a male royal prince and worship ‘him’, effectuating rituals and rites that confirm ‘him’ to be no different from either Mahavira or the twenty three other Tirthankaras.
As observed however by Anne Vallely in her book entitled, “Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community”, Svetambaras do provide a detailed description of the enlightened preacher’s early life. Mallinatha is believed to have been born into the illustrious Ikshvaku dynasty (ruling Suryavanshis of Ayodhya, to which Lord Rama and other notable kings and saints like Bahubali of Gomateshwara and Rishabanatha belonged) at Mithila, to King Kumbha and Queen Prajavati. They further state that she was, in the royal dynastic fashion, termed Malli Bai and it was only, after her enlightenment, that she came to be called Mallinatha.
Orientalist and Jain scholar Padmanabh Jaini, in the summary to his 1979 work ‘The Jaina Path of Purification’, clearly states that “The religious tradition of the Jainas, unique in many respects, presents a fascinating array of doctrinal and social structures that stem from the anti-vedic movements of ancient times.”
Taking it forward from the book’s summary, one might observe that the later Vedic period has been, at times, criticised for being too much exploitative for women since it was then that the woman member of the household probably lost all importance and rights she held earlier. The anti Vedic resentments could also have been directed to better the position of women to the Early Vedic age hierarchy and it wouldn’t be surprising enough to see a woman monk lead her disciples to the path of purification, as was the case of Mallinatha or Mallibai, in whatever terms she be recognised!
Jaini further states that whatever doubts her identity might be of to the segregated Jain sects, they do have a similar theory which promulgates that she became a siddha, cleansing herself of all karma, and ultimately, attaining moksha or the highest salvation (16th heaven in Jainism).
Temples in Mannargudi, Karkala and Kosbad have been dedicated to Mallinatha Swami alongside some of the other prominent siddhas and Tirthankaras as well. Whatever her gender might be and whatsoever debate there might persist between the Jaina ideals, it is to her, a woman, besides the 23 other enlightened Tirthankaras, that people pray, “I chant, appreciate, and praise Arihant Lords, and the Kevali Lords, who are the destroyers of Karma enemies, conquerors of love and hatred, founders of fourfold Sanghas and who cause luminescence in the entire universe. I bow down to them. I have praised you verbally, bowed down to you physically, and worshipped you mentally; hence do bestow upon me the benefit of true faith and deep meditation, and may you give me the supreme position of Siddha.”

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at [email protected]