It is generally believed that the Jain sangha divided into two major sects, Digambar and Svetambar, about 200 years after Mahāvīra's nirvana. Some historians believe there was no clear division until the 5th century. The best available information indicates that the chief Jain monk, Acharya Bhadrabahu, foresaw famine and led about 12,000 Digambar followers to southern India. Twelve years later, they returned to find the Shvetambar sect and in 453, the Valabhi council edited and compiled traditional Shvetambar scriptures. Differences between the two sects are minor and relatively obscure.
Diagramatic representation of Schisms within Jainism along with the timelines.
In Sanskrit, ambar refers to a covering like a garment. 'Dig', an older form of 'disha', refers to the cardinal directions. Digambar therefore means those whose garment is only the four directions, or "sky-clad". 'Svet' means white and Svetambars are those who wear white coverings.
Digambar Jain monks do not wear clothes because they believe clothes are like other possessions, increasing dependency and desire for material things, and desire for anything ultimately leads to sorrow.
Svetambar Jain monks wear white seamless clothes for practical reasons and believe there is nothing in Jain scripture that condemns wearing clothes. Sadhvis (nuns) of both sects wear white. These differing views arise from different interpretations of the same holy books. There are minor differences in the enumeration and validity of each sect's literature.
Digambars believe that women cannot attain moksha in the same birth, while Svetambars believe that women may attain liberation and that Mallinath, a Tirthankar, was female. The difference centres on the fact that Digambar ascetism requires nudity. As nudity is not "feasible" for women, it follows that without it they cannot attain moksha.
Digambars believe that Mahavir was not married, whereas Shvetambars believe the princely Mahavir was married and had a daughter.
They also differ on the origin of Mata Trishala, Mahavira's mother.
In the first Jain prayer, the Namokara Mantra. Sthanakavasis and Digambars believe that only the first five lines are formally part of the Namokara Mantra, whereas Svetambaras believe all nine form the mantra. Other differences are minor and not based on major points of doctrine.
Excavations at Mathura revealed many Jain statues from the Kushana period. Tirthankaras, represented without clothes and monks, with cloth wrapped around the left arm, are identified as 'ardhaphalaka' and mentioned in some texts. The Yapaniya sect, believed to have originated from the Ardhaphalaka, follows Digambara nudity, along with several Shvetambara beliefs.
Svetambaras are further divided into sub-sects, such as Sthanakavasi, Terapanthi and Deravasi. Some are murtipujak ( revering statues) while non-murtipujak Jains refuse statues or images. Most simply call themselves Jains and follow general traditions rather than specific sectarian practices. In 1974, a committee with representatives from every sect compiled a new text called the Samana Suttam.