The name given to the Jains, the followers of Nigantha Nátaputta. Unlike the Acelakas, they wore one garment, a covering in front. But when praised for their modesty, they answered that their reason for wearing a garment was to prevent dust and dirt from falling into their alms dishes. For even dust and dirt are actual individuals and endowed with the principle of life (DhA.iii.489).
The chief precepts of the Niganthá are included in the cátuyámasamvara - the fourfold restraint (for their beliefs and practices see Nigantha Nátaputta). The chief centres of the Niganthas, in the time of the Buddha, seem to have been Vesáli (e.g., J.iii.1; M.i.228) and Nálandá (M.i.371), though they had settlements in other important towns, such as Rájagaha (e.g., at Kálasilá, on the slopes of Isigili, M.i.92).
The chief patrons of the Buddha's time were:
The books contain several names besides that of Nátaputta of distinguished members of the Nigantha Order - e.g., Dígha-Tapassí, and Saccaka, and also of several women, Saccá, Lolá, Avavádaká and Patácárá (J.iii.1).
The lay followers of the Niganthas wore white garments (M.ii.244).
In the Chalabhijáti classification of Púrana Kassapa, the Ekasátaka-Niganthas occupied the third rank, the red (A.iii.384). The Buddha condemned the Niganthas as unworthy in ten respects:
Their fast resembled a herdsman looking after the kine by day, which were restored to their owners at eventide (Ibid., i.205f). The Niganthas were so called because they claimed to be free from all bonds (amhákam ganthanakileso palibujjhanakileso natthi, kilesaganthirahitá mayan ti evam váditáya laddhanámavasena Nigantho) (E.g., MA.i.423).
The Buddhist books record (M.ii.243f.; D.iii.117, 210) that there was great dissension among the Niganthas after the death of Nátaputta at Pává. The Commentaries state (DA.iii.906; MA.ii.831) that Nátaputta, realizing on his death bed the folly and futility of his teaching, wished his followers to accept the Buddha's teaching In order to bring this about, he taught his doctrine in two different ways to two different pupils, just before his death. To the one he said that his teaching was Nihilism (uccheda), and to the other that it was Eternalism (sassata). As a result, they quarrelled violently among themselves, and the Order broke up.
That the Niganthas lasted till, at least, the time of Nágasena, is admitted (Mil.p.4) by the fact that Milinda, was asked to consult a teacher called Nigantha Nátaputta, who, if at all historical, was probably the direct successor to the teacher of the same name, contemporary with the Buddha.
There is evidence in the Játakas to show that the Nigantha Order was in existence prior to the life of the Buddha. Saccatapáví, mentioned in the Kunála Játaka (J.v.427), is described as a setasamaní, and may well have belonged to the Order of the Svetambaras, while in the Mahábodhi Játaka (J.v.246) mention is made of a teacher who is identified with Nigantha Nátaputta himself.
There seems to have been a settlement of Niganthas in Ceylon from very early times. When Pandukábhaya laid out the city of Anurádhapura, he built also hermitages for several Niganthas - Jotiya, Giri and Kumbhanda (Mhv.x.97f). These continued to be inhabited even after the establishment of Buddhism in the Island, for we hear of them in the reign of Vattagámaní (circa 44 A.C.). When Vattagámaní pulled down the residence of the Nigantha Giri, because of his disloyalty to the king, he built on its site the Abhayagiri vihára. (Ibid., xxxiii.42f.)