Article: Jain beliefs

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly


Related to the goal of detachment, this concept means giving up things in order to progress spiritually. Renunciation is an important element in Jainism because it is an ascetic practice and asceticism is believed to destroy karma.

Jains renounce the world if they become mendicants, taking the five absolute vows. These vows can be described as the solemn rejection of certain behaviours and mental attitudes that generate karma.

Jains who do not become monks or nuns can also practise renunciation. They can do this by making formal vows, which can be temporary, or by just deciding privately to give something up.


Dressed in white, these nuns live by the strict rules of Jain mendicancy. The mahā-vratas – 'five great vows' – means giving up all attachments to family and secular life, and engaging in the 'wandering life'. Mendicant life aids spiritual progress.

Nuns walk down the street
Image by Eric Parker © CC BY-NC 2.0

Making vows – vratas in Sanskrit – is a significant part of Jain religious practice because they are a type of asceticismtapas – which is believed to burn karma.

There are different types of vows, but the most difficult are those associated with becoming a monk or nun. Initiation requires making the mahā-vratas or 'great vows', which are lifelong and arduous to keep.

Lay Jains can also move towards liberation by taking the aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows'. These are limited versions of the mendicant vows because they are intended for life within the lay community. They are complemented by seven other vows. Keeping all these vows helps lay people live similarly to the mendicant life, in which renunciation and religious duties are central elements. The 'perfect lay Jain' makes all these 12 vows but taking such vows is rare among contemporary Jains.

Vows are hard to keep perfectly and the scriptures provide guidance for situations in which vows have been broken, on purpose or by accident. Confession – ālocanā – and penance make up part of the daily ritual of repentance – pratikramaṇa. Religious teachers set atonements – prāyaścittas – for breaches of vows and rules, which are normally fasts.

A well-known vow of the Jain faith is that of fasting to deathsallekhanā. Both lay and mendicant Jains can make this vow, which is rare and extremely difficult. Dying calmly under the guidance of a teacher can help the soul move to a higher spiritual stage in the next birth.

Five 'fundamental vows'

When Jains become mendicants, they swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

'Five Great Vows'
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

Both mendicant and lay Jains can take formal vows, but these differ in degree.

To become a monk or nun a Jain must take the mahā-vratas or 'great vows', which mark the passage into mendicant status. These 'absolute' vows direct all aspects of a mendicant's attitudes and behaviour, and are expected to be lifelong. The rules of the mendicant life support fulfilment of the vows, and mendicants frequently take additional vows. Keeping the five great vows and following all the rules that spring from the underlying principles are central to being an 'ideal ascetic', who reaches liberation.

Lay Jains can choose to take the aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows'. The five aṇu-vratas are less rigorous than the mendicant versions because they are designed to be followed within the householder life, which involves duties to the family and wider Jain community.

Stressing the key principles of Jainism, these five vows are part of the concepts of the ideal mendicant and the perfect lay Jain. The vows require Jains to be highly self-controlled and maintain awareness of the implications of all aspects of their behaviour and thought.

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