Article: Scales of Perfection

Contributed by Jérôme Petit

Eleven 'Steps of Perfection'

This manuscript painting shows the 'fourfold community' of Jains listening to a Jina. All four parts of the Jain community are crucial and interdependent. Lay men and lay women are shown on the top rows with monks and a nun below

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Progressing from the lay part of the Jain community to the mendicant element is understood to be very difficult. To help the lay person move from the fifth guṇa-sthāna up to the sixth, the Jain doctrine proposes 11 more steps – the pratimās.

The Sanskrit term pratimā means 'image' or 'statue'. In particular, it refers to the Jinas represented in art in the kāyotsarga posture. This involves standing as immobile as a statue, with arms held loosely alongside the body, which is seen as a model to follow because it is associated with very deep meditation.

The 11 steps are meant to allow lay people who wish to progress spiritually to live increasingly similarly to the mendicant lifestyle. The pratimās involve meditation and gradually renouncing activities and habits to improve self-control and improve detachment.

The table gives details of the 11 pratimās.

'Eleven Steps of Perfection' – pratimās


Sanskrit term

English meaning




step of belief

The lay person simply has a firm faith in the Jain teaching.



step of taking the vows

The believer becomes a full 'member' of the Jain community by taking the fundamental vows of all Jains, namely to:

  • never injure living beings – ahiṃsā
  • always tell the truth – satya
  • never steal – asteya
  • be chaste – brahmacarya
  • not acquire possessions – aparigraha.



step of equanimity

The lay person practises meditation in the posture of kāyotsarga and tries to consider everything with the same eye, giving the same weight to all points of view.



step of fasting during holy days

The devotee fasts on certain days, training to face the difficulties of fasting.



step of renouncing food containing living beings

The lay person pays attention to the habits of daily life by rejecting food containing living beings. Examples include roots and tubers, such as potatoes, onions and aubergines.



step of renouncing sexual enjoyment

The lay person renounces sexual enjoyment during the daytime, which is a first step before complete celibacy. It is sometimes read as rātri-bhukta-tyāga – the ‘renunciation of eating at night’ – which prevents accidentally harming living beings.



step of complete celibacy

The devotee accomplishes total celibacy.



step of renouncing daily activities

This step marks a real transition from the 'householder life' to that of a mendicant, in that the devotee does not take an active role in the normal duties of the household and business.



step of renouncing possessions

This step sees the lay person definitively leave the life of a householder by renouncing all possessions.



step of renouncing permitted activities

The devotee only eats what other people give him and does not cook his own food, which is permitted before this stage. Even advisory roles in standard household and business life are given up.



step of renouncing prescribed food

This point marks the lay person's final stage towards initiation as a mendicant. He or she is now ready to attain the sixth guṇa-sthāna and to take the vows of monk or nun.
The devotee lives with a group of ascetics, adopting the mendicant lifestyle. After this preparatory stage, the novice may progress to full initiation as a mendicant.
The Śvetāmbara tradition names this step the 'becoming monk' – śramaṇa-bhūta.
The Digambara tradition has more parts in this stage, namely the:

  • junior monk – kṣullaka – who wears three pieces of cloth, and the junior nun – kṣullikā
  • monk – ailaka – who wears one piece of cloth.

The Digambara belief that souls cannot be emancipated while embodied within women means that women are technically not permitted to become nuns among the sect. The highest pratimā level a Digambara woman can reach is the 11th stage, according to Wiley (2004). Therefore she remains a lay woman, although she lives as a mendicant and takes the vows of a mendicant, albeit with a slightly modified vow of non-attachment.

History and reception

This 1869 photograph from 'The People of India' shows a Jain merchant in Lahore, now in modern Pakistan. As part of the fourfold community, lay Jains donate money to temples and give alms to mendicants.

Nineteenth-century Jain trader
Image by J. Forbes Watson & J. W. Kaye © Smithsonian Institution

It is quite difficult to trace the history of these two scales of perfection in Jainism. Literary references are sparse until the first list of the guṇa-sthānas appears in the Digambara text called ṢaṭkhaṇḍāgamaTreatise in Six Parts, composed around the third century CE. The Tattvārtha-sūtra, the only scripture accepted as authoritative by both main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara, also mentions the guṇa-sthānas.

The most influential text to discuss the guṇa-sthāna is Nemicandra's two-volume work, the GommaṭasāraEssence of Mahāvīra’s Teachings. Written in the tenth century, it remained persuasive for centuries, especially among Digambaras. Writings on the scales of perfection became more technically involved during the 19th century, which may have helped reduce their readership among lay Jains.

Although nowadays Jains retain the idea of spiritual progression, the formal, highly technical theories of the scales of perfection are far less widespread than in previous centuries. Scholarly interest in the concept also seems to be quite unpopular, with the work of Von Glasenapp in the early 20th century followed some eighty years later by more modern research. Despite this lack of substantial academic investigation, scholars of Jain studies generally recognise the importance of the guṇa-sthānas in the journey towards liberation.

Early references

The Uvāsaga-dasāoTen Lay Men – is the seventh Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon and describes right conduct for lay Jain society. It does not evoke the guṇa-sthānas but mentions the pratimās. This text invites the devotee to reaffirm his faith in the Jain doctrine and encourages him to focus on his inner religious life. Thus the 'Story of Ānanda' shows how a lay man feels ready to progress through the stages of being an upāsaka, becoming the steady 'ideal lay man' who is the central figure of the text.

Then that Āṇanda, the servant of the Samaṇa, engaged in conforming himself to the standards of an uvāsaga. Perfectly, in thought, word and deed, he practised, maintained, satisfied, accomplished, proclaimed and completed the observance of the first standard of an uvāsaga according to the sacred writings, according to the rules prescribed in them, according to the right way, and according to the truth.
Then that Āṇanda, the servant of the Samaṇa, completed the observance of the second standard of an uvāsaga, and likewise that of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh standards.

Verses 70 to 71
translation by Hoernle, page 46, 1885

On the Digambara side, Kundakunda refers to the scales of perfection, mentioning both guṇa-sthānas and pratimās, but he never develops the theory. His own doctrine focuses on the purity of the self and follows an absolute point of view away from a conventional point of view where these scales take place.

The soul possesses neither stages of biological development (jῑva-sthāna) nor states of spiritual development (guṇa-sthāna), all these are modifications of the matter.

Samayasāra 2.17
translation by Zaveri / Kumar 2009

The one author to describe the scales is the philosopher Umāsvāti, whose authority is recognised by both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras. In the ninth chapter of his Tattvārtha-sūtra, he evokes the guṇa-sthānas in their ancient form. Indeed, the scale begins with the fourth stage, at the very moment when the individual becomes a resolved Jain.

The first complete list is given in the ṢaṭkhaṇḍāgamaTreatise in Six Parts. It is a voluminous treatise seen as a pro-canonical text by the Digambaras and the ultimate source of their teachings. Written around the third century CE, it provides a simple list of the 14 stages without any technical information.

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