Article: The 'Three Gems'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Right conduct

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

The final gem is samyak-cāritra. Once the essential truths are recognised and have been intellectually grasped, the time for action comes.

The notion of ‘right conduct’ relates to ethics and practice. It encompasses a large number of categories that define proper behaviour for Jain mendicants and lay people. Given the difference in their ways of life, it is to be expected that the prescriptions vary for these two groups.

Rules for mendicants

The table outlines the types of rules regulating the behaviour of mendicants.

Rules for right conduct for Jain mendicants

Vows – vratas

Precautions – samitis


five ‘great vows’ – mahā-vratas

Relating to precautions when:

  • walking – īryā-samiti
  • speaking – bhāṣā-samiti
  • accepting alms – eṣaṇā-samiti
  • taking and putting down the monastic equipment – ādāna-nikṣepa-samiti
  • excreting – utsarga-samiti

Relating to activity of:

  • mind – mano-gupti
  • speech – vāg-gupti
  • body – kāya-gupti

As well as taking five 'absolute vows', Jain mendicants should follow the precautions and protections. These two sets of rules are meant to reinforce self-control and, therefore, the mendicantlowers the risks of harming living beings. The rules thus contribute to non-violenceahiṃsā – which is the first, most important mahā-vrata. Primarily, respecting these prescriptions helps to prevent the influx of new karmasāsrava-nirodha or saṃvara – in the soul, which greatly aids spiritual progress. Related categories for mendicants are the:

Rules for lay people

The behaviour of lay Jains can also be regulated. Even though a 'perfect lay Jain' follows far fewer rules than a 'perfect ascetic', the lay vows are challenging. The lay vows amount to 12 and comprise the:

  • five 'minor vows' – aṇu-vratas – which are based on the 'great vows' of the mendicants
  • three guṇa-vratas
  • four śikṣā-vratas.

Each of the vows is supplemented by the description of possible transgressions – aticāras.

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