Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

A vow is a solemn promise to do something or behave in a certain way. It is often associated with promising to follow certain strict rules of a religion. The vow – vrata in Sanskrit – is a significant part of the Jain religion. The vows Jains take may be described as vows of restraint, meaning that they vow to stop doing a particular thing. But Jain vows also involve actively doing something specific and positive.

The Jinas taught a twofold path to liberation – one for mendicants and one for lay people – with parallels between them and passages from the second to the first. Both mendicants and lay people can take vows, which are all voluntary. They are performed because they are linked to spiritual progress. Advancing spiritually is incredibly difficult, with most souls trapped in the cycle of birth for many lifetimes because of the karma attached to them. When a soul has no karma, it is liberated from the cycle of rebirth and can go to the siddha-śilā. Freeing the soul to realise its original purity is the ultimate goal of the Jain faith. Taking vows is a form of asceticism – tapas – which is believed to burn karma. Jains understand that keeping vows is demanding, because spiritual development is very hard, and those who make vows are celebrated within the Jain community.

Jains take special vows when they are initiated into the mendicant life, which are called the mahā-vratas or 'great vows'. The vows relate to self-control, which help reduce karma and thus foster spiritual progress. Although monks and nuns may leave the mendicant life, their vows are usually lifelong. There are five mahā-vratas, of which the best-known is probably that relating to non-violenceahiṃsā – which is the fundamental vow. Jains believe that only mendicants can advance all the way to final liberation, in large part because the mendicant vows are all 'absolute', meaning there are no degrees of severity. Lay Jains can develop spiritually only to a certain extent, but can choose to take the aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows'. Modelled on the mendicant vows, the five lay vows are less rigorous, because they are performed in the context of the householder life, but are still demanding.

There is a prohibition often dubbed the 'sixth vow', which forbids eating after dark, chiefly because of the potential for harming tiny living beings. The five vows are listed in the teachings of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, passed down in the scriptures. His addition to the four vows presented by Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina, sets out the requirement to be celibate as a separate vow. In addition, each great vow is accompanied by the bhāvanās – ‘realisations’ – in an important Śvetāmbara scripture. These bhāvanās help monks and nuns apply their vows in the mendicant lifestyle. Keeping the great vows is a key element of being a 'perfect ascetic', which is the ideal of mendicant behaviour and spiritual development.

Equally, following the aṇu-vratas – the lay versions of the 'great vows' – is a fundamental part of being the 'perfect lay Jain'. They form the first five of the 12 lay vows. The other seven vows supplement the lesser vows, helping the lay person live more like a mendicant in terms of renunciation and performance of religious duties.

From the earliest period, Jain teachers have acknowledged that the vows are difficult to keep and will be broken from time to time. Confession – ālocanā – and penance are thus important for both mendicants and laity, with the confession of lapses comprising a large element of the daily ritual of repentance – pratikramaṇa. Jains compensate for their transgressions by performing atonements – prāyaścitta – that their teacher gives them. These are usually fasts that vary according to the sin and the qualities of the sinner.

Both mendicant and lay vows are vows in the specific Jain usage of the Sanskrit term vrata. On the other hand, in daily life and speech 'vrata' also refers to all sorts of fasts connected with a specific date, marked by celebration at the end of the fast. This is a common usage of the term 'vrata', influenced by Hindu practices. In this meaning the word tap – fast – is also used.

Temporary resolutions to undertake a fast, without any reference to a specific date, are called pratyākhyānas and can be seen as a kind of vow as well.

One of the hardest vows is the sallekhanā – fasting to death. Both mendicants and lay people can make this vow, performed only in particular circumstances. The faster is greatly venerated for this vow, which is extremely difficult. This death helps the body to die peacefully and calmly, without passion, thus allowing the soul to move into its next life at a more advanced spiritual level.

Lay and mendicant paths

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

The teachings of the Jinas provide a twofold route to liberation, one for mendicants and one for lay people.

Becoming a mendicant is often a long process, as it is a serious, lifelong commitment requiring leaving behind family, friends and possessions – in short, whatever creates attachment to life in the world. Mendicants are world-renouncers, and the mendicant path is the highest Jain ideal. Jain teachers have always been aware of how difficult this is. The gap between the everyday lives of mendicants and householders is very large. Since mendicants have always made up a small proportion of the Jain community, the 'absolute' nature of the mendicant life has long been recognised as suitable for relatively few Jains. When someone is initiated it is celebrated by lay Jains and mendicants, both because it is rare and in acknowledgement of the emotional, mental and physical difficulties of Jain monasticism.

If a lay Jain cannot embrace mendicant life, he or she can do his best to live as an ideal lay person engaged in worldly life as a householder, becoming a true upāsaka or śrāvaka. This path can be followed throughout life or as a preliminary to the mendicant life. Due to the features of their lifestyles, lay people and mendicants necessarily follow different rules. But a lay person can progress in the levels of restraints and thus in spiritual life and finally take initiation as a mendicant – dīkṣā. This is encapsulated in the '11 steps of perfectionpratimā. The first step is to have right faith, which means:

  • accepting the Jinas as the highest authority
  • recognising the authority of Jain scriptures
  • having faith in the seven or nine truths – tattvas.

The second step is to make the 12 lay vows. Successive restraints lead to the 10th and 11th step, when the boundary between lay and mendicant life thins away.

However, there is no obligation to move from one stage of the pratimā to the next, and lay Jains who choose to remain householders are considered to be spiritually 'advanced' lay people if they follow the 12 vows. They lead ascetic lives within the lay sphere and take part in worldly affairs to differing degrees, depending on the pratimā stage they have reached. Other lay Jains continue to advance along the pratimā steps until they are ready to perform the formal ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – which marks the change to becoming a monk or nun.

Types of vows

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. The monks are of the Digambara sect even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Each monk sits on a dais and holds a scripture in a scroll. The books

Preaching monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Vows – vratas – are the central element of Jain religious practice. Declaring a solemn promise, often in public, and then sticking to it is considered a good way to develop spiritually. The ascetic nature of vows of restraint is considered highly effective in destroying karma.

In the Jain technical usage of the term, vrata – a vow – is clearly defined in the Tattvārtha-sūtra, a scripture recognised as authoritative by both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras:

To refrain – through manas [mind], speech and body – from violence, untruth, theft, sexual intercouse, and attachment-for-possession – that is called vrata

Tattvārtha-sūtra 7.1
English translation by Dixit of Pandit Sukhlalji's translation, 1974: 251

Vows are of two types, depending on whether they apply to the mendicant or to the lay path:

  • absolute or total – mendicants
  • limited or partial – lay Jains.

Monks and nuns take five 'great' or 'absolute' vows – mahā-vratas – on their initiation. These vows are considered 'absolute' because they are all or nothing – there is no grey area in between. Being able to stick to these vows throughout a lifetime is an important element of the mendicant lifestyle. Monks and nuns live according to strict rules, which are in large part designed to support these vows.

For the lay part of the Jain community the path to liberation is encapsulated in a set of 12 vows, known as the:

  • aṇu-vratas – five 'lesser vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three ‘reinforcing vows’
  • śikṣā-vratas – four ‘vows of training’.

The first category comprises versions of the mendicants' five vows but is less restrictive than the mahā-vratas, hence the name. These vows are often described as 'limited' or 'lesser' because they:

  • take account of the responsibilities of a householder
  • are often limited in time
  • are often limited in scope.

The two other categories are meant to cover restraints in all possible areas of lay life and contribute to strengthening the five main lay vows.

Taking mendicant or lay vows relies on the individual having correct faith and correct knowledge – samyag-darśana and samyag-jñāna. These are the first two of the three gems. Observing the vows illustrates the third gem, which is correct conduct – samyag-cāritra. It can be done only if the fundamental Jain principles have been recognised as true and understood properly in their complexity.

Mendicant vows

Digambara monks live naked and without possessions as part of their renunciation of the 'householder' life. After they take religious vows to become wandering ascetics, Digambara monks use only a water gourd and a peacock-feather broom to sweep insects

Digambara monk sitting cross-legged
Image by Jainworld ©

The five great vows of Jain mendicants – mahā-vratas – are the keystone of their monastic status and aid them on the path to liberation. Jains believe that the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, handed down the vows as a vital part of his teachings. Thus they can be found in the earliest holy texts of the Jain faith.

In some Śvetāmbara scriptures, the mahā-vratas are followed by a sixth vow, which prohibits eating after sunset – rātri-bhojana-vrata. Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to the four set out by his predecessor, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, making it clear that celibacy or chastity should be a separate vow from that time on. This takes account of the worse spiritual conditions of this era in time. The Śvetāmbara scripture Ācārānga-sūtra supplements the five vows with five bhāvanās – ‘realisations’ – which help with the practical side of living with the great vows. The key text for all Jain sects, the Tattvārtha-sūtra discusses these bhāvanās in some detail.

The central importance of the great vows to spiritual development is emphasised in Jain writings. Only those who have taken the great vows – namely, mendicants – can make enough spiritual progress to gain, in due course, final liberation. The rules that are set out by the 24th Jina are very precious to those who truly wish to be emancipated from the cycle of rebirth.

Once they are mendicants, individuals may also perform extra vows in addition to their normal monastic practices. For example they may vow to fast every other day or to accept alms only from donors who fulfil certain criteria. The most famous instance is the 24th Jina Mahāvīra, who vowed not to speak or accept alms from anyone except a weeping princess offering black beans in a certain time and place. Only Candanā fulfilled these conditions, in an exemplary tale well known among Jains.

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