Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Five 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

Jain men and women renounce the householder life when they become mendicants. As part of their initiation, they take the decision to follow the five 'absolute' vows or mahā-vratas for the rest of their lives.

Also called the 'fundamental vows', the mahā-vratas are:

  1. non-violenceahiṃsā
  2. truth – satya
  3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya
  4. celibacybrahmacarya
  5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

These vows are 'absolute' for the mendicant. This is the traditional order of the vows, clearly set out by Māhavīra, the 24th Jina. At the time of initiationdīkṣā – a monk or a nun pronounces the vows in front of his or her religious teacher.

Making these five absolute vows is a key part of becoming a monk or nun. It is rare for a mendicant to return to the life of a lay person, and Jain society does not approve of it.

Mendicants decide to follow these vows in three ways, namely in:

  • mind – manas
  • speech – vāc
  • action – kāya, literally 'body'.

This resolution applies to actions that the mendicants directly perform and also to indirect involvement or implication. As part of this threefold approach, Jain mendicants also resolve not to:

  • cause or encourage anybody else to sin by breaking vows in any of these three ways
  • approve of anybody who would transgress in these ways.

Six vows

In Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures, which can be considered fairly early, the set of the five great vows is supplemented with a sixth. This is not eating at night or, more precisely, after sunset – rātri-bhojana-vrata.

The second Aṅga, the Sūtrakr̥tānga, thus has the phrase ‘the excellent great vows together with (the absention from) eating at night’ ( In the standard passage from the Daśa-vaikālika-sūtra, it has become part of the full set, as 'the sixth vow'.

Now follows, o my Master, the sixth vow, the abstention from eating at night. O my Master, I renounce all eating at night, be (the food) consistent, liquid, (food) spiced or sweetened. I (shall myself) not eat at night nor cause (anything) to be eaten by others at night, nor allow others who eat at night, to do so. As long as I live, I (shall) not eat at night (etc.). O my master, I have taken the sixth vow, (concerning) the abstention from eating at night.

Daśa-vaikālika-sūtra, chapter 4
translation by Schubring, 1932: 85–86 = 1977: 203–204

This prohibition could have had its origin in common sense, as seeking alms in the dark could be simply dangerous for safety reasons.

But Jain discourse underlines that eating at night implies injuring small living beings. Thus this vow appears as a special application of the first great vow – non-violence. The question then arises of its status. Should it be considered as included in the first vow? Or should it be singled out as a separate vow? A convenient summary on this debate is found in Pandit Sukhlalji’s translation of the Tattvārtha-sūtra (1974: 259–260; in the JAINpedia e-Library).

Four vows

A 19th-century figure of the 23rd Jina Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. He is believed to have given Jains four fundamental vows to help them towards liberation, to which his successor Mahāvīra added another. This white marble image of Pārśva shows the Jina si

Figure of Pārśvanātha
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the Śvetāmbara scriptures, the teaching of five or six vows is associated explicitly with Mahāvīra in several places. Earlier, in the time of the Jina's predecessor Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, there were only four vows, which consisted of avoiding:

  • violence
  • lying
  • taking what has not been given
  • possession.

This list is found in the section called 'Four items' of the Sthānānga-sūtra, the third Aṅga. It lacks the vow of celibacy. In Pārśva’s teaching, this is equally important, but is included in that of non-possession and not singled out.

The contrast between the two views is presented in a dialogue between Keśi, disciple of Pārśva, and Gautama, a follower of Mahāvīra, as reported in the Uttarādhyayana-sūtra (chapter 23, verse 23). There this alteration is explained with reference to the different periods of time, and can be interpreted as follows:

In other words, the first and last fordmakers [= Jinas] formulated their teachings in the form of the five Great Vows in which prohibition of sexual relations is prescribed as a result of the inadequacies of their followers, whereas such a ban would have been understood by the followers of the other fordmakers as being incorporated in the prohibition on possession

Dundas, 2002: 31

Dialogues between Mahāvīra and monks who continued to follow Pārśva’s teaching are provided in the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Vyākhyā-prajñapti. These show that when the monks convert to Mahāvīra’s doctrine, they give up the fourfold restraint and take the five great vows.

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