Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir


In the description of the Ācārānga-sūtra, each great vow is followed by five clauses, called the bhāvanās – ‘realisations’. The statement of each vow is general and brief, with the clauses detailing how the vows are applied in more concrete terms. Considering and observing these additional rules help the mendicant to be sure that the vow is perfectly executed (Dundas 2002: 158). The recurring idea is that the bhāvanās contribute to mendicants staying steadfast in their vows (Tattvārtha-sūtra 7.3).

For instance the bhāvanās of the first vow, non-violence, are to:

  • be careful in one’s movements
  • avoid violent thoughts, such as quarrels, focusing instead on benevolent thoughts
  • 'look for a thing, to receive it and to utilize it' with attentiveness
  • be careful when picking up and laying down monastic equipment
  • inspect food and drink before eating and drinking.

For more details see Pandit Sukhlalji’s translation of the Tattvārtha-sūtra (1974: 254–266; in the JAINpedia e-Library).

The bhāvanās are primarily discussed in the context of mendicants’ vows.

Even so, their nature is such that any and every practiser of vratas can increase or reduce their number as might suit his own level of spiritual development.

Sukhlalji 1974: 257

Lay vows

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

Like the mendicant vows, the 12 lay vows are partly meant to help cultivate mindfulness of one's actions and thoughts. Controlling these is a way of making spiritual progress, as it helps, eventually, to earn merits and destroy the karma weighing down the soul. This is a vital step in moving towards final liberation of the soul, the ultimate goal in Jainism. Both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras recognise the 12 vows, even though details of their contents may vary.

The ideal of the perfect lay man is expressed clearly in the seventh Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Upāsaka-daśāḥ. The stories in ten chapters focus on ten wealthy and powerful householders who are inspired after they have listened to Mahāvīra’s teaching. However, they do not become mendicants, but decide to live as an upāsaka – a follower of ideal Jain lay conduct. They adopt the 12 lay vows, which Mahāvīra describes as the:

  • five 'minor' vows – aṇu-vratas
  • three guṇa-vratas
  • four śikṣā-vratas.

The possible transgressions – aticāras – of each of the lay vows are also described at length. Taking these vows has a definite impact on the way these lay people practise their professions.

The purpose of these stories is to show that living the life of a perfect lay Jain is not inferior to that of a perfect ascetic. In the final stage of their itinerary, these lay men put their sons in charge of household responsibilities. They are thus able to reach a level similar to that of a monk in their mental purity and life of withdrawal. They follow the path of the 11 pratimās, which define the stages of spiritual progress. The men's practice of austerities finally results in their reaching the third type of knowledge – clairvoyance. Human beings can gain this knowledge only after performing special meditation or ascetic practices. The wives of these lay men follow their examples, adopting the same way of life.

Thus the Jains have always been aware of the crucial place of the lay community in the Jain faith. In the course of time a full-fledged literature has developed, centring on all the areas of lay life, depicting in details the vows, their applications and conditions when the possibility of breaking the vows is high. These are the śrāvakācāras – lay conduct – treatises by Śvetāmbara or Digambara mendicants (Williams 1963). In parallel to the prescriptive texts, Jain religious teachers have written a number of stories to illustrate vows in practice and produced a rich répertoire of characters.

Lay people can also practise asceticismtapas – without making formal vows and observe temporary fasts – called vratas in the non-technical sense of the term. This is probably more common nowadays.


Ācārya Tulsi was the head monk of the Śvetāmbara Terāpantha sect for 57 years. He was innovative, establishing the AĀuvrat Movement in 1949 and new types of mendicant in 1980. The samaṇas and samaṇīs can travel outside India, helping the Jain diaspora.

Ācārya Tulsi
Image by Pramodjain3 © CC BY-SA 3.0

This is the first category of the 12 vows that define the lay Jain path to liberation. They are modelled on the five mendicant vows and are identical among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras. Lay Jains take 'lesser' or 'limited' versions of the mendicant vows of:

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

The aṇu-vratas apply the five mendicant vows – mahā-vratas – within the daily life of a householder. They are less rigorous than the mendicant vows but are still challenging.

The aṇu-vratas are intended to reduce behaviour that may injure:

  • other living beings
  • the individual, by hampering spiritual development.

A lay Jain taking the five lesser vows resolves not to:

  • do any forbidden thing with mind, speech and body – kṛta
  • cause harm to other living beings – kārita
  • approve of such actions – anumodana.

These vows are considered key to the concept of the ideal lay Jain.

Even so, it is quite rare for contemporary Jains to take one or more of these formal vows. Nevertheless, there has been at least one important initiative to adjust the system of lay vows to the modern context of post-Independence India. This is the creation of the Aṇuvrat movement by the late Ācārya Tulsi of the Terā-panthin sect.

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