Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Other lay vows

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

The five vows in their 'lesser' version are the basis of lay Jain conduct and are fixed in all sources, from the earliest ones. They have been supplemented by additional vows that encompass all areas of lay life, especially that of people engaged in business. The vow of abstaining from food after sunset is often brought into the system, as it is for mendicants.

There is less unanimity about the way to arrange and name these additional vows than there is for the lesser vows – aṇu-vratas. In Śvetāmbara sources they are grouped into the two categories of:

  • three guṇa-vratas – ‘reinforcing vows’
  • four śikṣā-vratas – ‘vows of training’.

This arrangement is also found in many Digambara sources, but some of them designate all the seven vows as śīlas – 'moral virtues'.

Examining the sources in depth shows that there are variations in the names and sequence of these vows between authors (see table in Williams 1963: 56), even of the same affiliation. Here the standard Śvetāmbara canonical list is given as reference.

Three ‘reinforcing vows’

The guṇa-vratas are 'special cases' of the aṇu-vratas, which supplement them in specific areas of lay life. The guṇa-vratas are long-term restraints to which the lay person may commit himself. The lay Jain decides what the limit should be in these areas either alone or in consultation with a mendicant.

Three guṇa-vratas






Fixing a limit in all directions to circumscribe the area of action, for example limiting travel. The more movements are restricted, the fewer beings are hurt



Fixing a limit to the consumption of food, perfumes and so on and to consumerism. Śvetāmbaras add to this the 'ban on 15 trades', which implies destruction of plants, trading in alcohol and so on (Williams 1963: 117 ff.)



This 'abstaining from harmful activities that serve no useful purpose' (Williams 1963: 123) lists traditionally harmful activities as:

  • evil brooding – apadhyāna
  • purposeless carelessness – pramādācarita
  • facilitation of destruction – hiṃsā-pradāna
  • harmful counsel – pāpodeśa.

Digambaras add the reading of wrong things, which encourage passions and injury – duḥśruti

Four ‘vows of training’

The śikṣā-vratas are not prohibitions but commitments to religious practices to be performed on a daily or regular basis. The spirit of some of the four vows is to bring the lay person closer to living like a mendicant through various renunciations.

Four śikṣā-vratas






Regular performance of the sāmāyika ritual, which involves equanimity of mind and reciting religious formulas, mostly in the presence of a religious teacher. It brings the lay person spiritually close to being a mendicant.



The 'restriction of one’s activities to a certain area for a certain period of time' (Dundas 2002: 190) is undertaken in the same spirit as the first guṇa-vrata. The Digambaras put it in that category.



Undertaking partial or full fasts on a fixed day of the lunar month, especially the 8th, 14th and on full-moon dates. More generally, being engaged in virtuous acts and putting limitations on bodily care, sexual relations and involvement in worldly activities.


atithi-saṃvibhāga-vrata or dāna

Giving alms to worthy recipients, meaning Jain mendicants, in conformity with rules defining what is to be given and how. More broadly, it relates to religious charity.

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