Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Not eating at night

A refectory attached to a temple – bhojana-śālā. Temples serve food that meets the key Jain principle of non-violence – ahiṃsā. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, Jains believe that some fruits and vegetables contain souls – jivās – so avoid them.

Temple canteen
Image by Anna Wolf © CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jain authors have always put in the foreground the resolution not to eat at night – rātri-bhojana-vrata. Some authors consider it to have the status of a sixth vow, as is the case with mendicants. Digambara authors, especially, ascribe crucial importance to it, and a vast body of popular literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit and in the vernacular languages has developed around this topic (Balbir 1987–88).

The term 'night' has to be understood in this context as meaning 'after sunset', when light becomes insufficient, until early morning.

Some of the arguments given to justify this prohibition are:

  • the beliefs that the night is a dangerous time when calamities may happen, when ghosts and other beings come out, and when, therefore, no religious act is conducted
  • for medical reasons, according to which 'the proper digestion of food can only take place in sunlight' (Dundas 2002: 159).
  • because food eaten in the dark or dim light could contain small insects, which would make one vomit, fall ill, lose intelligence and so on if swallowed.

However, given the importance of ahiṃsā in the Jain system, the pervading argument is that cooking and eating in the dark causes harm to living things. Cooking in the dark leads tiny living beings to fall in the food without being seen, or be caught in the fire and thus to be killed. In popular literature, people who eat at night may be viewed as equal to beasts.

Absolute observance of this vow means that one neither eats nor drinks. But both treatises and practices vary, and some authors say that drinking water is allowed.

Conforming to this vow is one of the most specific Jain practices, to which contemporary Jains are particularly attached. It explains, for instance, why in collective refectories attached to Jain temples – the bhojana-śālās – where orthodoxy is respected, the evening meal is served before sunset, usually between 5 and 6 pm. This is also the case in many Jain households. Many stories on the subject, contemporary or from medieval times onwards, focus on female characters who make this vow or, on the contrary, who are warned to observe it. Indeed, in practice, women of the house can observe the vow quite easily, as they stay at home and manage the kitchen. Men may find this more difficult because of their professional activities. But men often take this vow deliberately, as a special effort, sometimes for limited periods of time, for example during Paryuṣaṇ. During Paryuṣaṇ, as with other festivals, religiosity tends to increase (for example, see Cort 2001: 129–130).

Possible breaches of lay vows

The description of each of the 12 lay vows is accompanied by a description of the aticāra – failure, deviation or possible transgression that could either abolish or weaken it seriously. They have been formalised in treatises on lay conduct, which are written by mendicants.

In its basic form, each vow has five possible transgressions, but there are many subdivisions which may increase the number of lapses. Details of the breaches listed in the subdivisions vary from one author to another. The five main transgressions summarised in the table are taken chiefly from Williams 1963, with minor adaptations.

Transgressions – aticāras – of lay vows


Lay vows





  1. keeping men or animals in captivity or binding them – bandha
  2. injuring, that is, beating or whipping – vadha
  3. piercing or cutting the body or skin – chavi-ccheda
  4. loading animals with excessive burdens – atibhārāropaṇa
  5. depriving living beings of food or drink – bhakta-pāna-vyavaccheda.

They are rather uniformly described in all sources.


truth – satya

  1. false instruction, that is saying something is true or false to mislead – mithyopadeśa
  2. making false accusations in private – raho’abhyākhyāna
  3. forgery – kūṭa-lekha-kriyā
  4. misappropriating a property pledged to someone else – nyāsāpahāra
  5. telling someone’s secret with bad intentions – sākāra-mantra-bheda.

They vary from one source to the other. This list is from the Tattvārtha-sūtra (7.21; Sukhlalji 1974: 290).


non-stealing – acaurya or asteya

  1. receiving stolen goods – stenāhr̥ta-dāna
  2. employing thieves – taskara-prayoga
  3. going over the borders of a hostile state – viruddha-rājyātikrama
  4. using false weights and measures – kūṭa-tula-kūṭa-māna
  5. trading in counterfeits and fakes, literally replacing an authentic product with an inferior-quality one – tat-pratirūpaka-vyavahāra

Williams 1963: 79–80


chastity – brahmacarya

  1. sexual intercourse with a woman temporarily taken to wife – itvara-parigr̥hītā-gamana
  2. sexual intercourse with a woman not looked after by anybody – aparigr̥hītā-gamana
  3. love-play – ananga-krīḍā
  4. arranging marriages – para-vivāha-karaṇa
  5. excessive liking for the pleasures of the senses – kāma-bhoga-tīvrābhilāṣa

Williams 1963: 85
Sukhlalji 1974: 291–292


non-attachment – aparigraha

exceeding the limits fixed at the time of taking the vow regarding the possession of:

  1. fields and residential quarters – kṣetra-vāstu-pramāṇātikrama
  2. manufactured and raw gold and silver – hiraṇya-suvarṇa-pramāṇātikrama
  3. cattle and grain – dhana-dhānya-pramāṇātikrama
  4. male and female servants – dāsa-dāsī-pramāṇātikrama
  5. household implements and tools – kupya-pramāṇātikrama

Sukhlalji 1974: 292


space limitation – dig-vrata

  1. going beyond the limits in an upward direction – ūrdhva-dik-pramāṇātikrama
  2. going beyond the limits in a downward direction – adho-dik-pramāṇātikrama
  3. going beyond the limits in a horizontal direction – tiryag-dik-pramāṇātikrama
  4. expanding the limits of the area of movement – kṣetra-vr̥ddhi
  5. forgetfulness, that is not recalling a regulation that one has taken – smr̥ty-antardhāna

Williams 1963: 99, with adjustments


consumption limitation – bhogopabhoga-parimāṇa-vrata


  1. sentient foodstuff – sacittāhāra
  2. what is connected with sentient things – sacitta-pratibaddhāhāra
  3. uncooked vegetable products – apakavauṣadhi-bhakṣaṇa
  4. grains of low nutrition – tucchauṣadhi-bhakṣaṇa

Williams 1963: 103


purposeless harmful activity – anartha-daṇḍa-vrata

  1. libidinous speech – kandarpa
  2. buffoonery – kautkucya
  3. excessive talkativeness – maukharya
  4. bringing together harmful implements – saṃyuktādhikaraṇa
  5. too many luxuries – upabhoga-paribhogātireka

Williams 1963: 127


composure – sāmāyika-vrata

  1. misdirection of mind – mano-duṣpraṇidhāna
  2. misdirection of speech – vāg-duṣpraṇidhāna
  3. misdirection of body – kāya-duṣpraṇidhāna
  4. forgetfulness of calmness – smr̥ty-akaraṇa
  5. instability in calmness – anavasthita-karaṇa

Williams 1963: 135


space restriction for a certain time – deśāvakāśika-vrata

  1. having something brought from outside – ānayana-prayoga
  2. sending a servant for something from outside – preṣya-prayoga
  3. communicating by making sounds – śabdānupata
  4. communicating by making signs – rūpānupata
  5. communicating by throwing objects – bahya-pudgala-prakṣepa

Williams 1963: 140–141


fasts on specific days – posadhopavāsa-vrata

  1. excreting without examining and sweeping the spot first – apratyupekṣitāpramārjitotsarga
  2. picking up or laying down an object without examining and sweeping the spot first – apratyupekṣitāpramārjitādāna-nikṣepa
  3. making one’s bed without examining and sweeping the spot first – apratyupekṣitāparamārjita-saṃstāra
  4. lack of zeal in performance – anādara
  5. forgetfulness – smr̥ty-anupasthāna

There are two different schemes for listing the items. The one listed is from the Tattvārtha-sūtra and was taken up by the 12th-century Śvetāmbara religious teacher Hemacandra and by Digambara authors.
Williams 1963: 147


giving alms to mendicants – atithi-saṃvibhāga-vrata or dāna

  1. putting alms on sentient things – sacitta-nikṣepa
  2. covering alms with sentient things – sacitta-pidhāna
  3. transgressing the appointed time – kālātikrama
  4. pretending that the alms belong to others – para-vyapadeśa
  5. jealousy in alms-giving – matsaritā

Williams 1963: 162

Consequences of breaking vows

The central concept in monastic life, confession – ālocanā – should be as straightforward as a child who tells his mother everything, or like the snake going to its hole. It should not be like a turban's twists or the snake's usual sinuous movements.

Nature of confession
Image by Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan © Diwakar Prakashan / Padma Prakashan

What if a Jain has committed any failures of conduct? Vows form such a crucial element of Jain practice that breaking them is a serious matter. Because keeping vows is part of the difficult, lengthy route to final liberation, Jainism sets out procedures to compensate for broken vows. Both lay people and mendicants should confess to and repent of lapses from their vows in ceremonies that are some of the daily obligations of Jain devotees.

For both mendicants and lay people the answer is the performance of confession – ālocanā – followed by repentance – pratikramaṇa. Repentance is the fourth obligatory duty – āvaśyaka – and has 'various types based on the period of time to which the confession refers' (Williams 1963: 203). Five types cover the past:

  • day
  • night
  • fortnight
  • four months
  • year.

Transgressions of vows are one of the main elements of repentance. The sinner utters ritualised formulas in Prakrit in front of a religious teacher or senior mendicant. Pratikramaṇa or the act of penitence is the central obligatory duty and the main daily duty for Jain ascetics.

A Jain can also confess failures in vows, which can be destroyed by completing a specific atonement – prāyaścitta – given by a religious teacher. These consist of fasts of various scopes and durations. The teacher decides the atonement, maybe taking guidance from special treatises on the topic. These treatises have chart-like expositions where a specific transgression relating to one of the 12 vows is connected to a particular atonement. But the teacher’s judgment is the most important criterion because only he can assess the abilities of the culprit and give the proper atonement. The correct penance depends on the sinner's age, health and moral strength in particular.

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