Article: Vows

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Vows and fasts

A white-clad faster is ceremonially fed to break his fast. Fasting is a key part of Jain practice and is frequently undertaken during festivals or to fulfil a vow. Fasters gain great religious merit – puṇya – as do the relatives who help break their fasts

Breaking a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Apart from the vows that set the frame of conduct and religious practice, there are also temporary vows of two kinds. The first kind can be taken at any time and is known as a pratyākhyāna. Those connected with specific dates are called vratas.

Reflecting the centrality of food practices to the Jain religion, many of them are related to food or, more accurately, fasting. They are thus a type of tapasasceticism, which burns the karma trapping the soul in the cycle of birth and are commonly known as tap – fast'. Believed to eliminate karma, ascetic practices are crucial to Jainism, with samyak-tapas – ‘correct asceticism’ – sometimes thought of as a fourth gem, an addition to the three jewels of Jain doctrine. Fasting is the most common external austerity for contemporary lay Jains.

Both mendicants and lay Jains perform pratyākhyāna. One of the six daily duties – āvaśyaka – of mendicants, it is recommended for householders and is usually performed during a religious ritual. Pratyākhyāna is a specific resolution relating to a certain period of time. This resolution is a formal statement conveying the intention, which is done publicly and is binding (see Kelting 2006). It commonly involves dietary restrictions. Examples include giving up dairy products for a month or fasting on certain days of a festival. This takes the form of a ritualised commitment, sometimes in front of a religious teacher. A Jain solemnly declares, for instance, that he will abstain from any food thus:

When the sun is risen I renounce for as long as the namaskāra lasts the fourfold aliments and except for cases of unawareness or of force majeure abandon them

translation by Williams 1963: 209

Pratyākhyāna is often described as being of two types, which relate either to:

  • mūla-guṇas – the five minor vows of the lay Jains
  • uttara-guṇas – the two other categories of lay vows.

Among the most popular ones are those known as āyambil fasts which imply the consumption of tasteless food only. Āyambil fasts can be taken by mendicants and lay Jains alike.

The term vrata – vow – is also used in common parlance in a non-Jain technical meaning as referring to fasts connected with specific dates in the Jain calendar. Thus the statement 'Jains do not use the Hindu term vrat for fasts; this term is ideologically marked and so restricted to its more technical sense of the five mendicant mahāvrats and the twelve lay vrats' (Cort 2001: 134) has to be qualified. This usage might denote a Hindu influence, as, indeed, some of these dates do correspond to Hindu festival days, but it does exist. There is an almost unlimited number of such vows, especially, but not exclusively, among Digambaras (Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa, volume 3: 626).

Lay Jains normally make such vratas. The vows imply the decision to keep a form of fast or dietary restriction, taken on a given date and ending on a given date.

Instances of some well-known vratas are given in the table.

Examples of lay vratas

Name

Details

Source

Rohiṇī-vrata

A complete fast every year on the day of the constellation Rohiṇī, during which one should worship in particular the 12th Jina, Vāsupūjya, and recite the corresponding mantra three times

Varṇī, Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa volume 3: 407

Jñāna-pañcamī-vrata

Connected with the festival of knowledge among Śvetāmbaras

Chojnacki 1997 and 2000

Āditya-vāra-vrata or Ravivāra-vrata

Connected with Sundays among Digambaras. An illustrated manuscript of a Hindi version from the 18th century is digitised on Jainpedia

Balbir 2010

Sugandha-daśamī-vrata

Also a Digambara fast, taken on the tenth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Bhādrapada, roughly August to September

Upadhye 1966

There are many more lay vratas. See Siṃhanandī 1956 for Digambara examples and Bhuvanavijaya 1980 for instances among the Śvetāmbaras.

These practices are the starting point of a vast body of story literature, called the ‘vow-stories’ – vrata-kathās – written in Sanskrit, Prakrit and the vernaculars. Passed on through the centuries, they have been transmitted through manuscripts, sometimes illustrated ones. There is evidence that these manuscripts were used in performance, when a monk recounts the tales and shows the manuscript paintings to his audience.

Fasting unto death

This manuscript painting shows two monks fasting to death – sallekhanā – under the supervision of a monastic teacher. The teacher or mentor is present throughout the ritual, overseeing the stages of penance and renunciation that end in the 'sage's death'.

Fasting unto death
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Both mendicants and lay people may decide to perform sallekhanā – fasting to death. It is also called saṃthāra – literally, 'deathbed' – by Śvetāmbara Jains. This rare practice is greatly honoured in Jain literature and admired among the Jain community since the faster demonstrates strong control of the passions and deep mindfulness. Mendicants are more likely than lay Jains to make this vow. Those who fast to death are highly revered because it requires great religious devotion and immense strength of mind.

In Jainism the state of mind at death is very important because it influences the soul's condition in future lives. Ideally, a Jain should die in a calm state of mind, without fear or distress. Fasting unto death is believed to allow the individual to die peacefully, reducing passions and destroying karma. Jains continuously underline that this act has nothing to do with suicide. The fundamental difference is that someone commits suicide in the grips of despair, itself caused by various passions. It is considered a sin because it is the result of passions. In contrast, fasting to death should be a decision made in full conscience with the support of the individual’s religious teacher or with the guidance of a senior mendicant, who helps with the spiritual focus of the faster.

Fasting unto death – sallekhanā – is seen as closely connected with the great vows of the mendicant and with the minor vows of the lay person.

Literature

The ritual of fasting to death features in Jain literature as the culmination of an exemplary life as either the 'perfect ascetic' or the 'ideal lay Jain'.

The paradigmatic story is that of Mahāvīra’s pupil Skandaka, narrated in the fifth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, the Vyākhyā-prajñapti. Chapter 2.1 shows how fasting unto death is ritualised and the culmination of spiritual progress. Before undertaking the ritual, the monk takes the great vows for a second time. Only then does he recite the formulas associated with sallekhanā, installed on a proper spot.

The seventh Aṅga, the Upāsaka-daśāḥ, describes householders who become perfect lay men after taking the 12 vows. They complete their austerities by fasting unto death. After the list of 12 lay vows, the Tattvārtha-sūtra (7.17) adds: 'And he also undertakes a performance of saṃlekhanā-unto death' (Sukhlalji’s translation 1974: 280). The special treatises on lay conduct often call sallekhanā a vrata – ‘vow’ – and treat it as a supplement to the set of 12. On the other hand, a few Digambara authors have included it among the 12, as the last of the ‘vows of training’ – śikṣā-vratas (Williams 1963: 166).

There is scanty evidence in medieval texts showing that fasting unto death can be a proper way to end one’s life in certain situations. These cases are when terminal illness or severe disability prevent the mendicant or lay person from performing the vows or other obligations properly.

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