Article: Five 'fundamental vows'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

There are five vows that put key Jain beliefs into practice, which are therefore often called 'fundamental' vows. All Jain sects recognise that these vows summarise the teachings of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina and thus the five 'fundamental' vows have formed part of the practice of Jainism from the earliest times.

Sources indicate that it has always been accepted that the 'absolute' vows are too demanding for most people. Thus there are two versions of the vows, for mendicants and lay people, which are more or less rigorous.

The mendicant vows are called the five mahā-vratas or 'great vows'. They are a central element in the initiation of new monks and nuns, who mark their passage into mendicancy by making these vows. Carefully observing these lifelong 'absolute' vows is a vital element in being a 'perfect ascetic'.

Lay Jains may take 'limited' versions of the fundamental vows. The aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows' – can be observed within secular life, allowing devotees to both meet their family responsiblities and practise Jain beliefs. Keeping the lesser vows is the foundation for becoming a 'perfect lay Jain', which is just as important within Jainism as the ideal ascetic. Even so, it is very unusual for contemporary Jains to take the aṇu-vratas. The establishment of the Anuvrat movement in 1949 is the best example of mendicant orders trying to reconcile tradition with contemporary life.

Vows or vratas are very important elements of Jainism, for both mendicant and lay Jains. These vows may be 'vows of restraint', meaning that the Jain makes a solemn resolution to not do something, or may involve doing something in particular.

Jains take vows in order to make spiritual progress. The eventual goal of Jainism is the soul's liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Most souls remain trapped in the cycle of birth for numerous lifetimes because of the karma bound to them. A soul that is perfect – without any karma – is liberated and can ascend to the top of the universe. Keeping vows eliminates karma because it is a kind of asceticism – tapas. The five fundamental vows are the hardest to live by, especially the absolute mendicant vows. The path to spiritual emancipation is accepted as being very arduous, so Jains admire and honour those who make vows, particularly those who become monks and nuns.

'Fundamental vows'

This manuscript painting shows Mahāvīra and the 'universal gathering' – samavasaraṇa. This Sanskrit term describes the assembly of human beings, animals and gods to whom the omniscient Jina preaches and the building designed to spread his words worldwide

Mahāvīra preaching to his universal gathering
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The five principal vows of the Jain faith 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. Lay people may treat these as 'absolute' for particular periods of time or for a certain purpose.

The vows are linked to self-control, which is vital for the total detachment from the world that is required to destroy karma. Jains believe that only by annihilating karma can a soul develop spiritually enough to reach liberation from the cycle of birth.

Both Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras recognise this set of five prescriptions as forming the heart of Mahāvīra’s teachings. In one of the earliest Śvetāmbara sources, the Ācārānga-sūtra, they follow the narration of Mahāvīra’s career and are presented as an outcome of his attainment of omniscient knowledge:

Then when the Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra had reached the highest knowledge and intuition, he reflected on himself and the world: first he taught the law to the gods, afterwards to men. The Venerable Ascetic Mahāvīra endowed with the highest knowledge and intuition taught the five great vows, with their clauses [and] the six classes of lives.

Ācārānga-sūtra II.15
translation by Jacobi, 1884: 202.

Two versions

These are two versions of these fundamental vows, both of which are voluntary and lifelong. Jain monks and nuns make the 'absolute' vows while lay people may decide to take the 'limited' or 'lesser' set of vows.

Mahā-vratas

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

As part of their initiation into the mendicant life, monks and nuns take the five mahā-vratas or 'great vows'. The vows are observed mentally and physically. Mendicants must also not get involved directly or indirectly in other people's breaches of the vows.

The mendicant vows are 'absolute' because they do not admit any softening or dilution. Monks and nuns must keep these vows absolutely or they fail in them.

Jain ascetics observe these vows in three ways, namely in:

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

These aspects of the vows apply to both the mendicants' own behaviour and any indirect involvement or implication in others' actions. Therefore 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.
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