Article: Five 'fundamental vows'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Making the vows

At the time of religious initiationdīkṣā – a monk or nun pronounces the vows in front of his or her religious teacher. Among Śvetāmbara monastic orders, he or she recites them as they have been stated in the Daśavaikālika-sūtra. This canonical scripture, in Ardhamāgadhī Prakrit, is the first these mendicants learn by heart as part of their curriculum:

The first great vow, o my Master, (concerns) the abstention from injuring any (living) being. O my master, I renounce all injury against any being, be it subtle or gross, (spontaneously) moving or immovable. I (shall myself) not injure any living being, nor cause it to be injured by others, nor allow others who injure it, to do so. As long as I live, I (shall) not perform an injury against a being in (one of the) three ways, viz. with mind, speech and body, nor (shall) I cause (another person) to perform (it), nor (shall) I allow another person who performs it, to do so. (On the contrary,) I (shall) confess (such an act and) blame (and) censure (myself when I have performed it), and abandon myself (in repentance). O my Master, I have taken the first great vow, (concerning) the abstention from injuring a living being.
Now follows, o my Master, the second great vow, (concerning) the abstention from false speech. O my master, I renounce all false speech, may it arise from anger, greed, fear, or mirth. I (shall myself) not speak falsely, nor cause false speech to be spoken by others, nor allow others who speak it, to do so. As long as I live, I (shall) not speak falsely (etc., as above). O my Master, I have taken the second great vow, (concerning) the abstention from false speech.
Now follows, o my Master, the third great vow, (concerning) the abstention from taking that which is not given. O my Master, I renounce all taking that which is not given, whether in a village or in a town or apart from human dwellings, be the object little or much, small or big, living or lifeless. I (shall) not take (myself) that which is not given, nor cause it to be taken by others, nor allow others who take it, to do so. As long as I live, I (shall) not take that which is not given (etc., as above). O my Master, I have taken the third great vow, (concerning) the abstention from taking that which is not given.
Now follows, o my Master, the fourth great vow, (concerning) the abstention from sexual acts. O my Master, I renounce every sexual act, be it connected with gods, human beings, or animals. I (shall myself) not perform a sexual act, nor cause it to be performed by others, nor allow those who perform it, to do so. As long as I live, I (shall) not perform a sexual act (etc., as above). O my Master, I have taken the fourth great vow, (concerning) the abstention from sexual acts.
Now follows, o my Master, the fifth great vow (concerning) the abstention from property. O my Master, I renounce all property, be it little or much, small or big, living or lifeless. I (shall myself) not acquire property (etc., as above). O my Master, I have taken the fifth great vow, (concerning) the abstention from property.

Daśavaikālika-sūtra, chapter 4
translation by Schubring, 1932: 84–85 = 1977: 202–203.

As in other religious traditions, the phrasing is negative – to abstain from this or that wrong behaviour. But it should not be understood as encouraging inaction. Rather, this is a way of expressing the ideas strongly.

Images of the great vows

This painting from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript illustrates very different monastic behaviour. The monk at the top left demonstrates the ascetic ideal of deep meditation and indifference to physical demands. He displays the detachment from worldly c

Behaviour of a 'bad monk'
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Keeping these 'great vows' is an important element in trying to be the 'perfect ascetic', who follows the rules set out in scriptures and other texts on monastic conduct. By following the rules flawlessly, the mendicant makes good spiritual progress, moving further up the 'scale of perfection' towards final liberation.

Thus the great vows are seen as extremely valuable. This is stated in comparisons and parables.

For instance, in the second Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, they are compared to 'precious things ... worn by men of princely rank' (Sūtrakr̥tānga 1.2.3.3).

A well-known parable is in the sixth Aṅga, the Jñāta-dharmakathānga, where the five great vows are equated with five grains of rice. A man entrusts five rice grains to each of his four daughters-in-law, who act in different ways. The conclusion of the parable explains what happens to monks who behave in the same way as one or the other of the four women. This is given in the table.

Meaning of the parable of the five rice grains

Women and the five rice grains

Behaviour of monks

Ujjhiyā throws them away, treating them as unimportant since there are many more grains in the house granary

The mendicant who abandons the five great vows will be blamed and wander in the cycle of rebirths

Bhogavaiyā eats them

The mendicant who does not keep them will be blamed and wander in the cycle of rebirths

Rakkhiyā keeps them carefully

The mendicant who keeps the vows will be respected

Rohiṇī makes arrangements to have them sown and, when the monsoon comes, they yield a fruitful crop. She does this for five successive years

The mendicant who has cultivated these vows will be respected and will cross the ocean of rebirths, like Rohiṇī

The importance and relevance of the story in practice is supported by literary evidence that it should be told by the presiding ascetic at the monastic initiation ceremonydīkṣā. An example is the 14th-century Vidhi-mārga-prapā, a manual written by Jinaprabha-sūri of the Kharatara-gaccha order (Dundas 2002: 158).

Aṇu-vratas

This painting from a Kalpa-sūtra manuscript illustrates the 'fourfold community' – saṅgha. The followers of the Jinas are made up of lay men, lay women, monks and nuns. All elements of the community are vital

Fourfold community
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Lay Jains cannot reach salvation because they do not perform asceticism to the same degree as monks and nuns. However, they can take the aṇu-vratas – 'lesser vows' – which are adapted to be practised within the life of the householder and are thus less taxing. Even so, they are very difficult and are a key part of the concept of the 'perfect lay Jain'.

The motive behind the aṇu-vratas is to minimise behaviour that may harm:

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

A lay Jain who makes these 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.

The aṇu-vratas make up the first five of the 12 lay vows. The other vows comprising the set often have different names in the two main Jain sects. The Śvetāmbaras have two categories of:

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

Many Digambara sources also use this grouping but others call all of the other seven vows by the term śīlas – 'moral virtues'.

Taking all of these 12 vows is critical to being an ideal lay Jain – upāsaka. Despite this, contemporary Jains only rarely make one or more of these formal vows.

Since vows are so important to Jain practice, at least one major initiative in post-Independence India aims to help lay Jains integrate vows into their lives. In 1949 Ācārya Tulsi of the Terā-panthin set up the Aṇuvrat movement, based on the five lesser vows.

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