Article: Five 'fundamental vows'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

1. Non-violence

The ahiṃsā-vrata or vow of non-violence supports the most important principle of the Jain faith.

The first of the vows taken by those who become monks and nuns, it underlies the other mendicant vows and the detailed rules that govern the mendicant life. Lay Jains also take this vow as the first of their five aṇu-vratas, but the lay version takes account of the harm inevitably caused by everyday living.

The principle of ahiṃsā is normally translated into English as 'non-violence', but this can be understood as 'doing no deliberate violence'. A more accurate translation of the Jain concept might be:

  • 'doing no harm, whether deliberate or accidental'
  • trying to actively achieve whatever is required to protect living beings by restraining oneself.

Absolute vow of non-violence

This painting from a manuscript depicts examples of plants and two-sensed beings. Throughout the cycle of birth, a soul takes birth in different types of body according to the karma that has stuck to it. Beings can be classed according to their senses.

Plants and two-sensed beings
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The first vow that monks and nuns take on their initiation is the vow of non-violence. This vow expresses one of the main tenets of Jainism and is one of the key principles behind the four other vows new mendicants make.

The fundamental desire to minimise harm to all forms of life can be detected in many of the rules restraining the behaviour of mendicants. These rules relate to avoiding carelessness, which may cause unforeseen injury to living beings. The sub-microscopic nigodas and the tiny one-sensed life-forms – ekendriya – are particularly liable to be harmed by accident because they cannot be seen with the naked eye and live throughout the universe. For example, to minimise the harm done to water-bodied beings mendicants do not use water unnecessarily and drink only water that has been properly boiled.

Probably the most widely known example of the way that following this vow shapes the lives of mendicants is the ritual of seeking alms. Because obtaining and cooking food involves some degree of violence, monks and nuns do not prepare their own food. Instead they rely on lay people to provide food in the form of alms. The most visible instance of avoiding harm among some sects of the Śvetāmbara tradition is the white mouth-cloth worn by members of the Terāpantha and the Sthānaka-vāsins.

Limited vow of non-violence

Food is central to Jain belief, with Jains eating vegetarian food to uphold the core value of non-violence. Many contemporary Jains are vegan. Giving food to mendicants, who may not cook their own food, is a duty for lay people.

Vegetarian dishes
Image by Ewan Munro © CC BY-SA 2.0

Jains accept that avoiding accidental harm to all living beings is impossible for lay Jains. The activities of everyday life, such as working, cooking, eating, walking, washing, using tools and so on all involve violence, in that they harm one-sensed beings and nigodas. Lay Jains try to avoid causing more harm than they have to in the course of their ordinary lives but in some cases deliberate violence is allowed.

Householders generally try to minimise direct and indirect involvement in violence by eating a vegetarian diet and avoiding jobs and activities that involve great harm, such as mining. In Jain houses a cotton cloth is often tied to water-taps and used as a filter, to avoid accidentally drinking the single-sensed living beings in water. Providing food and other alms to mendicants entails a degree of violence on the part of lay people, but they gain meritpuṇya – from completing this religious duty. Thus they have an incentive to offer alms to mendicants, even though this duty involves violence in Jain eyes.

There are different levels of non-violence. Lay people are permitted to commit accidental – or even deliberate – violence if greater harm will come from not doing so. An example would be protecting vulnerable people from other people's physical violence. Although this breaches the principle of non-violence, it is accepted that it is the lesser of two evils in certain situations.

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