Article: Five 'fundamental vows'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

4. Celibacy

The fourth vow is the brahmacarya-vrata – the vow of celibacy or sexual restraint. Mendicants vow to avoid all forms of sexual activity, including thinking of others in a sexual way. Lay Jains can practise this vow in differing degrees. This ranges from chastity outside marriage to moderate sexual activity, needed to produce children.

Absolute vow of celibacy

This illustration from an Uttarādhyayana-sūtra manuscript shows some of the obstacles to chastity. Generally considered to be the hardest vow a mendicant must take, the vow of celibacy is at risk if a monk is in the company of women

Dangers to the vow of celibacy
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Monks and nuns in the Jain faith take a vow of absolute celibacy. This means not only that they must refrain from all sexual activity and thought, but also avoid situations where they may inadvertently have sexual responses or thoughts. This entails avoiding the opposite sex as much as they can and not touching them except under special circumstances, when there is no option. However, it is often tricky to shun members of the opposite sex.

Monks and nuns live in small single-sex groups but religious practice requires their coming into regular contact with members of the lay community. They also encounter male and female members of their mendicant order and perhaps members of other monastic orders or sects.

Mendicants search for alms usually once or twice a day and monks may thus come into close contact with women. In these situations the monks should keep all interaction to a minimum and should not touch the women when accepting alms from them. The procedures for seeking and accepting alms are closely ritualised, perhaps partly to prevent inappropriate contact between monks and lay women. The same goes for nuns and lay men.

During festivals or the monsoon, when contact between mendicants and lay people is most frequent and prolonged, mendicants must be careful to ensure that they keep all aspects of their vow.

Limited vow of celibacy

Members of an extended Jain family outside a temple at Dīvālī. Festivals are popular times to take vows, which may be temporary or longer-lasting. Common vows include undertaking fasts or other dietary restrictions, remaining chaste or studying scripture.

Family at the temple
Image by pyjama – Ross Thomson © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lay people can also take the fourth vow, which is usually interpreted as sexual restraint or chastity rather than complete celibacy. The vow can be taken to varying degrees.

The most common vow is probably the most basic one, promising to:

  • avoid sexual activity outside marriage
  • engage in moderate levels of sexual activity.

Some lay Jains may decide to stop marital sexual relations during festivals or for other specific periods of time, to improve karma and progress spiritually. This may be a formal, public vow or a private intention.

Less commonly, lay Jains may also decide to take a lifelong vow of celibacy, which may be public or private. Although this is similar to the vow monks and nuns make, the vow of celibacy lay people take does not make them into mendicants. Instead, householders who make this vow are considered to have reached a more advanced stage of renunciation than other lay Jains. A celibate lay man is called a brahmacārī and a celibate lay woman is a brahmacāriṇī. They often wear simple white clothes, similar to those worn by mendicants.

Among Śvetāmbara Jains, such renunciation is part of the sixth or seventh stage of the pratimā, while for Digambaras it is the seventh stage. The pratimā – '11 steps of perfection' – enables lay Jains to move progressively from the householder life to initiation as a mendicant. This eases the passage between lay and mendicant status by enabling householders to live more like monks and nuns, in a staged progress. It involves renouncingeveryday activities and concerns step by step in preparation to renouncing the world.

There is no obligation for lay people to move from one stage to the next in the pratimā, however. Any kind of religious activity should be an individual choice because Jains believe that spiritual progress is the responsibility of each person alone.

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