Article: Five 'fundamental vows'

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

5. Non-attachment

Digambara monk with the peacock-feather broom – piñchī – he uses to sweep an area free of minute life-forms before sitting. This helps him keep his vow of non-violence. A Digambara muni lives without clothing as part of his vow of non-possession.

Digambara monk
Image by Arian Zwegers © CC BY 2.0

The final vow is aparigraha-vrata – the vow of non-possession or non-attachment. This vow reflects the importance of detachment in spiritual development. Only by becoming completely detached from worldly affairs can the soul reach the higher stages of the progression to final liberation. Mendicants renounce the world, including emotions, in order to achieve total detachment. The ideal of detachment covers not possessing any physical object but also includes not experiencing feelings – kaṣāyas or passions – about things, situations or other people. It also includes disregard for the body and its physical needs, because it is only a vessel to hold the soul.

Mendicants vow to not have any possessions, although they use certain items to have a correct religious lifestyle, according to the practices of their sect. The concept of non-possession is slightly different for lay people. For both mendicant and lay Jains, however, a psychological feeling of attachment or ownership should be avoided.

Absolute vow of non-attachment

The monastic staff and broom of a Śvetāmbara mendicant lean against shelves in a corner. Monks and nuns in the Śvetāmbara sect use alms bowls, staffs and brooms as their monastic equipment – upakaraṇa

Śvetāmbara monastic equipment
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Jain monks and nuns vow to have no possessions but use mendicant equipment to help them practise a proper religious life.

Members of the Śvetāmbara sect consider necessary mendicant equipment to be special clothing, alms bowls and brooms. Monks and nuns within the Mūrti-pūjaka branch may also use sthāpanācāryas, seats, staffs and mouth-cloths – muṃhpattis – as necessary. Mendicants in the Sthānaka-vāsin and Terāpanthin orders use permanent mouth-cloths but no staffs, seats or bookstands.

Digambara monks – munis – do not use any monastic equipment apart from a water pot – kamaṇḍalu – for toilet purposes and a broom made of peacock feathers – picchikā or piñchī – that the birds have shed naturally. Digambara monks do not carry alms bowls and do not wear clothes of any kind. This practice of rejecting clothing as part of complete detachment has given the sect its name of 'sky clad'. Jains recognise that going naked all the time is difficult because detachment is hard to practise and Digambara monks progress to this in stages, with only full monks – the munis – doing this. Nuns – āryikās – in the Digambara sect are not permitted to go naked so can only advance along the 'scale of perfection' as far as a fairly advanced lay man. Therefore they are technically lay women, who remain at the fifth pratimā stage of partial restraint – deśa-virata.

Monks and nuns do not own any of this mendicant equipment – even clothes they may wear. These items are considered to be religious tools, which lay people present to them as a kind of alms. Lay Jains give monks and nuns everything they need as alms, including medicine and spectacles. The mendicants do not look on these things as their possessions and try to avoid feelings of attachment and ownership towards them.

Unlike Christian mendicants, then, Jain monks and nuns do not take a specific vow of poverty. Their lack of possessions may suggest this, but this condition stems from the vow of non-possession.

Limited vow of non-attachment

As part of ordinary life, lay Jains must buy and own objects, such as housing, furniture, transportation and clothing. Therefore the aparigraha-vrata which lay people take is substantially more limited than that of the mendicants.

The householder vow of non-attachment has two parts. The first is trying not to become attached to any possession, including any feelings of ownership. The second part is a limit on the number of items or amount of things the lay Jain owns. These may include necessities such as land, housing, furniture, clothes and money. The individual householder decides what an appropriate number is. Items that are considered to be not essential to everyday life are also limited in number or may not be bought at all.

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