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.

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.

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.

2. Truth

This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows Digambara monks preaching to lay men. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold up scriptures. The bookstands in front underline their role as religious teachers

Monks preach to lay men
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The satya-vrata or vow of truth is the second vow in the list of five. It directs the vow-taker to always tell the truth, to never lie.

Lying is often done from passion, such as hatred or a wish to avoid embarrassment. Passions are a sign of attachment, which Jains believe should be conquered to advance spiritually towards liberation.

Telling only part of the truth is also considered to be a lie and is thus wrong.

Despite this, lay Jains can knowingly utter a falsehood if this stops a greater wrong. Mendicants must never tell a lie under any circumstances.

Absolute vow of truth

Monks and nuns vow to never say anything that is untrue. In some situations, lying may prevent harm to other living beings, but is not permitted. In this case saying nothing at all is the best action.

Limited vow of truth

Lay Jains are not supposed to tell lies, especially those from which they benefit or which harm others. This includes not telling the whole truth or taking part in dishonest business practices.

However, deliberately saying something false is permitted if this would prevent harm to another living creature.

3. Non-stealing

The third vow – asteya-vrata – means not just never stealing, but never taking what is not directly offered. For mendicants, this refers to alms and monastic equipment. For lay people, this means items obtained through honest business practices and inheritance.

Absolute vow of non-stealing

This manuscript painting of Matisāra's version of the Śālibhadra story shows the two monks Dhanya and Śālibhadra accepting alms from a milk-woman. Their white robes and wooden staffs indicate they belong to the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka sect.

Dhanya and Śālibhadra accept alms
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

According to this vow, Jain mendicants can only take alms that lay people offer to them correctly. They should not:

  • accept things that are not permitted, such as unsuitable clothing or food that is cooked especially for alms-giving
  • indicate that they would prefer something else from what they are offered.

Limited vow of non-stealing

Lay Jains should be honest in all their dealings with other people, which is particularly important in business.

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.

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.

Images

  • Mahāvīra preaching to his universal gathering 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. It is also the name of the special building from which the Jina delivers his sermon, which has been made by the gods. It has doors in the four directions so his message spreads to all corners of the earth. During the universal gathering natural enemies are at peace, demonstrated by the pairs of animals. The universal gathering of the 24th Jina provides a framework for later stories, such as the Jain 'Rāmāyaṇa'.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • 'Five Great Vows' When they become mendicants, monks and nuns swear to follow the 'Five Great Vows' – mahā-vratas – for the rest of their lives: 1. non-violence – ahiṃsā 2. truth – satya 3. non-stealing – acaurya or asteya 4. celibacy – brahmacarya 5. non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.. Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain
  • Behaviour of a 'bad monk' 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 concerns that mendicants strive to reach. The bad monk breaks all the vows he has taken. He lies down at his ease, has pointless discussions and is disrespectful, violent and lustful.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Fourfold community This painting from a manuscript of the Kalpa-sūtra illustrates the idea of 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. Lay men at the top, monks and nuns in the middle and lay women at the bottom all take attitudes of respect and prayer.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Plants and two-sensed beings 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. In traditional Jain cosmology, beings can be classed according to the number of senses they have. Plants are single-sensed beings, while snails have two senses.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Vegetarian dishes A selection of vegetarian dishes. 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 and gains them merit. This food must be prepared and offered correctly, so that a monk or nun seeking alms can accept it.. Image by Ewan Munro © CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Monks preach to lay men This illustration from an 18th-century Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. Though dressed in white, like monks of the Śvetāmbara sect, the mendicants are Digambaras. Sitting on low platforms above their listeners, the monks hold scriptures in their hands. The bookstands before them underline their role as religious teachers. . Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Dhanya and Śālibhadra accept alms This manuscript painting of Matisāra's version of the Śālibhadra story shows the two monks Dhanya and Śālibhadra accepting alms from a milk-woman. Their white robes and wooden staffs indicate they belong to the Śvetāmbara Mūrti-pūjaka sect.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Dangers to the 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. He must avoid contact with and even thoughts of women to become a 'perfect ascetic'.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Family at the temple 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, studying the scriptures or donating money to charity.. Image by pyjama – Ross Thomson © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Digambara monk Digambara monk with the peacock-feather broom – piñchī – he uses to sweep an area free of minute life-forms before sitting. This helps him avoid harming living beings and keep his vow of non-violence. A Digambara muni lives without clothing as part of his vow of non-possession. This practice gives its name – meaning 'wearing the sky' – to the whole sect, even though only full monks are nude.. Image by Arian Zwegers © CC BY 2.0
  • Śvetāmbara monastic equipment 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. They must take care not to develop feelings of attachment or possession towards them, because the principle of non-possession – aparigraha – is vital for Jain mendicants. . Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Further Reading

'Âkârâṅga Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras: Âkârâṅga Sûtra and Kalpa Sûtra
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 22: 2
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1884

Full details

‘Souper de jour: quatrains’
Nalini Balbir
Indologica Taurinensia: Professor Colette Caillat Felicitation Volume
volume 14
International Association of Sanskrit Studies; 1987–88

Full details

‘Lay Atonements: Investigation into the Śvetāmbara Textual Tradition’
Nalini Balbir
Prof. W. B. Bollée Felicitation Volume
edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge; London, UK; forthcoming

Full details

‘The “Sunday’s vow”: A Digambara Narrative of North India and its London Illustrated Manuscript’
Nalini Balbir
Sūrya-prabhā: Studies in Jainology – A Commemoration Volume in Honour of Ācārya 108 Śrī Sūrya Sāgara Jī Mahārāja
edited by Hampa Nagarajaiah, Arvind Kumar Singh and Navneet Kumar Jain
Acharya Shanti Sagar Chhani Smriti Granthamala; Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India; 2010

Full details

Śrī parvakathādi vividha viṣaya saṃgraha
Muni Bhuvanavijaya
Bhinmal, Rajasthan, India; 1980

Full details

‘La Jñānapañcamīkathā de Maheśvarasūri’
Christine Chojnacki
Bulletin d’Études Indiennes
volume 15
Association Française pour les Études Indiennes; 1997

Full details

Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India
John E. Cort
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details

Jain Vrata-tap
Saryu Vinod Doshi
Rajkot, Gujarat, India; 2002

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

'Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras Part II: Uttarâdhyayana Sûtra and Sûtrakritâṅga
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 45
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1895

Full details

‘The role of the layman according to the Jain canon’
K. R. Norman
The Assembly of Listeners: Jains in Society
edited by Michael Carrithers and Caroline Humphrey
Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK; 1991

Full details

‘Daśavaikālikasūtra’
Walther Schubring
Kleine Schriften
edited by Klaus Bruhn
Glasenapp Stiftung series; volume 13
Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH; Wiesbaden, Hesse, Germany; 1977

Full details

Vrata-tithi-nirṇaya
Siṃhanandī
edited by Nemichandra Shastri
Jñānapīṭha-Mūrtidevī-Jaina-Granthamālā series; volume 19
Bhāratīya Jñānpīṭha; Kashi, Uttar Pradesh, India; 1956

Full details

Commentary on Tattvārtha Sūtra of Vācaka Umāsvāti
Pandit Sukhlalji
translated by K. K. Dixit
L. D. series; volume 44
L. D. Institute of Indology; Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India; 1974

Full details

Introduction to Sugandhadaśamī Kathā
A. N. Upadhye
edited by Hiralal Jain
Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha; Delhi, India; 1966

Full details

Jainendra Siddhānta Kośa
Jinendra Varṇi
volume 38
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha Publication; New Delhi, India; 2003

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras
Robert Williams
London Oriental series; volume XIV
Oxford University Press; London, UK; 1963

Full details

Glossary

Ācārya

Preceptor, teacher. A title given to a Jain religious teacher, usually one who is a head monk.

Ahiṃsā

The principle of non-violence that is one of the five chief vows of Jainism.

Alms

Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.

Aṅga

Literally 'limb' in Sanskrit, Aṅga is a term for the first category of 11 texts that form the Śvetāmbara scriptures. There were originally 12 but the last has been lost for centuries.

Aṇu-vrata

The 'Five Lesser Vows' that householder Jains take. These are not as strict as the 'Five Greater Vows' that ascetics observe but are more practical in daily life. Few Jains take these non-compulsory vows these days. The vows are to:

  • do no harm
  • always tell the truth
  • take only what is given
  • be sexually restrained
  • not be attached to material things, which includes emotions and states of mind.

Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit

A dialect of the Prākrit language used for many Śvetāmbara Jain scriptures.

Ascetic

Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.

Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.

Asceticism

The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.

Celibacy

Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.

Chastity

Either avoiding sexual activity outside marriage or being totally celibate. Chaste can also mean a pure state of mind or innocent, modest action. 

Christian

A follower of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ or Anointed One. Among other key principles, Christians believe in a creator God, that Jesus is the Son of God, who suffered and died to redeem the sins of the world and was restored to life after three days in the Resurrection. Also an adjective for concepts, people and objects related to Christianity.

Confession

Acknowledgement or declaration of the truth of a statement. In religious terms, it usually refers to admitting sin or wrongdoing to at least one other person in a ritual. It is normally a necessary step before absolution, which is formal release from guilt or consequences of wrongdoing.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Detachment

Not feeling attached to any things, people or emotions in the world, whether positive or negative. Jains believe that detachment from the world is necessary to progress spiritually towards the ultimate aim of freeing the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Ekendriya

Having only one sense faculty, that is, the tactile or sense of touch. This means elementary living beings, which are described as:

  • earth-bodied
  • water-bodied
  • plant-bodied
  • fire-bodied
  • air-bodied.

Guṇa-vrata

A set of three restraints on Jain householders that is meant to reinforce the practice of the minor vows or aṇu-vrata:

  • dig-vrata - limit travelling from home, because it inevitably involves unknowingly killing living things
  • bhogopabhoga - limit using disposable things or reuse things as much as possible
  • anarthadaṇḍa - limit meaningless activity, including fidgeting.

Indian Independence

With its independence from the British Empire on 15 August 1947, India became a secular, sovereign state. The date of 15 August is a national holiday in the Republic of India.

Initiation

Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

Jinaprabha

(1261–1333) Kharatara-gaccha monk famous for writing Vividha-tīrtha-kalpaGuidebook to Various Pilgrimage Places. He also visited the court of the Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

Jīva

Sanskrit for 'self', 'soul' or 'that which is sentient'. It makes up the universe along with ajīva, or non-sentient material substance. It is a material substance that changes in size according to the body it inhabits in each life. It is born in different bodies in various places in the Jain universe based on karma from earlier lives. The soul is liberated from the cycle of birth when it has achieved spiritual purity and omniscience. Also called ātma or ātman.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

Kamaṇḍalu

The water pot used by Digambara mendicants.

Karma

Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.

Kaṣāya

'Passion' that causes activity, which results in new karma binding to the soul. It must be eliminated by restraints or austerities so the soul can be liberated. Passion may be attraction – rāga – or aversion – dveṣa – and has degrees of intensity. There are traditionally four passions:

  • anger – krodha
  • pride – māna
  • deceit – māyā
  • greed – lobha.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā – 'soul-quest'.

Kevala-jñāna

Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.

Kharatara-gaccha

Subsect of the Śvetāmbaras, chiefly found in Rajasthan and Mumbai and established in the 11th century. 

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

Mahā-vrata

The five vows taken by ascetics. Monks and nuns must follow these ‘absolute’ vows of:

  • non-violence – ahiṃsā
  • truth – satya
  • taking only what is given – asteya
  • celibacy – brahmacarya
  • non-attachment or non-possession – aparigraha.

The 24th Jina Mahāvīra added a fifth vow to his predecessor Pārśva's four, making the vow of celibacy not just implicit but a separate vow.

Mahāvīra

The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.

Mokṣa

The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.

Monastic order

A single-sex group of ascetics that vows to follow rules set out by a founding religious teacher. They formally renounce the world to become monks and nuns. They usually have a hierarchy of leaders at different levels to govern them.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Muhpattī

Modern Indo-aryan language term from the Sanskrit ‘mukhavastrikā'. The small rectangular piece of cloth permanently fixed over the mouth by some mendicant orders. This is to avoid being violent accidentally, either by inhaling tiny creatures or killing them by breathing over them unexpectedly.

This is not the same as the mouth-cover used on some occasions by other mendicants and by laypeople when they perform certain rites.

Muni

Sage. A common term for a Jain monk.

Mūrti-pūjaka

Jains who venerate and worship images of Jinas in temples.

Nigoda

The most basic form of vegetable life in which an infinite number of souls live together in a sub-microscopic body. Born and dying together, they breathe and eat together, and pervade the entire universe.

Nudity

The Digambara mendicants are 'sky-clad' because they believe that all the Jinas and their male ascetic followers went nude as part of their vow of renunciation. This vow entails renouncing all possessions, including clothing. Female Digambara ascetics wear white saris and are thus technically spiritually advanced celibate laywomen. Śvetāmbara mendicants of both sexes, however, wear white clothing. The difference of opinion over whether the vow of non-possession includes clothing was one reason for the Jain community's split into these two major sects early in the Common Era.

Nun

A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Penance

A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.

Pratimā

A series of 12 vows that constitute 11 stages of progressive renunciation for a lay Jain. These vows are:

  • five aṇu-vrata
  • three guṇa-vrata
  • four śikṣā-vrata

Puṇya

Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.

Rainy season

The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.

Renunciation

Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.

Rite

A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.

Sāgāra

Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.

Saṃsāra

Cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth caused by karma binding to the soul as a result of activities. Only by destroying all karma can this perpetual cycle finish in mokṣa – liberation. The karma gained in life affects the next life, and even future lives, for example:

  • in which of the three worlds the life is lived out
  • which of four conditions – gati – the body takes, namely human, divine, hellish or as a plant or animal.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Sin

Breaking a religious or moral principle, especially if this is done deliberately. Sinners commit sins or may sin by not doing something they are supposed to do.

Sthānaka-vāsin

The Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘hall-dwellers’ is used for a Śvetāmbara movement that opposes the worship of images and the building of temples. The term Sthānaka-vāsī, whose origin remains unclear, came into widespread use in the early 20th century. The movement's roots can be traced to the 15th-century reform movement initiated by Loṅkā Śāh, from which the founders of the Sthānaka-vāsī traditions separated in the 17th century. Sthānaka-vāsīns practise mental worship through meditation. The lay members venerate living ascetics, who are recognisable from the mouth-cloth – muhpattī – they wear constantly.

Sthāpanācārya

A small wooden object like a tripod on which a manuscript or book can be placed. It was originally understood as a substitute for the teacher's presence. It has four sticks on to which five cowrie shells wrapped in cloth are placed. The shells symbolise the Five Supreme Beings. Its appearance in art symbolises teaching or a preceptor.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin

A subsect of the Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin, which originated in Rajasthan in the 18th century. The Terāpanthin do not worship images. One of the sect's best-known leaders was Ācārya Tulsī, who created a new category of ascetics in 1980. These samaṇ and samaṇī are allowed to travel using mechanised transport and to use money.

Upāsaka

A Jain lay man, similar to the term śrāvaka. The feminine form is upāsikā.

Vegetarianism

In line with the key principle of ahiṃsā – non-violence – Jains are traditionally vegetarian. They do not eat meat, fish, eggs or anything that contains potential life, such as onions, potatoes and aubergines. They do generally eat dairy products.

Vrata

Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā

Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:

  • aṇu-vratas – 'Five Lesser Vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three supplementary vows
  • śikṣā-vratas – four vows of spiritual discipline

All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders. 

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