The Five Vows of Jainism

In the earliest Sanskrit, the term vrata meant not just a “temporary vow,” but a dedication on a permanent basis to a single purpose. The adoption of the five mahavratas or “Great Vows” was the defining set of characteristics of monks and nuns after their ascetic initiation. The vows were to govern their behavior and provide a structure for their spiritual guidance.

The Jain custom was for an ascetic at a ceremony of initiation to read out the scriptural story of Rohini, the girl distinguished from her unwise sisters because she planted and reaped the rewards of five rice grains given to her by her father to demonstrate how the five Great Vows could be put to good use.

The traditional description of the Great Vows can be found in the second book of the Acaranga (or scriptures). Each of the five vows or renunciations is first stated then followed by realizations, which describe the further implications of the vow, ensuring that the vow will be correctly executed.

The Vow of the Noninjury of Life (Ahimsa)

Ahimsa is sometimes interpreted as “nonviolence,” especially by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who credited the Jains with influencing his own practice of nonviolence. But this way of putting the matter is inaccurate, for the term “nonviolence” in ordinary usage involves only human beings. The Sanskrit term ahimsa appeared in the Upanishads in about 500 B.C.E., when many people among the Brahmins, Buddhists, and Jains emphasized reverence for all life, rather than the sacrifice of animals.

When it comes to nonviolence, the Jains taught that it was wrong to kill any life form, and a Jain follower undertakes this vow for the rest of his life. Mahavira taught that it is “sinful” to act badly toward animals. A “wise man” should not act sinfully toward animals, nor even cause or allow others to do so.

The realizations then describes ways in which the ascetic must take care. First, he must observe how and where he walks lest he injure life forms on the way. This is especially relevant during the four-month rain retreat, for it is during the monsoon season that there is a great burgeoning of plant and insect life that might otherwise be injured by wandering ascetics.

The ascetic must also get hold of his own mind and speech, for these may be agents of violence. Further directions concern how an ascetic is to put down his alms bowl and how he must inspect all food and drink to ensure there are no life forms in it.

The noninjury of other life forms is perhaps best known among all Jain traits. Jains are vegetarians and will not own leather goods, since these require the killing of animals. They go to such extremes with vegetarianism that they will not even eat from pans in which meat has been cooked. They follow Mahavira's example of sweeping a path before them to avoid stepping on insects. Jains routinely shun occupations that might bring harm or death to another living thing. For this reason, they even avoid agricultural professions.

The following passage from the Akaranga Sutra, I.1 serves to illustrate the Jain respect for all life.

Earth is afflicted and wretched, it is hard to teach, it has no discrimination. Unenlightened men, who suffer from the effect of past deeds, cause great pain in a world full of pain already, for in earth souls are individually embodied. If, thinking to gain praise, honor, or respect … or to achieve a good rebirth … or to win salvation, or to escape pain, a man sins against earth or causes or permits others to do so, … he will not gain joy or wisdom …. Injury to the earth is like striking, cutting, maiming, or killing a blind man…. Knowing this, man should not sin against earth or cause or permit others to do so. He who understands the nature of sin against earth is called a true sage who understands karma.

The Akaranga Sutra goes on to say there are many living souls in water, plants, and even the wind, and man should not sin against these.

The Vow Not to Speak Untruth

Jains are widely respected for their truthfulness; the second Great Vow says an ascetic must abstain from lying. The realization here is that he must be deliberate in his speech and not given to anger, greed, fear, or mirth.

Philosophically, the Jains are relativists — they allow that there are truths in the doctrines of other philosophies. There is a well-known story of a blind man and an elephant that is said to illustrate this point. In this tale, several blind men are asked to describe an elephant. Each touches a different part of the elephant's body, and thus each describes it in a different way. To one man, the elephant is like a stone wall because he has touched the side. Another thinks the elephant is like a fan since he has touched its wide ear. Each man truthfully described what he felt, but since each had touched a different part, their descriptions varied. Truth here is relative to their perspectives and positions. Human knowledge, then, is likely to be misleading. Speaking what one knows to be false breaks the vow of the Jains.

The Vow Not to Steal

The third of the great vows says that an ascetic should not take what has not been given. Jain monks are forbidden from taking anything that doesn't belong to them. Like their observance of the second vow, this one aids and abets their reputation for honesty.

The Vow to Renounce Sexual Pleasures

This Great Vow states that an ascetic must renounce all sexual activity. Since asceticism has always viewed the pleasures of the flesh as evil, and since sex is one of the greatest pleasures of the flesh, it must be forsaken.

The vow to renounce sexual pleasures denounced any contact, mental or physical, with women or eating or drinking anything likely to stimulate the sexual drive. Mahavira did not only renounce sexual pleasures, he renounced women for good. The renunciation of all external pleasures and things owed to the fact that “Women are the greatest temptation in the world.”

The Vow to Renounce all Attachments

The fifth Great Vow counsels the renunciation of any attachment to objects of the senses. This refers to possessions in general. To all the things that bind human beings to this life, the love for other persons and things are among the strongest bonds. Thus, Mahavira left behind his family and possessions and habitually didn't remain in one place for more than a day, lest he form attachments to people and things.

No Eating After Dark

A sixth vow was later added. The first appearance of this sixth vow describes it as a supplement to the Great Vows. In reality, it is but a subdivision of the first Great Vow of nonviolence. The reason for prohibiting eating at night is that ascetics cannot go out and seek alms at night, since this activity would involve trampling upon small life forms. In addition, cooking of food by the laity would attract insects that would be drawn into the flames. According to popular belief, the proper digestion of food can only take place in sunlight.

The Importance of the Great Vows

Do all Jains renounce all five vows? Here is where the matter becomes philosophically interesting. If an individual becomes a monk, he holds to all five. On the other hand, a Jain layperson integrates this philosophy with marriage, family, and the material well-being that accompanies such a life. But this sort of life will not lead to spiritual release.

The purpose of the Great Vows, and indeed of the other ancillary vows a Jain ascetic undertakes, is to bring about a state of internal purification. The first of the five — the renunciation of violence — is fundamental according to the Jains. For instance, not speaking falsely (the second vow) is important because of the connection between truth and violence. While lying should be avoided, truths that harm others should not be spoken. Also, the third Great Vow of not taking what has not been given concerns the ascetic's honesty in dealing with all people, but also includes not taking the lives of other beings. Likewise, the attachment to possessions and sense objects rejected by the fourth Great Vow stirs the passions in people, one of the primary causes of violence. In addition, sexual activity is prohibited not only because of the distraction and passion it causes, but because innumerable life forms are destroyed in each ejaculation of semen.

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