Jainism Beliefs: The Five Great Vows and the Twelve Vows of Laity

Jain Pilgrim at a temple.
This Jain is wearing a covering over her mouth, done intentionally to avoid accidentally consuming a flying insect.

Tim Graham / Getty Images

At its core, Jainism is the belief in nonviolence as a means to achieve kevala, a blissful or elevated existence, comparable to Buddhist nirvana or Hindi moksha. Once kevala is achieved, the spirit leaves the bonds of the physical body. In order to achieve kevala, one must follow the path of the Ratnatraya, or the Three Jewels, of Jainism.

The final of these jewels, Right Conduct, is outlined by vows taken by Jains, governing the way Jains pass through daily life.

Key Takeaways:

  • Jainism beliefs focus on nonviolence through certain vows.
  • Jain monks and nuns take Mahavrata, the Five Great Vows, while nonmonastic Jains take the Twelve Vows of Laity.
  • The Twelve Vows of Laity are separated into three categories: Anuvrata, Gunavrata, and Shikshavrata

Who Takes Which Vows?

Mahavira did not create Jainism, but rather organized and established a system for Jainism beliefs. As a part of this system, he organized his followers into two categories: yatis and sravaka.

Yatis are members of the monastic order of Jains. They are comprised of sadhus (monks) and sadhvis (nuns) who follow a strict path toward kevala. Yatis take the Five Great Vows, and in doing so, give up family life, worldly possessions, and all attachments to earthly existence.

Sravaka, also known as laypeople, householders shravaks (men), or shravikas (women), are Jains who wish to participate in a family life. A desire to follow a family life or continue worldly attachments makes taking the Five Great Vows nearly if not entirely impossible, so householders take the Twelve Vows of Laity.

The first five of these vows, the Anuvrata, are similar to the Five Great Vows, though they are more limited in scope and easier to follow. The next three vows, the Gunavrata, are intended to enhance, strengthen, and purify the Anuvrata, and the final four vows, the Shikshavrata, are disciplinary, intended to govern internal actions and encourage participation in religious life.

The final group of the Twelve Vows of Laity can be found spelled in English in many different ways: Shikshavrata, Shikhsavrata, Siksavrata, and Sikshavrata are the most commonly used, though all are acceptable.

Mahavrata, The Five Great Vows

Yatis who take the Mahavrata renounce worldly existence and pursue kevala with singular determination. They adhere to these vows completely, in mind, body, and spirit.

Jain Pilgrimage in Sravanabelgola
Jain monk on his way to Sravanabelgola, an important center for Jain culture. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Ahimsa: Absolute Non-Violence

Absolute nonviolence extends beyond physically harming another human being. It is the cornerstone of Jainism and Jainism beliefs. It encompasses committing no harm to another life-bearing existence, whether it be accidental or intentional.

Jains believe that every life form has the right to exist and the ability to develop spiritually. All life forms can be identified by the number of senses they have. For example, beings with five senses include humans and animals. Beings with four senses include flies, bees, and other flying insects, beings with three senses include ants, lice, and other legged insects; beings with two senses include worms and leeches; and beings with one sense include water, fire, plants, and air.

It is worse to harm a being with more senses, but Jains strive to commit no harm against any living creature at all. However, Jains recognize that some violence or harm is necessary for subsistence. Yatis only harm beings with the fewest senses and only when it is absolutely necessary. All Jains, not just yatis, are vegetarian, though most these days are vegan.

Yatis’ dedication to nonviolence is absolute, so they follow intentional conduct so as to never harm a living thing. Yatis do not eat at night or in the darkness in order to be completely aware of what is being consumed, and they do not wear shoes so as to never accidentally step on an insect. Some yatis wear clothes over their mouths to prevent the accidental consumption of flying insects.

Satya: Absolute Truthfulness

Jains believe truth-telling takes courage, and the ability to always tell the truth is a result of the physical, mental, and spiritual conquering of greed, fear, anger, and jealousy. The instance when one should not tell the truth is if the truth would harm another living being. In this case, the person must remain silent.

Achaurya or Asteya: Absolute Non-Stealing

Stealing is considered taking into one’s possession something that does not belong to him or her. This includes things of worthless value, and it also encompasses earning more than what is necessary.

Yatis do not prepare their own food, as the chopping of vegetables and use of fire is considered violent. They take only what is offered freely to them or prepared for them. 

Brahmacharya: Absolute Celibacy

Because it is considered an infatuating force, Jains refrain from any stimulation of the five senses, particularly sensual pleasure. Yatis do not engage in any sensual pleasure. They will not even brush against a member of the opposite sex, whether accidental or intentional. This vow, like the others, is observed mentally and physically, so one must be in complete control of his or her thoughts as well as actions.

Aparigraha: Absolute Non-Possessiveness/Non-Attachment

One of the goals of Jainism beliefs is to detach oneself from the world in order to reach kevala. The possession of or attachment to worldly items, including wealth, will result in continued greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, and ego, and will prevent the person from reaching kevala.

Yatis take non-possession seriously, giving up all worldly items including, in some cases, their clothing. They do not earn money, and they take only what they need and only when it is freely given to them.

The Twelve Vows of Laity

Upholding and adhering to the Five Great Vows is difficult or impossible for some Jains, particularly those who desire to participate in family life. These members of the faith take the vows of laity, or vows of the householder, which illustrate the prescribed behaviors of good conduct on the path to kevala.

Mount Shatrunjaya, workers carry a Jain pilgrim in a 'sedan' chair at holy site at Palitana, Gujarat
A female Pilgrim being carried in a 'sedan chair' up Mount Shatrunjaya, near Palitana, Gujarat, India. Workers carry the Jain pilgrims climbing 600 metres, over 3,500 steps, to the pilgrimage site of 900 Jain temples (Tirths) at the top of the hill. Malcolm P Chapman / Getty Images

These twelve vows are divided into categories: the first five are the Anuvratas, similar to the Five Great Vows, but easier to follow. The following three vows are Gunavrata, or strengthening vows for the Anuvratas, and the final four vows are disciplinary vows, or Shikshavrata. The Gunavrata and Shikshavrata are known as the seven vows of virtuous conduct.

Ahimsa Anuvrata – Limited Nonviolence

The principles of nonviolence apply to all Jains, though there is recognition that violence is necessary for householders to subsist. The practices necessary for the householder, including cooking, farming, or employment, are permissible acts of violence, though they should always be conscious of limiting the violence committed.

Satya Anuvrata – Limited Truthfulness

Like with yatis, truthfulness is essential to non-attachment to the world. Householders should tell only the truth, in their minds and audibly to others, unless that truth would harm another living being.

Achaurya or Asteya Anuvrata – Limited Non-Stealing

Jains cannot take things that do not belong to them, regardless of the value of those things, unless freely given. The transition for Jains from vegetarianism to veganism stems from this vow. Dairy products, like milk from a cow, were once considered acceptable for consumption because the milk was freely given. However, Jains in recent decades have become strictly vegan due to the industrialization of dairy farming.

Brahmacharya Anuvrata – Limited Chastity

Many Jains choose lives as householders rather than yatis because of the desire for the family life. In this case, complete celibacy cannot be adhered to, but the experience of sensual pleasures is still limited. Householders can only have relations with their own spouse, and even then, sexual experiences within the marriage should be limited.

Aparigraha Anuvrata – Limited Non-Attachment

Householders need to be able to sustain life and support the family existence, so acquiring some possessions is necessary. However, householders should not earn more than needed to survive, and they should limit possessions and attachments

Gunavrata, the Three Merit Vows

The three merit vows have two purposes: first, they act as purifiers, clarifiers, and strengtheners for the Anuvrata. Second, they govern the external actions of householders, encouraging an outward existence that strives for kevala.

Dik Vrata – Limited Area of Activity

This vow limits the ability for sins to be committed to the ten directions: north, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest, above, and below. Essentially, Dik Vrata permits deviation from the Anuvrata to the boundaries of the physical world. Beyond the physical world, the Anuvrata becomes Mahavrata.

Bhoga-Upbhoga Vrata – Limited Use of Consumable and Non-Consumable Items

The enjoyment of consumable items (bhoga) such as food and drink, as well as the enjoyment of non-consumable items (upbhoga) such as housewares, furnishings, and clothing, is permitted within a limited scope. Householders should exercise caution so as not to become attached to these items, but their enjoyment is not a major offense.

Anartha-danda Vrata – Avoidance of Purposeless Sins

Committing an unnecessary offense, like walking on grass without need, manufacturing weapons to be used for violence, or reading obscene books, should be avoided.

Shikshavrata, the Four Disciplinary Vows

The purpose of disciplinary vows is to govern the internal behavior and conduct of householders. It encourages strong participation in religious life and activities.

Samayik Vrata – Limited Meditation

This vow encourages householders to meditate for at least 48 minutes in one sitting, though many Jains partake in meditation more than once per day.

Desavakasika Vrata – Limited Duration of Activity

Though Bhoga-Upbhoga Vrata permits the enjoyment of objects within a limited capacity, this vow puts additional limits on days and times when these things can be enjoyed.

Pausadha Vrata – Limited Ascetic’s Life

Though householders live their lives outside of the monastic order, this vow requires that the laity live as yatis for at least one day during their lifetimes. This provides a training or prerequisite for a future life as a member of the monastic order.

Atithi Samvibhaga Vrata – Charity

The final vow of the laity is a vow of charity. Householders are asked to give freely to yatis and people in need. Particularly with yatis, the householders should not prepare a separate meal for the monks and nuns but rather give some of the food intended for one’s own meal, as yatis cannot accept food prepared specifically for them.

Sources

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  • Chapple, Christopher Key. Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life. International Society for Science and Religion, 2007.
  • Shah, Pravin K. “Twelve Vows of Layperson.” Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jainism Literature Center.
  • Shah, Pravin K. “Five Great Vows (Maha-Vratas) of Jainism.” Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jainism Literature Center.
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