Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 4.11 ► Jain Ethics

Published: 10.12.2015

Liberation from the karmic bondage is the ultimate goal of life in Jain teachings. It is attained only by self-effort through Right Faith, Right knowledge and Right Conduct together, which prevent the influx of new karma to the soul and shed the attached karma from it. Mahavira emphasized Right Conduct to his followers in two ways: for those who can follow his teachings rigorously, the ascetics, and for those who can follow the same teachings, but to a lesser degree in view of their social commitments, the laity. Jainism stresses great importance to asceticism and hence major portion of Jain Canon contains the rules for ascetic practice. Jain seers later on taught the code of ethics for the laity, which included rules for lawful devotees (maargaanusaari), twelve vows and eleven pratimaas for the spiritually advanced laity (sraavakas). We will discuss in this chapter the ethical codes for both the ascetics and the laity.

The Ethical Code for Ascetics

Ascetics devote themselves wholly to the spiritual life. Even though they are dependent on society for such bare necessities of life such as food, they have no social obligations. They seek liberation through strict observance of the five great vows and austerities, and avoid the slightest defect in their conduct, even though this may make their living unusual and inconvenient. They rigorously practise reverence towards all forms of life and teach the laypeople the practical aspects of the Jina's teachings.

The possessions of Jain ascetics: Ascetics are allowed very few possessions, necessary both for their daily rituals and for their spiritual practices. Svetambar monks are permitted fourteen articles: a rosary, a loin cloth, an upper cloth, a shoulder cloth, a woollen shawl, a woollen mat, a covering cloth (rather like a sheet), a 'mouth-kerchief' (muhupatti) to cover the mouth while speaking, a soft brush of woollen threads (caravalaa or ogha), a staff (wooden stick) for walking, a wooden platter, a wooden or clay pot (for water) and a string with which to tie the pots together, and, finally, scriptural texts. The nuns are permitted the same fourteen articles, with one difference. The items of clothing permitted to monks are each of a single piece of cloth, but the clothing of nuns may be stitched. The soft brush, more like a short-handled mop, is a characteristic distinguishing symbol of the Jain ascetic. Its function is to enable the ascetic very gently to move aside any tiny living creature before it gets trodden on.

As for Digambar monks, only three items are permitted: a wooden pot for water, a 'brush' made of peacock feathers and scriptural texts. Strictly speaking, there are no Digambar nuns.

The ascetic state signifies absolute renunciation of the world and the sole objective is to concentrate one's activities towards the attainment of liberation. Asceticism is a complete commitment to the spiritual path and it is in this state that significant efforts are made to stop the influx of karma and to shed previously accumulated karma. Only by the strict observance of ascetic precepts, austerities, bodily detachment, study and meditation, one can rid oneself of karma and prevent fresh karma becoming attached to the soul. Hence the ascetic life, with its detailed rules of conduct, is the most appropriate path to liberation.

Prevention of karmic influx (samvara) into the soul is effected by the observance of three kinds of 'guards' (gupti), five kinds of 'carefulness' (samiti), ten kinds of virtues (dharma), twelve kinds of 'reflections' (anupreksaa), twenty-two kinds of 'affliction victories' (parisaha jaya), and five kinds of conduct (caritra).

The 'Guards': The flow of karma into the soul is the result of the activities of the mind, of the body and of speech. Ascetics must keep these channels of influx of karma strictly controlled by three 'guards' (Uttaraadhyayana Sutra 1991: 24.20-25)

  • The mind's 'guard' regulates the mind so as to achieve pure thoughts, thus avoiding mental harm to one's own soul and to other living beings.
  • The body's 'guard' regulates one's bodily activities with the aim of achieving spiritual ends, for example by avoiding causing physical harm to living beings.
  • The speech 'guard' controls speech by observing silences and limiting speaking to the absolute minimum necessary so as to avoid harm to other living beings. 'Carefulness': It is possible that an ascetic may transgress the vows inadvertently, hence as a precaution the five kinds of 'carefulness' are prescribed (Uttaraadhyayana Sutra 1991: 24.4-18). They are:
  • 'Carefulness-in-walking' (iryaa samiti) regulates walking to avoid injury to living beings.
  • 'Carefulness-in-speech' (bhaasaa samiti) regulates speech to avoid hurting the feelings of others.
  • 'Carefulness-in-eating' (esanaa samiti) regulates eating (and drinking) to avoid the forty-two faults as described in the Acaaranga (see chapter 4).
  • 'Carefulness-in-picking-and-placing' (adaana niksepa samiti): regulates the placing of one's own possessions and other objects, for example, by picking up and setting down, to avoid harm to living beings.
  • 'Carefulness-in-natural calls' (utsarga samiti): regulates behaviour connected with defecation and urination to prevent harm to living beings.

Although only ascetics strictly observe these five kinds of carefulness, their observance is desirable to some degree in the daily life of laypeople; for example, it is expected that a devoted layperson should avoid treading on growing plants or grass as this harms plant life. One should never leave uncovered any vessel filled with liquid in case an insect falls in and drowns. One should never use a naked flame, like a candle or oil lamp, in case insects are attracted to it and are incinerated.

The Ten Virtues (dharma): The soul assimilates karma due to the passions of anger, pride, deception and greed. Cultivating the ten cardinal virtues, essential for the spiritual progress, will control them. They are forgiveness, humility, naturalness, contentment, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity, renunciation, chastity and nonpossession (Tattvartha Sutra 1994: 9.6).

The 'Reflections' (anupreksaas): To cultivate the correct religious attitude, ascetics should reflect constantly on twelve spiritual themes known as 'reflections'; ideally, these should be meditated upon repeatedly and regularly. The reflections are also termed 'contemplation' (bhaavanaas). They are:

  • Transitoriness (anitya): Everything is subject to change or is transitory.
  • Non-surrender (asarana): The soul has its own destiny determined by karma, and there is no external agency, human or divine, which can intervene to alter the effect of karma, and only by one's own efforts one can change one's destiny.
  • The Cycle of Worldly Existence (samsaara): Souls move in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and cannot attain a pure state until all karma is shed.
  • Solitariness (ekatva): All souls are alone, in the sense that each undertakes its own actions and each alone must accept the consequences, good or bad, of those actions.
  • Separateness (anyatva): The external, physical world, other people, even one's own body, are not part of one's real 'self'.
  • Impurity (asuci): The body is material, subject to change and is transitory. The bones, flesh and blood will all perish and the physical body is inferior to the true 'self'. We should not give unnecessary attention to the 'impure' body, beyond maintaining its health so that it can fulfil its proper role in facilitating spiritual progress.
  • Influx (aasrava): The influx of karma is the cause of worldly existence and is a product of the passions.
  • Stoppage (samvara): The influx of karma should be stopped by the cultivation of the ten virtues.
  • Shedding (nirjaraa): Karmic matter should be shed or shaken off the soul by austerities and penance.
  • The Universe (loka): The universe is vast and humanity is insignificant and as nothing in time and space.
  • The Rarity of 'Spirituality' (bodhi durlabha): It is recognised that it is difficult to attain Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct.
  • Religion (dharma): One should reflect upon the true nature of religion, and especially on the three-fold path of liberation as preached by the tirthankaras.

Victory over Affliction (Parisaha Jaya): The path of liberation requires ascetics to bear cheerfully all the physical discomforts with detachment and forbearance that might distract them or cause pain (Tattvartha Sutra 1994: 9.19). These hardships through which the ascetics have to pass are called the 'afflictions'. There are twenty-two afflictions which ascetics are expected to bear unflinchingly (Uttaraadhyayana Sutra 1994: 2.1). They are: hunger, thirst, cold, heat, insect bites, nakedness (for Digambar ascetics), absence of pleasure, disagreeable surroundings, sexual urges or demands by others, tiredness caused by physical activity such as walking, discomfort from sitting in one posture for a long period, discomfort from sleeping or resting on hard ground, censure or insult, injury, seeking food, failure to obtain food, disease, cuts and scratches from blades of grass or thorns, dirt and impurities of the body, being shown disrespect, lack of appreciation of their learning, the persistence of their own ignorance, their own lack of faith or weak belief, for example if they fail to obtain 'supernatural powers' even after great piety and austerities. The ascetics who desire to conquer all causes of pain should endure these afflictions, without any feeling of vexation.

Conduct: Ascetics are expected to observe the ascetic code of conduct: they should practice austerities and equanimity (by which is meant evenness of mind or temper), strive for spiritual purity, control their passions and hold to the scriptural ideal of the Jina. If they lapse from this expected ideal, they should perform penance aimed at returning them to the proper path of ascetic conduct.

Shedding Karma (Nirjaraa): The main means of shedding karma is through the observance of austerities; they are of two kinds: external austerities, which relate to food and physical activities, and internal austerities, relating to spiritual discipline. Each of these is of six kinds, discussed in detail later in this chapter.

These external and internal austerities demonstrate how rigorous is the life of selfdenial which ascetics lead. They must sustain the body with only the minimum requirements of food and yet expect great strength from it in pursuit of the goal of liberation.

The Dasavaikalika Sutra gives descriptions of the essential qualities required of an ascetic: self-control, freedom from passions and non-attachment. True ascetics should live as models of righteousness, without profession or occupation as homeless mendicants (Law 1949: pp.151-156).

The daily routine of an ascetic is regulated and regimented: solemnity and a strictly reserved and unobtrusive manner are the norm; singing, dancing, laughing or any form of merry-making are forbidden, and most waking time is devoted to meditation and study. The ascetic must observe the daily essential duties (Uttaraadhyayana Sutra 1991: 26.1-52) and the rules expected as a member of the Sangha in dealing with both the fellow ascetics and the laypeople (Sthaanaanga Sutra 1992: 5.1.399, 7.3.544 and 7.3.570).

The Ethical Code for Householders

Not everyone can renounce the world, and it is neither possible nor desirable that all should follow the path of renunciation. People have social responsibilities and it is impossible for most of them to practise the vows with the same rigour and discipline as an ascetic. In the Jain conception of moral life we find a harmonious blending of the secular and the spiritual. One cannot become a 'saint' overnight. One has to prepare oneself to be a good person first before entering into the life of an ascetic. The sole exceptions are the rare cases of exemplary souls, such as those of tirthankaras or great aacaaryas.

Lay Jains are expected to develop the right attitude and appropriate conduct (maargaanusaari jivan) in their daily life before they accept the twelve vows of a sraavaka or the eleven pratimaas of the laity.

General Principles of Appropriate Conduct for Householders

On the basis of the rules of Right Conduct laid down in the Jain scriptures, the prominent Jain seers have enunciated a number of general principles of appropriate conduct. The Svetambar text, the Yoga Sastra, composed by Aacaarya Hemcandra, presents a list of thirty-five general principles of conduct appropriate to the ideal householder.

Among Digambar texts, the work entitled the 'Rules of Conduct for Householders' (Sraavakaacaara) composed by Aacaarya Amitagati gives a list of the eleven attributes of the ideal householder. These rules guide householders in their responsibility both for leading a proper religious life and being useful members of society, thus the householder leads a life according to Jain ideals. This ideal can be identified from the lists of qualities found in the literature. From the Yoga Sastra, we learn that one should:

  1. Be honest in earning wealth.
  2. Be appreciative of the conduct of the virtuous.
  3. Be apprehensive of sin.
  4. Fulfil the three-fold aim of life.
  5. To make spiritual progress (dharma).
  6. To achieve proper material ends (artha).
  7. To enjoy life in a proper manner (kaama).
  8. Follow the customs of the country in which one lives.
  9. Not to denigrate other people, particularly governments.
  10. Live in an appropriate place with good neighbours.
  11. Aim for high moral standards.
  12. Respect one's parents.
  13. Marry a spouse of the same caste and traditions, avoiding excluded relationships.
  14. Avoid places where disaster or troubles frequently occur.
  15. Not to engage in a reprehensible occupation.
  16. Live within one's means; treat wealth as a trust to be managed according to the Jain tenets.
  17. Dress according to one's income.
  18. Develop the eight kinds of 'intelligence.'
  19. Listen daily to the sacred doctrines.
  20. Not to eat on a full stomach; eat at the right time observing Jain dietary regulations.
  21. Be diligent in supporting ascetics, the righteous and the needy.
  22. Always strive to be free of evil motives and be favourably inclined to virtue.
  23. Avoid actions, which are inappropriate to the time and place; be aware of one's own strengths and weaknesses.
  24. Venerate persons of high morality and discernment.
  25. Support one's dependants.
  26. Be far-sighted, visionary, and aim to succeed in whatever one does.
  27. Be discriminating in all matters.
  28. Be grateful when gratitude is called for.
  29. Try to be well liked.
  30. Be motivated by a sense of shame.
  31. Be compassionate.
  32. Be gentle in disposition.
  33. Be ready to render service to others.
  34. Be intent on avoiding the six adversaries of the soul.
  35. Be in control of the sensory organs.

From the Sraavakaacaara we learn that one should:

  1. Be devoid of lust, envy, deception, anger, backbiting, meanness and pride.
  2. Be steadfast.
  3. Be contented.
  4. Not speak harshly.
  5. Be compassionate.
  6. Aim to be competent in all one's undertakings.
  7. Be skilled in discerning what is acceptable and what is to be avoided.
  8. Be respectful to ascetics and be prepared to submit to their teachings.
  9. Be penitent for one's faults by accepting the teachings of a jina.
  10. Be apprehensive of those things that keep one attached to the world.
  11. Seek to diminish one's lust for sensual things.

Twelve Vows of a Sraavaka

The Upaasakadassanga (1.11) and Ratnakaranda Sraavakaacaara lay down the twelvefold ethical code for laypersons: five of the vows are common to the ascetic and the householder, but in the case of the householder, they are the minor vows (anuvratas), described earlier: 'non-violence'; truthfulness; non-stealing; sexual restraint; and nonattachment.

In addition to the five minor vows practised by householders, there are three 'multiplicative' vows (guna vratas): 'limitation of directional movements' (diga vrata); 'limitation of spatial movements' (desavakasika vrata); and 'avoidable activities' (anarthadanda vrata). The householder also practises four educative vows (siksaa vratas): equanimity (saamayika vrata); specific fasting (prosadhopavaasa vrata); 'limiting consumables and non-consumables' (bhogopa-bhogaparimaana vrata) and 'hospitality', not eating before food has been offered to others (atithi samvibhaaga vrata).

Three Gunavratas:

  • The 'directional' vow restricts unnecessary movement. The purpose is to reduce the possibility of committing violence, and this is achieved by circumscribing the area of potential injury to living beings. One may adopt the vow for a specified limited period or as a lifelong vow.
  • The vow of 'limitation of spatial movement' is a modified version of the vow of 'limitation of directional movement'. It restricts the movement of an individual to a house or a village or a part thereof for a period as short as forty-eight minutes or as long as several months. The rationale underlying the practice is that it creates the mental preparedness for adopting the life of an ascetic in the future.
  • The vow of 'avoidable activities' prohibits an individual from certain professions and trades, which would lead to harmful activities or from activities, which serve no useful purpose. The five types of avoidable activities are certain mental states such as sorrowful or hateful thoughts (apadhyaana), negligent actions or addictions such as alcoholism and gambling. Avoidable activities also include watching dancing, sex displays and animal combat such as cock fighting, and others which incite the passions. Encouraging any activity leading to the destruction of life, or the giving of 'sinful' advice, such as instruction in an immoral trade is regarded as avoidable activity. Spending time and effort reading, listening to or watching pornographic material, tabloid journalism, gossip and other such trivia should be avoided.

Four Siksaavratas:

  • The vow of equanimity (saamayika) is an important meditation practice for laypersons, as ascetics are lifelong practitioners of equanimity. Practical exercises aimed at achieving equanimity may be performed in one's own home or in a temple, in the presence of an ascetic or in an upashraya. The procedure for practising equanimity is described in the next section. During the period of saamayika, the househoders are considered as though they were ascetics.
  • The vow of specific fasting (prosadhopavaasa) requires fasting and observing equanimity for twelve hours or more at regular intervals in a month; it is a temporary asceticism, and a preparation for entering an ascetic order. During this fasting one avoids any unnecessary 'enhancements' of the body, such as the use of perfumes, cosmetics and the like, and abstains from mundane duties.
  • The vow of 'limiting consumables and non-consumables' (bhogopabhogaparimaana) forbids or limits one's use of 'consumable' goods such as food and 'non-consumable' goods such as furniture.
  • The vow of 'hospitality' (atithi samvibhaaga) means the giving of food and similar necessities to ascetics and the needy before taking care of one's own requirements.

The Six Daily Duties

The Six Daily Duties The six daily duties of householders are: equanimity (saamayika), recitation of the eulogy of the twenty-four tirthankaras (caturvisanti stava), reverence towards ascetics (guru vandana), penitential retreat (pratikramana), meditation in a relaxed posture (kaayotsarga), and the renunciation of food, drink and comfort (pratyaakhyaana). The study of the scriptures (svaadhyaaya) and the giving of donations (daana) to the needy are also considered to be the duties of laypersons. The next section provides further information on these duties, except for charity (daana), which is described below.

Charity (Daana): The act of giving is an important element in the practice of Jainism, for without alms-giving and support by the laity, neither ascetics nor the order can survive. Of course, this situation applies only in India. For the rest of the world, a different situation may evolve. There are specific injunctions regarding giving alms, in which ascetics take precedence as recipients. In giving alms one should consider the following five factors:

  • Recipients of alms should always be treated respectfully.
  • Donors should give willingly and wholeheartedly, not grudgingly.
  • The alms given should be appropriate to the recipients and to their circumstances.
  • The manner of giving should avoid embarrassing recipients in any way, and should not make donors feel superior by their giving.
  • Giving alms should not be done from the motive of personal gain for oneself or others.

There are different ways of 'giving' (daana) in the Jain tradition, and among these the main ways are:

  • 'Giving to deserving persons' (supaatra daana). An example of this would be the giving of alms, books etc. to ascetics, who are regarded as morally and spiritually superior; this giving is done with humility and devotion.
  • 'Compassionate' donations (anukampaa) are gifts of charity to people in need of shelter, food, medical care or education, including the welfare of animals (jiva dayaa), and care of the environment.
  • 'No-fear' giving (abhaya daana). Jains regard one of the greatest forms of 'giving' to be the avoidance of causing anxiety or fear to any living beings, through thought, speech or action. Anybody can practise abhaya daana as the only 'resources' required are 'inner' strength. Those who aspire to abhaya daana are encouraged to practise the utmost vigilance over their conduct in order to achieve the desired situation in which all living beings feel safe and secure in their presence.
  • Giving (spiritual) knowledge (jnaana daana). There are many ways in which one can impart knowledge to others, which will lead to their spiritual uplift and help them on the path of purification. Dissemination of Jain teachings, giving sermons, lectures, the writing of books and articles, financing publications of a spiritual nature, are all valid ways of achieving this goal.

Giving helps to nullify greed and acquisitiveness; acquisitiveness is a manifestation of violence. Paradoxically, laypersons have more restrictions placed upon them than ascetics, owing to the greater diversity of their personal circumstances and the complexity of life. Jain tradition puts a duty upon laypersons to set aside a part of their income for charitable use.

Holy Death (Sallekhanaa)

Jains are expected not only to live a disciplined life but also to die a detached death, which is peaceful, holy and faced willingly. This voluntary death is to be distinguished from suicide, which is considered by Jainism a sin. Tradition says that when faced by calamity, such as famine, disease for which there is no remedy, or very old age, pious householders should peacefully relinquish their bodies, inspired by the highest religious ideal. Both laypersons and ascetics observe the 'holy death' ritual and all should face death and leave the worldly body with a quiet detachment in peaceful meditation on religious themes. Sallekhanaa is described in the next section.

The Eleven Stages of Spiritual Progress (pratimaas)

The word pratimaa is used to designate the ideal stages of spiritual progress in a householder's life. By treading the ethical path, a layperson acquires spiritual progress. The eleven stages form a series of duties and practices, the standard and duration of which increase, culminating in a state resembling asceticism, towards the final goal of initiation as a Digambar ascetic (Ratnakaranda Sraavakacaara 1925: pp.137-147). The eleven stages are as follows:

  • Stage of Right Faith (darsana pratimaa): The householder must develop a perfect, intelligent and well-reasoned faith in Jainism, that is, a sound knowledge of its doctrines and their application to life.
  • Stage of Vows (vrata pratimaa): The householder must observe the twelve vows, without transgressing them, and must observe the vow of 'holy death'; such a householder is called 'avowed' (vrati).
  • Stage of Equanimity (saamayika pratimaa): The householder should practise equanimity, consisting of a three times daily, period of regular religious observance, each lasting forty-eight minutes. This observance takes the form of selfcontemplation and the purification of one's ideas and emotions, accompanied by the recital of the sutras.
  • Stage of Specific Fasting (prosadhopavaasa pratimaa): This involves regular fasting, as a rule, twice a fortnight in each lunar month. The entire period of fasting has to be spent in prayer, the study of scriptures, meditation and listening to religious discourses at upashraya or at home.
  • Stage of Renouncing Food Containing Life (sacitta tyaaga pratimaa): The householder should abstain from eating those green vegetables and foodstuffs in which the Jain tradition considers there to be life, and should also refrain from serving such food to others. One should not trample upon grass or any growing plant, nor pluck fruit or flower from trees or bushes.
  • Stage of Renunciation of Eating at Night (raatri bhojana tyaaga pratimaa): In this stage the householder abstains from taking any kind of food or drink after sunset; the Jain tradition encourages this practice to avoid harm to minute creatures which are nocturnal and cannot be seen with the naked eye.
  • Stage of Celibacy (brahmacarya pratimaa): The householder in this stage observes complete celibacy, maintains sexual purity, and avoids the use of all personal decoration, which could arouse sexual desire.
  • Stage of Occupational Renunciation (aarambha-samaarambha tyaaga pratimaa): The householder must refrain from all occupational and celebratory activities to avoid injury to living beings. Householders divide their property among their children retaining a small part for their own maintenance and giving some to charity.
  • Stage of Renunciation of Possessions (parigraha tyaaga pratimaa): This stage sees the abandonment of all attachments. The householder gives up all kinds of worldly possessions such as: land, home, silver, gold, cattle, clothes, utensils, male and female servants, keeping just enough for the minimal requirements of food, shelter and clothing. This stage is one for the preparation of asceticism and training for its hardships.
  • Stage of Withdrawal (anumati tyaaga pratimaa): The householder makes increased efforts towards complete asceticism, a life of detachment: one becomes indifferent to personal matters such as food and drink, and to the social concerns of the family and the community.
  • Stage of Renouncing Food Intended for the Householder (uddista tyaaga pratimaa): In this eleventh stage, the householder renounces any food or lodging that has been prepared for him, leaves the family home, goes to a forest or remote place for shelter, and adopts the rules laid down for ascetics. This is the highest stage for householders, and has two parts: 'two-clothed' and 'loin-clothed'; the latter stage leads to initiation as a Digambar ascetic.

Thus the conduct of a householder is a stepping stone for becoming an ascetic. The Jain literature covers almost every aspect of worldly life, details of the ethical code, their transgression and penance. It should, however, be pointed out that the descriptions of the conduct for householders by the various aacaaryas differ, but the spirit and essence remain the same.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhaya
  2. Anger
  3. Anitya
  4. Anuvratas
  5. Anyatva
  6. Artha
  7. Body
  8. Brahmacarya
  9. Caritra
  10. Celibacy
  11. Darsana
  12. Desavakasika Vrata
  13. Dharma
  14. Digambar
  15. Discipline
  16. Ekatva
  17. Environment
  18. Equanimity
  19. Fasting
  20. Fear
  21. Greed
  22. Guna
  23. Gunavratas
  24. Gupti
  25. Guru
  26. Jainism
  27. Jaya
  28. Jina
  29. Jiva
  30. Karma
  31. Karmic matter
  32. Loka
  33. Mahavira
  34. Meditation
  35. Niksepa
  36. Parigraha
  37. Pratikramana
  38. Pride
  39. Samiti
  40. Samvara
  41. Sangha
  42. Soul
  43. Space
  44. Sutra
  45. Svetambar
  46. Tattvartha Sutra
  47. Tirthankaras
  48. Utsarga Samiti
  49. Utsarga samiti
  50. Vandana
  51. Violence
  52. Vrata
  53. Vrati
  54. Yoga
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