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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 4.13 ► Austerities

Published: 12.12.2015
Updated: 12.12.2015

A person who intends to follow the path of self-realization, to achieve liberation from karmic bondage, practices Right Conduct. By leading a moral and ethical life one becomes disciplined and avoids the influx of karma. But a disciplined life alone is not sufficient to liberate the soul as previously accumulated karma must also be shed. Even the self-disciplined accumulate new karma as a result of the activities of mind, body, and speech, and the mild passions. To free the soul from karmic bondage one has to shed old karma at a faster rate than the new accumulates.

Those who aspire to liberation willingly challenge their natural instincts, controlling the demands of the senses and passions. To the casual observer, the austerities (tapas) appear to involve great hardship and pain, but to the spiritual aspirant the practice of these austerities is a source of great inspiration towards the goal of self-conquest.

It is through the practice of austerities that willpower is strengthened to resist the allure of worldly pleasures. Aspirants differentiate between the essentials for selfrealisation and non-essentials, which keep the self in the worldly cycle; they make full use of the body as a means to progress on the path of purification. Umasvati taught that austerities are required both to stop the accumulation of new karma and the shedding of old karma (Tattvartha Sutra 1974: 9.3). The Jain path of purification encourages the aspirants to make themselves free from attachments and aversions, that is, from all the impure activities of thought, word and deed.

The Place of Austerities in Jainism

Jain scriptures define austerities as the control and extirpation of desires in order to strengthen the three jewels of Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct (Satkhandaagama 1939-59: 5.4.26).

The Uttaradhyayana praises austerities in these words: 'In the same way that a large tank, when its supply of water has been stopped, dries up because its water is consumed or evaporates, so the karma of an ascetic, who has gone through countless births, is annihilated by austerities, if there is no influx of new karma ' It goes on to remark: 'Tapas are my fire, karma is my fuel. It is tapas, which bring a person honour and respect' (Uttaradhyayana Sutra 1991: 30.5-6).

The austerities should be devoid of worldly desires, of this world or another, and the practice of austerities devoid of spirituality is referred to as baala tapa (literally: child(ish)-austerities). The Pravacanasaara says that those who are spiritually endowed shed their karma much sooner than those who are not, even though the latter may perform rigorous external austerities (Pravacansaara 1934: 3.38).

Jain texts describe a number of austerities, external and internal: An external austerity involves some physical act of renunciation; an internal austerity involves controlling and directing the mind towards spiritual pursuits. As external austerities are physical acts, such as fasting, they can be undertaken even by those who do not have a spiritual disposition, yet despite this, external austerities can lead one to develop the proper detached attitude and control over one's desires.

External Austerities

There are six types of external austerities: fasting (anasana); eating less than one's need (under); choosing, for ascetics when begging, to limit which food(s) to take (vruttisanksepa); abstention from one or more of the six stimulating or delicious (rasaparityaaga): ghee (refined butter), milk, yoghurt (curds in India), sugar, salt and oil; avoidance of all that can lead to temptation (samlinataa); and mortification of the body (kaayakalesa) (Uttaradhyayana Sutra 1991: 30.7, Tattvartha Sutra 1974: 19.19).

  • Fasting: food may be renounced for a limited period or until death. Emaciation of the body should be distinguished from fasting, which has a spiritual purpose; merely ceasing to eat per se is not considered an austerity, as to fast properly the correct spiritual attitude of detachment from food is essential.
  • Unodari: The Jain scriptures prescribe a daily limit of food for an ascetic as thirtytwo morsels for a monk and twenty-eight for a nun, any reduction in this quantity constitutes unodari. Mulaacaara claims that this austerity helps control the senses and sleep and aids one on the path of purification (Mulaacaara 1919: 5.153)
  • Restriction of choice of food when begging: the ascetic decides, before setting out to beg, how many homes to visit, how to receive food, the type of food to be taken and from whom to receive food. If the ascetic finds that his conditions are fulfilled, then food is accepted; otherwise, the ascetic will go without. Sometimes the conditions are too onerous to be easily fulfilled and the ascetic has to go without food for a very long period. An illustrative example of this austerity comes from accounts of the life of Mahavira. He set a number of conditions that he would accept food only from someone, who was a princess; who was a slave; who was in chains; who had fasted for three days; who was standing astride a doorway, one leg on the inside, the other on the outside; and who had tears in her eyes. This remarkable list of restrictions meant that Mahavira had to wait five and a half months before being able to accept food from Princess Candanbala. The example of this well-known laywoman, and much-respected story, encourages many to overcome the desire for food and to emulate Candanbala (Kalpa Sutra 1971: pp.196-198).
  • Abstention from taste-enhancing foods: One should eat to live and not live to eat, which means controlling one's tastes. Thus, one should therefore renounce one or more of the six foods, which enhance flavour or taste such as milk, yoghurt, gee, oil, sugar and salt. Additionally one should avoid one or more of the acrid, bitter, astringent, sour and sweet tastes. The purpose is to curb the sense of taste, subduing sleep, and the unobstructed pursuit of self-study.
  • Avoidance of temptations through seclusion: The ascetic should choose a secluded place to reside, sit in solitude, and peacefully become immersed in meditation and recitation of the holy hymns, as this facilitates celibacy, self-study and meditation.
  • Mortification of the body: This tapa involves inflicting pain on the body by adopting certain postures or by exposing the body to the weather, for example, by remaining in the sun during the summer. The purpose of this austerity is the endurance of physical hardship and to develop detachment from the body.

The Mulaacaara makes it clear that external austerities should not endanger one's mental attitude, nor counter the zeal for the performance of disciplinary practices of an ethical and spiritual nature, but should rather enhance spiritual conviction as means to internal austerities (Mulaacaara 1919: 5.161).

Internal Austerities

There is a sixfold classification of internal austerities: Penance (praayascitta); Reverence (vinaya); Service (vaiyaavritya), Self-study (svaadhyaaya), Detachment (vyutsarga) and Meditation (dhyaana) (Tattvartha Sutra 1974: 19.20).

  • Penance. The Praayascitta Samuccaya states that without penance there cannot be any right conduct, without right conduct there can be no piety, without piety no detachment, and without detachment all vows are futile. It is said that individuals should not attempt to conceal their faults and deficiencies when seeking advice, help or justice from benevolent rulers, judges, doctors, teachers, or gurus. When advice or decisions are offered, any penance suggested should be accepted. While prescribing a spiritual penance, a guru takes into account the time, place, availability of food, and an individual's capacities. There are as many forms of penance as there are degrees of transgression and therefore no one can compile an exhaustive list of penances. When prescribing a penance, a guru should keep in mind whether the sinner has transgressed under duress or wilfully, once or repeatedly, has followed the truth or not, and whether the individual attempted to resist the temptation to sin or not. Penance includes: confession (aalocanaa), penitence (pratikramana), both confession and penitence (tadubhaya), conscientious discrimination (viveka), meditation with relaxed body (kaayotsarga), austerities (tapas), demotion in the ascetic order (cheda), expulsion (parihara), re-initiation into the ascetic order (mula), strengthening of the faith (sraddhaa);
  • Reverence. Vinaya means humility towards those deserving reverence with the control over the passions and the senses. All knowledge is futile without reverence. Humbleness is shown to others for five reasons: to imitate them, because of their wealth, through sexual desire, out of fear or to achieve worldly freedom, and spiritual liberation. The first four are worldly activities, the last one is spiritual in nature with which an aspirant is concerned. There is a fivefold classification of reverence in order to realise spiritual liberation: faith, knowledge, conduct, austerity, and respect. Reverence as an austerity is dispelling darkness through devotion to penance and to those who are devoted to penance, while respecting those who possess knowledge, but are unable to undertake penance (e.g. cannot fast). Respectful reverence means paying proper respect in deeds, words and thoughts to those who merit respect.
  • Service. Vaiyaavritya means rendering service to those to whom it is due. These could be elders, ascetics or holy persons, either in person or through the agency of another. Service can be rendered when others are ill or in some other form of need, even if brought about through their own negligence. Service to the weak and sick is highly regarded as it is said to be akin to rendering service to the tirthankaras.
  • Self-study. Svaadhyaaya is the study of scriptures to acquire knowledge, to learn good conduct and detachment, the practice of austerities, and penance for transgression. Self-study has five aspects: learning the scriptures and their meaning (vaacanaa), asking questions of others to remove doubt or to ascertain meaning (pruchanaa), deep contemplation of scriptures which have been studied (manana), repeated revision of scriptures learned (punaraavartana), and dissemination through sermons (upadesa).
  • Detachment. Vyutsarga means renunciation of external and internal 'possessions': property, wealth and the like are external possessions, whereas pride, anger, deceit and greed are internal possessions.
  • Meditation. Dhyaana aids in the realisation of the 'self' and purification of the soul. It is described in detail in next chapter.

The external and internal austerities help an individual to progress towards the chosen goal of controlling desires and freeing oneself from attraction and aversion. Laypersons are encouraged to observe them according to their ability.

Austerities in daily practice

We shall now describe Jain fasting practices in daily use and some important ones undertaken on occasions. Fasting helps self-control, to create positive health and sound mind, but it should be practised according to one's ability. Fasting can make the body weak, infirm and withered, but it helps the mind to be spiritually active. During fasting one should practise meditation, and keep oneself engrossed in devotional activities, reading scriptures, holy recitations, and similar spiritually uplifting activities. In fasting, except the optional taking of boiled water during daylight hours, nothing is imbibed including brushing the teeth or gargling. Ascetics drink only boiled water throughout their lives and observe strict dietary rules.

While fasting, Jains drink only boiled water and, when permitted, take the appropriate Jain diet (see chapter 6.4). Water should be filtered, boiled and cooled. In addition for reasons of health, the water is boiled, to minimise violence to water-borne micro-organisms. In unboiled water, micro-organisms multiply in geometric progression. When the water is boiled, although some micro-organisms are killed, the water becomes sterile and the organisms cease to multiply. As a result, a lesser number of microorganisms are harmed when boiled water is drunk as compared to unboiled water, and also less harm is inflicted on the organisms, which would have suffered due to the contact with enzymes and acid in one's stomach.

  • Navakaarsi: The vow of 'forty-eight minutes fast' means that after one has fasted overnight, one waits for forty-eight minutes after sunrise before taking any food or water or brushing one's teeth or rinsing the mouth. (Forty-eight minutes or one-thirtieth day is a traditional Indian unit of time). One recites the Navakara mantra, three times before breaking the fast. There are a number of similar fasts, which differ only in time. They are:
  • Porasi: The vow of the 'three hour fast'.
  • Saadha porasi: The vow of the 'four-and-half hours fast'.
  • Parimuddha: The vow of the 'six hour fast'.
  • Avaddha: The vow of the 'eight hour fast'.
  • Cauvihaar: This vow involves abstinence from any kind of food, drink or medicine between sunset and sunrise.
  • Tivihaar: This vow involves taking only water at night.
  • Duvihaar: This vow permits taking only liquids and medicines at night.
  • Biyaasan: This vow permits taking food twice a day.
  • Ekaasan: This vow permits taking food once a day.
  • Ayambil: This vow permits taking food once a day, but it requires food to be bland, boiled or cooked, and devoid of enhanced taste, milk, curds, ghee, oil, and green or raw vegetables. Some aspirants undertake the ayambil fast by only eating one item of food.
  • Upavaas: This vow involves not taking any food for a period of twenty-four hours; there are two versions: if no water is drunk, it is cauvihaar upavaas, but if some boiled water is drunk only during daylight hours, it is tivihaar upavaas.
  • Chatha: It is vow of continuous two-day fast, similar to upavaas.
  • Attham: It is continuous three-day fast, similar to upavaas.
  • Atthai: This is a continuous eight-day fast, similar to upavaas.

Many aspirants undertake this austerity during the sacred days of paryusana, described in chapter 5.6.

Maasaksamana: It is a continuous thirty-day fast, similar to upavaas. It is a very rigorous austerity and is considered a sign of great piety.

In some cases, aspirants fast for differing periods, ranging from four days to as much as three months. In exceptional cases continuous fast have lasted longer. One such case was the fast by Sahaja Muni in Bombay in 1995, which lasted 201 days.

Vardhammana tapa: It is a vow of progressive fast, where an aspirant will observe one ayambil and one upavaas, followed by two ayambils and one upavaas, then three ayambils and one upavaas, building up to one hundred ayambils and one upavaas.

Navapada oli: It is the vow of nine continuous ayambils, observed twice yearly with a specific form of worship, holy recitation, meditation and other rituals in honour of the 'nine objects of veneration' (navapad). Some worshippers observe nine such olis, over a period of four and a half years, a total of eighty-one ayambils.

Varsitapa: This is a year-long austerity, observed from the eighth day of the dark half of the month of Caitra to the third day of the bright half of the month of Vaisakh (aksaya tritiya) of the following year. The aspirant undertakes upavaas one day and biyaasan the next day, again upavaas on the third day, and so on. Sometimes, during the period of this austerity, the aspirant undertakes continuously two-day upavaas, because of a Jain holy day coming on the following day of the upavaas and it is followed by one biyaasan. Varsitapa continues for more than a year, and is broken on the day called akshay tritiya by accepting sugar-cane juice, which commemorates Risabhdeva, the first tirthankara, who fasted completely for a similar period and broke his fast by accepting sugar-cane juice from his grandson, Shreyansakumar.

Upadhaan tapa: This is a special collective group austerity, under the guidance of a senior ascetic, which lasts twenty-eight, thirty-five or forty-seven days, whereby a celebration takes place on its conclusion. The participants observe alternate upavaas and ayambil, or a special ekaasan, known as nivi, and perform rituals unique to this occasion, together with scriptural study.

Visasthanaka tapa: It is the austerity of fasting and special worhip of the twenty objects of veneration, where aspirants, observing continuous upavaas, worship each object for twenty days. The fifteenth object of veneration is worshipped for forty days, observing upavaas. Fasting may be complete or partial. The twenty objects of veneration are: the tirthankara, the siddha, the fourfold order, the aacaarya, senior ascetics, the preceptor, the sage, knowledge, faith, reverence, conduct, celibacy, rituals, austerity, Gautama (the chief disciple of Mahavira), service, restraint, empirical knowledge, scriptural knowledge, and the holy places. The scriptures affirm that all tirthankaras performed this austerity in their earlier lives. Guidance from spiritual superiors is helpful in observing this austerity.

Siddhi tapa: This austerity lasts for forty-four days, beginning with upavaas for one day, followed by one biyasan; then two days' upavaas, followed by one biyaasan; culminating in eight days' upavaas, completed by the last biyaasan (Bhadrbahu Muni 1986: pp.52-64).

Apart from the fasting and austerities detailed above, Jain seers prescribe many other minor and major austerities. The austerities should be observed with the proper objective of purifying the soul by freeing oneself from attachment and aversion. External austerities are the means to aid internal ones, which explains their importance in Jainism.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aksaya
  2. Akshay Tritiya
  3. Anasana
  4. Anger
  5. Ayambil
  6. Body
  7. Bombay
  8. Celibacy
  9. Contemplation
  10. Deceit
  11. Fasting
  12. Fear
  13. Gautama
  14. Ghee
  15. Greed
  16. Guru
  17. Jainism
  18. Kalpa
  19. Kalpa Sutra
  20. Karma
  21. Life of Mahavira
  22. Mahavira
  23. Mantra
  24. Meditation
  25. Microorganisms
  26. Muni
  27. Navakara Mantra
  28. Parihara
  29. Paryusana
  30. Pratikramana
  31. Pride
  32. Siddha
  33. Siddhi
  34. Soul
  35. Sutra
  36. Tadubhaya
  37. Tapa
  38. Tapas
  39. Tattvartha Sutra
  40. Three Jewels
  41. Tirthankara
  42. Tirthankaras
  43. Unodari
  44. Uttaradhyayana
  45. Uttaradhyayana Sutra
  46. Vinaya
  47. Violence
  48. Viveka
  49. Vyutsarga
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