Five Vows and Six Avashyakas - The Fundamentals of Jaina Ethics [6]

Published: 02.07.2005
Updated: 02.07.2015

Avashyaka VI, Pratyakhyana

The title "Pratyakhyana" (renunciation) is based on the verb pratyakhyami ("I renounce") which is used inter alia in connection with the Five Vows. As we know, these basic rules are not represented as precepts but as vows to renounce certain misdeeds. They could just as well be represented as objects of repentance (this is in fact the case in the fifth position of the long chain in Pratikramana). However, in connection with the Five Vows the early texts mostly use the verb pratyakhyami. The inclusion into Pratikramana is a later development.

The Pratyakhyana chapter presents mainly the twelvefold ethics of laymen but it also contains a set of rules for fasting. Accordingly, the expression pratyakhyami is used both for the Five Lesser Vows (the first five of the twelve positions) and for the rules for fasting.

We are here interested in positions 1-5 and 12 (alms-giving). In principle, the Five Lesser (i.e. easier) Vows for the laymen must be viewed in connection with the Five Great (i.e. difficult) Vows for monks. However, the Great Vows and the exact relation between Lesser and Great Vows is not our concern here.

Below we provide on the left-hand side the definitions of the Five Lesser Vows and on the right-hand side the explication of the vows through the pentads of transgressions. These pentads can be seen as a type of catechism, but they also demonstrate in a very clear manner the broad range of Jaina ethics for the layman [1]. Due to their rather high degree of detail, the orientation to a male audience in the pentads is particularly apparent.

The Jaina texts on the ethics of the layman reproduce the pentads (our right-hand side) more or less verbatim from an early text of the Jaina canon, while the treatment of the vows on our left-hand side differs from case to case. The Avashyaka-Sutra says very little about the vows (left-hand side), and in the case of the pentads (right-hand side), it does not differ from the said early text. We translate the pentads verbatim and restrict the text on the vows to the translation of the definitions. The expression "gross" in the case of the first three vows designates the difference from the otherwise identical texts for the monks: In contrast to the monk, the layman does not renounce all possible offences, but all possible "gross", i.e. serious offences. In the case of the vows IV-V there is a difference in kind (see below). Several terms in the pentads are difficult to understand and had already presented problems to the ancient commentators.

The Vow No.1 The Transgressions
  • The Jaina layman renounces all "gross" killing of living beings.
  • tying down (domestic animals)
  • beating them (with a whip or stick)
  • piercing / cutting them
  • overloading them
  • denying them food and drink.

The first vow is, broadly speaking, the vow of ahimsa or non-killing. The terminology of killing is not uniform (there are other expressions besides himsa), and it is mostly difficult to determine whether a specific term stands only for killing, or for both, killing and injuring. The Avashyaka-Sutra has a term meaning "non-killing" (on the left-hand side), while the pentad (right-hand side) means "injuring", even to the exclusion of killing. On the whole, one gets the impression that in the texts "injuring" is always implied when killing is mentioned. Again, the first pentad refers only to animals (and there only to domestic animals). Only later authors include human beings. This situation is not unexpected: In a community with monastic bias, ahimsa toward men is a matter of course which requires no express mention. The term "gross" indicates that the layman is not obliged to practise ahimsa in the case of the lowestforms of life (element-beings).

Finally for monks (ahimsa as "Great Vow") there are countless commandments. These serve the protection of every conceivable type of living being. The passage cited in Pratikramana gives us an impression of the ways in which the monk might have thought of the living beings surrounding him everywhere. In theory at least, every moment and every movement was fraught with the risk of himsa. There was no end to the technicalities which made the life of the monk complicated and almost intolerable. It is unnecessary to add that the protection did not affect any appreciable part of nature but only the immediate surroundings of solitary human beings. Man was not responsible for the "rest" of the universe.

The Vow No.2 The Transgressions
  • The Jaina layman renounces all "gross" false speech.
  • false accusation made under the influence of temper
  • false accusation of a person behind her/his back
  • betrayal of the confidences of one's wife
  • wrong information / wrong advice
  • wrong statements in documents / falsification of documents.

The list of misdeeds already implies that the matter at hand is the issue of untruth in its broadest sense. It follows from the pentad and from other Jaina sources that human communication in general is put to the test. We encounter a general philosophy of verbal intercourse which is applicable to monks and laymen alike. Amongst other things, it is important in this context to avoid invidious, insidious, and malicious speech. Just like the ahimsa, this communication philosophy is closely linked to ideas of the day outside of the domain of Jainism (in particular the ancient Indian concept of "truth" with its numerous facets).

The Vow No.3 The Transgressions
  • The Jaina layman renounces all "gross" taking of things not given.
  • usurpation of stolen property
  • employment of thieves
  • trespassing into a hostile country (smuggling?)
  • using false weights and measures
  • dealing with adulterate wares.


The Vow No.4 The Transgressions
  • The Jaina layman renounces contact with other women and is content with his own wife.
  • visiting a... (?) woman
  • visiting a... (?) woman
  • amorous dalliance (with other women)
  • match-making outside one`s family
  • excessive desire for sensual gratification.

The first two headings refer in obscure terms to women in two different social categories (prostitutes and respectable women?)

The Vow No.5 The Transgressions
  • The Jaina layman renounces unlimited property and limits his desires.
  • Exceeding the limits set for land and houses
  • Exceeding the limits set for gold and money (?)
  • Exceeding the limits set for money and grain
  • Exceeding the limits set for bipeds (slaves) and quadrupeds
  • Exceeding the limits set for metal utensils (vessels etc.).

Out of the remaining seven elements[2] of the ethics for the layman we mention only the vow of giving alms (basically food and drink) to the monk. Since Jaina monks were not permitted to provide for themselves, alms were of vital importance. The rigidity of the rules for monks made survival without alms virtually impossible. Another aspect of the institution is the religious merit obtained by the giver. This is an altruistic element in a religion which is otherwise mainly concerned with the perfection of the ego through minimalization of activities and through asceticism. It must be added that the altruism of alms-giving has a parallel in the concept of mutual service among the monks.

It is hardly possible to speak of the Five Lesser Vows without remembering the late Jaina monk ACHARYA TULSI (1914-1997) who started the so-called Anuvrat Movement (e.g. compare his leaflet Anuvrat. A Code of Conduct for Building a Healthy Society: New Delhi 1995) in 1949. No doubt the textual basis offered by Jainism in the matter of social and moral reforms was somewhat narrow, but ACHARYA TULSI developed his own language through countless sermons and publications, and his vocabulary was possibly influenced by the pentads of transgressions.

Like the ancient authors, he makes free use of series: "I will not wilfully kill any innocent creature / *I will not commit suicide. *I will not commit feticide"[3]. On the one hand, this involved an activism with little effect which has been compared with an "internationalist western-style peace-movement"[4]. On the other hand, the turn back to the five Anuvratas demonstrates that the Acharya was resolved toward concretion and plain language. His statements highlight several contemporary problems in India which have not always been focussed upon with the same clearness.


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