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Five Vows and Six Avashyakas - The Fundamentals of Jaina Ethics [0]

Published: 26.06.2005
Updated: 20.08.2008

The basis of this paper is a short lecture held in Berlin on April 20, 1997 in Dr. N. K. JAIN's Yoga School. The lecture was held as part of a programme to celebrate the birthday of Mahavira ("Mahavira-Jayanti").
In our paper an attempt is made to introduce an original tract into the description of Jainism. Some of the footnotes will not interest the general reader but had to be inserted for one reason or another.
I am indebted to K. BUTZENBERGER for a number of suggestions which have facilitated my treatment of the ahimsa issue.
My special thanks go to R. RADZINSKI who has translated the better part of the text.


0 Introduction
1 Avashyaka I Samayika
2 Avashyaka II Caturvimshatistava
3 Avashyaka III Vandana
4 Avashyaka IV Pratikramana
5 Avashyaka V Kayotsarga
6 Avashyaka VI Pratyakhyana
7 Salvation
8 Summary
9 Postscript
10 Bibliography


Until recently, Jainism was known outside India only in academic circles. Nowadays, however, closer contacts between India and other countries -- and the immediate interest aroused by a religion which stands for "non-violence" -- have produced a change. These facts prompt us to present a sort of close up view of Jaina ethics as will be seen in the sequel.

It may be added that there are many similarities between Jainism and Buddhism and that both religions sprang up at the same time in the same province of India and thus under the same spiritual and cultural conditions. The reader who is familiar with Buddhism will therefore find many familiar features when studying Jainism. However that may be, we will also have to say a few words in the present paper about Jainism in general in order to provide easier access for all readers (see Salvation, Summary, and Postscript).

A summary of Jaina ethics is usually based on the so-called "Five Vows", which may be listed as follows:

  • The vow not to kill (to practise ahimsa= non-killing, as opposed to himsa or killing)
  • The vow not to lie
  • The vow not to steal
  • The vow to be chast
  • The vow to renounce property

Here we wish not to present the Five Vows in an isolated manner, but rather to place them in a particular larger context. To this end, we will primarily deal with the six Avashyakas, in which the Five Vows occupy a prominent position. The Avashyakas are ethico-religious texts which the pious Jaina has to recite. Indeed, they are texts whose mastery and recitation are considered absolutely necessary (avashya). They form a ritual, but a ritual which is meaningful and which must be performed with due attention even though lapse into mere routine is always possible. The Five Vows appear twice: In the fourth Avashyaka they are just mentioned (and this with regard to the monks and nuns: the mahavratasor Great Vows); and in the sixth Avashyaka they are described in detail (this time with regard to the male and female lay-followers: the anuvratasor Lesser Vows). This alone would not justify our combination of the Avashyaka subject with the subject of the Five Vows (the Five Vows also appear in many other texts). However, both subjects are also internally related as will be seen in the course of our text: The Avashyakas stand largely for repentance, and repentance is largely repentance in connection with transgressions of the Five Vows.

To whom are the six Avashyakas addressed? As just mentioned, the Jaina community is fourfold; there are clerical and laic, male and female members. This fact is reflected in ethical texts only in an unsatisfactory way, however. To begin with, a distinctive characteristic of Jainism is its deference to layman. At the same time, Jainism seems to confer a less definite status upon the layman than upon the monk inasmuch as the aim is often if not generally to convert the layman step by step into a quasi-monk. Thus the explicit addressee of the six Avashyakas is principally the monk (or the monk and the layman) and only in the case of the instructions for laymen in the sixth Avashyaka is the layman alone addressed. In addition, the literature is primarily directed toward men. This is revealed in the respective treatment of monks and nuns but the tendency becomes especially clear when laymen and laywomen are at issue. The instructions to laymen are clearly addressed to men and to men only. Women are merely included through a passing reference or they are not explicitly mentioned at all (sixth Avashyaka). Since the roles for laymen and laywomen are so radically different, many codes of behaviour are not applicable to women at all. Furthermore, the attitude toward women is ambivalent. There are songs of praise to enlightened nuns and laywomen but there are also countless diatribes concerning the female gender as such.

Unless stated otherwise, we use "monk" below for monks and nuns, and "lay-follower" for laymen and laywomen.

In terms of both form and content, the Avashyakas represent a special development within early Jaina literature. Together, the six Avashyaka chapters form the Avashyaka-Sutra (sutrameaning in this case "manual"), and this Avashyaka-Sutra is a small work of the Jaina canon. Strictly speaking, it is midway between a manual for ritual and a literary composition. It consists mainly of moral declarations: I repent my sins; I shall abstain from sin; I must not sin. But all this is backed by dogmatic concepts, and the Avashyaka-Sutra is both productand origin of dogmatic and ritualistic developments. It is a compilation of earlier and contemporary lore, and by way of its structure and contents it is at the root of numerous later developments -- literature and practised ritual. What we attempt is a sort of time exposure of a single phase -- the "Avashyaka-Sutra" as we have it -- without references to all its sources and without references to the later developments.

Below we present the full text of the first three Avashyakas: Prakrit text (Middle Indian -- different from Sanskrit or Old Indian) and an English translation. Introductory paragraphs have been added. This is followed by the presentation of the Avashyakas IV to VI. These are more copious; thus we had to be selective for brevity's sake. The titles of the six Avashyakas are in agreement with their contents, and they belong to the vocabulary of the texts. The meaning of "Samayika" (Avashyaka I) is not quite clear, however, and the word must remain untranslated.

The Avashyaka tradition was first studied by ERNST LEUMANN [1] (1859-1931) and in the German version we have reprinted LEUMANN's German translation of Avashyaka I-III. The present English translation follows LEUMANN's rendering in a general matter, but the actual wording is directly derived from the original Prakrit (Sutra text) and Sanskrit (commentary text). LEUMANN's deep study of Vandana (Avashyaka III) demonstrates the complexity of the subject and the need for further investigations.


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