Jain World
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  Prescription of Ethical Code
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  Importance assigned to five vratas
  Prominence given to Ahimsa
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Ethics of Jainism: Prescription of Ethical Code

Ethical code for householders

Ehical code for Ascetics

Prescription of Ethical Code

Ancient thinkers considered ethics as part of metaphysical and theological speculations and therefore made moral principles as part of their religion. In doing so, they tried to indicate the relationship between man and the universe, and his goal in life. Though man's conduct in society is the normal field of ethics, the Jaina thinkers have linked ethics with metaphysical ideas and ideals.

Jaina ethics is considered as the most glorious part of Jainism and it is simplicity itself. That is why some authors have described Jainism as Ethical Realism. In this ethics there is no conflict between man's duty to himself and to society. Here the highest good society is the highest good of the individual. According to Jainism the soul has to be evolved to the duty of helping others by example, advice, encouragement and help.

It is maintained that the first precept to a follower of Jainism is that he should possess and cultivate an intelligent and reasoned faith in that religion. This faith must be of right type and should be free from false notions about God, scriptures and preceptors. Such right faith or belief works as an inspiration for acquisition of right type in daily life. Hence along with laying down the path of salvation consisting of right belief, right knowledge and right conduct, Jainism has also prescribed the definite rules of conduct to be observed by its followers. All these rules of conduct are directed towards the main aim of achieving freedom of the soul from the karmic matter, i.e., attaining salvation. In view of this aim it is emphasized that Jaina ethics has for its end the realization of nirvana or moksa, i.e., salvation. To effect this end, the rules of conduct have to be observed and corresponding virtues have to be acquired.

It is pertinent to note that the scheme of Jaina ethics that is, the rules of conduct have been so designed that all persons would be in a position to follow them. Accordingly, the rules of conduct prescribed by Jainism have been divided into two categories, viz.,

  1. those prescribed for sravakas, i.e., householders or laymen, and

  2. those prescribed for munis, i.e., ascetics.

The rules of the first category are termed as sravaka- dharma or sagara-dharma and those of the second category are known as muni-dharma or anagara-dharma.

It is obvious that the rules laid down for the laity or householders are less rigid than those prescribed for ascetics because the householders have not renounced worldly activities for eking out their livelihood. The obvious reason for this differentiation is that a householder has to look after his family and adjust himself to the social and political conditions in which he lives. An ascetics, however, has no such limitation as he abandons all of them with the sole aim of pursuing a spiritual path. He can observe the vows fully as he is in full control of his senses and is in a position to curb his passions quite easily due to his religious learning and spiritual discipline.

Further, the followers of Jaina religion have been traditionally divided into four groups : sadhus or munis or yatis, i.e., the male ascetics; sadhvis or aryikas, i.e., female ascetics; sravakas, i.e., male laity or male householders, and sravikas, i.e., female laity or female householders.

Obviously, this division of followers of Jaina religion has been done according to sex and the strictness with which the members practice the injunctions laid down by Jaina religion. The rules of conduct prescribed for the first two categories of ascetics were almost identical and were to be observed with more strictness. Similar rules were enjoined upon the last two categories of laity but these are allowed to be practiced with less degree of strictness and according to one's own capacity. In each group the conduct was regulated by vows which every member was required to observe in his or her daily life.

Since the aim of the rules of conduct and vows prescribed for the sravakas and sravikas, is self-purification, it is but natural that they should be classified on the basis of their capacity. The sravakas is a term used to designate a layman. The sravaka is defined as srnoti iti sravakah, that is, the sravaka is a layman who srnoti, i.e., listen to and accordingly follows religious precepts. Obviously, the term sravka is used for a Jaina householder who has faith in his religion and is accustomed to put into practice the precepts of religion according to his capacity.

It is common experience that men and women differ in their capacity for intellectual grasp and firmness of will. Some Jaina thinkers have accordingly adopted a three-fold division of the sravakas as follows:

  1. Paksika sravaka is a layman who has a paksa, i.e., inclination, towards ahimsa, i.e., the basic principle of non-injury to living beings. He possesses samyaktva, i.e., firm faith in Jaina religion, and practices the mula-gunas, i.e., the basic or primary virtues of a Jaina householders, and also the anu-vratas, i.e., the small vows, prescribed for observance by a Jaina householder, and is assiduous in performing the puja, i.e., worship.

  2. Naisthika sravaka is a layman who pursues the path upwards through the pratimas, i.e., the stages of householder's life, till he reaches the last, that is the eleventh stage. At this nistha, i.e., culminating point, he quits the household life and practices ten kinds of dharma, i.e., virtues of the ascetics. It would seem that if he backslides he is downgraded to the stage of a paksika sravaka.

  3. Sadhaka sravaka is a layman who sadhayati, i.e., concludes his human incarnation in a final purification of the self by carrying out sallekhana, peaceful ritual death by fasting.

In view of his two-fold categorization of sravaka-dharma and muni-dharma, let us see the ethical code or rules of conduct prescribed both for the householders and the ascetics.

Ethical code for Householders

The ethical code prescribed for layman or householders is divided into the observance of twelve vratas or vows; eleven pratimas or stages in householder�s life, six avasykas or daily duties; and general principles of appropriate conduct.

As these rules of conduct for layman form the core of sravaka-dharma, it is necessary to have a proper understanding of these observances.

TWELVE Vratas or Vows

Vratas or a vow is a solemn resolve made after deliberation to observe a particular rule of conduct; it is made before a saint on his advice or voluntarily to protect oneself against possible lapses of conduct. The object is to control the mind and mold one's conduct along the spiritual path. The rules are such as are intended to protect the society from harm by projecting oneself on the righteous path. A vow affords stability to the will and guards its votary from the evils of temptation or of unguarded life; it gives purpose to life and healthy direction to our thoughts and actions. It helps the growth of self control and protects against the pitfalls of free life.

It is laid down that a layman should try to avoid the following five aticharas, i.e., short-comings, of faith before he begins to observe the vows which mark the first stage of right conduct : sanka, doubt or skeptic; kanksa, desire of sense pleasures; vichikitsa, disgust of anything, for example, with a sick or deformed person; anyadrsti-prasamsa, thinking admiringly of wrong believers; and anyadrsti-samstava, praising wrong believers.

The householders are expected to observe in their daily lives the following twelve vratas or vows consisting of : (A) five anu-vratas, i.e., small vows; (B) three guna-vratas, i.e., multiplicative vows, and (C) four siksa-vratas, i.e., disciplinary vows.

These vows form the central part of the ethical code and by their observance laymen can maintain constant progress in their spiritual career aimed at the attainment of final liberation.


The main five vows of the Jaina are as follows : (i) ahimsa, abstention from violence or injury to living beings, (ii) satya, abstention from false speech, (iii) asteya, abstention from theft, (iv) brahmacharya, abstention from sexuality or unchastity, and (v) aparigraha, abstention from greed for worldly possessions.

As regards the extent and intensity in the observance of these vratas it is stated that if these vows are strictly observed they are known as mahavratas, i.e., great vows and naturally these are meant for the ascetics. Laymen, however, cannot observe vows so strictly and therefore they are allowed to practice them so far as their conditions permit. Therefore, the same vratas, i.e., vows when partially observed are termed as anuvratas, i.e., small vows.

Again, for fixing of these five vows in the mind, there are five kinds of bhavanas, i.e., attendant meditations, for each of the vows, and every person is expected to think over them again and again.

Further, every person must meditate that five faults meant to be avoided in these five vows are in fact pain personified and are of dangerous and censurable character in this as well as in the next world.

Moreover, every person must meditate upon the following four virtues which are based upon the observance of these five vows : maitri, friendship with all living beings; pramoda, delight at the sight of beings better qualified or more advanced than ourselves on the path of liberation; kearny, compassion for the afflicted; and madhyasthya, tolerance or indifference to those who are uncivil or ill-behaved.

Furthermore, the observance of the five anuvratas, i.e., small vows, and refraining from the use of three `makaras' (three M's) namely madya (i.e., wine), mamsa, (i.e., flesh or meat) and madhu, (i.e., honey) are regarded as eight mula-gunas, i.e., the basic or primary virtues of a householder. For minimizing injury to living beings, complete abstinence of win, flesh and honey is advocated, and every householder must necessarily possess these eight primary or fundamental virtues.


In addition to five main vratas or vows, a house-holder is enjoined upon to practice three gunavratas, i.e., the multiplicative vows, which increase the value of the main vows. These three gunavratas are : (i) digvratas, taking a life-long vow to limit one's worldly activity to fixed points in all directions, (ii) desavarta, taking a vow to limit the above also to a limited area, and (iii) anarthadanda-vrata, taking a vow not to commit purposeless sinful actions, or to abstain from wanton sinful activities.


Along with the five anuvratas and three gunavratas, a householder is required to practice four siksa-vratas, i.e., disciplinary vows which are devised to prepare an individual to follow the discipline prescribed for the ascetics. The four siksavratas are : (i) Samayika is taking a vow to devote particular time everyday to contemplation or meditation of the self for spiritual advancement, (ii) Prosadhopavasa is taking a vow to fast on four days of the month, namely, the two eighth and two fourteenth days of the month, (iii) Upabhoga-paribhoga-parimana is taking a vow everyday limiting one's enjoyment of consumable and non-consumable things, (iv) Atithi-samvibhaga is taking a vow to take one's food only after feeding the ascetics, or, in their absence, the pious householders.

It may be noted that three gunavratas and four siksavratas are grouped together and are known as silavratas, i.e., supplementary vows because these vows perform the work of supplementing or protecting the five main anuvratas just as towns are protected or guarded by the encircling walls built around them.

Thus the five anuvratas, the three gunavratas and the four siksavratas constitute the twelve vratas or vows of a householder. There are five aticharas, i.e., defects or partial transgressions, for each of these twelve vows and they are to be avoided by the observers of these vows.

In addition to the above twelve vows a householder is expected to practice in the last moment of his life the process of sallekhana, i.e., peaceful or voluntary death. A layman is expected not only to live a disciplined life but also to die bravely a detached death. This voluntary death is to be distinguished from suicide which is considered by Jainism as a cowardly sin. It is laid down that when faced by calamity, famine, old age and disease against which there is no remedy, a pious householder should peacefully relinquish his body, being inspired by a higher religious ideal. It is with a quiet and detached mood that he would face death bravely and voluntarily. This sallekhana is added as an extra vow to the existing twelve vows of a householder. Like other vows, the vow of sallekhana has also got five aticharas, i.e., partial transgressions, which are to be avoided by a householder.

The most significant feature of these twelve vows is that by practicing these vows a layman virtually participates, to a limited extent and for a limited period time, in the routine of an ascetic without actually renouncing the world. It is obvious that such practices maintain a close tie between the laymen and the ascetics as both are actuated by the same motive and are moved by the same religious ideals.

The Eleven Pratimas or Stages

A layman who is desirous of attaining to greater heights in ethical and spiritual progress can do so by regulating his way of life. The word pratima is used to designate the stages of ethical progress in a householder's life. By treading the path of progress, a layman acquires capacity for spiritual advancement. The pratimas or stages are closely connected with the twelve vratas or vows prescribed for laymen.

Further, the householder�s life has been divided into eleven pratimas or stages. These pratimas form a series of duties and performances, the standard and duration of which rise periodically and which finally culminate in an attitude resembling monkshood. Thus the pratimas rise by degrees and every stage includes all the virtues practiced in those preceding it. The conception of eleven pratimas reveals in the best manner the rules of conduct prescribed for the laymen. Hence, the pratimas are like the rungs of ladder: a layman desirous of spiritual progress must mount the ladder step until he reaches the top, that is, the highest stage of spirituality as a layman.