Importance assigned to five vratas
The second distinguishing feature of the ethical code prescribed for the Jainas is the importance assigned to the five main vratas or vows in the life not only of an ascetic but also of a householder. The five main vows of ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha form the basis on which the superstructure of Jaina ethics has been raised. They give a definite outlook on life and create a particular type of mental attitude. The very essence of Jaina philosophy is transformed into action in the shape of observance of these five vows.
Though these vows on their face appear to be mere abstentions from injury, falsehood, theft, unchastity and worldly attachments. their implications are really extensive and they permeate the entire social life of the community. This is because it has been enjoined that these five faults should be avoided in three ways termed as (a) krta, that is, a person should not commit any fault himself; (b) karita, that is, a person should not incite others to commit such an act; and (c) anumodita, that is, a person should not even approve of it subsequent to its commission by others.
In view of this extension of the field of avoidance of five faults, we find that detailed rules of conduct have been laid down for observance in the matter of abstentions from these faults in the following way:
Himsa or injury has been defined as hurting of the vitalities caused through want of proper care and caution. But the meaning is not limited to this definition alone. It is stated that piercing, binding, causing pain, overloading and starving or not feeding at proper times, are also forms of himsa and as such these forms must be avoided.
Asatya, i.e., falsehood, in simple terms, is to speak hurtful words. But the meaning is further extended, and spreading false doctrines, revealing the secrets and deformities of others, backbiting, making false documents, and breach of trust are also considered as forms of falsehood, and therefore, these should be abstained from.
Chaurya, i.e., theft, is to take anything which is not given. But a wide meaning is attached to the term theft. That is why imparting instruction on the method of committing theft, receiving stolen property, evading the injunction of the law (by selling things at inordinate prices), adulteration, and keeping false weights and measures, are all considered as forms of theft and one must guard oneself against them.
Abrahma, i.e., unchastity, is also considered to have several forms. As a result, matchmaking (bringing about marriages, as a hobby), unnatural gratification, indulging in voluptuous speech, visiting immoral married women, and visiting immoral unmarried women are all forms of unchastity, and they should be avoided.
The fault of Parigraha, i.e., worldly attachments, consists in desiring more than what is needed by an individual. Hence accumulating even necessary articles in large numbers, expressing wonder at the prosperity of another, excessive greed, transgressing the limits of possession, and changing the proportions of existing possessions are all forms of parigraha, and therefore these should be discarded.
It may be noted that the last vow of aparigraha or parigraha-parimana is very distinctive as it indirectly aims at economic equalization by peaceful prevention of undue accumulation of capital in individual hands. Further, in this vow it is recommended that a householder should fix, beforehand, the limit of his maximum belongings, and should, in no case, exceed it. If he ever happens to earn more than that limit, it is also recommended that he must spend it away in charities, the best and recognized forms of which are four viz., distribution of medicine, spread of knowledge, provision for saving lives of people in danger, and feeding the hungry and the poor.
Obviously these five vows are of a great social value as they accord a religious sanction to some of the most important public and private interests and rights which are, in modern times, safeguarded by the laws of the state. It has been specifically pointed out by Jaina scholars that a due observance of the vows would save a man from application of almost any of the sections of the Indian Penal Code.