Vrata or vow is a (religious) rule (of behavior) observed with determination (for a particular or indefinite period) and it always indicates aversion or abstinence from doing foul or shameful acts or deeds and it reveals inclination or disposition towards doing good or virtuous acts or deeds. Jainism has laid down a number of such vows for actual observance and among them the twelve Vratas or vows are considered very significant both from religious and social point of view. Even among these twelve Vratas or vows, the first five vows are regarded as ‘main vows’ and the remaining seven vows are treated as ‘supplementary vows’.
The five main vratas or vows of Jainas are
- Ahimsa, i.e., to be free from injury
- Satya, i.e., to be free from falsehood
- Asteya, i.e., to be free from theft
- Brahmacharya, i.e., to be free from unchastity
- Aparigraha, i.e., to be free from worldly attachment
If these vratas or vows are very strictly observed they are known as ‘Mahavratas’, i.e., great or full vows and naturally these are meant for the ascetics. Laymen, however, cannot observe the vows so strictly and therefore, they are allowed to practice them so far as their conditions permit. The same vratas or vows when partially observed are termed as ‘Anuvratas’, i.e., small or partial vows.
Again, for the fixing of these five vows in the mind, there, are five kinds of Bhavanas or attendant meditations for each of the vows and every Jaina is expected to think over them again and again.
Further, every Jaina must meditate that the five faults meant to be avoided in these vows are pain personified and are of dangerous and censurable character in this as well as in the next world.
Moreover, every Jaina must meditate upon the following four virtues which are based upon the observance of these five vows :
- Maitri, i.e., Friendship with all living beings
- Pramoda, i.e., Delight at the sight of beings, better qualified or more advanced than ourselves on the path of liberation
- Karuna, i.e., compassion for the afflicted beings
- Madhyastha, i.e., Tolerance or indifference to those who are uncivil or ill-behaved
Along with these five main vows or vratas, there are seven Silavratas or supplementary vows. It has been asserted that just as the encircling walls guard towns, so do supplementary vows protect Anuvratas or small vows. Hence it has been specifically laid down that in order to practice the main vratas or vows, the Silavratas, supplementary vows, also must be practiced by the laity among the Jainas.
The seven Silavratas or supplementary vows are:
- Digvrata, i.e., Taking a lifelong vow to limit his worldly activity to fixed points in all directions
- Desavrata, i.e., Taking a vow to limit the above also for a limited area
- Anarthadanda-vrata, i.e., taking a vow not to commit purposeless sins
- Samayika, i.e., Taking a vow to devote particular time everyday to contemplation of the self for spiritual advancement
- Poshadhopavasa, i.e., Taking a vow to fast on four days of the month, namely, the two 8th and the two 14th days of the lunar fortnight
- Upabhoga-paribhoga-parimana, i.e., Taking a vow every day limiting one’s enjoyment of consumable and non-consumable things
- Atithi-samvibhaga, i.e., Taking a vow to take one’s food only after feeding the ascetics, or, in their absence, the pious householders
Out of these seven Silavratas or supplementary vows, the first three are called Gunavratas, i.e., multiplicative vows, because they do raise the value of the five main vows; and the remaining four vows are called Sikshavratas, i.e., disciplinary vows, because they are preparatory for the discipline of an ascetic life. Thus
- the five Anuvratas
- the three Gunavratas
- the four Sikshavratas
constitute the twelve vows of a layman. Further, it has been specially laid down that there are five aticharas, i.e., defects or partial transgressions for each of these twelve vratas or vows and that these aticharas have also to be avoided by the observers of these vows.
In addition to the above twelve vratas or vows, a Jaina layman is expected to practice in the last moment of his life the process of Sallekhana, or peaceful death. Sallekhana is described as the giving up of the body on the arrival of unavoidable calamity, distress, old age and disease, with a view to increase spiritual merit. This Sallekhana is added to act as an extra vow to the existing twelve vows of a householder. Like other vows, Sallekhana has also got five aticharas, i.e., partial transgressions which are to be avoided by a householder.
Further Jainism has laid down certain gunas or virtues which have to be assiduously (carefully) cultivated by the householders. The observance of the five anuvratas, i.e., small vows, and refraining from the use of three ‘makaras’, i.e., ‘m’s viz., ‘madya’, i.e., wine, ‘Mansa’, i.e., flesh and ‘madhu’, i.e., honey, are regarded as ‘ashta-mulagunas’, i.e., the eight basic or primary virtues of a householder. For minimizing injury to living beings, complete abstinence of wine, flesh and honey is advocated and every householder must necessarily possess these eight fundamental virtues.