We previously discussed four of the five primary Jain vows. These principles (or rules of conduct) are: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (chastity), and Aparigraha (or non-possession). Now, we’ll discuss what last vow on that list actually means. Per usual, there’s more to the vow than one might expect, and meeting expectations can be difficult to achieve.
Other religions also deemphasize material wealth or possessions. Christianity, for example, rose to prominence within the Roman Empire at a time when the income inequality gap was expanding at a surprisingly fast rate. Along came a few strange groups who proposed that it wasn’t actually a bad thing to be poor — in fact, it was giving up earthly possessions that set one on the path to heaven at the end of one’s life.
Jainism holds to similar beliefs — but Jains certainly take them more seriously than the average modern-day Christian.
Aparigraha maintains that one should hold onto as few possessions as possible. They shouldn’t “grasp” for more than they need. They shouldn’t be greedy. That doesn’t mean a person cannot hold anything they might not literally need to continue living. A Jain can hold only what is important. That might mean different things depending on where a person is in life.
This particular vow connects to the other four because it is meant to remind followers of the importance of doing no harm and living in harmony with all other beings. Self-restraint is important because it prevents a person from seeking material gain at the expense of relationships or even the continued health of others we contact. Hurting others through greed wouldn’t just contradict Aparigraha — it would also break the vow of Ahimsa.
But non-possession to a Jain means more than just giving up material possessions. It means giving up emotional attachments too. It means giving up other pleasures, including sex for pleasure or over-eating for pleasure. To Jains, consumption should only occur when it is necessary for survival. It is unnecessary when it occurs due to ego. A Jain would never buy a large house to fill with ornate furniture and invite all the friends and family over to show off.
The irony of these vows is that sometimes con artists try to take advantage of the Jain lifestyle. Jains have the reputation for being very successful leaders in business, but also for using very little of their wealth to enrich their own lives — which makes their bank accounts temporarily full and their credit scores high. Identity theft is a common problem. A member of the Fullman firm acknowledged that Jain clients in Southern California weren’t uncommon.
Ancient Jain texts often list Brahmacarya as one of the ten virtues (which go beyond and elaborate on the five vows). The accumulation of wealth — even when incremental — is tied to jealousy and selfishness in real life as well as in religion. The Jains believe that Aparigraha is second only to Ahimsa in degree of importance to everyday life.