Ethics of Jainism: Everything You Should Know

How much do you really know about the Jain religion? Few systems of belief are as practical (depending on your point of view) in real-world values as Jainism. The world’s two most prominent religions — Christianity and Islam — have histories steeped in violence. But not Jainism. Although Jainism is much less popular and lesser known than the aforementioned, the religion’s teachings are ancient, and its believers firmly devout in their practices and traditions. 

Jainism is built on a foundation of careful ethics and strong morals.

There are two basic paths for a Jain to follow: Ascetic and Sravaka. The former describes the path for those who wish to devote themselves entirely to Jain philosophy by disregarding typical human indulgences. The latter describes the path for those who wish to build and maintain a successful Jain household. But what is the core principle of both paths? Jains must inflict no injury; not to the people with whom they interact on a daily basis or to the very microorganisms underneath each footfall. 

In order to achieve such a passive lifestyle, the ethics of Jainism demand that each ascetic follower take and uphold five strict vows: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha. Taken together, these vows ask Jains to adhere to a peaceful, truthful life without giving into the need for material possession.

The Purusarthasiddhyupaya (yes, a real Jain tex) reads: “All these subdivisions (injury, falsehood, stealing, unchastity, and attachment) are himsa as indulgence in these sullies the pure nature of the soul. Falsehood etc. have been mentioned separately only to make the disciple understand through illustrations.”

In addition to the five major vows, ascetic Jains are expected to uphold two lesser vows as well: guna vratas and siksa vratas. Sravaka Jains are expected to uphold minor versions of the aforementioned five vows and the minor vows as well. Guna vratas means vows for merit while sinksa vratas means vows for discipline.

The guna vratas are vows that limit a believer’s limits, mostly physical. They allow a follower to break or bend several of the major vows in order to keep the lifestyle of a householder, which, for example, could include inadvertently slaughtering those pesky microorganisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye. This minor vow also limits a follower’s vulgarity and material possession at home.

Siksa vratas is all about one’s resolve. For example, a person might transgress by placing consumable food on a surface inhabited by microorganisms when it was not necessary (i.e. such as placing that food on a leaf before consumption).

By now, you can probably ascertain that Jainism is strict. Non-Jains fail to uphold typical Jain practice and tradition simply by enjoying a meal in the wrong way or made up of the wrong foods! (You also may have guessed that the Jain diet is indeed vegetarian!)