Yamas and Their Significance in Spiritual Life

Yogi in Meditation

by Jayaram V

Why the monks are prohibited from certain actions? Find out the importance of yamas or restraints in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism

Spiritual life is centered on the idea of self-purification, for which the practice of virtue is important. Self-purification removes the impurities that are present in the mind and body, so that one can discern truths about oneself and the world. Without discernment one cannot make right choices, or safeguard oneself from the risks that are inherent in spiritual practice. For that, the mind must be cleansed. As the Yoga Sutras proclaim, upon the destruction of impurities, the lamp of knowledge arises, and one becomes illumined with pure consciousness in which truths become self-evident due to discernment (viveka khyati).

Self-purification is thus a transformative effort, in which both restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas) are important. Restraints are absentations or what should not be done, meant to control negative and harmful tendencies and self-destructive behavior that prolong the suffering and bondage. On the other hand, observances promote positive, divine qualities that result in the predominance of sattva, knowledge and skillfulness in the effort for liberation. Both are complimentary. In the following discussion we will examine the restraints or yamas, which are prescribed in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The five restraints of Yoga

The Yoga tradition of Hinduism prescribes five restraints for the purification of the mind and body, as stated in the Yogasutras (2.30), which are listed below. In the practice of yoga, the yamas come first because they serve as the foundation for righteous conduct. Secondly their practice is vital to the practice of all other limbs of yoga.

1. Non-injury (ahimsa): This is considered the virtue of virtues and the most important of all yamas. Its practice involves compassion towards all living beings, not eating meat, and refraining from malice, hatred, cruel, violent and hurtful behavior.

2. Truthfulness (satya): It means speaking truth as one knows, discerning truth, and not speaking lies. One should avoid deceit, deception and falsehood in thought, speech, and deed. At the same time, the practice of truthfulness should not interfere with the practice of nonviolence. In other words, one has to be kind, careful, and considerate while speaking truth so that it may not cause hurt, harm, or injury to others.

3. Non-stealing (asteya): Strictly speaking, asteya means not desiring and not taking, even mentally, what is not given or what does not belong to one. Those who practice renunciation should be even more careful since they take an oath to renounce all worldly possessions and keep their belongings to the most minimum. Besides, they should live with the awareness that all that exists here belongs to God, and none can claim the ownership of it.

4. Celibacy (brahmacharya): It is the practice of restraining the sexual organs and refraining from all kinds of sexual activity such as thinking, talking, engaging in mirth about sex, planning and plotting to indulge in sex, looking at the opposite sex with lust, and performing sexual intercourse. For many people it is the most difficult and troublesome restraint to practice, and the source of physical and mental disturbance.

5. Non-covetousness (aparigraha): It means refraining from hoarding unnecessary possessions. A spiritual aspirant should renounce whatever is not necessary, and own only a few worldly possessions which are essential for his daily needs and survival. He cannot plan for his future or secure it through possessions. Aparigraha, thus, is an important restraint, which helps its practitioners overcome attachments, worldliness, selfishness, greed, and injury or hurt to others.

The Ten Restraints of Buddhism

In Buddhism, fully ordained monks have to follow hundreds of rules to regulate their daily conduct and engage in community service. However, novice monks and nuns do not have to go through the rigors of monkshood. They have to practice a few rules, as part of their training and preparation, to practice right living on the Eightfold Path which will lead to right knowledge, right thinking, right effort, and right awareness.

Such rules help them gradually overcome inner resistance, break past habits, deal with the problems caused by past behavior, so that they can mentally prepare themselves for the monastic life. They also lead to happiness, joy, peace, concentration, knowledge, discernment, detachment, and freedom from remorse, shame and guilt. The ten precepts of Buddhism for lay followers are listed below.

1. Refraining from hurting, harming and destroying living beings: This is the same as the practice of non-injury or nonviolence. Followers of Buddhism are prohibited from killing animals for enjoyment or for food. They have the permission to eat certain types of meat when it is offered to them without asking.

2. Refraining from taking what is not given: This is the same as asteya which was discussed before. The Buddha suggested that a monk should avoid even begging if possible because members of the community might feel compelled to give out of respect when a monk approached them with a begging bowl. Therefore, he laid down that a monk should not ask for anything unless there was an absolute need such as a new robe when the existing one was lost or torn beyond repair.

3. Refraining from sexual activity: The novices are forbidden from all kinds of sexual misconduct, including sexual intercourse, intimacy, physical contact, flirting, propositioning, offering oneself, matchmaking, meeting or talking to women in private, watching nude women or nude images, visiting pleasure houses, or traveling in their company.

4. Refraining from incorrect speech: It means one should not indulge in frivolous talk, gossiping, backbiting, criticism, calumny, falsehood, or talking about kings, warriors, wars, violence, destructive weapons, food and drink, sex, crime and criminals, speculative subjects such as the existence of God or soul, women, worldly pleasures, etc.

5. Refraining from intoxicating drinks and drugs: Neither monks nor the novices are allowed to take any intoxicating drinks nor substances. The Buddha forbade them because they would numb the mind, cause stupor and interfere with the practice of mindfulness, besides resulting in unskillful actions, delusion, negligence, loss of control, and carelessness which would distract them from the path and delay their progress.

6. Refraining from eating at forbidden time: Eating food after the noon time is strictly forbidden for Buddhist monks. This is an ancient rule prescribed by the Buddha himself in the earlier days of Buddhism. The monks and lay followers are allowed to eat only between dawn and the noon, eating appreciatively and with gratitude whatever food they are able to gather during their morning alms rounds. If for some reason, they cannot eat before noon, they should fast and not eat until the next day.

7. Refraining from sensuous entertainment: During the days of the Buddha the monks were not allowed to visit any village or town between the noon and the next day morning but stay in the monastery. They were prohibited from going out to see or enjoy any entertainment. Singing, dancing and music happened to be the only forms of entertainment in those days. However, in today’s context, monks have to avoid many forms of entertainment such watching films, television programs, shows, games, plays, and videos, or listening to radio, talk shows, etc.

8. Refraining from beautifying the body: Monks have to lead austere lives and avoid wrongful behavior (anachara) which would bring them disrepute in the eyes of the public. For example, the rules for monks suggest that they cannot decorate their bodies with ointments, makeup, mascara, garlands, jewelry, and ornaments, nor wear expensive clothing, nor use sandals, decorated walking sticks, swords, turbans, perfumes, lotions, powders, creams, etc.

9. Refraining from using high seats and bed: Monks are prohibited from using expensive and luxurious furnishings for personal comfort, resting, or sleeping. The Buddha laid down that monks should not be addicted to high and luxurious furnishings such as oversized couches, ornamental beds, luxurious coverlets, expensive quilts, and exotic carpets, rugs, headrests, footrests, etc.

10. Refraining from accepting valuables and expensive gifts: A bhikku is an almsman who has to depend upon others for his needs. Therefore, he cannot own anything that is not necessary for his survival. Tradition demands that a monk has to stay free from the corrupting influence of wealth and free donations. He has the permission to take the four necessities of life namely clothing, food, shelter, and medicine when they are offered and needed, but he should not seek or accept any gifts from others for personal gain or enjoyment.

The 12 vows of Jainism

The lay followers of Jainism have to undertake 12 vows to live a righteous life, cultivate virtue, conquer desires and practice a fuller and perfect life, which will lead to liberation and cessation of karma. The 12 vows are essentially restraints (yamas), which will help them avoid reckless conduct that may harm them, their families, or community, and will take them closer to the life of the Jinas. Of them, the first five are called main vows, and the next seven are called ancillary vows.

The first five vows are important and obligatory. For the monks or the advanced practitioners, they are great vows (mahavratas), which have to be strictly and completely followed, without any exception or leniency. However, the lay followers have the permission to practice them partially to the extent conditions permit them. Hence, in their case they are called small or partial vows (anuvratas).

The remaining seven vows are ancillary. Of them the first three are merit vows (guna vratas) and the remaining four are disciplinary vows (siksha vratas). They are common to both lay and advanced followers. Their practice will minimize sinful actions, make room for exceptions and facilitate the practice of the first five vows. The twelve vows and their importance are explained below.

1. Nonviolence (Ahimsa): The vow stipulates that the lay followers should not intentionally hurt or harm any living being, be it plant, animals, humans, insects, or even microorganisms, by thought, word or deed, nor help others to engage in such acts, nor approve any actions committed by others. Some actions of self-defense for the sake society or others are condoned, but the motive is important. There should be no selfish motive when one engages even in acts of self-dense. Since souls may exist everywhere one has to be careful even while performing ordinary duties such as walking, drinking water, sleeping, burning wood, eating or cooking food, etc.

2. Truthfulness (Satya): In Jainism the practice of truthfulness is not confined to mere speech or not speaking lies. One should cultivate the purity of mind to perceive the truth of things as they are, without delusion and confusion. A person should avoid falsehood in all forms, including giving false evidence, cheating, deception, denying the ownership of others. However, as in other traditions, the practice of truthfulness should not cause injury, hurt or harm to others. When it is unavoidable, one should maintain silence.

3. Non stealing (Asteya): In Jainism also taking what does not belong to one is considered stealing. People who undertake the vow should not steal, take the property of another, nor take things even if their owners are not known. They should not cheat or use deceptive or illegal means to acquire property, nor encourage or approve others who indulge in similar acts. They should remain satisfied with what they have and not hanker after worldly things for the sheer pleasure of ownership.

4. Celibacy (Bhrahmacharya) Anuvrat: The practice of celibacy is meant to conserve and transform sexual energy and arrest the sinful karma which arises from sexual and lustful acts. Those who undertake this vow have to remain celibate and avoid sensual relationships of all kinds in thought, word, and deed. Married people and householders have the permission to engage in sexual intercourse with their lawfully wedded wives, but even they are advised to exercise restraint and avoid excessive indulgence in sexual pleasure.

5. Non-covetousness (aparigraha): The purpose of this vow is to overcome greed and possessiveness and look for peace and happiness within oneself rather than in the things of the external world. Jainism recognizes the perils of owning and developing attachment to material possessions. It rightly affirms that seeking security by having material possessions is a delusion, which must be overcome. To overcome the delusion, it prescribes the vow of non-possession or non-covetousness according to which one should limit material possessions strictly to meet the basic needs and nothing more. Any surplus or left over should be given away in charity or used for common good.

6. The vow of directions (dikvrata): In this, a person undertakes the vow to limit his worldly activities to certain directions, such as north, south, east, west, etc. He cannot commit any sins or engage in worldly activities outside those directions. The vow does not free him from observing the vow of nonviolence, which has to be strictly followed everywhere, even in the directions for which he obtains limited permission through the vow.

7. The vow of places (desa vrata): This is the same as above. However, the permission is not for direction, but for a specific area or areas and for particular days and time of the week. In other words, after taking the vow, one should not engage in any worldly activity, sinful actions, or enjoyment, or travel to any place beyond the specific area, city, street, house or location.

8. The vow of avoiding sin from worthless actions (anartha danda vrata): Followers have to undertake this vow to avoid the possibility of incurring sin, which may from worthless or frivolous actions and which can be easily avoided by discretion and care. Hence, this vow is of great importance to practice virtue and dharma and avoid foolish behavior. Those who undertake it should refrain from superfluous actions such as gossiping, joking, flirting, backbiting, thinking evil thoughts, thinking ill of others, abusing, criticizing, selling weapons or sinful objects, reading objectionable material, or watching useless shows and television programs, and so on.

9. The vow of meditation (samyaka vrata): Both lay and advanced followers have to take the vow that every day they will spare time to practice meditation on the Self, read religious literature, pray, or engage in any other religious activity. The minimum prescribed time is 48 minutes. However, one can spend more time or repeat the practice many times during the day according to convenience. Samya means equanimity or sameness. The regular practice of meditation, concentration and religious service will help the mind stabilize in peace, equanimity, discernment, detachment, and renunciation and prepare the practitioners for the life of complete asceticism and renunciation.

10. The vow of fasting (poshada upavasa vrata): This vow prepares the lay followers to live like monks on specific days in a month and experience the life of a monk. The training helps them overcome any anxiety or resistance which they may have towards ascetic life and feel comfortable about it. A lay follower is required to choose at least three or four days in month, during which he should retire to a secluded place and observe complete fasting, besides practicing all the five great vows without any exception, just as the monks do. He is also required to spend time in contemplation, meditation, self-study, prayers, and worship. The vow helps lay followers to train themselves for the life of monks and practice virtues.

11. The vow of enjoying food and comforts (bhoga upgabhoga vrata): This vow allows the followers to enjoy, strictly according to the need, certain consumables such as food, drinks, fruit and flowers, and some comforts such as cloths, ornaments, furniture, vehicles, carriages, buildings, etc., which are otherwise considered sinful since they produce sinful karma. However, the observance of this vow should not contravene the main vows of non-covetousness and non-stealing.

12. The vow to share food with guests (athidhi samvibhaga vrata): The vow stipulates that one should eat food only after sharing it with others or after feeding ascetics, respectful elders in the family, or pious people. No special preparations need to be made to make the offering. Whatever food is prepared for oneself, which is sinless and appropriate for the monks, out of that only the offering should be apportioned and served, with reverence and right intentions. The vow helps the lay followers overcome their selfishness, acquire merit, avoid a part of the sin which they would have incurred for cooking, eating and enjoying the food all by themselves.


No one can practice spiritual life without discipline. The restraints and the vows provide clarity to the novices as what should be done or not done and where to draw the line. They inculcate discipline, break the barriers of resistance caused by the gunas, desires, and attachments, and help the mind stabilize. As we have seen, some restraints are common to all the three traditions, while some are specific to each. The restraints that are common to all are mainly five, nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-covetousness. They are obligatory and essential for self-purification. All other vows facilitate the process and help the aspirants progress on the path. Of the five great vows, nonviolence is considered the highest, since all others lead to it only.

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