The fourfold restraint of the Jains (DN2 , MN56)

In DN 2 and MN 56 we find a description of the so-called “four-fold restraint” (cātuyāmasaṃvarasaṃvut) ascribed to the Jains, in particular their leader, Mahāvīra. The passage does not seem to equate directly with any known Jain teachings. Given that their early texts were lost, it’s unclear if this is a genuine memory of an authentic Jain teaching, or a somewhat garbled, perhaps satirical, teaching ascribed to them by the Buddhists.

I won’t review the various translations, commentarial interpretations, or parallels here; suffice to say that I don’t find any of them hugely compelling. In my interpretation, I will endeavor to find a reading that is gracious to both the Buddhist and Jaina traditions. That is, I will assume that it is a genuine Jaina practice which makes sense in terms of their broader philosophy, and that this is not being misrepresented by the Buddhist texts.

The key term is vāri, which may be a pun with the two senses of “water” and “restraint”. However, given that the dominant sense of the word in Pali is water, that rules regarding water are common in Jainism, and that the terms make sense in a watery context, I will accept that this is the primary meaning.

sabbavārivārito: Here vārita is a causitive, meaning “is held back or obstructed by”. I interpret this as referring to the Jain practice of not swimming in rivers or otherwise crossing water in a way that might harm the life therein.
sabbavāriyutto: A common sense of yutta is “devotion, committment”, and here I suggest it refers to an ascetic’s caring for and dedication to looking after water, due to the life forms it contains.
sabbavāridhuto: Dhuta is well-known as the Pali dhutaṅga, austere practices. It is based on a root “to shake off”. However as a technical term it is not well established in the EBTs, nor, it seems, in the Jain texts. There is a chapter titled dhuyaṁ in the Ācaraṅga, however the term itself only appears in the chapter in a vague sense (“the doctrine of dhuya”). Jacobi titled the text “cleansing” and Pali translators seem to have followed this. However, there is nothing really about cleansing specifically in the chapter. Rather, it concerns letting go, renunciation, or “shaking off” worldly things generally. It may also be related to the Jain practice of not using towels, heat, or other such harmful methods of drying the body (if, by accident, they happen to fall in water). They are just supposed to dry off naturally.
sabbavāriphuṭo: Phuṭa means “spread, pervade”, and in Buddhist texts is used in this sense with water in the jhana similes. But it is also used in the sense of worms or little creatures that devour a corpse (Thag 5.1, Thag 6.4). Perhaps it refers to the fact that the body is pervaded by water containing little creatures, regarding which a Jain ascetic must still practice non-harming.

So my translation is:

Take a Jain ascetic who may be restrained in the fourfold restraint: obstructed by all water, devoted to all water, shaking off all water, pervaded by all water.


I totally see what you’re doing here, but I really think it was intentionally satirical, and a quite genius satire at that. So in one way it means exactly what you just said, but in another way it means that the jains are:
obstructed by restraint (their intense asceticism gets in the way)
committed to restraint
letting go of restraint (because they’re goal is actually to let go, similar to buddhism)
suffused with restraint (because it is actually their wrong practice that is keeping them from nibbana)
I also think even the water take on it is a satire, making fun of them for not being able to go in water, but literally being made of it (suffused, pervaded).
So the joke is really quite clever, and it really shows how jainism, though similar in many ways to buddhism, is certainly not buddhism, or the true Dhamma. It is strange to think though, it’s as if a counterfeit Dhamma came to be before the actual Dhamma itself. This is all my perspective of course, I always could be incorrect in this.


Doesn’t the Buddha in a sutta make fun of those ascetics who are cleansed by water where he says the fish would be more purer than them? :slightly_smiling_face:

with metta

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Well, it’s a possibility, and we know the Buddha did use satire quite frequently when treating those of other religions, including the Jains; notably in talking of how Mahavira, despite claiming to know everything, still gets bitten by a dog!

But I’m not seeing anything in this context to specifically indicate that satire is meant here. The language seems quite formal and appropriate here, and I can’t think of any narrative context that would indicate satire is meant. Is there something I’m missing?

This is just an example, I know, but I can’t see why this would be an object of satire. The whole point of Jainism is compassion and non-harming, and the root of that is recognizing that there is a similarity between oneself and others. So they’re saying, “I am made of water, this water is alive and consciousness, and it is similar to water outside me which is also alive and conscious, therefore I should strive to avoid harming it”. While this philosophy may or may not be correct, I can’t see that it’s something deserving of satire: it’s quite beautiful really. What the Buddha satirized was some of the extreme claims and practices of Jainism.


Well I certainly trust your analysis more than mine. I guess the only reason I thought so was because of the two-fold meaning I saw with the word water and restraint being the same or similar. There is obviously the possibility that I’m just reading too deeply into something that isn’t really there. Also, I actually wasn’t thinking that it was the Buddha who was being sardonic, but more so the compilers of this particular sutta, only because just as you said, this would be a seemingly low blow attack against the Jains themselves, something the Buddha I don’t think was known for.


Anyone who reads up on the Jains in the EBT can see that it’s a weird relationship. They are a competing sect centered around non-violence and yet - according to the EBT - destined for a horrible rebirth, with an influential leader who is mentioned quite a bit. But there are enough inconsistencies to see a prominent role of the compilers and editors as @jimisommer argues.

For example the death story of Nataputta in MN 56 is ridiculous:

Then, since the Nigantha Nataputta was unable to bear this honour done to the Blessed One, hot blood then and there gushed from his mouth.

Also there is the claim of omniscience that appears in AN 3.74, AN 9.38, MN 14, MN 101. In my view it’s an AN source that found its way into the MN. Anyhow, the Buddha doesn’t react consistently to it.

At one place, as @sujato mentions the Buddha ridicules Nataputta for it (MN 76, without mentioning him by name but the reference is rather clear). First of all this text is not backed up by another piece of AN or SN. But more importantly, since it’s very unlikely that Buddha and Nataputta actually met, this ridicule would be based on hearsay - and usually the texts are quite good in telling us what is based on hearsay or firsthand experience.

In contrast, in AN 9.38 where the Buddha is confronted with the supposed claim of Nataputta’s omniscience he deems it as irrelevant and goes on to teach the Dhamma - a much more noble approach…

About the four restraints, it might well be that it means water since the Niganthas had a special relationship to it (boiling, straining, not-swimming etc). All-in-all it’s just regrettable that we don’t have more doctrinal positions on the Niganthas in the EBT.

A few practices are described in the Greek source of Strabo, Geographica XV, and we can assume that some Jains are meant:

Onesicritus [a companion of Alexander] found, at the distance of 20 stadia from the city, fifteen men standing in different postures, sitting or lying down naked, who continued in these positions until the evening, and then returned to the city. The most difficult thing to endure was the heat of the sun, which was so powerful, that no one else could endure without pain to walk on the ground at mid-day with bare feet.


The most interesting thing to me is the remarkable similarity between the two. There are obviously major doctrinal positions that they totally missed and thankfully the Buddha came along and corrected, but their meditative practice is really quite impressive considering. They give different names to certain terms, and use some others differently, but quite often you can do less than strenuously mental gymnastics to reconcile the two. They also seem to practice meditation much more heroically than most buddhist today. It makes me wonder, if some of them would see their faults and start practicing in the way the Buddha taught, they might reach awakening more than most of us!

I am totally unaware of what Jaina meditation actually is. Do you have any reliable source for that?

As far as I know, the logic of their contemplative efforts is mostly based on the numbing effects of pain. They do then take that numbness as an indicator that the soul is being stripped of the kamma particles/substance which effectively stops it from floating up to the roof of the universe and sticking there. Yep, this is what liberation means to them: :sweat_smile:

According to Jain texts, the liberated pure soul (Siddha) goes up to the summit of universe (Siddhashila) and dwells there in eternal bliss.
– Wikipedia

I see no way to reconcile this crazy world view to the dependent origination-centered spiritual path Buddhism is all about.

Hence, I do really doubt any Jaina “meditator” (or masochist?!) has any chance to prosper in terms of Buddhist meditation without giving up completely their path of pain and heroic endurance.

By the way, we see in MN36 that this is exactly what the Boddhisattva did and allowed awakening to take place within himself:

“I thought: ‘Whatever recluses or brahmins in the past have experienced painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this.
And whatever recluses and brahmins in the future will experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this.
And whatever recluses and brahmins at present experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is none beyond this.
But by this racking practice of austerities I have not attained any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to enlightenment?’

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realisation: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’

“I thought: ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states?’ I thought: ‘I am not afraid of that pleasure since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states.’

“I considered: ‘It is not easy to attain that pleasure with a body so excessively emaciated. Suppose I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and porridge.’ And I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and porridge.
“Now when I had eaten solid food and regained my strength, then quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.

“With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, I entered upon and abided in the second jhāna…With the fading away as well of rapture…I entered upon and abided in the third jhāna…With the abandoning of pleasure and pain…I entered upon and abided in the fourth jhāna…But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.


The old Jaina sources unfortunately don’t have much of meditation instructions in the Buddhist sense. Later texts have the notion of vitarka & vicara, but it might well come from Buddhism. Still whatever the two precisely mean, everyone who attempts meditation deals from the beginning with thoughts and the seemingly endless movements of the mind so it’s not necessary that the Buddha came up with these notions of the very first Jhana. So even if I wanted to numb myself I would come across them without necessarily developing bliss.

I’m highly skeptical about this passage (just an opinion), because these biographical claims here and in MN 12 are not backed up by other sources and for my taste it carries a bit too much the argument of ‘been-there, done-that’. So Buddhist followers wouldn’t need to worry about these practices, because the Buddha did it all to no avail.

Asceticism in Buddhism is awkward. We revere Mahakassapa for it, and are in awe hearing the feat of Japanese and Korean monks sitting for ten hours straight. On the other hand there is the strong notion of its pointlessness and ‘why should I do this to myself?’

What we tend to forget here is that whatever asceticism someone practices they tackle one of the big obstacles for progress, i.e. ‘I am the body’ and our almost hopeless exposure to pleasure-seeking and displeasure-avoidance. In a good case scenario an ascetic might come to the conclusion that s/he is not the body, nor the feelings just from that practice. So I tend to agree with @jimisommer that ascetics who switch to Buddhist views might progress faster than others if they are mentally flexible.


Thanks for sharing your point of view. I above just created a separate topic to discuss this.

Please kindly share with us your reasons for skepticism and as well, if possible, what could be the argument to take those accounts as legit.

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IMO the Buddha shredded their doctrines but actually said to keep supporting the persons, even after their supporters turned to the Buddha’s teachings. :man_shrugging:

with metta

I was reading about Jainism and came across the fact that when referring to the practice of Jains Buddhist scriptures only mention four key spiritual principles, while current Jain tradition has five principles.

This is taken by some scholars as evidence that the Jainism in practice in the time of Buddha was still traditionally linked to the teachings of Pārśvanātha / Pārśva, which was framed around four restraints: ahimsa, aparigraha, achaurya/asteya and satya. And it was only with time that the fifth principle of brahmacharya introduced by Mahavira became mainstream.

Nevertheless, when I re-read the essay above written by bhante @sujato, I am puzzled by how are scholars able to come up with the aforementioned hypothesis given that the fourfold restraints mentioned in DN2 are not exactly aligned with the hypothetical pre-mahavira vows of non-violence, non-greediness, non-stealing and non-lying.

Is it the case scholars just match the number of vows and overlook the weirdly unique way those are detailed in the Buddhist scriptures?


Thanks, that’s a really helpful explanation.

Thanks for you detailed answer.
I wasn’t unaware of how the Pali DN2 is unique in the listing of the four restraints. To me this gives strength to the satirical reading of that mention in the scriptures.

Do you maybe know where on the internet one can find the prakrit originals of the jain texts`?


This reminded me of the called-eccentric stance of Tendai-shū regarding the Buddha-nature of insentient things.


Counterfeit implies it was copies, which would be strange since the timeline would have to be running backwards. However, it’s not strange that people has religious systems before the Buddha that were not as good as the one the Buddha made. And the similarities between the two could be explained by the fact that the Buddha used to be a Jain. He had only recently left Jainism before he found his own way and started teaching it, after all.

He attacked the Vedas and Upanishads and so on - why not Jainism? Even ridiculed the reciters of the vedas saying the etymology of… what was it… ajhāyaka? was from the meaning of someone who doesn’t (a-) do jhāna. Made fun of the creation myths (which Buddhists for centuries took literally, not getting the joke). Even the nibbāna doctrine seems to be an attack on Brahmanism, since it extinguishes the three fires (of critical sacred importance to Brahmin, who keep them alight).

Does my memory serve me correctly that the Sangha has to filter water, specifically to avoid acidentally killing (by drinking) tiny forms of life? Do you think the Buddha took this practice straight from his Jain code of discipline? He seemed to adopt the rules about accepting any food even if meat (if they don’t make any cause for killing), from the Jains, unless he accepted it from the broader samana tradition of which they were both a part. Though it seems the Jains adapted that to exclude meat a very long time ago already.

My understanding is that vitakka and vicāra are not anything about ‘thoughts and the seemingly endless movements of the mind’, but rather two functions of the mind that direct, and place, attention on an object, neither of which require any thought to function. Anālayo gives reasoning on this, and I don’t remember all the details but when we went through some MĀ suttas, it seemed clear from the Chinese (覺 and 觀) that it was not giving it the meaning of thought, but rather what indicating/supporting what I’m saying now. This seemed significant since the translator of that āgama is said to have been particularly good (a Kashmiri I think). And so if there is ambiguity in the understanding of the Pāli words today, it seems useful to see what experts at that time took the Pāli or other Prakrit to mean. So it’s lucky we have the Chinese.

So the translation of Anālayo’s on this basis is the one I have accepted: vitakka as ‘initial mental application’ and vicāra as ‘sustained mental application’.

Interesting. So then can I check if this is right so far?

  • We have a real list of the four restrains of the Jains, non-violence, non-greediness, non-stealing and non-lying.
  • We have a list of four restraints attributed ot the Jains, which we think might possibly be making fun of them.
  • They have a thing for water.

Is it possible that this list is not even bothering to reference any real list, just referencing it by name, making it sound kind of plausible because it can be read to mean about water, but is actually all designed to make fun of how they look from the Buddhist point of view - it looks like the really most important thing for them is their restraints. I mean, and I don’t mean to be rude, but even as you see them, they are sweeping the road before you, and with their mouths covered, even refusing to bathe and so on. As if paranoid, afraid to move for fear of what their view has done to their minds. Their view is binding them, restraining them. They even want to commit suicide - it’s like they are so restrained they want to implode.

That’s not meant to be a totally objective assessment, but many may have looked upon them like that. And I think the Buddhist view would be they won’t complete the path like that. Restraint is not enough. You can’t just obsess about not harming others. It’s not even practical, you cannot avoid killing while still being alive - but more to the point, it doesn’t lead to awakening. So they really are obstructed by (their obsession with) restraint.

So in this way could it have been a satirical summary of their practice, borrowing their genuine title only?


I wouldn’t really call this a statement that sits on solid ground. It is not clear that the Buddha’s cosmologies are to be read as satirical. I have an idea who you would be citing to make the claim, but who’s argumentation is the above?

From Gombrich’s ‘How Buddhism Began’ (sorry if there are any OCR errors):

There can be no doubt that the Buddha used allegory satirically. I have published analyses (Gombrich, 1990, 1992b) of two passages in the Pali Canon, one short and one long, which make fun of brahminical accounts of how the world began. The short one is about Brahma. In one of the accounts of the creation in the Brhadarajyaka Upanisad (1, 4, 1–3), in the beginning there was only atman in human form. I have explained in chapter 2 that atman and brahman in the Upanisad are synonymous at the cosmic level, and that brahman (neuter) in turn may be personified as Brahma (masculine). Here it is the atman which is being personified, and as the word is already masculine no change of gender is required. ‘He was afraid. So a person alone is afraid. He considered: since nothing but me exists, what am I afraid of? So his fear went away, for it is of something else that one is afraid. He really had no fun. So a person alone has no fun. He wanted another person. He was as big as a man and a woman in embrace, so he split that very self of his into two, so that husband and wife came into being.’

In the Buddhist passage, which occurs several times in the Canon (e.g. DN I, 17–18), the world is assumed to be eternal but to go through cycles of destruction and re-formation. We can say provisionally that the destruction takes place below the level of some very rarefied heavens, well above the plane of desire, and that while nothing exists lower down, transmigrating beings are reborn in those very high heavens. But existence in all heavens, however high and rarefied, is of course temporary. When it is time for a new world-cycle (vivatta-kalpa), the celestial palace which Brahma occupies reappears, empty. In due course, a being whose life span or merit has been exhausted dies in the higher heaven and is reborn in that palace – so he is reborn as Brahma. After he has been there alone for a long time he gets frightened and feels he is having no fun, so he wishes that other beings would come to exist in the mode that he does. Simply in the course of nature, other beings too leave the higher heaven and are reborn alongside Brahma. Then he nourishes the delusion that they are there because of his wish, and fancies himself an omnipotent creator.

The long passage in the Pali Canon which makes fun of brahminical cosmogony is the Aggañña Sutta (DN sutta xxvii) (see Gombrich, 1992b for details). The whole story of the origin of society, which forms the bulk of the text, is a parody of brahminical texts, especially the ¸g Vedic ‘Hymn of Creation’ (RV X, 129) and the cosmogony at BAU 1, 2. The formation of the earth at the beginning of a world-cycle, its population by beings, their gradual social differentiation, the origins of sex and property, and finally the invention of kingship and the creation of the four brahminical varja (social classes) – all are a parodistic re-working of brahminical speculations, and at the same time an allegory of the malign workings of desire.

This is no minor matter for the history of the Buddhist view of the world. Strictly speaking, the Aggañña Sutta is not a cosmogony, since for Buddhists an absolute beginning is inconceivable (SN II,178ff.); but it explains how the world came into being this time round, so with this caveat I shall use the word. Buddhists have since the earliest times taken it seriously as an account of the origins of society and kingship, and even traced the Buddha’s own royal origins back to Maha-sammata, the person chosen to be the first king; they have interpreted the word as a proper name, though it originally meant ‘agreed to be great’. But now we see that the Buddha never intended to propound a cosmogony.

If we take a close look at the Aggañña Sutta, there are considerable incoherencies if it is taken seriously as an explanatory account – though once it is perceived to be a parody these inconsistencies are of no account. Already in the Canon this text provided part of the basis of Buddhist cosmology, and these inconsistencies provided the systematisers with problems, some of which were never properly solved. I mentioned above that we could ‘provisionally’ say that the world is periodically destroyed below a certain very high level; and this assumption was the essential background to the humorous attack on the idea that Brahma created the world. The resultant cosmology, with complicated cycles of destruction up to various levels, is meticulously worked out in the Visuddhi-magga (XII, paras. 30ff. ! pp. 349ff.). 16 But a moment’s reflection will show that this can hardly fit the basic Buddhist theory of how the law of karma operates. In order to be reborn so high in the universe, above even Brahma and far above the plane of desire, one must have overcome desire in one’s previous life and be spiritually so advanced that one is unlikely to come back to earth even once, let alone to recommence a long series of lowly lives. The theory could, with a little squeezing, be made to allow a few such cases; but it could not allow for every single karmic continuum simultaneously to result in such an elevated rebirth, only to be followed by mass relapse.

Also see his article ‘The Buddha’s Book of Genesis?’ from pg 129 of this publication:

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Yeah, I figured it would be him. I don’t think he does a good enough job of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that these stories are necessarily satirical, but I don’t have time for an in-depth exploration of why I feel so right now. Hopefully I will have time tomorrow. Until then I don’t have anything to offer other than this unsupported objection to the necessity of these stories having been proved to have been intended satirically.