Jainism lays a great emphasis on the practise of moral and ethical virtues. This emphasis is often on the negative rather than on the positive side. For instance, in the practice of ahiṁsā (non-violence) the stress is on non-injury rather than on love. The basic idea behind this attitude seems to be the great and urgent need to restrain those evil propensities at the individual level which, if unchecked, will lead to chaos and conflict at the social level.
Anyone desirous of obtaining kaivalya (spiritual emancipation) should strive to develop saṁyak-cāritrya (virtuous conduct) by avoiding evil deeds which generate sin. Five such disciplines which help counter the five basic human weaknesses are listed as follows: ahiṁsā (not harming others), amṛṣā (not uttering falsehood), asteya (not stealing), amaithuna (not engaging in sexual intercourse) and aparigraha (not accepting gifts). Amṛṣā and amaithuna are sometimes termed satya and brahmacarya.
When these disciplines are to be practised almost to an absolute degree—as in the case of the monks—they are called ‘mahāvratas’ or ‘the great vows.’ However, the householders whose capacity and opportunity to practise these disciplines are restricted by the very nature and circumstances of their life, are permitted certain exceptions. For example, violence or injury to beings which is inevitable while earning one’s livelihood or in day-to-day activities like cooking, is tolerated. Similarly the householder is allowed to enjoy conjugal happiness with his wife. So, in his case these vratas become ‘aṇuvratas’ or ‘the small vows.’
Nevertheless, even the householder is advised to gradually intensify and perfect the practise of these vows.
Patañjali, the great teacher of yoga, also has accepted this division (vide Yogasūtras 2.1) by implication.