Rituals and Festivals

Jainism has a very rich life of rituals and festivals. It is important to remember that these are not simply empty shows but they have a significant meaning for the benefit of the participant as well as viewers. The rituals should imprint the religious principles onto the people minds forever. Many events of Mahavira’s life are acted out frequently in the symbolic form and the symbols, actions, words and images unite to bring the message of Mahavira to the Jain followers.. For many people to whom the more complex aspects of religious philosophy are a closed book, the rituals provide a direction, a focus for the expression of devotion to the Tirthankara. The worships with the deep concentration and pure thoughts free of violence and harm disperse the accumulated karmas from the soul.

The rituals are interwoven with the daily life of a pious Jain. Spreading the grain for the birds in the morning, filtering or boiling the water for the next few hours’ use are ritual acts of charity and non-violence. Samayika, the practice of equanimity, translating to meditation, is a ritual act undertaken early in the morning and perhaps also at noon and night. It lasts for forty-eight minutes (Two Ghadis – one-thirtieth part of the day, an Indian unit of time) and involves usually not just quiet recollection but also usually the repetition of routine prayers. Pratikramana should be performed in the morning for the repentance of violence committed during the night, and in the evening for the violence during the day and additionally on certain days of the year. During this, the Jain expresses remorse for the harm caused, or wrong doing or the duties left undone.

Worship before the Jina idols, bowing to the idols, and lighting a lamp in front of the idols is an ideal way to start the day for many Jains. More elaborate forms of worship (puja), as described, is a regular daily ritual usually done in the temple. The worshipper enters the temple with the words ‘Namo Jinanam’ ‘I bow to the Jina’, and repeats three times, ‘Nisihii’ (to relinquish thoughts about worldly affairs). The simpler surroundings of the household shrine can als provide a suitable setting. The members of some sects of Jainism don’t believe in worship of the Jina image. They believe in meditation and silent prayers.

Worship, or puja, can take many forms. The ritual bathing of the image (Snatra Puja) is symbolic to the bathing of the newborn Tirthankara by the gods (celestial beings). A simple symbolic act is to touch one’s forehead with the liquid used to bath the idol. Bathing the idol also takes place during the Panch Kalyanak Puja, a ritual to commemorate the five great events of the Tirthankara’s life, namely conception, birth, renunciation, omniscience and moksa. Antaraya Karma Puja comprises a series of prayers to remove those karmas which obstruct the spiritual uplifting power of the soul. A lengthy temple ritual which can take three days to complete is the Arihanta Puja, paying respect to the arihants. There is a ritual of prayer focused on the siddhachakra, a lotus-shaped disc bearing representations of the arhat, the liberated soul, religious teacher, religious leader and the monk (the five praiseworthy beings), as well as the four qualities namely perception, knowledge, conduct and austerity to uplift the soul.

It must be said that there is a narrow dividing line between the symbolism and the superstition. Some people, claiming to be rational, dismiss all the ritual acts as superstitious. That is to a big misunderstanding. The Jina idols have no miraculous powers but the splendor of the temple, the beauty of the words and chants, all help the worshipper towards a reverent state of mind. Some people can do without these external props but others should not scorn those who value them.

In India the solar (European) calendar is generally used for the business and government matters but religious festivals are usually dated according to the lunar (Indian) calendar. This calendar is quite straightforward but, as it is based on the phases of the moon, dates are not always the same from year to year as in the solar calendar.

The serious Jain layman fast, more or less completely, and undertake other religious practices on many auspicious days throughout the year. As many as ten days in a given month are observed for the fasts by the pious Jains (though others may observe a lesser number). The first day of the three seasons in the Indian year is also of special sanctity. Twice a year, falling in March/April and September/October, the nine-day Oli period of semi-fasting is observed when Jains take only one meal a day, of very plain food. Maunagiyaras falls in November/December when a day of complete silence and fasting is kept and meditation is directed towards the five holy beings, monk, teacher, religious leader, arhat and siddha. This day is regarded as the anniversary of the birth of many of the Tiirthankaras.

Mahavira was born most probably in the year 599 B.C. and the exact date is given in the scriptures as the thirteenth day of the bright half (i.e. when the moon was waxing) of the month of Chaitra. In the solar calendar this will fall in March or April. The festival to commemorate this, known as Mahavira Jayanti, is an occasion for great celebration. Jains gather together to hear Mahavira’s message expounded, so that they can follow his teachings and example. The dreams of his mother before his birth may be dramatically presented and the circumstances of his birth, as narrated in the scriptures, explained to the assembled people. The idol of Mahavira is ceremonially bathed and rocked in a cradle. In many places the processions take place through the streets with the image having the place of honor, and in some regions in India this is a general public holiday.

The Paryusana Parva is the most important festival for the Jains. This is the eight-day period during which many Jains fast and carry out the religious activities. This period falls in the months of Sravana and Bhadra (August or September). During the rainy season in India Jain monks stop walking from one town to another and settle in a fixed location with the purpose of reducing the injury to the living things now springing to life. Often a township invites respected monks to stay in its vicinity during the rainy season (sometimes with a beautifully written manuscript invitation) and the people receive them with great pomp and rituals. A course of lectures or sermons by a monk or other respected person is a regular feature of the Paryusana Parva.

The word Paryusana is derived from two words meaning (gada) ‘a year’ and ‘a coming back’. It is a period of repentance for the acts of the previous year and of austerities to help shed the accumulated karmas. It should be remembered that the austerity is not just to shed of the karmas, but to control the desire from the sensual pleasures as a part of the spiritual training to prevent the accumulation of the new karmas. During this period some people fast for the all eight days, some for the lesser periods (a minimum of three days is suggested in the scriptures), but it is considered obligatory to fast on the last day of the Paryusana Parva. Fasting usually involves complete abstinence from any sort of food or drink, but some people do take boiled water during the daytime.

There are regular ceremonies in the temple and discourses of Kalpa Sutra (one of the sacred books) in the Upashraya during this time. Kalpa Sutra contains the detailed account of Mahavira’s life, is read to the congregation. On the third day of the Paryusana Parva the Kalpa Sutra receives a very special reverence and may be carried in the procession. On the fifth day, at a special ceremony, the auspicious dreams of Mahavira’s mother, queen Trishala, are demonstrated. Listening to the Kalpa Sutra, taking active steps to prevent the animal killing, asking and offering forgiveness to all living beings, visiting the neighborhood temples, etc. are some of the important activities during this time.

The final day of Paryusana is the most important of all. On this day those who have observed the fasts are specially honored. This is also the day when Jains ask for forgiveness to the family, friends and foes alike for any acts they might have committed towards them in the previous year. Therefore this annual occasion of the repentance and forgiveness is very important.

Shortly after Paryusana it is the custom to organize a Swami Vastyalaya dinner when all the Jains get together and renew their friendship with each other regardless of their socio-economical status.

Diwali or Deepawali is the most important festival in India. For the Jains, it is the second most after the Paryusana Parva. For Jains Diwali marks the anniversary of Mahavir’s moksha. Mahavir attained moksha on this day in 527 B.C. (and also of the achievement of total knowledge, omniscience, by his chief follower, Gautama Indrabhuti). The festival falls on the last day of the month of Ashvina, the end of the year as per Indian calendar (in October or November). The celebration starts in the early morning of the previous day, for it was then that Mahavira commenced his last sermon which lasted till late in the night of Diwali. It is narrated that the eighteen kings of northern India who were in his audience decided that the light of their master’s knowledge would be kept alive symbolically by lighting of the lamps. Hence it is called Dipawali, (dipa means lamp), or Diwali.

The New Year begins the next day and is the occasion for joyful gatherings of Jains, with everybody wishing each other a Happy New Year.

The fifth day of the New Year is known as Jnana Panchami, the day of knowledge, when the scriptures, which impart knowledge to the people, are worshipped with devotion.

Let us end this chapter with the Jain prayer of forgiveness. Jains seek forgiveness, not from an almighty god, but from those living beings they have harmed.

I forgive all living beings,

Let all living beings forgive me;

All in this world are my friends,

I have no enemies.

Khamemi savve jive,

Sawe jiva khamantu me;

Mitti me sawa bhuesu,

Veram majza na kenai.