Jainworld
Jain World
Sub-Categories of Passions
Mahavira's Teachings
The Early Centuries of Jainism
Jainism In Indian History
Jainism Enters The Modern Age
Doctrines of Jainism: Part 1
  Doctrines of Jainism: Part 2
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 1
  The Jain Path In Life: Part 2
  Daily Practices and Recitations
  Rituals and Festivals
  Pilgrimage and Sacred Places
  Jainism and Other Religions
  Conclusion
  Appendix
  Bibliography
  Glossary

Rituals and Festivals

 

Paul Marett

Jainism has a very rich life of rituals and festivals. It is important to remember that these are not simply empty play- acting but all have a deep significance which is of benefit to the participant or onlooker. The rituals should fix the mind on the great religious truths: the individual should seek to understand the deep meaning expressed in the quiet or crowded and colorful rituals. The events of Mahavira's life are repeated frequently in symbolic form and the symbols, actions, words and images, unite to bring the Jain follower's mind and spirit into an understanding of, and union with, the life and message of Mahavira. For many people to whom the more abstruse aspects of religious philosophy are a closed book the rituals provide a direction, a focus, for the expression of devotion to the Tirthankara. The devotee worships with his or her mind concentrated and pure, free from violence and harm, and in a condition to disperse the accumulated karma from the soul. The rituals are not, of course, only for simple and unlettered people, but they bring together those whose learning gives them an understanding of the deepest significance of the rituals with those content to lose themselves in the quiet ecstasy of devotion.

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

Worship before the Jina image has been described in the previous chapter. Bowing to the image, and lighting a lamp before it, is a fitting start to the day. More elaborate worship (pug), as described, is a regular daily ritual, perhaps in the temple (which the worshipper enters with the words 'Namo Jnanam' 'I bow to the Jina', and, repeated three times, 'Nisihi' to relinquish thoughts about worldly affairs), but the simpler surroundings of the household shrine can provide a suitable setting.

Worship, or puja, can take many forms. The ritual bathing of the image (Snatra Puja) is said to go back to the bathing of the newborn Tirthankara by the gods (or heavenly beings, not gods in the omnipotent, eternal sense). (A simple symbolic act is to touch one's forehead with the liquid used to bathe the image . ) Bathing the image also takes place during the Panch Kalyanak Puja, a ritual to commemorate the five great events of the Tirthankara's life, conception, birth, renunciation, omniscience and moksa. Antaraya Karma Puja comprises a series of prayers to help to remove that karma which deludes and hinders the soul. A lengthy temple ritual which can take three days to complete is the Arihanta Puja, respect to the arihant (arhat) or omniscient souls, and to a long sequence of other beings. 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 of perception, knowledge, conduct and austerity.

It must be said that there is a narrow dividing line between symbolism and superstition. Some people, claiming to be 'rational', will dismiss all ritual acts as superstitious. That is to misunderstand their nature completely: the Jina image has no miraculous powers. Ordinary life is full of rituals, from simple greetings to the ritualized conduct of a public meeting. Religious rituals must not be seen as an end in themselves: they express, in simple or elaborate symbolic form, the individual's desire and intention to follow the example and teaching of Mahavira. 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 they should not scorn those who value them.

In India the European calendar is generally used for business and government matters but religious festivals are usually fixed according to the 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 European calendar based on the sun.

The serious Jain will fast, more or less completely, and undertake other religious practices, on many days in the year. Ten days in the month of the Indian calendar are kept as fasts by the pious (though others may keep 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 Tirthankara.

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 Caitra. In the European 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 image of Mahavira is ceremonially bathed and rocked in a cradle. In many places 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. One custom associated with the celebrations is to break a coconut at the end and distribute small pieces.

Paryusana is the most important period in the Jain year. This is the eight-day period of fasting and religious activities which falls in the months of Sravana and Bhadra (August or September). During the rainy season in India Jain monks cease walking from one town to another and settle in a fixed location with the purpose of reducing the prospect of injury to the living things now springing to life. Often a town will invite a respected monk to stay in its vicinity during the rainy season (sometimes with a beautifully written manuscript invitation) and the people will receive him with great pomp and rituals. A course of lectures or sermons by a monk or other respected person is a regular feature of Paryusana.

The word Paryusana is derived from two words meaning '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 karma. Austerity, it must be remembered, is not an end in itself, but the control of one's desire for material pleasures is a part of spiritual training. During this period some people fast for the whole eight days, some for lesser periods (a minimum of three days is laid down in the scriptures), but it is considered obligatory to fast on the last day of Paryusana. 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 meditation halls during this time and the Kalpa Sutra (one of the Jain sacred books: 'sutra' means a religious book), which includes a detailed account of Mahavira's life, is read to the congregation. On the third day of Paryusana the Kalpa Sutra receives special reverence and may be carried in procession to the house of one member of the community who has made a generous donation in recognition of the honor, where it is worshipped all night with religious songs. On the fifth day, at a special ceremony, the auspicious dreams of Mahavira's mother before his birth are demonstrated. Listening to the Kalpa Sutra, taking positive steps that living beings are not killed (perhaps paying money to butchers to cease slaughtering), brotherhood to fellow Jains, forgiveness to all living beings, visits to all neighboring temples, these are the important activities at this time.

The final day of Paryusana is the most important of all. On this day those who have observed the fast rigorously are sometimes specially honored to encourage others to follow their example. This is also the day when Jains ask forgiveness from family and friends for any faults which they have committed towards them in the previous year. It is regarded as a definite stage in the spiritual life not to harbor ill-will beyond the space of one year so the annual occasion for repentance and forgiveness is important. Shortly after Paryusana it is the custom to organize a Swami Vastyalaya dinner at which all Jains are welcome and sit together whatever their social position.