Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Jain festivals are public statements of the beliefs of the Jains and their identity as a community. There are various types of Jains – Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras, for instance – so festivals are sometimes common to all Jains, sometimes specific to one sect or local group. There are around seven major festivals each year as well as local celebrations.
During festivals the various elements of the Jain community of monks, nuns and lay people have closer contact than normal. As well as encouraging religious observance among the laity, particularly fasting, it also aids the transmission of religious principles and practices. The cohesion of the lay community may well be strengthened and faith refreshed.
In addition to the social aspects of participating in key community occasions, lay Jains can make spiritual progress by attending festivals. They can gain merit – puṇya – to lessen the karmic matter stuck to the soul and improve their spiritual purity. This aids them in the ultimate goal of liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Many Jains also believe that taking part in festivals may help them in this world, in matters such as health, finances and good luck.
Governed by the lunar calendar, Jain festivals are all joyful celebrations, never commemorating sad events. The main Jain festivals tend to focus on events in the lives of the Jinas and other holy figures and on basic concepts of belief. Other public celebrations are inspired by local events, whether at the neighbourhood temple or connected with the mendicant community.
Knowledge of the sacred teachings is a key part of the Jain faith. During festivals techniques of preaching, story-telling, acting, art and music are employed to pass on beliefs and practices.
The religious dimensions of the majority of Jain festivals are clear, but so too is the public rejoicing at the heart of these events. Colourful processions, music and hymn-singing are the most visible parts of Jain festivals for outsiders.
Donations to temples are frequently made on festival days because donors gain greater karmic merit if they give at these times. Often, numerical symbolism guides procedures during a given festival, determining the number of fasts, the number of objects to be used and so on. For instance, five is a crucial number in Jñāna-pañcamī, ten in Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan.
Festival traditions help pass on core principles and practices, strengthening the sense of continuity and shared experience. Jains have always been a small minority in India so a powerful community spirit helps to ensure the survival of the faith and the presentation of a strong identity to outsiders.
In the Jain context festivals are significant in several religious and social respects, particularly as they have developed in a society where Jains form a very small minority. Involving all members in a district, lay and ascetic, festivals are occasions for reinforcing religious principles and practices, consolidating bonds among the local and wider community and presenting the Jain community to non-Jains. Religious festivals are always celebrations for Jains, never commemorations of sad events.
Jains commonly use various terms for 'festival', each of which captures a different aspect of the event.
From the Sanskrit parvan, parv refers to calendar terminology and indicates a change in the moon. This highlights the connection between the lunar calendar and the dates of festivals. More broadly, it refers to a holy day, like its synonym parvitithi.
The term vrata means the vow, commitment or religious observances that Jains make voluntarily on special occasions or for certain periods of time. Many lay Jains undertake a vow during a festival, frequently a type of fasting.
The words ut-sava and mahot-sava underline the idea of public celebration.
The word 'festival' can be understood as a term for public celebrations that take place annually or periodically on fixed dates. But there are also other festivals that are public events of equal importance for lay Jains. The most important commemorate notable events in the local temple and in the lives of local mendicants.
For most Jains the inauguration of a new temple or the installation of a new image in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava – is a major religious occasion, marked by public celebration. Indeed, any event connected with the temple is worthy of such activities. However, Sthānaka-vāsins do not believe in image-worship and thus do not have such festivals.
The celebration of a householder’s initiation into the life of a mendicant – dīkṣā-mahot-savas – is one of the grandest public celebrations. Before receiving his monastic equipment the initiation candidate is treated like a prince. Nowadays collective dīkṣās also take place. Everything is done so that nobody in the surrounding area can ignore the event, with processions, music, religious offerings and public ceremonies.
Lay celebrations connected with mendicants are common. The arrival and departure of a group of mendicants in a locality – for example, at the beginning and end of the rainy season – are times when lay devotees rejoice publicly. When mendicants are promoted to higher positions in the religious hierarchy, it is also celebrated in festivals – nandī-mahot-savas – organised by the local laity.
Taking part in most Jain festivals has a double perspective for individual Jains. Participating is often thought to gain the festival-goer some advantage in this world, whether money, health or good fortune. At the same time, it accumulates merit – puṇya – that reduces karmic matter in the soul and increases spiritual purity, which both help achieve final liberation. The festivals of Dīvālī, Jñāna-pañcamī, Kārttika Pūrṇimā and Āyambil Olī are examples of these notions.
Notable exceptions are the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ and the Digambara equivalent, Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan, which have purely spiritual goals. They involve a period of more restricted lifestyle than usual.
The dates of the annual festivals are all expressed according to the lunar calendar, in the form ‘fifth day of the bright half of month so and so’. The names of some of the festivals contain the number of the day as their second part. Examples include Śruta-pañcamī, which means ‘Scripture Fifth’, and Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, which means ‘Inexhaustible Third’.
Proof that certain festivals have become common in the daily life of the Jain community comes from the numerous mentions in manuscripts, inscriptions or published books. These usually take the following form: ‘on the fifth day of the bright half of Kārttika, the day of Jñāna-pañcamī, this event took place’. The bright half of the month is when the moon is full enough to offer light at night and covers the fortnight from the new moon to the full moon.
The Jain religious year starts on Kārttika Bright 1 – the first day of the bright half of Kārttika – just after Dīvālī.
The four-month period of the rainy season is totally different from the eight remaining months of the year. This distinction is emphasised by the most important Jain festivals falling at the end of the rainy season, when normal activity can begin again. These festivals are:
March to April
Jains of all sects
April to May
Jains of all sects
May to June
August to September
September to October
Jains of all sects
British Jains of all sects
October to November
November to December
December to January
Jains of all sects
There may seem to be a large number of Jain festivals, but not all Jains celebrate all the festivals. In addition to the different sectarian festivals, the custom of holding local celebrations means that different groups of Jains and various academic authorities offer diverse lists of festivals.
The 'Immortal Third', an annual Jain festival celebrating the first alms-giving to the first Jina, Ṛṣabha. It takes place on the third day of the bright half of Vaiśākha - April / May. The 'immortality' refers to the immense merit - puṇya - from the first act of giving alms - dāna - in the current era. This is the day when people who have observed a year-long fast - varsitap - break it, in imitation of Ṛṣabha's fast ending.
The prohibition on killing animals for any purpose. This is in line with the Jain principle of ahiṃsā or non-violence, which is a key tenet of the faith.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
The practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition. Asceticism involves self-denial – for example refusing tasty food or warm clothes – and sometimes self-mortification, such as wearing hair-shirts or whipping oneself.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
Grain or pulses cooked in water with salt, eaten once a day as part of dietary restrictions, especially among Śvetāmbaras.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.
Usually written as 'chowrie' in English, the Hindi carũrī is a fly-whisk or fan. It is probably descended from the Sanskrit term cāmara, which means a 'yak-tail fan'. Like the cāmara, the chowrie is used to fan royalty or priests and thus signifies high status in Indian art.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
Avoiding or stopping sexual relations, often after taking a religious vow. A celibate practises celibacy.
Acknowledgement or declaration of the truth of a statement. In religious terms, it usually refers to admitting sin or wrongdoing to at least one other person in a ritual. It is normally a necessary step before absolution, which is formal release from guilt or consequences of wrongdoing.
A gathering of believers that has come together to perform group acts of worship.
The most significant Digambara festival, this ten-day celebration takes place in August / September. Digambaras read, fast and meditate, with the Tattvārtha-sūtra playing an important role. The final day is called the 'Endless Fourteenth' - Ananta-caturdaśī - and is associated with the 14th Jina, Ananta. On this holiest day of the year, most Digambaras fast and take part in the ritual group confession, known as kṣamāpanā - 'Asking for pardon'.
An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.
'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
Religious initiation through which a man or woman leaves the householder or lay status to become a mendicant. Parts of this ritual renunciation are public ceremonies, depending on the sect.
Falling in late September or October, the annual 'Festival of Lights' is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, though they have different understandings of it. Jains of all sects commemorate the liberation of Mahavira and the omniscience of his chief disciple Indrabhūti Gautama. The festival also marks a new religious year for Jains.
A donor gives freely. He or she may give alms to a mendicant or money to an institution. This donation may be for specific items or purposes, such as the creation of art. A donor, sponsor or patron may be named or pictured in the artwork.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
A public commemoration of a religious ritual. Often a celebration that involves holding a religious ceremony to mark an important event in a religion's history.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.
The terms stavan, stavana, stava, stotra and stuti are all used for a prayer, song, chant or hymn to a Jina, a god or any other holy figure. Religious songs are always hymns of praise in Jainism. These devotional songs may be performed during daily rites or on special occasions, such as completion of a fast or a wedding. The hymns may be performed:
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
Sanskrit word for 'king' and the name of the king of the gods in the Saudharma heaven. Called Śakra by Śvetāmbaras and known as Saudharma to Digambaras, this deity is involved in all five auspicious moments – kalyāṇakas – in a Jina's life.
Formal or ceremonial admission into an organisation or group.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:
With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.
Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.
The Book of Ritual attributed to Bhadrabāhu. It has three sections:
A significant sacred text for Śvetāmbara Jains, the Kalpa-sūtra has a central role in the annual Paryuṣaṇ festival.
Action or act, thought of as physical in Jainism. Created by mental or physical action, karma enters the soul, which then needs religious restraints and practices to make it flow out. Karma can be both:
Both types of karma trap a soul in continual rebirth. A pan-Indian concept, karma has extremely complex, detailed and technical divisions and subdivisions in Jainism.
State in south-west India.
Omniscience, enlightenment or perfect knowledge – the highest of the five types of knowledge, where one knows everything wherever and whenever it is. It is extremely difficult to attain, equivalent to the 13th stage of spiritual purity in the guṇa-sthāna. Digambaras believe only men can achieve it whereas Śvetāmbaras believe that both men and women can become enlightened.
Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
The 'liberation' of the soul from its body and thus from the cycle of rebirth because it has no karma and becomes omniscient. The ultimate aim of Jainism is to achieve mokṣa and become a liberated soul in siddha-śilā.
A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858, a period noted for its wealth, overall religious tolerance, and cultural and intellectual achievements, particularly in art and architecture. Originally Muslims who swept down from Central Asia, the Mughals' best-known ruler is probably Akbar the Great (1556–1605).
A Muslim, or ‘one who submits to God’ in Arabic, follows the religion of Islam, which means ‘peace’. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last in a line of prophets. The complete word of Allah or God was revealed to Muhammad in the sixth century CE and set down in the Arabic Qur’an or ‘recitation’. Nearly all Muslims belong to either the Shia or Sunni sects, with Sunni Muslims comprising around 90% of Islamic believers.
Release from the bondage of neverending rebirths, in which an enlightened human being undergoes his or her final death, followed immediately by salvation instead of rebirth. Note that this differs from the Buddhist concept of the same name.
A woman who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, nuns perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.
The 23rd Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is green and his emblem the snake. Historical evidence points to his living around 950 to 850 BC.
An eight-day festival in August / September, which is the most important event of the religious calendar for Śvetāmbara lay Jains. They fast, read, spend time with monks and meditate. The last day is the occasion for public repentance. Reading the Kalpa-sūtra and sponsoring new manuscripts or editions of this canonical book are associated with this festival.
A voluntary action undertaken to make up for a sin or breach of a religious principle, frequently an act of self-punishment or physical hardship.
A journey to a place of religious significance. Some religions encourage pilgrimage as ways to advance spiritual progress and deepen the faith of those who make the trip – pilgrims.
The third of the four śikṣā-vratas or vows that lay Jains take. It involves attending a religious hall and observing the life of an ascetic for 24 hours once a month, withdrawing from ordinary activities and fasting.
A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.
'Introspection’ in Sanskrit. The elaborate ritual of confession and repentance that involves reciting liturgical texts and performing set gestures at dawn and dusk. It is one of an ascetic's six daily duties – āvaśyaka. For many lay people, pratikramaṇa is the essence of Jainism.
To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
'Eating at night'. No Jains should eat after dark because of the greater risk of unknowingly eating living beings. It is counted as a supplement to the five Greater Vows of the ascetics. Lay Jains should also observe it, but not all of them do so.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Sanskrit term meaning 'with a home’ – that is, a ‘householder’ or lay Jain. A synonym for a lay person, emphasising that he or she is a member of a household, with responsibilities to the family, community and society that a Jain mendicant does not have.
'Right insight' or the proper view of reality, which means faith in the principles of Jainism taught by the Jinas. The first of the Three Jewels of Jainism and a necessary first step in spiritual progress.
A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.
Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.
An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.
A speech on a religious topic, usually delivered by a member of the clergy. Frequently a sermon has a moral lesson or is based on a sacred text.
A small structure holding an image or relics, which may be within a temple or building designed for worship. A shrine may be a portable object. Worshippers pray and make offerings at a shrine, which is often considered sacred because of associations with a deity or event in the life of a holy person.
Codes of rules for the behaviour of lay Jains. The Jain laity performs austerities such as fasting to develop spiritually.
'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
Dwelling-hall near a Jain temple where wandering ascetics stay. They may stay for a short time during their travels or for the long rainy season. There is usually a main room where lay Jains come to listen to sermons. Lay people may also perform fasts here, such as upadhāna tapas or rituals such as posadha that involve leaving household activities for a while.
A Sanskrit term that describes the wandering lifestyle of Jain mendicants. Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. They wander constantly on foot, never staying more than a few days in one place. They may walk around 30 kilometres a day in small groups. However, every year, during the monsoon, monks and nuns stay in one location to avoid travelling.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 46-1959. Unknown author. Late 15th to 16th centuries
British Library. Or. 14290. Gangādāsa. 1792