Article: Akṣaya-tṛtīyā

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The fast – varṣītap

This detail from a Śvetāmbara manuscript shows the first Jina Ṛṣabha plucking out his hair in the ritual of keśa-loca. Part of the renunciation ceremony, dīkṣā marks the start of mendicant life. Śakra, king of the gods, watches this auspicious event.

Ṛṣabha becomes a monk
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The first Jina Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha had to fast for one year so devotees undertake a 'year-long fast' – varṣītap. They are known as tapasvīs. In practice, it means that they fast every other day for six months or one year, since no human being can fast totally and live.

The procedure is long and difficult. It starts on the anniversary of Ṛṣabha's renunciation – Phālguna Dark 8 – and ends on the day of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā. Beginning with a two-day fast, varṣītap involves taking no food and living only on boiled water on alternate days. On non-fasting days the fasters take food twice, drink only boiled water and do not eat after sunset. In practice, the type of restrictions they follow varies. Some people eat only twice a day, others thrice a day. Some fasters may limit their food on the eighth and 14th day of each fortnight. They also recite the pratikramaṇa and other sacred formulas (Cort 2001: 137–138).

Varṣītap is a very demanding fast and it is hard to perform alongside a normal job. When someone engaged in ordinary life observes it, the whole family is very proud. In practice, varṣītap is usually observed by women, who far outnumber male fasters, or by elderly people who are free from professional obligations. There are even extreme cases, like that of a man who died after having observed varṣītap continuously for two years.

The fast-breaking ceremony – pāraṇā

There are several parts to the ritual of pāraṇā, in which the fasters complete their year-long fast.

On the day of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā the fasters are fed with sugar-cane juice by family members, who thus identify themselves with Prince Śreyāṃsa. If they cannot find sugar-cane juice, they use water sweetened with sugar.

Here is a report on how the fast-breaking ceremony may proceed:

The relatives of the participants go to a nearby shop of [a] sugar-cane crusher, wash the [sugar-cane] press with boiled water and collect the juice in earthen pots. They bring the juice to the temple and offer the participants 108 small cups full of juice.

Jain and Fischer, 1974

See also page 182 of Cort 2001.

Listening to the story

This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript shows monks preaching to lay men. The monks are of the Digambara sect even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Each monk sits on a dais and holds a scripture in a scroll. The books

Preaching monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

As in all Jain festivals, listening to the story of the commemorated event is part of what everyone is supposed to do. Mendicants read from manuscripts or books, or relate the story to the audience gathered in the temple or large hall adjoining it.

A vast body of specialised texts has evolved in the course of the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā tradition. Called Akṣaya-tṛtīyā-kathā or vyākhyāna, they have been written in simple Sanskrit or the modern languages Jains use, sometimes by prominent monks who seem to have specialised in this literary genre. Examples include the Śvetāmbara teachers Kanakakuśala in the 17th century and Vijayalakṣmī-sūri and Kṣamākalyāṇa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Over the long period of time in which the story has been told, new motifs have developed in the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā-kathā. Two of them stand out, and relate firstly to the reasons for Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha's lengthy fast and, secondly, to his eventual acceptance of alms.

In several later versions, and in most popular retellings found in contemporary booklets, the traditional explanation that proper alms-giving was not yet known is not enough of a reason for Ṛṣabha’s long fast. An inserted episode tells why Ṛṣabha was unable to find proper alms for a year. This long fast was due to a specific type of karma the Jina-to-be had bound during one of his previous births and that was still in effect, since he had not yet reached omniscience. In his previous life he had seen some peasants hitting their bulls. Ṛṣabha advised the men to obstruct the mouths of the animals to make them obey, which then sighed 360 times. This act of violence was the starting point of Ṛṣabha's antarāya-karman, which made it impossible for him to receive proper alms for the same number of days.

The second motif involves Ṛṣabha's method of taking the sugar-cane juice Śreyāṃsa offered him. When he clasped his hands together to accept the offering, the two hands fought among themselves over which one was entitled to receive the alms. This is followed by an exposition in the form of a debate on the respective usages of the left and right hands. Only the latter is ritually pure in the Indian conception. Since they are not able to come to terms, both hands present themselves.

Taken together, such innovations give another style and tone to the legend. They produce a Ṛṣabha who is more an average human being than a distant character full of unattainable dignity.

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