Contributed by Nalini Balbir
Known as Akṣaya-tṛtīyā in Sanskrit or by its modern form Akhātrīj, the 'Immortal Third' is a date common to both Jains and Hindus. It falls on the third day of the bright half of Vaiśākha, equivalent to mid-April to mid-May in the Western calendar. For the Jains, it commemorates the first proper alms-giving to a Jain monk through the example of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, and is celebrated by both major sects of Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras.
The culmination of the year-long fast known as varṣītap, Akṣaya-tṛtīyā features a fast-breaking ceremony at a temple dedicated to Ṛṣabha. The fasters are ritually fed by relatives in a public ceremony and are generally feted for their religious devotion and the physical and mental feat of such a long fast.
As well as the standard festival activities of listening to sermons and attending temple, pilgrimages to sites associated with Ṛṣabha's fast-breaking, such as Hastinapur and Mount Shatrunjaya, have become increasingly popular in recent decades.
Among the 24 Jinas of the current descending cycle of time known as avasarpiṇī, the first Jina Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha has a special place. Before him it was a golden age where people got everything they needed from wishing-trees and did not need to work. There was thus no need for agriculture or skills such as weaving. There were also no social institutions, such as marriage, because people lived in couples of male and female twins. Ṛṣabha is credited with organising society and inventing elements necessary for human civilisation, such as reading, writing, mathematics and farming.
The key event behind the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā festival is told in accounts of the first Jina’s life. The correct offering of alms to Ṛṣabha ended his 13-month fast and thus the festival underlines the importance of offering and receiving alms in the proper way.
The first tales of Ṛṣabha's receiving alms date back to the first centuries of the Common Era. One of the earliest is the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, an encyclopaedic verse commentary. At the time of Ṛṣabha's 'excellent and dreadful resolution' to go from one village to another, inaugurating the vihāra tradition, and take a vow of silence, people did not know 'which type of alms is to be given, of what sort [of people] wandering mendicants are'. Nevertheless, perfectly peaceful in his mind, the Jina-to-be wandered for one year without food. It is not that he was never invited. On the contrary, as the text says: 'he is invited by young girls, with [offers of] clothes, ornaments and seats'.
The Vasudeva-hiṇḍī, a Prakrit narrative from the same period, broadly agrees that Ṛṣabha refused many offers of alms. The implication is that all these splendid proposals are useless because they are not suitable for the First Lord. Later accounts greatly amplify this part by describing the sadness and surprise of the donors whose gifts are refused.
The monk Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha had refused all alms for a year when his wanderings took him to the town of Hastināpura, called Hastinapur in common parlance, where Prince Śreyāṃsa lived. One night the prince dreamed of his previous births and thus recalled what to give as alms to a wandering ascetic. The next day Śreyāṃsa offered Ṛṣabha sugar-cane juice and the monk was finally able to break his fast – pāraṇā. The prince was rewarded with the five marvellous gifts one normally gets on such an occasion.
This episode is part of the cosmogonical myth that forms a major element of Ṛṣabha's life story. Śreyāṃsa is considered the founder of alms-giving: 'He is the donor of alms to the first Jina in the avasarpiṇī', as the Vasudeva puts it. In the 12th century, Hemacandra, the author of the standard Śvetāmbara biographies of the Jinas, states this clearly:
Beginning with Śreyāṃsa[,] the duty of giving originated on earth, just as the course of all practices and laws [originated] with the Master [= Ṛṣabha].
translation by Johnson, volume I, page 181
Śreyāṃsa as the first alms donor and Ṛṣabha as the first monk and future Jina receiving them provide the pattern for giving and receiving alms. The ritual of alms-giving is a cornerstone of the relationships of the fourfold community and hence vital for the survival of the Jain faith.
Depictions of Śreyāṃsa and Ṛṣabha are occasionally found in paintings in manuscripts of the Kalpa-sūtra. The text itself does not mention the episode, but the commentaries narrate it at length and it has become part of the narrative and pictorial tradition (Norman Brown 1934: plate 37, figure 125; also in Jain-Fischer 1978: Part I, plate XLI). The illustrations show Ṛṣabha on the left, dressed as a Śvetāmbara monk with the monastic equipment of broom and staff, and on the right Prince Śreyāṃsa. In between are vessels piled up on the ground. Śreyāṃsa pours the juice from a pitcher into the palms of the monk's hands, which he holds tightly together, slightly hollowed. This echoes the precise descriptions given in the texts. In Hemacandra’s words:
The Lord put together his hands and held out a dish made from his hands; Śreyāṃsa[,] lifting up the pitchers of cane-juice in succession, emptied them. The juice, though much, was contained in the Blessed One’s hand-dish.
translation by Johnson, volume I, page 180
A religious festival is the occasion for a community of faith to come together. It needs two factors:
In the earliest accounts of the story of Śreyāṃsa and Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, no date is mentioned. A date first appears in Svayambhū-deva's Pauma-cariu, a Digambara work of the ninth century written in Apabhraṃśa Prakrit. Its conclusion is:
Ṛṣabha-deva having told Śreyāṃsa that this was an undecaying gift (akkhaya-dāṇu), this day was known as the Undecaying Third (akkhaya-taiya).
translation by Nalini Balbir, volume II, 17.6–8
In the 12th century, Hemacandra concluded his account in a similar way, but is more precise regarding the date and the fact that it was a festival in his time:
This inexhaustible gift was made on the bright third of Rādha [= Vaiśākha] and that was the beginning of the present-day festival of Akṣayatṛtīyā.
translation by Johnson, volume I, page 181
Both authors connect the name of the day with the quality of the gift that was made, calling both 'undecaying'. This pun is still made today (Cort 2001: 182).
These statements suggest that the central event became linked with a precise date in the early medieval period. Hemacandra's remark indicates that special acts were performed on that day, although no detail is given as to their nature.
In short, in texts dating from the 14th century onwards there are increasing hints that this day had become special for Jains. For instance, in manuscript colophons and inscriptions, the basic dating formula 'Vaiśākha Bright Third' is more and more often followed by the specific date of 'Akṣaya-tṛtīyā Day'. Ratnaśekhara-sūri, the 14th-century Śvetāmbara author of a handbook of conduct for Jain laity, mentions this day in a list of holy days that are both Hindu and Jain.
Food, money, medicine, clothing or anything else given to another person as a religious or charitable act. Asking for and giving alms is a significant part of Jainism, as it forms a daily point of contact between lay people and mendicants. Seeking, donating and receiving alms are highly ritualised ceremonies in the Jain tradition, and spiritual purity is essential for both giver and recipient. Giving alms is a way for lay Jains to gain merit – puṇya.
Apabhraṃśa is an umbrella term for the dialects that were the forerunners of modern Indian languages. Taken from the Sanskrit term apabhraṃśa, which literally means 'corrupt' or 'non-grammatical language', Apabhraṃśa was used to write a large number of Jain texts. Though Apabhraṃśa developed over the 6th to 13th centuries, literary works date back to the 8th century.
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.
The regressive or descending half-cycle in the Jain conception of time. With the second half, the progressive one, avasarpiṇī forms a complete cycle of time.
The ‘fourfold society’ of Jain tradition, which is made up of ascetics and the laity, and of males and females.
Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.
An essay explaining a text. Commentaries on the scriptures are common in the Jain tradition and there are various types, including the:
The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.
Giving, specifically alms-giving to mendicants.
An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.
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.
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.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
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.
Sanskrit for 'wishing-tree'. The inhabitants of the Lands of Enjoyment have wishing-trees to fulfil their every need. According to Digambaras, the emblem of the tenth Jina, Śītala, is the endless knot – śrīvatsa – or wishing-tree.
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.
A sacred sound, syllable, word or phrase that is believed to produce spiritual change if recited correctly. A mantra can be recited aloud or silently, and is often repeated. Mantras are closely associated with religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism. The chief Jain mantra is the Namaskāra-mantra, which is recited daily, while another mantra very popular in Indian culture generally is Auṃ.
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 ritual in which a faster ends his or or her fast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.
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.
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.
'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.
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.
A pilgrimage, especially to a sacred place or tīrtha.