Article: Akṣaya-tṛtīyā

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.

Concept of giving alms

White-clad nuns from the Aṅcala-gaccha sect receive alms from lay women. Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjak monks and nuns beg alms twice a day. Finding suitable alms that are correctly offered may take hours.

Lay women give alms to nuns
Image by Khetshi N. Shah © Khetshi N. Shah

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.

Prince Śreyāṃsa and Ṛṣabha

The first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, receives sugar-cane juice from Prince Śreyāṃsa. When he accepts properly offered alms he can break his year-long fast. This temple panel stresses that lay people should offer alms correctly

Ṛṣabha receives alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

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 fastpāraṇā. 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].

Trīṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra
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.

Trīṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra
translation by Johnson, volume I, page 180

A story and a date

A religious festival is the occasion for a community of faith to come together. It needs two factors:

  • an event to commemorate
  • a regular date.

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.

Trīṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra
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.

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