Article: Āyambil Oḷī

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Āyambil Oḷī refers to both a twice-yearly festival and the fast associated with that festival. The nine-day festival takes place in the spring and autumn and is marked by a fast for the length of the festival. Daily activities are a feature, especially sermons in the autumn Āyambil Oḷī.

Strongly connected with married women, the Āyambil Oḷī festival revolves around the veneration of the siddhacakra and the story of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī. Jains believe that the fasts and associated rites foster happiness in married life and good health for all the family, particularly regarding preventing and healing skin diseases.

Festival of Āyambil Oḷī

This manuscript painting of a Svetāmbara siddhacakra shows the five highest beings in Jain belief, depicted in different colours. The petals in between contain Sanskrit mantras praising the 'four fundamentals'. It is a visual summary of key Jain doctrines

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

Each year the Āyambil Oḷī festival falls in the spring during Caitra bright 7 to 15 and in the autumn during Aso bright 7 to 15. The autumn festival is celebrated by more people, in part because at that time of year Jain mendicants frequently stay near local communities during the rainy season retreat.

Principal themes of the Āyambil Oḷī festival are marital happiness and the good health of all the family. It focuses on religious practices and goals associated primarily with married women, such as the practice of fasting. Therefore it is almost exclusively married women who take part in and concern themselves with this festival.

The Āyambil Oḷī festival is strongly linked to the narrative of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī, the worship of the siddhacakra yantra and the recitation of the Navkar-mantra. Sermons on each of these elements are characteristic of the festival, particularly in the autumn.

Sermons on the siddhacakra

The siddhacakra yantra is a symbolic representation of the nine things worthy of worship in the Jain tradition. Each of the nine days of the festival is strongly related to one of the nine points on the siddhacakra. Mendicants often structure their sermons to reflect on the particular part of the siddhacakra being venerated on that day. For example, the first position is Arhat – the enlightened ones – and the sermon on that day might focus on the nature of the arhats.

Sermons on the Navkar-mantra

The siddhacakra is the visual form of the Navkar-mantra. Most Jains recite this mantra daily and it is considered a key Jain religious practice. If there is a mendicant in residence, he will give a daily sermon about the power of the Navkar-mantra and retell the Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī story.

Tale of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī

This manuscript painting shows three episodes in the colourful adventures of Prince Śrīpāla. A favourite Jain hero, Śrīpāla is closely connected with the worship of the navapada or siddhacakra, which aids him when he faces danger

Śrīpāla's adventures
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Jain ascetics often give the example of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī when they deliver a sermon on the siddhacakra. They concentrate on Mayṇāsundarī’s performance of the Navpad Oḷī Fast, which leads to the miraculous healing of Śrīpāḷ’s leprosy.

This narration echoes the preoccupation of the festival, which is marital happiness. It does not reproduce the structure of the epic – Śrīpāḷ Rājāno Rās – from which it is drawn, which includes many episodes tracing Śrīpāḷ’s adventures after he is healed.

Fasting

A Jain lay woman holds up her hands and bows her head in devotion. Jains do not ask for things when they pray. For Jains praying is always joyful and means reverencing the qualities and example of the Jinas

Woman praying
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

A major element of the twice-yearly Āyambil Oḷī festival is the fast, of which there are three types. Fasting is accompanied by a structured series of additional devotional and ascetic practices, including twice-daily confession, extensive temple worship focused on the siddhacakra yantra, recitation of the Navkar-mantra and study of the Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī narrative.

Each day the participants gather for the better part of the afternoon to eat their single meal together, to study the story of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī and to perform the evening confession as a group. This sociability contrasts with the ascetic nature of these practices and, in this case, the tasteless food.

Generally, this fast is seen as a married women’s fast. While there are men who perform occasional, single-day āyambil fasts they virtually always do so at the behest of their wives. This almost imitates Śrīpāḷ’s performance of siddhacakra worship after his wife Mayṇāsundarī convinces him.

Types of fast

Within the Āyambil Oḷī fast complex, there are three related fasts. Each suggests varying degrees of commitment, but all are understood to aim at the shared goal of well-being of the family. The fasts differ primarily in terms of their length:

  • a single āyambil fast
  • the nine-day Āyambil Oḷī
  • the Navpad Oḷī, which is a series of nine āyambil olīs.

An āyambil fast is a one-sitting fast involving the eating of only tasteless foods. It is therefore more of a restriction on diet than a fast as it is generally understood. The fact of the lack of taste, of course, makes the austerity of an āyambil fast substantially greater than a one-sitting fast of regular food.

Āyambil fasts are predominantly performed during the biannual nine-day Oḷī festival, but are also performed on those days where fasting is a requirement for Jains. Many mendicants take nearly constant āyambil vows. Lay Jains will sometimes take an āyambil vow so that mendicants can receive alms at their house.

Oḷī means ‘a line’ and the Āyambil Oḷī fast is a line of nine days of āyambil fasts performed back to back during the Āyambil Oḷī festival.

The Navpad Oḷī is a series of nine consecutive nine-day Āyambil Oḷīs performed during the spring and autumn Āyambil Olī festivals. This results in 81 days of āyambil fasting over four and a half years.

Religious importance of the fast

Jains believe that the vows of fasting, together with the twice-daily confessions and the worship of the yantra, reduce the flow of karma into the performer’s soul and destroy her existing karma. They are also powerful forces that help protect the health of the performer’s family, especially her husband, through a transfer of merit or through magical agency.

Effects of Āyambil Oḷī

Equipment for performing temple rituals is arranged on a silver-sided chest. The small bell is used by the officiant – pujāri – during rituals or by devotees during their prayers. In front of it are a yellow and a blue prayer book, the blue one of a tiny

Equipment for religious rituals
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

Traditionally, Jains believe that the āyambil fast and the worship of the siddhacakra, especially during the Āyambil Oḷī festival, promote marital happiness and the healing of skin diseases. The protection of general good health for all the family is another traditional benefit. These claims are drawn directly from the Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī story.

Jains’ confidence in the effectiveness of the various āyambil fasts in worldly matters may arise from the siddhacakra worship as presented in the tale of Śrīpāḷ and Mayṇāsundarī and the other rituals associated with the fasts. It is vital to recall that the siddhacakra serves as both a powerful mantra and a yantra. In addition, Jains believe that both the siddhacakra and the Navkar-mantra it illustrates have magical powers. A Jain can harness these powers by reciting the mantra and worshipping the siddhacakra. The mantra is said to have the following powers:

  • to protect the chanter from harm
  • to counteract the negative effects of making contact with inauspiciousness
  • to stand in for all other ritual utterances.

Jains often bless themselves with the water used to bathe religious icons or symbols used in daily or special worship, which they believe can prevent and cure skin diseases. However, Jains do not think that the water has gained its sacred powers from the Jinas because honouring them in rites of worship does not include expecting favours to be granted. Instead, Jains consider that this water has got its powers from flowing over the magical siddhacakra.

Thus there are connections between the tantric powers of mantra and yantra, as expressed in a Jain context through the siddhacakra, and the worldly effectiveness of a fast. The magical power of the yantra allows the fast to work on a worldly level while the fast also works on the level of karma reduction at the same time.

Images

  • Siddhacakra This manuscript painting of a Svetāmbara siddhacakra shows the five highest beings in Jain belief in different colours. The petals in between contain Sanskrit mantras praising the 'four fundamentals'. A visual summary of key Jain doctrines, the siddhacakra is associated with the namaskāra-mantra. The most popular yantra, it is worshipped in festival rites and features in many art forms.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Śrīpāla's adventures This manuscript painting shows three episodes in the colourful adventures of Prince Śrīpāla. A favourite Jain hero, Śrīpāla is closely connected with the worship of the navapada or siddhacakra, which aids him when he faces danger.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Woman praying A Jain lay woman holds up her hands and bows her head in devotion. Jains do not ask for things when they pray. For Jains praying is always joyful and means reverencing the qualities and example of the Jinas.. Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah
  • Equipment for religious rituals Equipment for performing temple rituals is arranged on a silver-sided chest. The small bell is used by the officiant – pujāri – during rituals or by devotees during their prayers. In front of it are a yellow and a blue prayer book, the blue one of a tiny size. These miniature prayer books are common and generally contain one or two famous hymns with yantras. Right of the books is a metal bowl, which could be used to hold flowers, for instance. Behind the bell is a mirror for viewing – darśana – of the Jina idol. It is symbolic in the sense that viewing the Jina idol helps to view one's own pure soul, which is like the Jina, who is a siddha or liberated soul. The chest is a box for offerings, with money put into the slit on top. The banner and the full jar can be seen on the side, symbols of the auspicious dreams of the Jina’s mother.. Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

Further Reading

Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture
Lawrence A. Babb
Comparative Studies in Religion & Society series; volume 8
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1996

Full details

Organizing Jainism in India and England
Marcus Banks
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series; volume 3
Clarendon Press; Oxford, UK; 1992

Full details

Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India
John E. Cort
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details

The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship
Caroline Humphrey
and James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1994

Full details

Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Maṇḍaḷ Singing and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details

‘Negotiating Karma, Merit, and Liberation: Vow-taking in the Jain Tradition’
M. Whitney Kelting
Dealing with Deities: The Ritual Vow in South Asia
edited by Selva J. Raj and William P. Harman
State University of New York Press; Albany, New York, USA; 2006

Full details

Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood
M. Whitney Kelting
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2009

Full details

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995

Full details

Honour, Nurture and Festivity: Aspects of Female Religiosity amongst Jain Women in Jaipur
Josephine Reynell
PhD dissertation submitted to University of Cambridge in 1985

Full details

‘Women and the Reproduction of the Jain Community’
Josephine Reynell
The Assembly of Listeners
edited by Michael Carrithers and Caroline Humphrey
Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, UK; 1991

Full details

‘Religious Practice and the Creation of Personhood among Śvetāmbar Mūrtipūjak Jain Women in Jaipur’
Josephine Reynell
Studies in Jaina History and Culture: Disputes and Dialogues
edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2006

Full details

Glossary

Arhat

Sanskrit term meaning 'destroyer of enemies'. The enemies are the inner desires and passions. It is also a synonym for Jina. An Arhat is a liberated soul who has not yet left his fleshly body, but, as an omniscient being, is 'worthy of worship'.

Ascetic

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.

Āyambil

Grain or pulses cooked in water with salt, eaten once a day as part of dietary restrictions, especially among Śvetāmbaras.

Confession

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.

Fast

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:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Festival

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. 

Karma

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:

  • negative – deriving from harmful acts
  • positive – arising from beneficial actions.

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.

Kevala-jñāna

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.

Mantra

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.

Miracle

An extraordinary event that cannot be explained by natural causes or human effort and therefore is believed to be caused by divine or supernatural powers.

Namaskāra-mantra

Sanskrit for 'homage formula', the Namaskāra-mantra is the fundamental religious formula of the Jains. A daily prayer always recited in the original Prākrit, it pays homage to the supreme beings or five types of holy being:

  1. arhat - enlightened teacher
  2. siddha - liberated soul
  3. ācārya - mendicant leader
  4. upādhyāya - preceptor or teacher
  5. sādhu - mendicant

Note that chanting the mantra is not praying for something, material or otherwise. Also known as the Pañca-namaskāra-mantra or 'Fivefold Homage mantra', it is also called the Navakāra-mantra or Navkār-mantra in modern Indian languages.

Pūjā

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:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Puṇya

Sanskrit for a 'right or good action'. Similar to a merit in Buddhism, it helps to reduce karma.

Rainy season

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.

Rite

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.

Sāgāra

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.

Sermon

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.

Siddhacakra or Navadevatā

The most common mystical diagram – yantra – in Jainism, which is believed to destroy karma and bring prosperity and good luck. There are nine parts, usually arranged in the shape of a lotus flower. The Five Highest Beings are depicted on five parts of the yantra. On the four other parts, there are sectarian differences.

Digambaras call it the navadevatā or navdevata or navpad. The other four elements for them are:

  • a Jina image
  • a temple
  • the dharma-cakra or sacred wheel of law
  • the speech of the Jinas, in the scriptures.

For Śvetāmbaras it is the siddhacakra or navapada or navpad, which has representations of:

  • the 'three jewels' of Jain tradition
  • 'right austerity', often called the 'fourth jewel'.

Tantra

Jain Tantric worship aims to control other people or counter evil influences. Tantric rituals try to placate the aggressive side of a deity's nature, encouraging the divinity to behave benevolently. If not worshipped correctly, the vengeful deity may cause harm. The devotee invokes the deity under his or her various names, places images of the deity on yantras – mystical diagrams – and meditates, repeating mantras.

Tapas

Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.

Vrata

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:

  • aṇu-vratas – 'Five Lesser Vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three supplementary vows
  • śikṣā-vratas – four vows of spiritual discipline

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. 

Yantra

Sanskrit for 'instrument' or 'machine', a yantra is a mystical diagram used in religious rituals. Yantras are typically formed of symmetrical, concentric circles and may also have the diagram of a lotus in the middle of numerous squares. Containing the names of the Jinas and sacred mantras, such as oṃ, yantras are meditation aids.

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Related Manuscripts

Related Manuscript Images

  • Double homage and preaching

    Double homage and preaching

    British Library. Or. 13622. Vinaya-vijaya and Yaśo-vijaya. 17th to 18th centuries

  • Siddhacakra

    Siddhacakra

    British Library. Or. 13622. Vinaya-vijaya and Yaśo-vijaya. 17th to 18th centuries

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