Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Rules for festival dates

The early and medieval handbooks of rules governing lay people’s lives – śrāvakācāra – are specific about which days are more suitable for religious activity, including potential festivals. These are the four days each month corresponding to the phases of the moon. According to the 14th-century writer Ratnaśekhara-sūri, these are the eighth and 14th days of the month and the days of the new moon and the full moon. Such days are particularly auspicious for fasting and for observing poṣadha-vrata, one of the lay vows.

A festival often listed in such works is Aṣṭāhnika, which runs from the eighth day to the day of the full moon in the months of Kārttika, Phālguna and Āṣāḍha. 'This act of worship is a surrogate for the adoration of the Jina images by the gods in the temples of the Nandīśvara-dvīpa, which is inaccessible to mortals' (Williams 1963: 232).

However, several medieval authors do not specify festivals or days of festivals. They merely mention the names of a few festivals and indicate that there are many of them in one year.

Nowadays, the dates of all festivals are listed in traditional calendars – Jain pañcāng. Booklets are published at the beginning of the year or are available on websites.

There is only one case in the written tradition where the date of a festival is discussed – that of the final day of Paryuṣaṇ. According to legendary accounts connected with the religious teacher Kālaka, it was once fixed as the fifth day of the bright half of Bhādrapada, roughly August to September. King Sātavāhana wished to take part in Paryuṣaṇ but had to participate in a local festival in honour of the god Indra, which fell at the same time. Sātavāhana suggested that the last day of Paryuṣaṇ be shifted to the sixth day instead. Kālaka refused, arguing that this would go against the tradition of Mahāvīra’s teaching that the last day of Paryuṣaṇ be no later than one month and 20 days after the beginning of the rainy season. Kālaka therefore proposed the fourth day, which was agreed. Such an account was probably meant to put an end to existing differences. However, it was not a complete success because even nowadays Śvetāmbara monastic orders dispute this date and consider it a significant issue (see Cort 1999).

Hindu festivals and Jains

A traditional oil lamp forms part of a rangoli during Dīvālī. Rangoli – auspicious patterns and pictures – are a favourite activity during Indian festivals and events such as weddings. Symbolising welcome and auspiciousness, these designs are traditionall

Oil lamp on rangoli
Image by NKJain © CC BY-SA 2.0

Some Jain festivals share dates with Hindu festivals, such as Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, Dīvālī, Kārttika Pūrṇimā and Jñāna-pañcamī. This can be explained partly by Jains living with Hindus in a common environment. It is difficult, or even impossible, to decide which religious tradition selected the date first, and it is not necessary meaningful to ask this question. It is likely that some dates primarily corresponded to seasonal activities and were used as religious dates at a later stage. Even when Hindus and Jains have identical dates for a festival – even the same name – the understanding and decisive event behind it are totally different.

Mendicants, who are the advisers of the laity, do not encourage them to take part in Hindu festivals, but generally remain discreet on this point. There is, however, one exception – the festival of Holi. A kind of carnival where the usual social conventions are ignored, Holi is seen as very disturbing and controversial and Jain mendicants have often condemned it as such (Cort 2001: 180–181).

New festivals

New dates and new types of festivals can be created in special environments. For example, the Ahimsa Day festival is a recent innovation of British Jains. It is both a religious and civil festival for Jains of all sects in the UK, although it is not officially recognised.

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