Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Types of festival

There are around seven major Jain festivals each year plus local festivals marking events in the local temple or mendicant community. This high number of Jain festivals is impressive, but not all celebrations have the same social impact. This is why the lists of Jain festivals are not identical in all sources.

Jain festivals can be divided into three main kinds:

Festivals of commemoration

This manuscript painting depicts Mahāvīra's initiation. Mahāvīra pulls out his hair in the rite of keśa-loca, which forms part of the ceremony of renunciation – dīkṣā – that begins life as a monk or nun. Śakra, king of the gods, watches him

Mahāvīra's initiation
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Considering the central importance of the Jinas in Jainism – as the ultimate source of knowledge, teaching and behaviour – it is not surprising that many festivals focus on events of their lives. Early sources take care in stating where and when these events took place. The specified places determine Jain sacred geography and the precise dates form the basis of the religious calendar, with many festivals commemorating these events. Even today Jains are well aware of such links with the past, which the mendicants regularly recall during the festivals.

Before reaching omniscience, the Jinas were part of the cycle of rebirths. All of their lives showed a similar pattern. In the standard account of their lives, of which Hemacandra in the 12th century can be considered representative, there is a set of five events. Each associated with a precise date of the lunar calendar, these 'auspicious events' – pañca-kalyāṇakas – are at the centre of worship:

  1. conception – cyavana
  2. birth – janma
  3. initiation into monastic lifedīkṣā
  4. enlightenment – kevala-jñāna
  5. liberation – nirvāṇa or mokṣa.

This standard account is the result of a progressive systematisation in the sources. In earlier sources, such as the Kalpa-sūtra, the five dates are given but only for four Jinas. In another one, the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, the dates of enlightenment and final liberation are the only ones offered, but they are given for all of the 24 Jinas.

Theoretically, then, there is a total of 120 dates – five events for each Jina – if the 24 Jinas from Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra are taken into account. There are many more if the Jinas of all continents and Jinas of all times are considered. All these dates are potential commemorative festivals. But there are hierarchies, changes and innovations that lead to selections, so that some dates give birth to public celebrations while others do not, although they are considered sacred.

In practice, the main commemorative festivals are:

The list of such celebrations is longer if various historical Jain teachers of the remote or recent past are included. But, generally speaking, they do not have the same impact as the festivals given above and are observed by smaller groups.

Festivals of key concepts

A woman passes printed translations of Jinasena and Guṇabhadra’s Mahāpurāṇa, the standard Digambara version of Universal History. These scriptures are exposed for ‘darshan’ or 'sight' at the Bhandari Basadi, Shravana Belgola in Karnataka

Digambara canon on display
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Three occasions are good illustrations of the second type of Jain festival. They highlight the significance of certain major concepts in Jain belief and practice.

The Akṣaya-tṛtīyā – 'Immortal Third' – celebrates the institution of proper alms-giving. Taking as inspiration an episode in the first Jina’s life, it is celebrated among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike.

True knowledge is an important concept in spiritual progress, which is stressed in festivals among both major sects. Jñāna-pañcamī – ‘Knowledge Fifth’ – is the Śvetāmbara festival while the Śruta-pañcamī – ‘Scripture Fifth’ – is the Digambara equivalent. Both festivals lay particular importance on scriptural knowledge, which is a means of reaching true spiritual knowledge.

Āyambil Olī is a celebration of fasting as an ethical value and of Jain teachers and central concepts. Typically a women’s festival, Āyambil Olī reserves a pivotal role for worship of the siddhacakra.

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