Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Passing on religious beliefs

Children in an orphanage in Bhuj, Gujarat, listen to Sadhvi Shilapiji. The nun sits on a platform so they can all see and hear her. Traditionally, a senior mendicant sits on a low platform to pass on the teachings to lay people or junior ascetics.

Children listening to a nun
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

One of the key functions of Jain festivals is to ensure the understanding and survival of religious principles and practices. This is done in several ways, not least in religious observances and the inclusive nature of the festivals. Other methods of transmitting and strengthening belief include preaching, story-telling in various forms, processions, and music and dance.

Involving the whole community, both mendicant and lay, in festivals enhances the concept of the fourfold community in a practical manner. Normally, the most common interactions between lay people and mendicants revolve around alms. During festivals, however, lay men and women and monks and nuns are in closer contact than usual.

The mendicants perform rituals, act as advisers and fully assume their roles as teachers, especially when giving the sermons that feature in the festivals. They also lead the processions when needed.

Lay people hear the lessons and look at visual representations of the sacred teachings. They too help pass on religious beliefs and practices by re-enacting significant episodes and getting involved in the processional and musical elements of the festivals.

Retellings and sermons

A Śvetāmbara monk and a bookstand – sthāpanācārya – which symbolises his role and authority as teacher. It holds a scripture in protective cloth. He sits on a low plaform while pupils sit on the floor. Religious beliefs were originally passed on orally

Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Along with sermons, retellings of the central event of the festival are important constituents of Jain celebrations.

Mendicants give sermons at the temple or in the hall in their lodgings – upāśraya. The preachers often base their sermons on the large body of literature known as parva-kathā or vrata-kathā. This is a specific literary genre of stories connected with each festival. The stories are available in all the regional languages Jains use, and are also found in Prakrit or Sanskrit.

Some Śvetāmbara authors have specialised in writing such texts. Examples include Kanakakuśala in the 17th century, Vijayalakṣmī-sūri in the 18th century and Kṣamākalyāṇa in the 19th. Booklets of these stories can be found in specialist Jain shops or at the temples. They generally consist of the story itself and the vidhi – that is, the rules for the religious acts to be performed during the festival and the way to celebrate it.

Of course, mendicants are not necessarily bound by a text in their sermons. Improvised sermons are common and more appreciated by the listeners.

Scriptures

Knowledge of the teachings found in the scriptures is an essential part of spiritual advance for Jains. Therefore sacred texts play a vital role in several Jain festivals, for example:

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