Article: Festivals of knowledge

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

The concept of knowledge – jñāna – is crucial in the Jain faith. To escape the neverending cycle of birth, Jains must follow the 'three jewels' of 'right faith', 'right knowledge' and 'right conduct' so they can gain absolute knowledge or omniscience, the vital stage before liberation. The religious importance of knowledge is acknowledged in the dedicated festivals celebrated by the two main Jain sects. The Śvetāmbara celebration is Jñāna-pañcamī while the Digambara equivalent is called Śruta-pañcamī. The general concept at the centre of the festival is similar in both traditions, but there are differences in the date and the course of events.

Concept of knowledge

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Jainism distinguishes five types of knowledge, of which the second is relevant here. It is known as śruta-jñāna, literally 'knowledge of what has been heard'. It is therefore knowledge that is closely connected with language and words. In practice, the term refers to knowledge of the teaching that the 24 Jinas preached to their disciples, who transmitted it to others, who passed it on to still other people.

All Jains agree that the Jinas' message was first spread orally and they also agree that, at a much later time, this teaching was written down and resulted in various texts. But the two main sects of Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras differ on the way the written transmission was achieved and on what these individual texts are. Thus even though the names of their separate festivals of knowledge mean the same thing and refer to the same variety of knowledge, it is natural that the two sects have distinct celebrations.

Both Jñāna-pañcamī and Śruta-pañcamī feature the physical artefacts of holy writings being treated as objects of worship. The Jain festivals of Paryuṣaṇ and Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan venerate copies of particular holy texts – in the case of the former it is the Śvetāmbara Kalpa-sūtra while at Dasa-laksana-parvan Digambaras focus on the Tattvārtha-sūtra. However, during Jñāna-pañcamī and Śruta-pañcamī, it is the concept of holy knowledge that is at the heart of the celebration. Books and manuscripts of the scriptures are venerated not as objects of worship in themselves but as material representations of the teachings of the Jinas.

Jñāna-pañcamī

The Śvetāmbara festival of knowledge is called Jñāna-pañcamī, which literally means 'Knowledge fifth'. Jñāna-pañcamī takes place on the fifth day of the bright half of the month of Kārttika, roughly corresponding to October to November in the Western calendar. It falls between the major feast of Dīvālī and the beginning of the new religious year. This particular date is thought of auspicious and has several names, indicating the multitude of meanings of this date for different groups in Indian society.

A tradition has emerged that the Dvādaśāngas – that is the '12 Aṅgas' that form the first group of Śvetāmbara canonical scriptures – was completed on this date. But there is no historical proof of that.

The Hindus consider the same date auspicious for a different reason. They call it Saubhāgya-pañcamī – 'Good Fortune Fifth'. In a tenth-century Prakrit collection of stories about Jñāna-pañcamī, the concept of saubhāgya is prominent. The main characters of the stories are married women who observe this festival in the hope of protecting their husbands against illness and poverty (Chojnacki 1997).

Another common Śvetāmbara Jain name for this festival is Lābha-pañcamī – 'Profit Fifth'. On this day merchants reopen the shops and offices that had been closed or were supposed to have been closed since before Dīvālī (Cort 2001: 173). It is thus the date when normal business begins again after the principal holiday of Dīvālī, which marks the turning of the year.

The festival is also known as Guru-pañcamī or 'Teacher Fifth', which recognises the significance of monks and nuns in the Jain faith. A key mendicant role is knowing the scriptures and passing on the teachings of the Jinas, and this title emphasises their importance in the transmission of Jainism.

These different names show how this festival is at the junction of different Jain values – the worldly aspirations of health and financial comfort, and the spiritual desire to advance along the path to enlightenment.

Events in Jñāna-pañcamī

This detail from a manuscript shows four lay women listening to a sermon. Adorned with earrings and necklaces, the brightly dressed women raise their hands in homage. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.

Lay women
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

Numbers and mathematics have important roles in Indian culture, often demonstrated in festivals. In this festival the significant number is '5', which can be seen from different versions of the stories connected with Jñāna-pañcamī and from the prescriptions in ritual handbooks (Chojnacki 2000). To get rid of disease, the main female character of one story is advised to 'observe Jñān Pañcamī, a fast lasting for five years and five months to be performed on every jñān tithi, the fifth of the bright half of every month, or at the very least annually on Jñān Pañcamī' (Cort 2001: 174). The same advice is given to other characters in the story collections relating to this festival.

As with many Jain holy days, fasting is the devotees' main practice. But the ideal mentioned in the prescriptive textbooks or stories is hard to meet. Mostly, people observe a fast in which they eat only tasteless food – āyambil – or any kind of fast – upvāsa – common in Jainism.

As part of the routine activity of Jñāna-pañcamī, lay Jains also listen to mendicants' preaching on the benefits of observing this vow and celebrating the festival. On this day in particular, monks and nuns do their best to convince the laity that they should read and learn the scriptures. Since mendicants are the link between the scriptures and the lay people, they are also worshipped on this day. For this reason Jñāna-pañcamī is also called Guru-pañcamī or 'Teacher Fifth'.

The most concrete and specific aspect of the festival of Jñāna-pañcamī is the worship of books or manuscripts. This takes various forms. Frequently, old manuscripts are displayed on tables at temples and sprinkled with sandalwood powder – vāsakṣepa. This is similar to how images of the Jinas are worshipped. Lay people often commission fresh copies of the sacred texts while new books are commonly published on this day. Generally, manuscript colophons or introductions in published books often add to the usual dating formula the note that it was completed on a Jñāna-pañcamī day. This custom emphasises the connection between the new manuscript or book and this date. Just as idols are, especially esteemed books or manuscripts may be the centre of long musical processions involving the local monks, nuns and lay people.

More generally, any form of activity encouraging reading and writing is recommended on this day. For instance, children buy pencils and notebooks and copy simple religious hymns or mantras.

Some people extend the celebration to the 'five types of knowledge' of Jainism instead of celebrating only scriptural knowledge. For this purpose they often make a circuit of nearby temples, celebrating each type of knowledge in a different place.

On this day some Jains worship Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning, who is also known as Śruta-devatā.

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