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.

Śruta-pañcamī

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

The Digambara celebration of Śruta-pañcamī – 'Scripture Fifth' – has a similar name to the Śvetāmbara festival of Jñāna-pañcamī and shares many features. The motive of the Śruta-pañcamī is also to celebrate the importance of the written word in preserving and passing on the teachings of the Jinas but it is slightly different.

Śruta-pañcamī takes place on the fifth day of the bright half of Jyeṣṭha, equivalent to mid-May to mid-June. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit term Śruta-pañcamī  is 'Scripture Fifth' and the festival commemorates the day on which the Jain scriptures are supposed to have been first written down.

In the Digambara understanding, Bhūtabali and Puṣpadanta were Jain monks who compiled the available teachings and wrote them on palm leaves around 150 CE. Called the Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama – 'Scripture in Six Parts' – this body of holy texts is considered to be the ultimate source of the Jinas' teachings for the Digambaras.

The celebrations during Śruta-pañcamī are basically the same as those at the heart of Jñāna-pañcamī. Manuscripts, books and religious teachers are at the centre of the festival. The former are worshipped and new copies of the sacred writings are produced in manuscript or print. Monks are praised in hymns dedicated to them, celebrating their activities in the area of teaching and preserving the scriptures. Again, Sarasvatī may be worshipped as the patron deity of learning.

The Digambara festival is oriented more towards the spiritual elements of the holy day than the Śvetāmbara Jñāna-pañcamī. In honouring Bhūtabali and Puṣpadanta as the original models of scriptural transmission, Śruta-pañcamī focuses on religious knowledge without the blending of worldly concerns found in the Śvetāmbara equivalent.

Images

  • Jain holy texts 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. The Digambara sect of Tāraṇ Svāmī Panth worships books instead of images of Jinas.. Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Lay women This detail from a manuscript painting shows four lay women listening to a sermon. Adorned with earrings and necklaces, the brightly dressed women raise their hands in gestures of homage. The fourfold community – saṇgha – is made up of monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.. Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London
  • Digambara canon on display 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.. Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Further Reading

‘Is a Manuscript an Object or a Living Being?: Jain Views on the Life and Use of Sacred Texts’
Nalini Balbir
The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions
edited by Kristina Myrvold
Ashgate; Aldershot, Hampshire UK; 2010

Full details

Śrī parvakathādi vividha viṣaya saṃgraha
Muni Bhuvanavijaya
Bhinmal, Rajasthan, India; 1980

Full details

‘La Jñānapañcamīkathā de Maheśvarasūri’
Christine Chojnacki
Bulletin d’Études Indiennes
volume 15
Association Française pour les Études Indiennes; 1997

Full details

‘La célébration de la connaissance: normes et pratiques d’un vœu jaina’
Christine Chojnacki
La norme et son application dans le monde indien
edited by Marie-Luce Barazer-Billoret and Jean Fezas
Etudes thématiques series; volume 11
École Française d’Extrême-Orient; Paris, France; 2000

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

Jain Vrata-tap
Saryu Vinod Doshi
Rajkot, Gujarat, India; 2002

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

Jaina Iconography
Jyotindra Jain
and Eberhard Fischer
Iconography of Religions – Indian Religions series; volume 13: 12 and 13
Institute of Religious Iconography, State University of Groningen; E. J. Brill; Leiden, Netherlands; 1978

Full details

‘Festivals’
Jyoti Prasad Jain
Religion and Culture of the Jains
Jñānapīṭha Mūrtidevī granthamālā: English series; volume 6
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha; New Delhi, India; 1975

Full details

‘Jaina Festivals’
Padmanabh S. Jaini
Collected Papers on Jaina Studies
Motilal Banarsidass; New Delhi, India ; 2000

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details

Glossary

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.

Auspicious

Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future. 

Āyambil

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

Bright fortnight

The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.

Colophon

Found at the end of a Jain manuscript, a colophon is similar to the publication information at the beginning of modern books. It usually contains the title and sometimes details of the author, scribe and sponsor. The colophons of Jain manuscripts may also include the names of owners, readers and libraries where they have been stored. They frequently have decorative elements and very commonly contain a wish for good fortune for any readers. Written mainly by the scribes who copy texts, Jain colophons are often written in Sanskrit.

Common Era

The period of time starting with the year when Jesus Christ was traditionally believed to have been born. Using CE is a more secular way of dating events in a multinational, multi-religious world.

Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan

The most significant Digambara festival, this ten-day celebration takes place in August / September. Digambaras read, fast and meditate, with the Tattvārtha-sūtra playing an important role. The final day is called the 'Endless Fourteenth' - Ananta-caturdaśī - and is associated with the 14th Jina, Ananta. On this holiest day of the year, most Digambaras fast and take part in the ritual group confession, known as kṣamāpanā - 'Asking for pardon'.

Devotee

An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.

Digambara

'Sky-clad' in Sanskrit, used for one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which monks are naked. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Disciple

An active follower of a religion, especially one who passes on teachings to others.

Dīvālī

Falling in late September or October, the annual 'Festival of Lights' is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, though they have different understandings of it. Jains of all sects commemorate the liberation of Mahavira and the omniscience of his chief disciple Indrabhūti Gautama. The festival also marks a new religious year for Jains.

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. 

Hindu

Follower of the majority faith in India and an adjective describing something belonging to Hinduism. Hindus have numerous gods and diverse beliefs and practices, though many believe in the soul, karma, the cycle of births and liberation. Roughly a billion Hindus comprise the third largest religion in the world.

Idol

An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.

Jina

A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.

Jñāna

'Knowledge', of which there are five main types:

  • mind-based and sensory knowledge – mati-jñāna
  • scriptural knowledge – śruta-jñāna
  • extra-sensory knowledge or clairvoyance – avadhi-jñāna
  • knowledge of others’ minds or telepathy – manaḥparyaya-jñāna
  • omniscience or absolute knowledge – kevala-jñāna.

With spiritual progress, one can gain the different types of knowledge.

Also one of the 14 'gateways' or categories of investigation of mārgaṇā or 'soul-quest'.

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.

Laity

Believers in a religion who are ordinary worshippers, not clergy or members of religious orders. In Jainism, lay people are often called 'householders', indicating that they live in houses and have domestic responsibilities, unlike ascetics.

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.

Monk

A man who has taken a public vow to withdraw from ordinary life to formally enter religious life and advance spiritually. Frequently, monks perform physical austerities or undergo physical hardships in order to progress spiritually.

Prākrit

A term for any of the dead vernacular languages of ancient and medieval India. It may be contrasted with classical Sanskrit, the language used by priests and the aristocracy. The Jains used a large variety of Prakrits, with the Jain canon written chiefly in Ardhamāgadhī Prākrit.

Preach

To deliver a speech on a religious topic, usually given by a prophet or member of the clergy. It may be a formal task of a religious office or open to all believers in a religious faith. Often covering social and moral subjects, preaching may be intended to:

  • remind hearers of religious principles and rules
  • encourage piety
  • persuade non-believers of the correctness of the preacher's religious beliefs.

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.

Sandalwood

A fragrant wood from trees in the Santalum genus, which is often made into oil, paste, powder or incense. Widely used in religious ceremonies across Asia, sandalwood paste and powder are used to mark or decorate religious equipment, statues or images, priests and worshippers. Also used for carvings, sandalwood produces a highly prized oil used in cosmetics and perfumes.

Sanskrit

A classical language of India, originally used by priests and nobility. Sanskrit has a rich literary and religious tradition. With only a few thousand native speakers nowadays, it is predominantly used in Hindu religious ceremonies and by scholars.

Sarasvatī

Hindu goddess of learning who presides over the teaching of the Jinas, and is worshipped on the day of the festival devoted to scriptures. As goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, Sarasvatī is one of the most popular deities in India and has followers among all the Indian religions.

Scripture

Set of sacred texts that believers accept as authoritative within a religion. Synonymous with canon.

Sect

An organised group of believers in a religion, often distinguished from other groups within the same religious faith who have differences of doctrine or practice.

Śvetāmbara

'White-clad’ in Sanskrit, the title of one of the two main divisions of Jainism, in which both male and female mendicants wear white robes. There are some differences of doctrine or belief between these two sects and to some extent their followers consider themselves as belonging to distinct branches. Divisions can be fierce in practical matters, for example, over the ownership of pilgrimage places, but all sects see themselves as Jains.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

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Related Manuscript Images

  • Siddhacakra

    Siddhacakra

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

  • Homage to Sarasvatī

    Homage to Sarasvatī

    British Library. Or. 13457. Bhāskarācārya. 1640

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