Article: Festivals

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Jain festivals are public statements of the beliefs of the Jains and their identity as a community. There are various types of Jains – Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras, for instance – so festivals are sometimes common to all Jains, sometimes specific to one sect or local group. There are around seven major festivals each year as well as local celebrations.

During festivals the various elements of the Jain community of monks, nuns and lay people have closer contact than normal. As well as encouraging religious observance among the laity, particularly fasting, it also aids the transmission of religious principles and practices. The cohesion of the lay community may well be strengthened and faith refreshed.

In addition to the social aspects of participating in key community occasions, lay Jains can make spiritual progress by attending festivals. They can gain merit – puṇya – to lessen the karmic matter stuck to the soul and improve their spiritual purity. This aids them in the ultimate goal of liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Many Jains also believe that taking part in festivals may help them in this world, in matters such as health, finances and good luck.

Governed by the lunar calendar, Jain festivals are all joyful celebrations, never commemorating sad events. The main Jain festivals tend to focus on events in the lives of the Jinas and other holy figures and on basic concepts of belief. Other public celebrations are inspired by local events, whether at the neighbourhood temple or connected with the mendicant community.

Knowledge of the sacred teachings is a key part of the Jain faith. During festivals techniques of preaching, story-telling, acting, art and music are employed to pass on beliefs and practices.

The religious dimensions of the majority of Jain festivals are clear, but so too is the public rejoicing at the heart of these events. Colourful processions, music and hymn-singing are the most visible parts of Jain festivals for outsiders.

Donations to temples are frequently made on festival days because donors gain greater karmic merit if they give at these times. Often, numerical symbolism guides procedures during a given festival, determining the number of fasts, the number of objects to be used and so on. For instance, five is a crucial number in Jñāna-pañcamī, ten in Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan.

Festival traditions help pass on core principles and practices, strengthening the sense of continuity and shared experience. Jains have always been a small minority in India so a powerful community spirit helps to ensure the survival of the faith and the presentation of a strong identity to outsiders.

Why Jains have festivals

Rangoli – auspicious patterns and pictures – are common at Indian festivals and celebrations such as weddings. Rangoli symbolise welcome and auspiciousness and are usually arranged on floors, especially at the doors to houses and temples. Usually created

Rangoli
Image by J Henney – teachICT © CC BY-NC 2.0

In the Jain context festivals are significant in several religious and social respects, particularly as they have developed in a society where Jains form a very small minority. Involving all members in a district, lay and ascetic, festivals are occasions for reinforcing religious principles and practices, consolidating bonds among the local and wider community and presenting the Jain community to non-Jains. Religious festivals are always celebrations for Jains, never commemorations of sad events.

Jains commonly use various terms for 'festival', each of which captures a different aspect of the event.

From the Sanskrit parvan, parv refers to calendar terminology and indicates a change in the moon. This highlights the connection between the lunar calendar and the dates of festivals. More broadly, it refers to a holy day, like its synonym parvitithi.

The term vrata means the vow, commitment or religious observances that Jains make voluntarily on special occasions or for certain periods of time. Many lay Jains undertake a vow during a festival, frequently a type of fasting.

The words ut-sava and mahot-sava underline the idea of public celebration.

The word 'festival' can be understood as a term for public celebrations that take place annually or periodically on fixed dates. But there are also other festivals that are public events of equal importance for lay Jains. The most important commemorate notable events in the local temple and in the lives of local mendicants.

For most Jains the inauguration of a new temple or the installation of a new image in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava – is a major religious occasion, marked by public celebration. Indeed, any event connected with the temple is worthy of such activities. However, Sthānaka-vāsins do not believe in image-worship and thus do not have such festivals.

The celebration of a householder’s initiation into the life of a mendicantdīkṣā-mahot-savas – is one of the grandest public celebrations. Before receiving his monastic equipment the initiation candidate is treated like a prince. Nowadays collective dīkṣās also take place. Everything is done so that nobody in the surrounding area can ignore the event, with processions, music, religious offerings and public ceremonies.

Lay celebrations connected with mendicants are common. The arrival and departure of a group of mendicants in a locality – for example, at the beginning and end of the rainy season – are times when lay devotees rejoice publicly. When mendicants are promoted to higher positions in the religious hierarchy, it is also celebrated in festivals – nandī-mahot-savas – organised by the local laity.

Aims of festivals

Taking part in most Jain festivals has a double perspective for individual Jains. Participating is often thought to gain the festival-goer some advantage in this world, whether money, health or good fortune. At the same time, it accumulates meritpuṇya – that reduces karmic matter in the soul and increases spiritual purity, which both help achieve final liberation. The festivals of Dīvālī, Jñāna-pañcamī, Kārttika Pūrṇimā and Āyambil Olī are examples of these notions.

Notable exceptions are the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ and the Digambara equivalent, Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan, which have purely spiritual goals. They involve a period of more restricted lifestyle than usual.

Dates of festivals

The dates of the annual festivals are all expressed according to the lunar calendar, in the form ‘fifth day of the bright half of month so and so’. The names of some of the festivals contain the number of the day as their second part. Examples include Śruta-pañcamī, which means ‘Scripture Fifth’, and Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, which means ‘Inexhaustible Third’.

Proof that certain festivals have become common in the daily life of the Jain community comes from the numerous mentions in manuscripts, inscriptions or published books. These usually take the following form: ‘on the fifth day of the bright half of Kārttika, the day of Jñāna-pañcamī, this event took place’. The bright half of the month is when the moon is full enough to offer light at night and covers the fortnight from the new moon to the full moon.

The Jain religious year starts on Kārttika Bright 1 – the first day of the bright half of Kārttika – just after Dīvālī.

The four-month period of the rainy season is totally different from the eight remaining months of the year. This distinction is emphasised by the most important Jain festivals falling at the end of the rainy season, when normal activity can begin again. These festivals are:

Dates and names of the principal Jain festivals

Western month

Festival

Sect

March to April

Mahāvīr Jayantī

Jains of all sects

April to May

Akṣaya-tṛtīyā

Jains of all sects

May to June

Śruta-pañcamī

Digambara

August to September

Paryuṣaṇ
Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan

Śvetāmbara
Digambara

September to October

Dīvālī

Jains of all sects

October

Ahiṃsā Day

British Jains of all sects

October to November

Jñāna-pañcamī

Śvetāmbara

November to December

Kārttika Pūrṇimā
Maunaikā-daśī

Śvetāmbara

December to January

Poṣa-daśamī
Merutrayo-daśī

Jains of all sects

There may seem to be a large number of Jain festivals, but not all Jains celebrate all the festivals. In addition to the different sectarian festivals, the custom of holding local celebrations means that different groups of Jains and various academic authorities offer diverse lists of festivals.

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