Contributed by Nalini Balbir
The Jain era, known as Vīra-saṃvat and abbreviated as vī° saṃ°, starts from 527 BCE in the Śvetāmbara tradition or 662 BCE according to the Digambaras. This is the year of the emancipation from the cycle of rebirth of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina.
Although this dating system is of great importance in the written tradition, it has not been used as often as might be expected. For example, it is not found in manuscript colophons and only occasionally in inscriptions. However, it is known from Jain texts, and Jain authors use it when referring to the date of a work. Even so, from the 20th century it has been widely used in books which Jains have published in India.
This dating system is habitually used along with others in published works. There are plenty of examples of cumulative dating formulas, such as vīrābda 2480 vaikramābda 2010 śākābda 1876 khristābda 1954 for 1954 CE.
The 2500th year of the Jain era, which corresponds to 1973 to 1974 CE, is specially well known because it saw great celebrations of Mahāvīra’s teachings. The day Mahāvīra attained nirvāṇa is also the date of the Jain Dīvālī.
Some Jain books written in the Indian languages and published in India since the 20th century show a new development. This is the creation of new eras connected with the names of Śvetāmbara religious teachers regarded as leading figures by their group of followers. These eras start in the year the religious teachers' died. For example, dharma saṃ. 25 refers to Vijayadharma-sūri, who died in 1921, and equates to 1946 CE. These eras are used only within very limited circles, however, since these eponymous teachers do not enjoy the same status among all Śvetāmbara Jains.
The 12 months of the Jain year begin the day after the festival of Dīvālī, which takes place in late September to October in the Western calendar. The exact date varies because it is calculated using the lunar calendar.
From the point of view of Jain religious life and practice, the fundamental division of the year is between the rainy season and the rest of the year. This distinction has been in effect since the beginnings of Jainism and has its own terminology. The four-month period is commonly known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati. It starts on Āṣāḍha Bright 14 – corresponding to mid-July -– and ends with Kārttika Bright 15 in regions affected by the north Indian climate. The rest of the year is referred to as 'eight months' or by an old technical term long since out of use, the Prakrit uubaddha or Jain Sanskrit ṛtubaddha (see Balbir 1997).
This distinction determines major differences and specific rules in the behaviour of monks and nuns. Outside the monsoon season, Jain mendicants have a wandering life, in which they do not stay anywhere longer than a few days. During the monsoon they are supposed to stay in one place, creating a period of close interaction between mendicants and laity. Thus this is a time for intense religious practice for lay people and for important festivals such as Paryuṣaṇ. The arrival of a monastic group for the four-month period is welcomed with great pomp by the local laity and has led to the creation of a special type of artefact among Śvetāmbaras, the 'letters of invitation' – vijñapti-patras. The British Library holds a colourful example from the 18th century.
The rainy season is a time when life becomes more abundant, because of the combined effect of warmth and humidity. This is especially true of minute forms of life. This period is therefore also a time when it becomes very easy to harm living creatures by accident, thus breaking the Jain tenet of non-violence without meaning to. Moreover, travel becomes more difficult for practical reasons, especially for Jain ascetics, who can only travel on foot. Therefore they stay in a single place for the duration of the rainy season. In addition, pilgrimages are not performed, so in normally vibrant sacred places, such as Mount Shatrunjaya, the managing trusts do not make the usual facilities available.
From the past up to the present day, several calendars have been used side by side in India, depending on the purpose involved. For daily life, the solar month and the civil day are relevant. In the modern Indian languages from north India, such as Hindi and Gujarati, the English names of the 12 months are in common use today. But in matters of religious practice, the only relevant calendar is the lunar calendar.
The basic components of the lunar calendar are the lunar month, the lunar fortnight and the lunar day. Thus, for Jains, as among Hindus, the dates of religious festivals or any other religious occasions are expressed as follows: 'third day of the bright fortnight of the month X' or 'X Bright / Dark 1 (to 15)'.
Following custom, lunar calendars listing all the Jain festivals of the year are published as booklets or are now available on the web. They are the so-called Jain pancāngs. In their tables they also give the equivalent dates in the modern Western system, which contemporary Jains increasingly use in daily life.
Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, third Mughal Emperor of India from 1556 to 1605. Akbar's long reign is often thought of as beginning the peak of the Mughal Empire, as it grew and became rich and powerful, witnessing a cultural and intellectual flowering, and degrees of religious tolerance.
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.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.
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.
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.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its smallest. It is so dark it is almost invisible.
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.
The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.
The language that developed in Gujarat, in western India. It is also spoken in neighbouring states. Also a term for someone or something associated with or coming from Gujarat.
The most widely spoken group of languages in India, originating in the northern part of the subcontinent. Local dialects and Hindi languages are spoken all over northern India and in surrounding countries. Standard Hindi is used in administration by the central government of India, along with English.
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.
Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.
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.
Time. One of the five insentient non-material substances that make up the universe along with the sentient substance, called jīvastikaya.
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.
The 24th Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is yellow and his emblem the lion. Mahāvīra or 'the great hero' is his title. His birth name was Vardhamāna, meaning 'ever increasing'. His existence is historically documented but the two main sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains have slight differences in their accounts of his life.
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.
The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858, a period noted for its wealth, overall religious tolerance, and cultural and intellectual achievements, particularly in art and architecture. Originally Muslims who swept down from Central Asia, the Mughals' best-known ruler is probably Akbar the Great (1556–1605).
Release from the bondage of neverending rebirths, in which an enlightened human being undergoes his or her final death, followed immediately by salvation instead of rebirth. Note that this differs from the Buddhist concept of the same name.
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.
The annual four-month rainy period in India, lasting roughly from June / July to October / November. Heavy rain, strong storms and gale-force winds are very common during this period. Mendicants cannot travel around and must stay in one place to avoid breaking their vow of non-violence and because the monsoon makes travelling on foot difficult and dangerous. It is known as cāturmāsa in Sanskrit, comāsa in Hindi and comāsu in Gujarati.
A sequence of actions that must be followed to perform a religious ceremony. The set of actions is largely symbolic, for example offering food to statues symbolises sacrificing to a deity. The ritual actions are often accompanied by set phrases.
Widely used in Jain manuscripts and inscriptions, the dating system of the Śaka era or Śaka-saṃvat was once common in western India. Since it started in 78 CE, to get the equivalent year in the Common Era, one has to add 78 to the Śaka era date.
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.
Someone who copies manuscripts for a living. Scribes are common in societies where literacy is rare. In the past, however, scribes could not always read and write fluently.
'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.
The conversion of words from one alphabet into the corresponding letters of another alphabet. The text is not necessarily translated into another language, just put into another alphabet.
A Sanskrit term that describes the wandering lifestyle of Jain mendicants. Jain monks and nuns are expected to travel around, not stay in one place as householders do. They wander constantly on foot, never staying more than a few days in one place. They may walk around 30 kilometres a day in small groups. However, every year, during the monsoon, monks and nuns stay in one location to avoid travelling.
A highly decorated formal letter inviting a leading monk of a certain monastic group to spend the next rainy season in a certain place. Sent by lay people, the vijñapti-patra is a speciality of the Śvetāmbara Kharatara-gaccha and Tapā-gaccha communities.
Often abbreviated, Vikrama-saṃvat is the calendar associated with Emperor Vikramāditya. It begins in about 56 BCE so the equivalent date in the Common Era can be calculated by subtracting 57 or 56. Based on Hindu traditions, it is a lunar calendar often used in contemporary India.