Article: Jain calendar

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Jain eras

All Jains celebrate the 'Festival of Lights' – Dīvālī. The annual festival underscores the worldly values of wealth and well-being as well as the desirability of renouncing the world. This festival also celebrates the liberation of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra.

Floating candles on Dīvālī day
Image by siddhu2020 © CC BY 2.0

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 Jain year

Śvetāmbara monks walk down a Mumbai street accompanied by lay men. The monks are barefoot and holding their mouth-cloths and monastic staffs. Jain mendicants live in small bands and travel most of the year in the traditional wandering lifestyle – vihāra

Śvetāmbara monks
Image by Hoorob – Robert Tyabji © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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.

Lunar calendar

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.

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