Contributed by Nalini Balbir
The festival of Mahāvīr Jayantī is celebrated annually in commemoration of the birthday of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. It takes place on the 13th day of the bright half of the month of Caitra, which runs roughly from mid-March to mid-April.
One of the few festivals celebrated by all sects of Jains, Mahāvīr Jayantī is also the only Jain festival officially recognised by the Indian government. Although celebrations vary in different places, among the diverse Jain communities, there are some common elements to the festival. The birth of a Jina is a key focus of worship among all Jains. For this reason the festival is often called Mahāvīr Janma Kalyāṇak – 'the auspicious event of Mahāvīra's birth'. Marking the arrival of the last Jina of this era is often a significant religious and social event.
Moreover, it is the only festival of the Jains recognised by the Indian government. As such, it is the only one in the official calendar of the national festivals of India and is therefore one of the most visible expressions of Jain identity in today’s India. It is interesting to note that in 2010 the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, greeted the Jains on this day. Newspapers reported that he paid homage to the teachings of Mahāvīra as a source of 'happiness and contentment'.
The Jain diaspora also celebrates this day. Their festivals vary according to the general environment of the countries where they have settled.
Many Jain festivals commemorate a significant religious event or story, and Mahāvīr Jayantī is no exception. The story of the birth of a child who will grow up to become a Jina is the original event here. The primacy of this festival grew in the 20th century, as the political landscape of India developed.
The inspiring event of this festival is the birth of the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra. The birth of a Jina is an especially high-profile event named kalyāṇaka – 'good, auspicious'. Together with a Jina’s conception, renunciation of worldly life, enlightenment and liberation, it forms the standard group of pañca-kalyāṇakas, which are at the centre of devotees' worship.
At that time, when nine months had fully passed, on the 13th day of the bright fortnight, the second one of Caitra, the first month of the warm season, Lord Mahāvīra was born.
In this traditional account, the event is said to have been followed by public demonstrations of joy and by rains of flowers, gold, silver and so on, coming from the gods. The father of the Jina-to-be, King Siddhārtha, organised a feast to rejoice at the birth of his son, who was destined to be a very great man.
The medieval History of the 63 Great Men – Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra – by Hemacandra is probably the standard account of Mahāvīra's life. Here the focus of the celebrations is the bathing of the newborn child by Śakra, the king of the gods. Śakra has taken him to Mount Meru after forestalling his parents' worry by replacing the baby with an image.
The Lord’s bath-festival was held by the Indras [gods] with pure fragrant water from the tīrthas [temples] joyfully to the accompaniment of musical instruments that were played. The gods, asuras, men and Nāgas worshipped the bath-water and poured it repeatedly [over themselves] so it covered their whole bodies.
Translation by Helen M. Johnson, 1962, page 29
After the bath and hymns of praise, the baby was returned to his mother's side and the replacement image taken away. Then the king had people released from the prisons at his son's birth-festival. For the birth of the Arhat was for the release of people from the [cycle of] birth', as Hemacandra puts it (Johnson’s translation: 32).
Jain offerings in a temple in Mumbai
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0
Mahāvīr Jayantī has always been the most important Jain festival but its institution as an annual public festival seems to have taken place in the 20th century, in post-Independence India. It was perhaps encouraged by the parallel Buddhist festival, the Buddha Jayantī, which marks the birth of Buddha. Since India is a secular state, it is important that each religion practised in the country has at least one day of official recognition.
The official status of Mahāvīr Jayanti has an impact on the way it is celebrated. For instance, Cort contrasts the great procession and speeches by industrialists and various officials in Ahmedabad in 1987 with the lack of importance it had in a small town like Patan (Cort 2001: 181–182), both in Gujarat.
This range of public celebration can be explained by the fact that the emotionally charged celebration of Mahāvīra’s birth takes place within the wider frame of either Paryuṣaṇ or Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan. The fifth day of these festivals is the Mahāvīr Janam Divas, which commemorates Mahāvīra's birth. How different local communities mark these longer festivals influences their celebration of Mahāvīr Jayanti.
Sanskrit term meaning 'destroyer of enemies'. The enemies are the inner desires and passions. It is also a synonym for Jina. An Arhat is a liberated soul who has not yet left his fleshly body, but, as an omniscient being, is 'worthy of worship'.
A Sanskrit term referring to demons. In Jainism asuras are a group of deities of a lower class.
Favourable or lucky. Auspicious objects bring good fortune and may predict good events or a bright future.
The half of the lunar month in the traditional Indian calendar in which the moon is at its fullest.
A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:
Both sects are practised in India.
Formally recognised leaders within a religion. The clergy often perform rituals, lead worship and instruct believers in religious principles. Lay men and women usually complete formal study before being initiated into the clergy. Clerics are active among lay believers, often living in society. They may have specific roles or ranks and may progress through a hierarchy to become top leaders of the religious organisation.
A gathering of believers that has come together to perform group acts of worship.
A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.
An enthusiastic follower of a religion. Can also describe a keen enthusiast of an individual, concept or activity.
From the Greek term meaning 'scattering or dispersal', the word 'diaspora' describes large groups of people with shared roots who live away from their ancestral homes. They have usually moved because they were forced to by other groups, because they have fled war, famine or persecution, or to improve economic opportunies. They usually have strong emotional, religious, linguistic, social and economic ties to their original homeland.
'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.
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.
An image of a deity or concept that is worshipped either as a god or as a representation of the deity.
With its independence from the British Empire on 15 August 1947, India became a secular, sovereign state. The date of 15 August is a national holiday in the Republic of India.
Sanskrit word for 'king' and the name of the king of the gods in the Saudharma heaven. Called Śakra by Śvetāmbaras and known as Saudharma to Digambaras, this deity is involved in all five auspicious moments – kalyāṇakas – in a Jina's life.
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.
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.
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.
The cosmic axis of the Jain universe. Located in the middle of Jambū-dvīpa, the innermost continent of Jain cosmology, Mount Meru consists of three forested terraces, each smaller than the one below. When a Jina is born, the gods visit the earth, take him away and wash him in the standard birth ritual on the mountain. Jain temples often have a tower symbolising Mount Meru. Mount Meru is also the centre of the universe in traditional Buddhist and Hindu belief.
A small town in Gujarat that was a capital city in medieval times, a Jain centre of learning and art with beautiful temples. Some of these and remains of other structures can be seen today. Old name: Aṇahilla Paṭṭaṇa.
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
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.
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.
Term for either everyday or material life, not the spiritual, or for a social or political system that concentrates on the material world, rejecting spiritual or religious influence. A secularist believes that religion has no place in fields such as education and politics.
Father of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra and king of present-day Bihar in northern India. His wife was Queen Triśalā.
'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.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
The kṣatriya birth-mother of Mahāvīra. Queen Triśalā was married to King Siddhartha.
British Library. Or. 13341. Unknown author
Victoria and Albert Museum. IS 46-1959. Unknown author. Late 15th to 16th centuries