Article: Mahāvīr Jayantī

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.

Unique status

The statue of Māhavīra is decorated for Māhavīr Jayantī at the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. Celebrated in March to April, the festival of Māhavīr Jayantī commemorates the birth of the 24th Jina, Māhavīra. The festival is celebrated by all Ja

Māhavīra decorated
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

Among Jain festivals, Mahāvīr Jayantī is unique in some respects. Firstly, it is celebrated by all Jains, whether Digambara or Śvetāmbara, which is not the case with all Jain festivals.

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 day-long festival of Mahāvīr Jayantī is celebrated within the context of another festival, that of the Śvetāmbara Paryuṣaṇ and the Digambara equivalent of Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan.

The Jain diaspora also celebrates this day. Their festivals vary according to the general environment of the countries where they have settled.

History of Mahāvīr Jayantī

In this manuscript painting, the infant Mahāvīra receives his ritual bath on Mount Meru. Śakra, king of the gods, who is important in the lives of the Jinas, baths the baby who becomes the 24th Jina. The small figure is Mahāvīra sitting on Śakra's lap.

Śakra baths baby Mahāvīra
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

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.

A festival takes place when an event is associated with a date. The date of Mahāvīra's birth is mentioned in early sources, such as the Kalpa-sūtra:

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 MenTriṣaṣṭi-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).

Twentieth-century developments

Fruits, flowers, water, precious substances and auspicious patterns made of rice make up these Jain offerings in a temple in Mumbai.

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.

Main events

Women celebrate the festival of Mahāvīr Jayanti, commemorating the birth of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. The golden Jina image has been ritually washed with perfumed water while to the left are silver plaques of the auspicious dreams of Mahāvīra's mother.

Offerings during Mahāvīr Jayanti
Image by Jayesh Gudka © Jayesh Gudka

Like several Jain festivals, Mahāvīr Jayanti is both a retelling and a restaging of the event at its heart. The actual celebration may differ from place to place and group to group, yet it has some defining elements.

Besides the birth proper, Mahāvīr Jayantī also celebrates Mahāvīra's incarnation in the womb of his mother Triśalā and the auspicious dreams she experienced. These dreams number 14 in the Śvetāmbara sect and 16 according to the Digambaras. In religious practice, the dreams are depicted in 14 or 16 silver or golden plaques, hung on a cord attached to the ceiling of the local temple. This aspect of the celebration is important because the dreams announce the greatness of the child that will be born.

In order to commemorate and restage the holy bath the gods give to the newborn child, people gather in the temple, preferably one dedicated to Mahāvīra. A Jain lay man and his wife embody the king of gods and his spouse. They have generally gained this honour through auctions bolī. They pour perfumed water on a small Jina image placed on a pedestal, which represents Mount Meru, and put some sandalwood paste on it. Then they distribute large amounts of money as charity and for the maintenance of the temple. Other members of the congregation take part joyously, singing hymns of praise to Mahāvīra, throwing flowers on the image and waving small lamps in front of it. Sometimes, images of Mahāvīra are taken in procession through the streets.

Images

  • Māhavīra decorated The statue of Māhavīra is decorated for Māhavīr Jayantī at the Śvetāmbara temple in Potters Bar, England. Celebrated in March to April, the festival of Māhavīr Jayantī commemorates the birth of the 24th Jina, Māhavīra. The festival is celebrated by all Jain sects, though not all of them have idols. . Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta
  • Śakra baths baby Mahāvīra In this manuscript painting, the infant Mahāvīra receives his ritual bath. Śakra, king of the gods, who plays an important role in the lives of the Jinas, baths the baby who will grow up to become the 24th Jina. The picture shows the baby as a small figure on Śakra's lap. The richly dressed and bejewelled god sits on Mount Meru, surrounded by royal symbols.. Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
  • Jain offerings in a temple in Mumbai Fruits, flowers, water, precious substances and auspicious patterns made of rice make up these Jain offerings in a temple in Mumbai.. Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0
  • Offerings during Mahāvīr Jayanti Women celebrate the festival of Mahāvīr Jayanti, which commemorates the birth of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina. They are circling trays of small lights in front of the golden Jina image, which has been ritually washed with perfumed water. On the left, before the photograph of a Mahāvīra statue, are silver plaques depicting the auspicious dreams of Mahāvīra's mother.. Image by Jayesh Gudka © Jayesh Gudka

Further Reading

Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India
John E. Cort
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

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

Discover Jainism
Colin Hynson
Institute of Jainology; London, UK; 2007

Full details

'The Kalpa Sûtra of Bhadrabâhu'
Bhadrabāhu
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes
Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft series; series editor Otto Loth; volume VII: 1
F. A. Brockhaus; Leipzig, Saxony, Germany; 1879

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

Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad's Oriental series; volume 6
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1962

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

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

'Kalpa Sûtra'
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Jaina Sutras: Âkârâṅga Sûtra and Kalpa Sûtra
Sacred Books of the East series; series editor F. Max Müller; volume 22: 1
Clarendon Press; Oxford, England UK; 1884

Full details

Glossary

Arhat

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'.

Asura

A Sanskrit term referring to demons. In Jainism asuras are a group of deities of a lower class.

Auspicious

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

Bright fortnight

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

Buddhist

A follower of Buddhism. There are two main schools of Buddhism, namely:

  • Theravāda – 'the Teaching of the Elders' in Pali – is older and is found chiefly in Sri Lanka and continental South East Asia
  • Māhayana – 'Great Vehicle' in Sanskrit – is the larger sect and is followed mainly in East Asia and the Himalayan nations.

Both sects are practised in India.

Clergy

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.

Congregation

A gathering of believers that has come together to perform group acts of worship.

Deity

A god or divine figure, often with physical powers beyond those of a human and with superhuman abilities.

Devotee

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

Diaspora

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.

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.

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. 

Gujarāt

The westernmost state in India, which is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jainism.

Idol

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

Indian Independence

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.

Indra

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.

Jain

Follower of the 24 Jinas or an adjective describing Jain teachings or practices. The term 'Jaina' is also used although 'Jain' is more common.

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.

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.

Mahāvīra

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.

Mount Meru

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.

Patan

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.

Renunciation

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.

Śalākā-puruṣa

'Great man' – also known as a mahā-puruṣa – whose story is told in Jain Universal History. Born in each progressive and regressive half-cycle of time, there are five types of 'great men':

  • 24 Jinas
  • 12 Cakravartins
  • 9 Baladevas
  • 9 Vāsudevas
  • 9 Prati-vāsudevas.

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.

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.

Secularism

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.

Siddhārtha

Father of the 24th Jina Mahāvīra and king of present-day Bihar in northern India. His wife was Queen Triśalā.

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.

Triśalā

The kṣatriya birth-mother of Mahāvīra. Queen Triśalā was married to King Siddhartha.

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