Article: Songs of devotion

Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting

Group and solo singing

Women chanting hymns in the temple. Singing hymns of praise to the Jinas is one of the main elements of worship and is a crucial part of most religious ceremonies.

Women singing hymns
Image by Dey – Dey Alexander © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jain religious songs are performed routinely as part of the morning worship. The liturgy of the morning worship includes a particular point at which the worshipper is expected to sing a hymn. This is usually sung solo but if a number of Jains performs the daily worship together, they will sing as a group.

As well as the daily prayer ritual, there are other liturgies, such as the Śvetāmbara Snātra Pūjā and Digambara Deva Śāstra Guru Pūjā, in which hymns have a central role. Additional devotional songs are usually also played. These ceremonies are usually communal, with the whole congregation singing hymns. In the sect of the Śvetāmbaras women’s singing groups are also hired to take part in these rituals on behalf of the sponsors.

Many Jain congregations have hymn-singing groups for either men or women. Some larger congregations have both men’s and women’s choirs. These groups sing hymns as a devotional act in a set schedule, but may also be available for hire for celebrations and to perform religious ceremonies. During the evening celebrations the choirs sing hymns but they also may perform veil songs – cunḍaḍī gīt.

On the whole, men’s choirs tend to perform devotional singing for evening celebrations and women’s groups are more likely to take part in the sung liturgies. The musicality of these two groups reflects these different practices. The men’s groups may make more use of amplification and electronic instruments while women’s choirs more usually perform a form of seated percussion dance with similarities to the Gujarāti folk dance genre, garba. Female choirs’ performances tend to be more associated with liturgical ceremonies.

Hymns in public rituals

Major Jain public rituals involve singing hymns. For example, the quintessential public rite of Jainism – the ordination of a Jain monk or nun – is accompanied by ordination songs – dīkṣā gīt. These hymns are sung by:

  • members of the renouncer’s family
  • professional singers
  • the congregation of Jains who have come to participate in the rituals linked with ordination.

Other public rituals such as temple consecrations, festivals and parades associated with mendicants and fasters also include the singing of devotional songs.

Hymns in domestic rituals

At the end of his fast a man is fed sugar-cane juice. Many lay people fast during festivals. Believed to help destroy karmas bound to the soul, fasting is also a way of gaining merit – puṇya. The ending of a fast is usually a time of celebration.

Completing a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Some domestic Jain rituals are marked by singing religious songs. These may be specifically Jain rites, such as marking the breaking of a fast, or more broadly auspicious ceremonies, such as the birthday of a more senior relative. In these domestic liturgies, a solo singer leads the hymns and the rest of those present who know the songs join the singing in a call-and-response pattern.

Fast-breaking ceremonies may include performances by an established choir, a group of friends and relatives and individual singers. At these ceremonies fasting songs – tapasya gīt – celebrate the faster’s austerities and virtues. During difficult fasts, these may be sung in the faster’s home in order to support his or her efforts and promote a religious environment to make the fasting easier.

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