Article: Holy symbols

Contributed by Jasmine Kelly

Jain flag

Becoming popular in the late 20th century, the Jain flag contains several holy symbols. While the colours represent the Jinas and the Five Supreme Beings, there are also the svastika, three jewels and the crescent holding a liberated soul.

Jain flag
Image by Jaume Ollé © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Jain flag has five horizontal bands of different colours. From top to bottom, the colours are red, yellow, white, green and dark blue, or black.

In the centre, on the white band, is a svastika, with three dots above it and a crescent at the top. The dot above the crescent represents a liberated soul. These are all in orange.

The colours used in the flag are significant. The coloured bands are the emblematic hues of the 24 Jinas and can also represent the Five Holy Entities, who are very honoured in Jainism. The colour orange is associated with one of the Five Holy Entities, namely the ācārya or head monk. Shades of orange and saffron have been linked with religion in India for millennia and orange robes are often worn in religious ceremonies by Hindus and Buddhists as well as Jains.

The origin of the flag is difficult to pin down but it has become fairly widespread since the late 20th century. It is frequently seen flying from the top of temples and is commonly paraded in the processions that are elements of Jain festivals. It could have an ancestor in the banner – dhavja – which is one of the auspicious dreams and, as such, is holy. The banner and other dreams are listed in the Śvetāmbara scripture called the Kalpa-sūtra, which is generally considered to date back to at least the 5th century CE.

Jain symbol

Adopted in 1975, the Jain emblem is made up of key symbols. The cosmic man encloses the siddha-śilā and liberated soul, the three jewels, a svastika, the hand of non-violence, wheel of the cycle of birth and 24 Jinas, a mantra and Tattvartha-sūtra verse.

Jain emblem
Image by Mpanchratan © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Jain symbol is in the shape of the cosmic man. Inside the outline of the cosmic man is a background comprised of the five colours of the Jain flag, though the colours are not always used. Inside the shape are a svastika topped with three dots, a crescent and another dot. Below the svastika is an open hand, on the palm of which is a mantra in a wheel. The mantra is the word ahiṃsā – non-violence.

The colours that often form the symbol's background are associated with the 24 Jinas and the Five Holy Entities. The cosmic man is the standard depiction of the three worlds of the traditional Jain universe. Resembling the shape made by a man standing with his hands on his waist, the three worlds are the environment through which Jains believe the soul passes in the cycle of birth over many thousands of years. The lower world holds the hells, the middle world is where human beings live and the upper world is the domain of the gods. At the top of the worlds is the crescent-shaped siddha-śilā, home of emancipated souls.

The sign of the svastika represents either the four modes of existence or the fourfold Jain community. The set of dots symbolises the three jewels of Jainism while the crescent represents the siddha-śilā, with a liberated soul depicted as a dot within it.

The open hand reminds believers to always stop and think before acting, specifically to obey the cardinal principle of the Jain faith – ahiṃsā. The wheel represents the cycle of rebirth, through which the soul is fated to pass until it is liberated when it reaches the highest level of spiritual purity. Someone who does harm and does not follow the principles of Jainism remains trapped in the cycle of rebirth. The 24 spokes of the wheel symbolise the teachings of the 24 Jinas, which can help believers make spiritual progress towards enlightenment and then emancipation.

At the bottom is a verse from the Tattvartha-sūtra scripture, which is often translated as 'Souls give service to one another'.

The 2500th anniversary of the liberation of the last Jina, Mahāvīra, was celebrated in 1975. On this date the worldwide Jain community selected this emblem to represent their faith, since it incorporates several important religious symbols. Since then the symbol has enjoyed widespread currency, used both to represent the Jains to outsiders and within the Jain community. It is used in magazines, websites and community publications as well as during festivals and other community events.

Dreams

This manuscript painting shows learned men interpreting the dreams of the woman carrying a baby who will grow up to become a Jina. In Jain tradition, dreams often herald the birth of the great individuals whose stories are told in Jain Universal History.

Interpreting dreams
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The motif of the dream features in many Jain stories and legends, usually as a way of bringing hidden knowledge to light. Dreams may foretell the future, instruct the dreamer or point to concealed religious artefacts. Revelatory or predictive dreams are common in Indian culture and dreams in Jain stories are primarily connected with the Jinas, the pivotal figures in Jain belief. Events and symbols that appear in famous dreams are frequently found in Jain literature and art of all kinds. However, the symbols and events in a dream are often hard to understand and interpreters are needed to decipher the meanings of dreams.

The best-known dreams in Jain legend are those experienced by the mothers of potential Jinas. The pregnant woman has 14 or 16 dreams that follow a strict sequence. The sect of the Digambaras believes that she has 16 while the Śvetāmbaras claim she has 14. Containing symbols that are linked with royal power, victory, power and luck in Indian culture, these auspicious dreams hint at the destiny of the embryo as a spiritual ruler. The Kalpa-sūtra, a Śvetāmbara scripture, details the dreams at some length, and has a central part in the festival of Paryuṣan. The auspicious dreams are frequently seen as carvings or paintings in temples. The mothers of other kinds of mythical individuals, namely the universal monarchs or cakravartins, Baladevas and Vāsudevas in Jain Universal History, also have a set number of similar dreams.

Another famous dream story in Jain legend relates to alms. Lay people who offer alms to monks and nuns must follow an ancient ritual and the mendicants who receive alms must also obey longstanding rules. These two sides to the ceremony, which is enacted daily all over India, are highlighted in the dream of Prince Śreyāṃsa. He was the first person to give alms correctly to the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. The Jina had been fasting for over a year because no one knew how to offer alms properly to him. Śreyāṃsa dreamed that the monk would seek alms at his house and dreamed about what to offer him and the right way to do it. Thanks to this dream, Ṛṣabha was able to break his fast in the ceremony of pāraṇā. This event is commemorated in the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā.

Dreams have also been key in creating or reviving pilgrimage destinations. For centuries Jains have performed journeys to holy sites, which are usually associated with events in the lives of the Jinas. In legend, a dream may have led the dreamer to found a site of pilgrimage. Periods of political and religious turmoil in Indian history often led to a site's falling into disuse, being taken over by followers of another faith, or the hiding or removal of an idol. In many semi-legendary cases, a devotee uncovers a hidden image after dreaming that a deity or Jina has revealed its existence and location. This unearthed idol is housed in a new temple and becomes the focus of worship.

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