Jain worship, rituals and festivals

The rites and festivals of the Jain faith

“Your gaze is immersed in the nectar of serenity, imbibing it. The lotus-like face displays tranquility. You are free of desire for sensual company;

“No weapon is found in your hands. Thus you alone are the equanimously detached Lord of the World.”

The inner qualities realised by the Jinas are what makes them worshipful, and the Jain seeks shelter in the religion they propounded. Once a soul has attained Moksha, it cannot be reborn, cannot intervene in worldly matters and is free from all desire.

Jain prayer is not beseeching some creator god for his grace or mercy, or divine intervention, but is a contemplation of the message of Dharma, the Jina’s virtues, or certain events from a specific Tirthankar’s lives. (Tirthankars constitute a glorious subset of Jinas – see previous blog on belief.) While many hymns address the Tirthankars directly, this is only so as to personally engage the worshipper in the specific points related in the hymn.

Not all Jain sects worship images, and even the images of the sects that do are distinct. However, all agree in the total equanimous detachment of the Jina and the intense serenity and bliss experienced in Moksha. The Tirthankars have left behind an order and a message for us to understand the very path to this exalted state. Their lives are examples for us to understand the process through which they attained the Ultimate. The bliss they experience now is available for us if we strive.

The images (idol or picture) typically show a Jina in one of two postures – the lotus-position, or one of standing with body leaning slightly forward. In both cases, the Jina is in deep meditation. Meditation is a very important part of the path to Moksha and to self-realisation, the key step to this state. Virtually all the Jinas performed austerities and underwent trials and tribulations in their final life before attaining Moksha, and they were able to remain in equanimity, detached and at peace through the power of meditation. Unfortunately, this is little understood today, and a lot of attention is paid only to the austerities they underwent.

The tradition describes the sermons of the Tirthankars as truly splendid events, where all manner of beings assemble: celestial beings and even animals. The physical description of the assembly inspire awe and wonderment and certainly capture the imagination of anyone who hears about them. However, the ultimate achievement of the Tirthankars is their intense striving for and attainment of Enlightenment and the compassionate sharing of the message.

Each sect has its own approach to worship: The Shvetamber community’s ritual worship involves actually touching the idol, although the Sthanakwasi community does not worship images, while the Digambar community will largely worship the image from a distance. (We will look at these sects in a little more detail in tomorrow’s blog). The worshiper must be ritually clean (typically having bathed just before worship), and the clothing must also be clean.

The whole ritual is charged with meaning and significance, relating again to the path to Moksha, as are the verses recited. For example, there is the use of light to signify consciousness, the characteristic of the soul, and Enlightenment; a fruit symbolises the ultimate fruit of Moksha itself; burning incense signifies the burning away of Karma. When the ritual is over, the devotee will typically sing a hymn specific to the Tirthankar(s) to whom the temple is dedicated, as well as recite a sequence of hymns and prayers, again about the path and various virtues. While much attention is paid to ritual precision and correct pronunciation of words, in all of this, you can see the centrality of the path to Moksha.

Worship is one of a set of obligatory duties, Avashyaks, which are enjoined upon a Jain. These include: samayika, the practice and cultivation of equanimity, veneration of the 24 Tirthankar(s) and monks, and listening to their teachings, study of scriptures, pratikraman, the review, confession and forgiveness of transgressions, practice of meditation, austerities and restraint, and charity. In addition, all Jains are expected to take vows, which are: Ahimsa - Respecting the right to live of even the subtlest of all life-forms; speaking only words which abide to the Truth; not accepting or taking anything without permission; possessionlessness and control of possessiveness; celibacy and purity of thought. The intensity of the vow depends on whether one is a layperson or an ascetic.

Jain adherence to Ahimsa is perhaps the most commonly cited and known aspect of our practice. People often quote the example of the monk who brushes the path before him so as to avoid injury to any living being. You might be aware of the animal hospitals and emergency shelters provided for cattle by Jains at times of famine, in addition to humanitarian work. Unfortunately, observers reduce our rich spiritual tradition to merely a system of ethics. It is because I understand that each and every living being is by nature a majestic soul, charged with consciousness (and thus sensation), who wants to live and does not wish to suffer, and who is capable ultimately of immense spirtual heights, that I avoid harm to them. When I forget that, I lapse.

Many of the daily duties and vows will be familiar in some form of another to the reader. However, I would like to focus on one ritual known as pratikraman, the review, confession and forgiveness of transgressions. Some devout Jains undertake this review privately twice a day and most will do so at least once a year as a community. First one remembers and venerates the guru and then takes a vow of Samayika (equanimity), to remain focused and undisturbed in the process about to be undertaken. The essence of the pratikraman ritual is a review of the the harm which one might have conducted against any living being, and the infraction of other spiritual duties. The review of harm is extremely detailed and minute, and encompasses harm to even the smallest of life forms – the recited texts list these meticulously. The review ends in a mutual forgiveness, combining both the act of forgiving and seeking forgivness from all living beings.

There is even an annual festival of forgiveness (Paryushana) of 8-10 days (depending on the sect), typically in August or September (according to our ritual lunar calendar) which are spent in fasting, in contemplation and also in seeking forgiveness. The 10 day version specifically focuses each day on a specific virtue to be cultivated. Other festivals celebrate the key moments in the life of a Tirthankar (conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, Moksha): A key date in the Jain calendar is the birth anniversary of Mahavira, called Mahavir Jayanti, typically in April; his Moksha is celebrated on Diwali, with the lights demonstrating the light that left with him, or the light of his message.

As the universe is charged with living, conscious beings, we are inevitably causing harm in our everday lives, so sincerely seeking forgiveness is naturally important. In the blog on belief I touched on the quartet of passions, namely anger, ego, deceit and greed which invariably arise when we forget our essential natures. Jain scriptures have outlined virtues to counter-act these passions: firstly, forgiveness and then respectively humility, straightforwardness, contentment. The whole system of ritual and conduct serves to remind us of the path to overcome these obstacles in our progress.

As in all traditions one might become excessively engaged in the observation of ritual or in dry philosophising. However, as is clear from this and the previous blog, both ritual and understanding philosophy support us in our aim of experiencing the ecstasy of self-realisation in this lifetime, living in harmony and peace with the world, as we progress to the liberation that is Moksha, whose majesty is outlined in the opening verse.