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.

Ashik Shah is an active lay member of the Jain community. He was a founder of Young Jains of America, and is an active member of Young Jains in the UK. He has been in the fund management business for the last 15 years.
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.