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.
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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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