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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.