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.
Shazia Awan
Show Hide image

I'm a Welsh Asian - so why doesn't the Welsh Assembly have a box for me to tick?

A bureaucrat's form clumsily equates being Welsh with being White. 

As someone born in Caerphilly, who grew up in Wales, and is learning Welsh, I feel nothing but Welsh. I am a proud Welsh Asian – and yet the Welsh Assembly appear to be telling me and many like me that that’s not an option.

An equalities form issued in Wales, by the Welsh Assembly, that does not have an option to identify as non-white and Welsh. What kind of message does this send, especially at a time of public worries about integration? Sadly, I am not so surprised at this from an institution which, despite a 17-year history, seems to still struggle with the very basics of equality and diversity.
 
By the omission of options to identify as Welsh and Asian, Welsh and black, Welsh and mixed heritage (I could go on), the Welsh Assembly's form has told us something wider about the institutional perception of our diverse communities in Wales. There are options on the form for "Asian or Asian British Indian" and "Black or Black British Caribbean", to give but two examples. And also for "White British", "White Irish" and "White Welsh". But not for "Asian Welsh", or "Black Welsh". Did it not occur to anyone that there was something wrong? 

It seems like a monumental error by the Welsh Assembly Commission, which designed the form, and a telling one at that. 

A predominantly white institution (there are two non-white Assembly members out of 60 and there has never been a female Black, Asian or minority ethnic Assembly member) has dictated which ethnic group is deemed to look Welsh enough to tick their box (for those of us Welsh Asians, it seems the only box to tick is that most Orientalist of descriptions, "Other"). 
 
Over the summer, meanwhile, we saw the First minister of Wales Carwyn Jones rather clumsily assemble his Brexit advisory group. This group was made up of predominantly white, middle aged men, and not a single person from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. It seems that despite the box ticking exercises, the First Minister is taking advice from his “White Welsh” group. 
 
And it matters. The Welsh Assembly was established with a statutory duty to promote equality in Wales. In June, 17 out of 22 local authority areas in Wales voted Leave. Post-referendum, our proud Welsh BAME communities have been affected by hate crime. The perpetrators wish to draw a distinction between "them" and "us". Our national parliament is doing nothing to challenge such a distinction. Does it really think there are no non-white Welsh people in Wales? 

In Wales, we have a huge sense of overwhelming pride in what it means to be Welsh, from pride in our rugby and football teams, our language, to our food and our culture. Many friends over the years from different backgrounds have come to Wales to either study or work, fallen in love with our country and chosen to make it their home. They identify as Welsh. The thing about those of us who are Welsh and proud is that we understand that we are stronger in our diversity and stronger together as a Welsh nation. It’s a shame that our Welsh Assembly is not operating with that same sense of understanding that we have in our communities in Wales. 
 
No doubt the nameless form creator simply copied a format seen elsewhere, and would argue the omission is not their fault. Yet in these tense times, such an omission seems to arrogantly suggest Welsh is something exclusively White. 
 
The Welsh Assembly has a long way to travel on the road to creating a fairer society. From these kind of blunders, it seems clear that it is not even off the starting line. 
 
Shazia Awan is an equality activist and Consultant advising on equality and diversity issues. She is launching Women Create, a social enterprise to help women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into enterprise and employment. She  is Vice President of the Council for Voluntary Youth Services in Wales, is an Ambassador to Show Racism the Red Card and she was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference. 

 

Shazia Awan is an equality activist. She is launching Women Create, a social enterprise to help women and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into enterprise and employment. She is Vice President of the Council for Voluntary Youth Services in Wales and she was the first Asian woman to address a Welsh Tory party conference. You can follow her @shaziaawan.