Jain festivals are public statements of the beliefs of the Jains and their identity as a community. There are various types of Jains – Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras, for instance – so festivals are sometimes common to all Jains, sometimes specific to one sect or local group. There are around seven major festivals each year as well as local celebrations.
During festivals the various elements of the Jain community of monks, nuns and lay people have closer contact than normal. As well as encouraging religious observance among the laity, particularly fasting, it also aids the transmission of religious principles and practices. The cohesion of the lay community may well be strengthened and faith refreshed.
In addition to the social aspects of participating in key community occasions, lay Jains can make spiritual progress by attending festivals. They can gain merit – puṇya – to lessen the karmic matter stuck to the soul and improve their spiritual purity. This aids them in the ultimate goal of liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Many Jains also believe that taking part in festivals may help them in this world, in matters such as health, finances and good luck.
Governed by the lunar calendar, Jain festivals are all joyful celebrations, never commemorating sad events. The main Jain festivals tend to focus on events in the lives of the Jinas and other holy figures and on basic concepts of belief. Other public celebrations are inspired by local events, whether at the neighbourhood temple or connected with the mendicant community.
The religious dimensions of the majority of Jain festivals are clear, but so too is the public rejoicing at the heart of these events. Colourful processions, music and hymn-singing are the most visible parts of Jain festivals for outsiders.
Donations to temples are frequently made on festival days because donors gain greater karmic merit if they give at these times. Often, numerical symbolism guides procedures during a given festival, determining the number of fasts, the number of objects to be used and so on. For instance, five is a crucial number in Jñāna-pañcamī, ten in Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan.
Festival traditions help pass on core principles and practices, strengthening the sense of continuity and shared experience. Jains have always been a small minority in India so a powerful community spirit helps to ensure the survival of the faith and the presentation of a strong identity to outsiders.
Why Jains have festivals
In the Jain context festivals are significant in several religious and social respects, particularly as they have developed in a society where Jains form a very small minority. Involving all members in a district, lay and ascetic, festivals are occasions for reinforcing religious principles and practices, consolidating bonds among the local and wider community and presenting the Jain community to non-Jains. Religious festivals are always celebrations for Jains, never commemorations of sad events.
Jains commonly use various terms for ‘festival’, each of which captures a different aspect of the event.
From the Sanskrit parvan, parv refers to calendar terminology and indicates a change in the moon. This highlights the connection between the lunar calendar and the dates of festivals. More broadly, it refers to a holy day, like its synonym parvitithi.
The term vrata means the vow, commitment or religious observances that Jains make voluntarily on special occasions or for certain periods of time. Many lay Jains undertake a vow during a festival, frequently a type of fasting.
The words ut-sava and mahot-sava underline the idea of public celebration.
The word ‘festival’ can be understood as a term for public celebrations that take place annually or periodically on fixed dates. But there are also other festivals that are public events of equal importance for lay Jains. The most important commemorate notable events in the local temple and in the lives of local mendicants.
For most Jains the inauguration of a new temple or the installation of a new image in a temple – pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava – is a major religious occasion, marked by public celebration. Indeed, any event connected with the temple is worthy of such activities. However, Sthānaka-vāsins do not believe in image-worship and thus do not have such festivals.
The celebration of a householder’s initiation into the life of a mendicant – dīkṣā-mahot-savas – is one of the grandest public celebrations. Before receiving his monastic equipment the initiation candidate is treated like a prince. Nowadays collective dīkṣās also take place. Everything is done so that nobody in the surrounding area can ignore the event, with processions, music, religious offerings and public ceremonies.
Lay celebrations connected with mendicants are common. The arrival and departure of a group of mendicants in a locality – for example, at the beginning and end of the rainy season – are times when lay devotees rejoice publicly. When mendicants are promoted to higher positions in the religious hierarchy, it is also celebrated in festivals – nandī-mahot-savas – organised by the local laity.
Aims of festivals
Taking part in most Jain festivals has a double perspective for individual Jains. Participating is often thought to gain the festival-goer some advantage in this world, whether money, health or good fortune. At the same time, it accumulates merit – puṇya – that reduces karmic matter in the soul and increases spiritual purity, which both help achieve final liberation. The festivals of Dīvālī, Jñāna-pañcamī, Kārttika Pūrṇimā and Āyambil Olī are examples of these notions.
Notable exceptions are the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ and the Digambara equivalent, Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan, which have purely spiritual goals. They involve a period of more restricted lifestyle than usual.
Dates of festivals
The dates of the annual festivals are all expressed according to the lunar calendar, in the form ‘fifth day of the bright half of month so and so’. The names of some of the festivals contain the number of the day as their second part. Examples include Śruta-pañcamī, which means ‘Scripture Fifth’, and Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, which means ‘Inexhaustible Third’.
Proof that certain festivals have become common in the daily life of the Jain community comes from the numerous mentions in manuscripts, inscriptions or published books. These usually take the following form: ‘on the fifth day of the bright half of Kārttika, the day of Jñāna-pañcamī, this event took place’. The bright half of the month is when the moon is full enough to offer light at night and covers the fortnight from the new moon to the full moon.
The Jain religious year starts on Kārttika Bright 1 – the first day of the bright half of Kārttika – just after Dīvālī.
The four-month period of the rainy season is totally different from the eight remaining months of the year. This distinction is emphasised by the most important Jain festivals falling at the end of the rainy season, when normal activity can begin again. These festivals are:
March to April
Jains of all sects
April to May
Jains of all sects
May to June
August to September
September to October
Jains of all sects
British Jains of all sects
October to November
November to December
December to January
Jains of all sects
There may seem to be a large number of Jain festivals, but not all Jains celebrate all the festivals. In addition to the different sectarian festivals, the custom of holding local celebrations means that different groups of Jains and various academic authorities offer diverse lists of festivals.
Rules for festival dates
The early and medieval handbooks of rules governing lay people’s lives – śrāvakācāra – are specific about which days are more suitable for religious activity, including potential festivals. These are the four days each month corresponding to the phases of the moon. According to the 14th-century writer Ratnaśekhara-sūri, these are the eighth and 14th days of the month and the days of the new moon and the full moon. Such days are particularly auspicious for fasting and for observing poṣadha-vrata, one of the lay vows.
A festival often listed in such works is Aṣṭāhnika, which runs from the eighth day to the day of the full moon in the months of Kārttika, Phālguna and Āṣāḍha. ‘This act of worship is a surrogate for the adoration of the Jina images by the gods in the temples of the Nandīśvara-dvīpa, which is inaccessible to mortals’ (Williams 1963: 232).
However, several medieval authors do not specify festivals or days of festivals. They merely mention the names of a few festivals and indicate that there are many of them in one year.
Nowadays, the dates of all festivals are listed in traditional calendars – Jain pañcāng. Booklets are published at the beginning of the year or are available on websites.
There is only one case in the written tradition where the date of a festival is discussed – that of the final day of Paryuṣaṇ. According to legendary accounts connected with the religious teacher Kālaka, it was once fixed as the fifth day of the bright half of Bhādrapada, roughly August to September. King Sātavāhana wished to take part in Paryuṣaṇ but had to participate in a local festival in honour of the god Indra, which fell at the same time. Sātavāhana suggested that the last day of Paryuṣaṇ be shifted to the sixth day instead. Kālaka refused, arguing that this would go against the tradition of Mahāvīra’s teaching that the last day of Paryuṣaṇ be no later than one month and 20 days after the beginning of the rainy season. Kālaka therefore proposed the fourth day, which was agreed. Such an account was probably meant to put an end to existing differences. However, it was not a complete success because even nowadays Śvetāmbara monastic orders dispute this date and consider it a significant issue (see Cort 1999).
Hindu festivals and Jains
Some Jain festivals share dates with Hindu festivals, such as Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, Dīvālī, Kārttika Pūrṇimā and Jñāna-pañcamī. This can be explained partly by Jains living with Hindus in a common environment. It is difficult, or even impossible, to decide which religious tradition selected the date first, and it is not necessary meaningful to ask this question. It is likely that some dates primarily corresponded to seasonal activities and were used as religious dates at a later stage. Even when Hindus and Jains have identical dates for a festival – even the same name – the understanding and decisive event behind it are totally different.
Mendicants, who are the advisers of the laity, do not encourage them to take part in Hindu festivals, but generally remain discreet on this point. There is, however, one exception – the festival of Holi. A kind of carnival where the usual social conventions are ignored, Holi is seen as very disturbing and controversial and Jain mendicants have often condemned it as such (Cort 2001: 180–181).
New dates and new types of festivals can be created in special environments. For example, the Ahimsa Day festival is a recent innovation of British Jains. It is both a religious and civil festival for Jains of all sects in the UK, although it is not officially recognised.
Types of festival
There are around seven major Jain festivals each year plus local festivals marking events in the local temple or mendicant community. This high number of Jain festivals is impressive, but not all celebrations have the same social impact. This is why the lists of Jain festivals are not identical in all sources.
Jain festivals can be divided into three main kinds:
- commemoration of auspicious events in the lives of the Jinas
- celebration of key concepts
- local festivals marking events in the local temple and mendicant community.
Festivals of commemoration
Considering the central importance of the Jinas in Jainism – as the ultimate source of knowledge, teaching and behaviour – it is not surprising that many festivals focus on events of their lives. Early sources take care in stating where and when these events took place. The specified places determine Jain sacred geography and the precise dates form the basis of the religious calendar, with many festivals commemorating these events. Even today Jains are well aware of such links with the past, which the mendicants regularly recall during the festivals.
Before reaching omniscience, the Jinas were part of the cycle of rebirths. All of their lives showed a similar pattern. In the standard account of their lives, of which Hemacandra in the 12th century can be considered representative, there is a set of five events. Each associated with a precise date of the lunar calendar, these ‘auspicious events’ – pañca-kalyāṇakas – are at the centre of worship:
- conception – cyavana
- birth – janma
- initiation into monastic life – dīkṣā
- enlightenment – kevala-jñāna
- liberation – nirvāṇa or mokṣa.
This standard account is the result of a progressive systematisation in the sources. In earlier sources, such as the Kalpa-sūtra, the five dates are given but only for four Jinas. In another one, the Āvaśyaka-niryukti, the dates of enlightenment and final liberation are the only ones offered, but they are given for all of the 24 Jinas.
Theoretically, then, there is a total of 120 dates – five events for each Jina – if the 24 Jinas from Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra are taken into account. There are many more if the Jinas of all continents and Jinas of all times are considered. All these dates are potential commemorative festivals. But there are hierarchies, changes and innovations that lead to selections, so that some dates give birth to public celebrations while others do not, although they are considered sacred.
In practice, the main commemorative festivals are:
- Dīvālī – celebrates Mahāvīra’s liberation
- Mahāvīr Jayantī – marks Mahāvīra’s birth
- Maunaikā-daśī – commemorates events relating to several Jinas
- Poṣa-daśamī – honours Pārśva’s birth
- Merutrayo-daśī – dedicated to Ṛṣabha’s final emancipation.
The list of such celebrations is longer if various historical Jain teachers of the remote or recent past are included. But, generally speaking, they do not have the same impact as the festivals given above and are observed by smaller groups.
Festivals of key concepts
The Akṣaya-tṛtīyā – ‘Immortal Third’ – celebrates the institution of proper alms-giving. Taking as inspiration an episode in the first Jina’s life, it is celebrated among Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras alike.
True knowledge is an important concept in spiritual progress, which is stressed in festivals among both major sects. Jñāna-pañcamī – ‘Knowledge Fifth’ – is the Śvetāmbara festival while the Śruta-pañcamī – ‘Scripture Fifth’ – is the Digambara equivalent. Both festivals lay particular importance on scriptural knowledge, which is a means of reaching true spiritual knowledge.
Āyambil Olī is a celebration of fasting as an ethical value and of Jain teachers and central concepts. Typically a women’s festival, Āyambil Olī reserves a pivotal role for worship of the siddhacakra.
The final type of Jain festival celebrates local events and so these are not marked by all Jains. The local lay community celebrates events in the neighbourhood temple and in the lives of mendicants in the district.
Most Jains focus on the local temple as the centre of religious life and so many temple events bring about public rejoicing. Frequent examples include the installation of a new image in the ceremony of pratiṣṭhāmahot-sava and the formal opening of a new temple. The Sthānaka-vāsin sect does not believe in image-worship and thus they do not have such festivals, however.
Marking key events in the local community of monks and nuns is a common reason for local festivals. When a new mendicant is initiated, the lay Jains stage major celebrations. Public rituals are part of the initiation process and those who are renouncing the world are honoured like royalty before they undergo dīkṣā. Such celebrations announce to the neighbourhood at large the creation of a new Jain monk or nun with loud music, incense, colourful clothing and processions.
Since Jain mendicants have a wandering life, they are constantly on the move except during the annual rainy season. When a group of monks or nuns arrives in an area to stay for the four months of the monsoon, the local lay Jains rejoice publicly. They also mark the mendicants’ departure at the end of the rainy season with a celebration.
When a monk or nun gains a higher position in the monastic order, the local lay people honour this with public celebrations called nandī-mahot-sava.
Anointing of Bāhubali
One of the most spectacular Jain festivals is a local celebration centred on a holy statue. The anointing of Bāhubali – Mahā-mastakābhiṣeka – commemorates the installation of the colossal statue at Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa in Karnataka. Taking place every 12 to 14 years, the ceremony and associated festivities draw thousands of pilgrims and sightseers.
Commemorations relating to the Jinas focus on them wherever their images are housed. In this case, the celebrations focus on a specific image in a particular place. Though he is not a Jina, Bāhubali is considered as worthy of reverence as a Jina by many Jains, especially Digambaras. This is because they regard him as the first human being of our cosmic cycle to reach final liberation.
Elements of Jain festivals
Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)
Most Jain festivals combine religious observances, often very severe, with a joyful and colourful atmosphere. All parts of the fourfold community participate and, as festivals usually last a few days, there are times set aside for religious activities for both individuals and groups and for more straightforwardly festive pursuits.
Various ways of communicating the key beliefs and stories are central to festivals. These range from sermons and retellings of stories, images and objects portraying episodes and individuals, and devotional songs.
Many Jain festivals have an important performative dimension that unfolds in different ways. There are two main elements – re-enactment and retelling of the central event, and involvement in family or group-oriented activities. Lay Jains are involved in both re-enactments and retellings of the event that has inspired the festival. They act out the event and form the audience for the re-enactments and the retellings, which mendicants deliver.
Although overseen by ascetics, festivals provide plenty of chances for lay people to become actively involved as well as being audiences and spectators. Such opportunities include performing religious observances, acting, singing, processing and donating. Music has a central role in both routine worship and festivals.
Most elements of Jain festivals combine religious and social aspects, serving to cement both community ties and religiosity.
For the laity, festivals are an opportunity to take on restrictions that are not always observed at other times. The aim is to be temporarily as close as possible to the mendicant’s way of life. The usual religious observances during festivals include:
Various kinds of dietary restrictions or fasts are commonly completed during festivals:
- not eating after sunset
- excluding certain kinds of food
- partial fasting, for example taking one meal a day instead of two
- complete fasting, taking only boiled water
- complete fasting for a limited period of time.
Not eating after dark is a basic food rule in theory, but is not practised by all Jains so a festival offers a chance to observe this rule.
Partial fasting is often completed over several days. Three-day fasts – aṭṭham – and eight-day fasts – aṭṭhāī– are often observed during Paryuṣaṇ.
Fasting totally for the duration of a festival is probably the most demanding fast to keep. To survive, the fasters drink only boiled water. As there is no danger of its containing minute beings, this is the only acceptable liquid from the religious point of view.
Jain monks and nuns are supposed to complete numerous rituals of confession and repentance – pratikramaṇa – each day. When lay people do this, they are imitating part of a mendicant’s daily routine, which helps them reflect on their conduct and mental attitudes.
Going through numerous confession rituals is a key part of many festivals. Indeed, they are defining elements at the centre of Paryuṣaṇ and Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan, which both end with asking for forgiveness.
Passing on religious beliefs
One of the key functions of Jain festivals is to ensure the understanding and survival of religious principles and practices. This is done in several ways, not least in religious observances and the inclusive nature of the festivals. Other methods of transmitting and strengthening belief include preaching, story-telling in various forms, processions, and music and dance.
Involving the whole community, both mendicant and lay, in festivals enhances the concept of the fourfold community in a practical manner. Normally, the most common interactions between lay people and mendicants revolve around alms. During festivals, however, lay men and women and monks and nuns are in closer contact than usual.
Lay people hear the lessons and look at visual representations of the sacred teachings. They too help pass on religious beliefs and practices by re-enacting significant episodes and getting involved in the processional and musical elements of the festivals.
Retellings and sermons
Monk and pupils
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah
Along with sermons, retellings of the central event of the festival are important constituents of Jain celebrations.
Mendicants give sermons at the temple or in the hall in their lodgings – upāśraya. The preachers often base their sermons on the large body of literature known as parva-kathā or vrata-kathā. This is a specific literary genre of stories connected with each festival. The stories are available in all the regional languages Jains use, and are also found in Prakrit or Sanskrit.
Some Śvetāmbara authors have specialised in writing such texts. Examples include Kanakakuśala in the 17th century, Vijayalakṣmī-sūri in the 18th century and Kṣamākalyāṇa in the 19th. Booklets of these stories can be found in specialist Jain shops or at the temples. They generally consist of the story itself and the vidhi – that is, the rules for the religious acts to be performed during the festival and the way to celebrate it.
Of course, mendicants are not necessarily bound by a text in their sermons. Improvised sermons are common and more appreciated by the listeners.
- the Kalpa-sūtra is publicly elaborated upon and read fully, though quickly, during Paryuṣaṇ
- the Tattvārtha-sūtra is read aloud during the ten days of the Daśa-lakṣaṇa-parvan festival
- holy writings in general feature in certain festivals, namely the Śvetāmbara festival of Jñāna-pañcamī and the Digambara festival of Śruta-pañcamī.
During festivals, Jain beliefs and stories are also transmitted through works of visual art. For instance, silver or golden plaques of the auspicious dreams seen by Mahāvīra’s mother are hung from temple ceilings during the celebrations of Mahāvīra’s birth that are part of Mahāvīr Jayantī and Paryuṣaṇ.
Some manuscripts and printed editions of the parva-kathā and vrata-kathā genre associated with festivals contain paintings. Such manuscripts are shown to the congregation gathered in the temples on these occasions (Upadhye 1972: 16). During Paryuṣaṇ, paintings of the Kalpa-sūtra fulfil this role as well.
A key way in which lay Jains are involved in festivals is the custom of re-enacting the event behind them.
- during Mahāvīr Jayantī a couple impersonates the god Śakra and his wife worshipping the new-born Jina
- during the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā the fasting individual – tapasvī – represents the first Jina Ṛṣabha and his family members take the role of Prince Śreyāṃsa.
Among Śvetāmbara Mūrtipūjaks, auctions – bolī – may be used to select the lay men and lay women to play certain characters. Since only a few families are able to outbid the others for roles, it is a way to display their affluence to the wider group. Gaining wealth is respected in the Jain lay community because any voluntary restrictions or renunciations are considered to be harder and thus more meritorious.
Image by Jayesh Gudka © Jayesh Gudka
In contrast with the apparently unrestrained exuberance of Hindu festivals, Jain festivals are occasions for lay people to act in a way that echoes the austere lifestyle of mendicants for a short while. However, Jain festivals are neither boring nor severe. Asceticism does not prevent a profusion of colours, smells and sounds, while music and hymn-singing are crucial parts of the celebrations. Lay Jains who are not directly involved in the acting element of a festival usually take active roles in the collective singing of hymns or processions, which frequently involve music.
For Jains, singing devotional songs is both a basic religious duty and a social activity. Instrumental music and enthusiastic devotional singing are characteristic of most festival days. Hymns in Jainism are always songs of praise to the Jinas. These are sung by single-sex choirs as part of religious rituals as well as by the whole congregation. Musicians playing instruments usually accompany the singers. There are specific devotional songs for each festival.
These features do not contradict the ultimate goal of spiritual progression since they are regarded as contributing to it. They justify an ‘aesthetic’ approach, taking into account all the sensory factors of the rituals (Glasbrenner 2010).
One of the most spectacular elements of Jain festivals is the procession – yātrā – also called chariot-procession or car-festival – ratha-yātrā. Statues or pictures of Jinas in a small shrine are placed on top of a chariot that is pulled by hand, elephant or tractor. The chariot is decorated with flowers. The images are sheltered by a parasol and are fanned by people holding fly-whisks, both symbols of royalty. Behind the image troop the lay people, often singing and dancing. The procession goes from one temple to another or from the house of a wealthy lay man to the temple that is the final destination.
These processions are not only admitted but encouraged by śrāvakācāra – the handbooks regulating the life of the laity . As the authors say, they are ‘an external manifestation of the importance and material prosperity of those who profess the Jaina religion’ (Williams 1963: 234) and a way to spread the faith – prabhāvanā – which is a constituent of right belief. They are a sign of the Jain presence in the general social environment.
The final destination of the processions and the main place where a Jain festival is celebrated is generally a local temple dedicated to the Jina at the heart of the event. For Sthānaka-vāsins, who do not have temples, this place is a hall – sthānaka. In cases where a festival is fundamentally connected with one sacred place or tends to be – for example, the anointing of Bāhubali and Akṣaya-tṛtīyā – a full-fledged pilgrimage – tīrtha-yātrā – may be part of the festival. This is organised by leading lay members for the whole group.
Decorated idols of Māhavīra, Pārśva and Ṛṣabha
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta
Festivals are a way for the Jains to reaffirm their identity as a group and are internal affairs. But there are two exceptions, namely:
- Mahāvīr Jayantī is the only Jain festival to be listed in the official calendar of Indian holidays and has national status
- the celebration of Paryuṣaṇ in Gujarat.
Gujarat is a stronghold of Śvetāmbara Jains and when Paryuṣaṇ comes round each year the Jain communities negotiate with the state government so that slaughterhouses, butchers and fisheries are closed during this ten-day period. In acting like this, the Jains follow the famous example of the 17th-century Mughal Emperor Jahangir. He issued an official proclamation of a similar type at the request of a delegation of Śvetāmbara religious teachers. This practice is known as amāri – literally ‘non-killing’ and therefore ‘protecting’.
Such a ban primarily affects the Muslims who mostly form these professions and it does not go without protest. In 2008 a group of Muslim butchers petitioned the Supreme Court of India, arguing that no one has the right to prevent anybody else from practising his profession. They lost the case. The Supreme Court’s conclusion was that a faith community’s religious sensitivities trump the professional and commercial interests of another, albeit for a short while.
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