Article: Three Jina festivals

Dates connected with events in the lives of all Jinas are all potential dates for festivals. Although they are all holy for the Jains, only some of them are the focus of public celebrations – Mahāvīr Jayantī and Dīvālī are the most prominent of these. The holy days of Maunaikādaśī, Poṣa-daśamī and Meru-trayodaśī do not have the same wide impact, but they display some of the same characteristics.

The features that are typical of most Jain festivals can be found in these three smaller festivals, including the close association of certain numbers with a holy day. As with all Jain festivals, the dates on which these smaller religious events take place vary year by year, because they are calculated in the lunar calendar. There are standard festival routines involving attending the local temple or mendicant dwelling-hall to listen to sermons and stories about the relevant Jina, particularly on the events in the Jina’s life that have inspired the festival. Performing hymns of praise to the Jina is a common activity, along with carrying out rituals. Devotees also take part in the common festival activities of fasting, donating money to the temple and taking the opportunity to reflect on the example of the Jina. They may also go on pilgrimages, timed to end when the festival begins. The side effects of festivals’ promoting fellow feeling among the Jain community and presenting a coherent identity to non-Jains are also found.

In addition, the Meru-trayodaśī festival is interesting because it shows the continuing development of religious practice. The major holy days have been such for centuries but the emergence of newer festivals such as Meru-trayodaśī illustrates the elastic qualities of the Jain religious calendar.

Maunaikādaśī

Digambara statue of Aranātha or Lord Ara in a temple. A fish – the Digambara emblem of the 18th Jina – is on the pedestal. Jains believe he was also a cakravartin. Ara's initiation is marked in the festival of Maunaikādaśī

Image of Ara
Image by Ramesh Kumar © Jain Sites in Tamilnadu

Usually falling around early December, Maunaikādaśī takes part of its name from the Sanskrit term for the date in the month it starts. Meaning ‘Silence Eleventh’, Maunaikādaśī takes the other part of its name from the vow of silence that some Jains take for this day.

It is closely associated with the five auspicious events that characterise the lives of all Jinas and above all with three Jinas:

  • Aranātha or Lord Ara
  • Mallinātha or Lord Malli
  • Naminātha or Lord Nami.

Numbers are full of meaning in Jain philosophy and particularly so in this festival.

On this day, the Jain faithful will generally follow the customs shared by all the festivals in the religious calendar, including performing austerities such as fasts, listening to sermons and stories, and singing hymns. Reflection and meditation are also encouraged in Jain festivals.

Date and origin

Maunaikādaśī is the Sanskrit form of what is known in Gujarati as ‘Maun Agyāras’ or ‘Silence Eleventh’. It refers to the 11th day of the bright half of Mārgaśīrṣa, which is called Māgsar in Gujarati and is roughly from November to December in the Western calendar.

Maunaikādaśī is one of the richest days of the Jain religious calendar because some of the five auspicious events – kalyāṇakas – in the lives of three different Jinas took place on this date.

Auspicious Jina events associated with Maunaikādaśī

Auspicious event

Jina

Number of Jina

Initiation as a monkdīkṣā

Ara

18

Birth, initiation and omniscience

Malli

19

Omniscience

Nami

21

This day has further numerical significance, being associated with the number 150. Numerology and mathematics are important aspects of Jain religious thought.

As well as the 24 Jinas in the Two and A Half Continents of Jain cosmology who live in the present era, there are other Jinas. They live in other continents in eras other than the current descending cycle of time. Counting the five auspicious events in the lives of all the Jinas, the total of auspicious events taking place on this date adds up to 150.

This total comes from the following calculation:

Maunaikādaśī marks 150 auspicious Jina events

5 auspicious events

x

5 lands of Bharata

25

5 auspicious events

x

5 lands of Airāvata

25

Total auspicious events in all lands

50

50 events

x

3 times (past + present + future)

Total auspicious events in all lands and all times

150

This is the reason traditional teachers such as Ratnaśekhara-sūri and Bhuvanavijaya give Maunaikādaśī a special place, regarding it as a kind of essence of all festivals. They say that the 22nd Jina Neminātha or Lord Nemi responded thus when his cousin Kṛṣṇa asked which festival was the most important.

Main activities

A white-clad faster is ceremonially fed to break his fast. Fasting is a key part of Jain practice and is frequently undertaken during festivals or to fulfil a vow. Fasters gain great religious merit – puṇya – as do the relatives who help break their fasts

Breaking a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

The festival of Maunaikādaśī shares several key elements with the other Jain holy days. Many lay people take vows relating to temporary restraints on food. Attending sermons at the local temple or gathering-hall strengthens community bonds as well as passing on religious ideas. Hearing retellings of the events and individuals that have inspired the festival and singing hymns are also customary activities. However, the defining feature of this holy day, which gives it its name, is taking a vow of silence – mauna. This vow is mostly taken by monks and nuns (Cort 2001: 179).

The general atmosphere of Maunaikādaśī is one of serenity and self-restraint. As in other Jain festivals, the notions of self-control and dietary restrictions are prominent. Lay Jains often choose to keep vows relating to food during Maunaikādaśī. Vows regarding food restraints take three possible forms:

  • dietary restrictions
  • partial fasting
  • complete fasting.

The first one is the lowest type of restraint and consists of not eating certain kinds of food for the period of the festival. The second kind is the average level and relates to the quantity of food. It usually means taking one meal a day instead of two or three. The final kind is at the extreme end of religious austerity. Only boiled water passes the lips of the devotees, who fast completely for a limited period of time. The water they drink must be boiled because only then can they be sure there is no life in it. It is therefore the only acceptable liquid from the religious point of view, since otherwise they may unknowingly commit violence.

As with all Jain festivals, on Maunaikādaśī lay Jains listen to sermons given by mendicants. The monks and nuns also give accounts of the Jinas and five auspicious events that have inspired the festival.

Devotees sing hymns of praise to the three Jinas celebrated in this festival:

  • Aranātha or Lord Ara, the 18th Jina
  • Mallinātha or Lord Malli, the 19th Jina
  • Naminātha or Lord Nami, the 21st Jina.

There are many devotional songs that have been composed for this occasion by several authors.

Poṣa-daśamī

Women chanting hymns in the temple. Singing hymns of praise to the Jinas is one of the main elements of worship and is a crucial part of most religious ceremonies.

Women singing hymns
Image by Dey – Dey Alexander © CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

One of the most widely worshipped Jinas is the 23rd, Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. Falling in late December or early January in the Western calendar, the festival of Poṣa-daśamī celebrates his birth and is thus also known as Pārśvanātha-jayantī.

The standard festival activities of fasting, worship, sermons and meditation feature in celebrations of Poṣa-daśamī. Special decorations are used to honour idols of the Jina and a lamp with 108 wicks is reserved for performance of the lamp ceremony. However, these are not required to mark the festival. Jains belonging to all sects observe Poṣa-daśamī and it is not strongly connected with any particular place, though some Gujarati Śvetāmbaras may go on a pilgrimage.

Date and origin

Poṣa-daśamī or ‘Poṣa Tenth’ is the day that commemorates the birth of Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva. The name of this celebration comes from its traditional date, represented, for instance, by the account in the Kalpa-sūtra or in Hemacandra’s Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra. In the latter’s words:

On the tenth of the dark half of [the month of] Pauṣa, [the moon] in rādhā [Vaiśākhā], she bore a son, dark blue in color, marked with a serpent, like the ground at the foot of a mountain bearing a jewel

Johnson’s translation, volume V, page 380, 1962

This date is valid for the areas which follow the north Indian calendar, which ‘begins with the dark half of the month and ends with the full moon’ (Cort 2001: 179). But in Gujarat, which conforms to the south Indian calendar, the month starts in the bright half of the month and ends with the new moon. Thus according to the calculation of the Gujarati calendar, Pārśva‘s birth is the tenth day of the dark half of the month of Mārgaśīrṣa, or Māgsar in Gujarati.

Main activities

The infant Pārśva and his mother are shown in this 15th-century Śvetāmbara manuscript painting. Pārśva's birth is celebrated in the festival of Poṣa-daśamī. Also called Pārśvanātha-jayantī, the festival falls in late December or early January each year.

Pārśva’s birth
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Poṣa-daśamī does not demonstrate any very unusual celebrations. In common with other Jain festivals, Poṣa-daśamī is characterised by both communal and individual actions. This religious event therefore helps to generate community feeling among the local Jains and create a coherent Jain cultural and religious identity for outsiders. Devout lay people may individually choose to keep vows for the duration of the festival, usually relating to food. Activities involving the whole community of local Jains take place chiefly in the neighbourhood temple or mendicant dwelling-hall. Lay Jains visit the temple to hear the monks and nuns deliver sermons and stories relating to the subject of worship, Pārśvanatha or Lord Pārśva.

The Jina Pārśva is at the centre of worship during Poṣa-daśamī – his temples, his images and legendary episodes of his career. Statues of the Jina are hung with special ornaments and a dedicated lamp with 108 wicks may be used for the lamp ritual performed during regular evening worship. Although this festival can be celebrated anywhere, places with temples dedicated to Pārśva are especially popular.

For Gujaratis who want to practise a three-day fastaṭṭham – Śankheśvar is a favourite destination. This is a favoured pilgrimage site in which to observe a three-day fast because it recalls a legendary episode. It is said that Kṛṣṇa, the cousin of the 22nd Jina Nemi, performed this fast there. This led him to obtain the Śankheśvar image of Pārśva, which was instrumental in his defeat of his enemy Jarāsandha (Cort 2001: 180).

Meru-trayodaśī

This relief sculpture of the first Jina Ṛṣabha probably dates from the 13th century. Ṛṣabha is meditating, sitting in the lotus pose, surrounded by symbols of royal status. His nudity indicates that the figure belongs to the Digambara sect.

Ṛṣabha meditating
Image by Given by Miss Clara Montalba © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The festival of Meru-trayodaśī does not always appear in lists of Jain holy days and has hardly been described in scholarly literature. An example of the overlap between a vow or religious commitment over a long period of time and a festival, it shows the flexibility of the Jain religious calendar in allowing certain holy days to evolve over time. The stories of the 24 Jinas offer numerous chances to commemorate significant events in their lives but not all such remembrances are celebrated widely enough to be considered festivals.

Meru-trayodaśī has developed from a day that marks a key event in the life of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, to a fairly well-known, if minor, festival. Centring on a vow to perform certain rituals each month, this festival can thus be seen as a way of completing the Jain religious calendar. Adding a date connected with Ṛṣabha, who is otherwise prominent only in the festival of Akṣaya-tṛtīyā, ensures that the most-worshipped Jinas each have festivals associated with them.

Date and origin

Meru-trayodaśī takes place annually on the 13th day of the dark half of Pauṣa, corresponding to mid-December to mid-January. Many Jain festivals commemorate an event relating to one of the 24 Jinas and Meru-trayodaśī is no exception, celebrating the liberation of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, which took place on mythical Mount Aṣṭāpada.

As in the case of the Pauṣa-daśamī festival, there is some variation in the date due to different calendrical systems. In the standard Śvetāmbara account of Ṛṣabha‘s life found in Hemacandra’s epic Triṣaṣṭi-śalākā-puruṣa-caritra, the date of Meru-trayodaśī is given as the 13th day of the dark half of the month of Māgha. This is roughly equivalent to mid-January to mid-March.

Numbers holding a special significance among Jains and frequently associated with festivals, Meru-trayodaśī is linked with 13, its date.

Main activities

A rice nandyāvarta is part of a temple offering, the fruit representing a soul in the cycle of birth. For Śvetāmbara Jains the nandyāvarta is one of the eight auspicious symbols – aṣṭa-mangala – and the emblem – lāñchana – of the 18th Jina, Ara.

Nandyāvarta in rice
Image by Cactusbones – Sue Ann Harkey © CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0

The Meru-trayodaśī rituals demonstrate particular elements of Jain religious philosophy, namely the auspiciousness of numbers, mantras, symbols and cosmographical features. The connection of the number 13 with the festival is underlined in some of the ceremonies.

According to a contemporary Śvetāmbara mendicant, Muni Bhuvana-vijaya, the festival consists of a sequence of rituals. These rites take place in addition to the standard activities associated with Jain festivals, such as going to the temple to hear sermons and stories, singing hymns, performing confession and making donations. Regularly performing the rites over given lengths of time is believed to destroy all the karmas that have been accumulated and to achieve success in this lifetime.

On the 13th day of the dark half of Māgha, the devotee observes a cauvihār fast. This fast means avoiding both food and water.

The devotee places five silver replicas of Mount Meru in front of an image of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Four small replicas are set at each of the cardinal directions, with a bigger model in the centre.

The worshipper creates an auspicious svastika and nandyāvarta in front of each of the four small Merus. Then he or she performs pūjā with lights, incense and so on to each of the models.

The believer then recites the mantra Oṃ Hrīṃ Śrī Ṛṣabha-deva-pāraṃgatāya namaḥHomage to Ṛṣabha-deva who has reached the other shore – two thousand times. The term ‘the other shore’ refers to the emancipation of Ṛṣabha’s soul from the cycle of rebirth.

If the worshipper has been keeping a fast, he or she breaks it after offering alms to a monk or nun.

Performing these rituals is central to celebrating the holy day of Meru-trayodaśī. However, ideally, they should be repeated on the 13th day of the dark half of every month, for a minimum of 13 months and a maximum of 13 years. Completing this commitment ensures the destruction of karmas and worldly success in the current birth.

A devotee should observe the Meru-trayodaśī rituals according to his or her capabilities. This may mean that sometimes the festival is not celebrated, some months the fast cannot be completed or models of Mount Meru cannot be found.

Reading

Śrī parvakathādi vividha viṣaya saṃgraha
Muni Bhuvanavijaya
Bhinmal, Rajasthan, India; 1980

Full details


‘Remembrance and Celebration: The Jain Religious Year’
John E. Cort
Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India
edited by John E. Cort
Oxford University Press USA; New York, New York, USA; 2001

Full details


The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details


'The Kalpa Sûtra of Bhadrabâhu'
Bhadrabāhu
translated and edited by Hermann Jacobi
Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes
Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft series; series editor Otto Loth; volume VII: 1
F. A. Brockhaus; Leipzig, Saxony, Germany; 1879

Full details


‘Festivals’
Jyoti Prasad Jain
Religion and Culture of the Jains
Jñānapīṭha Mūrtidevī granthamālā: English series; volume 6
Bhāratīya Jñānapītha; New Delhi, India; 1975

Full details


Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad’s Oriental series; volume 3
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1949

Full details


Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad’s Oriental series; volume 3
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1949

Full details


Triṣaṣṭiśalākapuruṣacaritra: Lives of the Sixty-three Illustrious Persons
Hemacandra
translated by Helen M. Johnson
Gaekwad’s Oriental series; volume 3
Oriental Institute; Baroda, Gujarat, India; 1949

Full details


Śrāddhavidhiprakaraṇa
Ratnaśekhara-sūri
Śreṣṭhi-Devacanda-Lālbhāī-Jaina Pustakoddhara Fund series; volume 106
Surat, Gujarat, India; 1960

Full details


Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements series; series editor Jon Woronoff; volume 53
Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details


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