Mahavira Jayanti

Mahavira Jayanti

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jain)
Date of Observation: March-April; thirteenth day of the waxing half of Caitra
Where Celebrated: India and throughout the Jain world
Symbols and Customs: Abhishek, Cradle Processions, Fasting

ORIGINS

Mahavira Jayanti is part of the tradition of Jainism, a religion based on the principles of nonviolence, truthfulness, chastity, and the avoidance of stealing and attachment to earthly things. Jainism originated in India around the same time that Buddhism developed. Jains believe in a sequence of reincarnations: animals must become human, and lay people must become monks in order to attain salvation from the world. Salvation, called mokhsa, is attained by liberating the soul from the contamination of matter (karma). This liberation results in omniscience and bliss for eternity.

One of the fundamental doctrines of Jainism is the separation of living matter (called jiva) and non-living matter (called ajiva). In order to achieve freedom from karma, Jains must completely avoid harming any living thing and practice perfect asceticism. Three concepts govern the affairs of the Jain people. These are known collectively as the Triratna (Three Jewels) and consist of right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct.

The name Jain comes from the Sanskrit word Jina, which means Conqueror. The conquerors honored by the Jains are people who have overcome and won enlightenment. The name Jinas also applies specifically to twenty-four spiritual guides from history and the legendary past who are collectively called the Tirthankaras (which means ford-markers). Each of the Tirthankaras achieved liberation, and by his model taught others how to do the same. There is no personal god in Jainism. Although several gods and goddesses are recognized (and a few of them are also included in the Hindu pantheon), they take a subordinate position to the twenty-four Tirthankaras.

Jainism teaches that the universe is eternal-it was not created, it has no beginning, and it will have no end. It passes through cycles during which civilizations rise and fall, men attain large size, and life-spans lengthen. In each cycle, twentyfour Tirthankaras appear. The last (twenty-fourth) Tirthankara was Vardhamana Mahavira, who lived about the same time as Buddha. Jain sects place the date of his death in 527 B . C . E ., and some researchers place the event in 477 B . C . E . Mahavira taught a path of passionless detachment and, according to Jain teaching, had achieved omniscience (knowledge of all things) before he started preaching.

Lord Mahavira is the founder of Jainism. The Jains have two main sects: the Digambaras ("sky-clad"), whose monks do not wear clothes, and the Svetambaras ("white-clad"), whose monks wear white robes. The Digambaras believe that their monks should be totally nude, but Indian law requires that they wear a loincloth in public. Nakedness implies that they have left their sexual identity and all forms of desire behind them. Digambaras believe that only men can achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Unlike Svetambaras, they believe that after his enlightenment, Mahavira no longer became involved in human relationships or participated in such human activities as eating, drinking, and talking.

Both sects agree that Mahavira was conceived by Devananda, a Brahmin wife, and that the embryo was miraculously transferred to the womb of Queen Trisala, who had sixteen prophetic dreams (or fourteen, according to the Svetambaras) shortly before his birth. These dreams were interpreted by astrologers, who said that the child would grow up to be either an emperor or a tirthankar-a human who, through meditation and self-realization, has reached a state of enlightenment and serves as a kind of teacher or spiritual guide.

After renouncing the physical world at the age of thirty and meditating for twelve years, Vardhamana attained enlightenment and became known as Mahavira ("Great Hero"), the last of the twenty-four tirthankaras. He spent the next thirty years teaching the people of India how they could liberate themselves from the earthly cycle of birth and death and attain the blissful state known as Nirvana. Like his contemporary, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (c.563 B . C . E . to c.483 B . C . E .), he challenged the ritualism and animal sacrifices associated with Hinduism. He believed in ahimsa or nonviolence to the point where he and his followers covered their mouths and noses to avoid inhaling germs and insects. Even today, the most devout Jains wear masks and carry brooms with which they sweep the ground in front of them as they walk, so as not to step on any living thing.

Jains celebrate their founder's birth in a solemn and sedate way, visiting the sacred sites associated with his life and worshipping the tirthankaras. Flags decorate Jain temples, where worshippers gather to offer their prayers, recite from the Jain scriptures, and focus on the teachings of Mahavira. They make a special effort to refrain from harming living things, and they often donate food, clothes, and money to the poor. Although there are few if any rituals associated with most Jain festivals, it may be the influence of Hinduism that has led members of the Jain community to carry out ABHISHEK or ritual bathing as well as PROCESSIONS through the streets so that everyone can honor the image of Mahavira. Offerings of milk, fruit, rice, and incense to such images on this day are also reminiscent of Hindu celebrations.

The observation of Mahavira Jayanti is more elaborate in places associated with Mahavira's life or where important Jain temples are located. Jains flock to the ancient shrines of Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat, to Pawapuri and Vaishali in Bihar, and to the Parasnath temple in Calcutta to celebrate Mahavira's birthday.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Abhishek

Abhishek, a Sanskrit word meaning "to sprinkle water," refers to the ceremonial bathing of Mahavira's image on this day. The custom is symbolic of what happened when Vardhamana (Mahavira) was born: the gods and goddesses who came down from heaven to honor this exceptionally beautiful child, a future tirthankar, gave him a ceremonial bath.

Cradle Processions

After the ABHISHEK ritual is over, the image of Mahavira is placed in a cradle and carried through the streets so that everyone can admire it, Depending on where these processions take place, the image may be accompanied by drummers and other musicians, horses, elephants, and tableaux based on the events in Mahavira's life. Sometimes the image is carried in an elaborate chariot, and sometimes it is pulled through the streets in a simple wooden cart.

Fasting

Most Jains fast on Mahavira Jayanti, eating only one meal before sunset or refraining from eating altogether, breaking their fast the next morning.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Bowker, John, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000.

WEB SITE

Harvard University www.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralsm/affiliates/jainism/jainedu/mahavir.htm

Mahavira Jayanti

March-April; 13th day of waxing half of Hindu month of Caitra
A major Jain festival in India, Mahavira Jayanti is dedicated to Vardhamana (6th century b.c.e.), who came to be known as Mahavira, meaning "great hero" of the Jains. The festival celebrates his birthday, and is marked with prayers, fasting, and recitations. The holiday is observed with special fanfare by eastern Indians at Pawapuri in the state of Bihar, where Mahavira was born near the modern town of Patna. Another large celebration is held at the Parasnatha temple in Calcutta.
Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha, is regarded by the Jains as the 24th and last in a series of Tirthankaras, or enlightened teachers or "ford-makers," and present-day Jainism is traced to his life and teachings. For 12 1 + 2 years, he was an ascetic, wandering about, begging for food, and wearing little. Then he found enlightenment, became a Jina, meaning "conqueror," and a Tirthankara. He taught for 30 years before he died. Jainism today continues to be an ascetic religion, practiced by about 3.5 million people. They reject any action that could harm a living being, and some, therefore, wear masks over their mouths to prevent the chance of breathing in and thus killing an insect. Jains, with a strong literary tradition, have played an important role in conserving the writings of non-Jain Hindu authors.
See also Dewali
CONTACTS:
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
www.tourisminindia.com
SOURCES:
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 451
EncyRel-1987, vol. 9, p. 128
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 258
OxDictWrldRel-1997, p. 602
RelHolCal-2004, p. 195