Mahavir Jayanti: Jains contemplate virtue, celebrate final Tirthankar

Temple, people outside

Shri Mahavir Ji temple, in India. Photo courtesy of WIkimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 17: Today, Jains greet one of the most significant days of their calendar year: Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the final and most important Tirthankar, Mahavira.

In the Jain faith, each cycle of time—according to the laws of nature—gives birth to 24 Tirthankars, or souls that have attained ultimate purity and possess divine power. These Tirthankars were fully human, but achieved enlightenment through meditation and self-realization.

On Mahavir Jayanti, Jains visit colorfully decorated temples, perform religious rituals and prayer and ceremonially bathe statues of Mahavira. As Jainism focuses heavily on meditation and the path of virtue, many Jains spend this day contemplating and then living out the virtuous path, by performing acts of charity.

MAHAVIRA & JAINISM TODAY

According to texts, Mahavira was born the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, in 599 BCE. While pregnant with Mahavira, Queen Trishala had a series of dreams about her unborn child—dreams that, astrologers revealed, meant that she would give birth to either an emperor or a Tirthankar.

From an early age, Mahavira was interested in Jainism and meditation. By age 30, he was an ascetic who spent more than 10 years seeking spiritual truth. From that point and until his death, Mahavira preached on non-violence and righteousness. He spoke of karma, and of the cycles of life and death.

Historically, Mahavira laid the foundation for the religion that is now Jainism.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaJain

Vaisakhi: Sikhs, Indians worldwide commemorate ancient festival & faith

Group of people smiling

Vaisakhi parade, Vancouver, 2017. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, APRIL 14: Around the world today, Indian communities and Sikhs are celebrating Vaisakhi (or Baisahki; spellings vary), an occasion for colorful processions and public festivals. From Salt Lake City, where the mayor has dedicated April as Sikh Awareness and Recognition Month (read the story here), to Dublin, where a major parade took place and rules were recently changed that now allow Sikhs serving with the Garda police service to wear turbans (read about it here), Sikhs are making an impact worldwide.

Did you know? The festival’s name refers to a month in the traditional Hindu calendar: Vaisakha.

In India, Vaisakhi holds varying meanings in different regions. First, this was an ancient agricultural festival in the Punjab; a time of prayers for bountiful crops. In the Punjab region (and among families with Punjabi roots around the world), it is an ancient agricultural festival and a time for prayers for bountiful crops; one custom is an energetic dance called Bhangra, which dates back centuries. Hundreds of years ago, while farmers were preparing to reap a harvest of wheat at this time of year, men would pause to perform this dance. The Bhangra has moved through several different eras and forms, according to scholars of Indian folklore. Today, there is a modern revival of the practice, complete with colorful costumes, that is often performed at Vaisakhi festivals.

THE KHALSA

Though celebrated by many, Vaisakhi holds particular significance for Sikhs who, in 1699, established the Khalsa. On Vaisakhi Day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh emerged from a tent before thousands, asking for five volunteers willing to give their lives. Armed with a sword, the Guru took in the first volunteer; a few minutes later, the Guru emerged from the tent again, his sword covered in blood. By the time five volunteers had come forward, the Guru revealed his true intentions: to call forth a “Beloved Five,” who would be baptized into a new order known as the Khalsa. The five volunteers exited from the tent—unharmed and wearing turbans. To this day, Sikhism incorporates a readiness to fight for justice by protecting the vulnerable.

SIKH VAISAKHI: PILGRIMAGES & SERVICE

Tens of thousands of Sikhs journey to Pakistani holy sites each year for Vaisakhi—one city even bears the name of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak. Thousands more flock to the birthplace of the Khalsa, as well as to the famed Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sikhs in the United States can travel to Los Angeles, California for an entire day of Kirtan (spiritual music based on the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib) and a large-scale parade; in Manhattan, New York City, Sikhs flood into the streets to perform seva (selfless service) of charity.

Further north, Canadians in British Columbia parade through the streets for Vaisakhi, often drawing 200,000 attendees to the festivities. The UK boasts its own sizeable Sikh population, though most adherents can be found in west London; events there draw up to 75,000.

IN THE NEWS: PLANTING 1 MILLION TREES

Perhaps the biggest story involving Sikhs this year is one that is currently underway and reflects the 550th birth anniversary of Jainism’s founder, Guru Nanak: Sikhs have pledged to plant 1 million new trees, as a “gift to the entire planet.” (Read the story in The Guardian.) Aimed at fighting environmental decline, the Million Tree Project is being coordinated by Washington, D.C.-based organization EcoSikh. Tens of thousands of trees have already been planted, and saplings will be lain in India, the UK, US, Australia and Kenya.

 

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaSikh

Ugadi: Hindus in India, worldwide mark spring New Year’s festival

Fancy jars of food, rice, beans, on plants

Ugadi Pacchadi, traditionally eaten on Ugadi/Yugadi. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, APRIL 6: The sweet scent of ripe mangoes, aromas of calming jasmine and the Hindu New Year signal spring in regions of India, ushering in Ugadi (also known as Yugadi). In celebrating regions in India and around the world today, devotees gather for Ugadi poetry recitals, dance festivals, sports and youth essay contests. New Year predictions are announced by Brahmin priests, and traditional prayers are offered. Many homes are adorned with mango leaves and women braid fresh jasmine into their hair, toiling over special New Year dishes in anticipation of shared feasts with family and friends.

Did you know? One of the most popular dishes on today’s menu is Ugadi Pacchadi (known also as Bevu Bella), a dish containing several tastes that symbolize the many emotions of life. Most commonly, neem buds and flowers symbolize sadness; jaggery and banana signify happiness; green chili peppers represent anger; salt indicates fear; taramind juice symbolizes disgust; and unripened mango translates to surprise.

Millions of men and women across India base the start of the Saka, or Indian national calendar, on an ancient system that balances both lunar and solar cycles. Derived from Sanskrit as “the beginning of a new age,” the Saka calendar places (Y)ugadi on April 6 this year. Many also believe that Yugadi marks the anniversary of our current era—known as Kali Yuga. According to Hindu legend, Kali Yuga began in 3102 BCE, at the moment Lord Krishna left the world.

 

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Sri Ramakrishna Jayanti: Honoring a modern Hindu mystic, teacher

White statue of man sitting, decorated with yellow robe and flowers

A figure of Sri Ramakrishna, decorated for celebrations. Photo by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, MARCH 8: In Hindu communities worldwide, today marks the birth anniversary celebration for Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu mystic whose movement redefined modern Hinduism. Many Hindu legends date back thousands of years, but it was during a modern time of Western influence that Ramakrishna made an impact: as true Hindu devotion was eroding, Ramakrishna warned, it was time to revive the faith.

Many accounts verify the God-like essence that surrounded Ramakrishna, and his God-consciousness is described in various books (including works on psychology). Yet despite his mission to unify India, this mystic and teacher also taught an appreciation for other religious traditions. Ramakrishna’s small room in the Dakshineswar temple garden was frequently filled with men and women, young and old—atheists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians—all anxious to see and hear him. Ramakrishna became renowned for explaining the mysteries of God in the language of the common man.

As Hindu holidays are based on the lunar calendar in India, Ramakrishna’s birthday is on February 18—but, in translation to the Gregorian calendar, that date this year on the Gregorian calendar is March 8.

Care to learn more?

International peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry profiles Sr. Ramakrishna (1836-1886).

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Diwali: India’s biggest festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and global citizens

Round golden tray with lit candles

Diya lamps and candles lit for Diwali. Photo courtesy of Pexels

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 7: The festival of lights launches from India today and crosses the globe, in the ancient celebration of Diwali. In recognition of the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali bears great significance for Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike. As awareness of Indian culture spreads, major celebrations now are hosted around the world. (Note: Dates and spellings of Diwali vary by country and region. In some regions—such as Texas, U.S., Auckland, New Zealand and Manchester, England—festivals are already taking place.)

Extra! FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis adds more about Diwali—plus a delicious recipe!

PREPARATIONS AND CELEBRATIONS

Man in white Indian tunic making circle of light with sparkler firecracker

Happy Diwali! Photo by Varun Khurana, courtesy of Flickr

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance, so a flurry of pre-Diwali activity can be seen in most cities of India. In a shopping extravaganza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India. At home, women and children decorate entrances with Rangoli and men string strands of lights. Official celebrations begin two days before Diwali, and end two days after Diwali—spanning a total of five days.

In the two days prior to Diwali, celebrants wrap up their shopping, bake sweets and bathe with fragrant oils. On Diwali, excitement builds as evening approaches. While donning new clothing, diyas (earthen lamps, filled with oil) are lit, prayers are offered to deities and many households welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity who is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. The night’s extravaganza is a sky ablaze with fireworks, and families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts. Tonight, the diyas will remain lit through the dark hours.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj, celebrates the sister-brother bond. On Bhai Duj, women and girls gather to perform puja and prayers for the well-being of their brothers, and siblings engage in gift-giving and the sharing of a meal.

ATMAN: THE SOUL

Several Hindu schools of philosophy teach the existence of something beyond the physical body and mind: something pure and infinite, known as atman. Diwali revels in the victory of good over evil, in the deeper meaning of higher knowledge dissipating ignorance and hope prevailing over despair. When truth is realized, one can see past ignorance and into the oneness of all things.

DIWALI AMONG JAINS AND SIKHS

On the night of Diwali, Jains celebrate light for yet another reason: to mark the attainment of moksha, or nirvana, by Mahavira. As the final Jain Tirthankar of this era, Mahavira’s attainment is celebrated with much fervor. It’s believed that many gods were present on the night when Mahavira reached moksha, and that their presence illuminated the darkness.

Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and the Hindu kings from Fort Gwalior and arrived at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Today, Bandi Chhor Divas is commemorated with the lighting of the Golden Temple, fireworks and more.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduJainSikh

Dussehra: Hindus celebrate feminism, harvest, goodness at end of Navaratri

Tall colorful effigies in night with crowd

One hundred-foot Ravana effigies, on the 10th night of Dussehra in New Delhi. Photo by Kaniths, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19: The festival of Navaratri culminates in the most celebrated holiday of all nine nights: Dasara (spellings vary). From the Sanskrit words for “remover of bad fate,” today’s Dussehra brings towering effigies to the streets of India, along with a host of ancient rituals and marked traditions. Many Hindus recognize the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, a demon, during an epic battle over Rama’s wife, Sita. It’s believed that Ravana had 10 heads, and thus, 10 unfavorable qualities are rid from households with elaborate Yanga performances today; the unfavorable qualities include lust, anger, delusion, greed and jealousy.

Did you know? Feminism shines in the victory of Goddess Durga over demons, thereby continuing the female-centered rituals of Navaratri. In rural areas of India and Nepal, it’s recognized that harvest season begins today; the Mother Goddess is worshipped, and farmers ask for fertility in their soil.

Dasara man India dressed up

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

In many parts of India, towering effigies of Ravana and his brothers are filled with firecrackers and exploded. Citizens cheer at the blast and dance, sing and feast. The burning effigies are also seen as a cleansing ritual, as they encourage onlookers to burn inner evil and follow the path of righteousness. In northern India, a chariot holding devotees costumed as Lord Rama and Sita rolls down the streets; in southern India, homes are decorated with lamps and flowers.

Did you know? Dussehra is also known as Vijayadashami, the celebration of yet another victory involving goodness over evil: Goddess Durga’s defeat of the demon Mahisasura. According to this legend, Mother Goddess Shakti incarnated in the form of Goddess Durga.

Given the day’s auspiciousness, many Hindu (and non-Hindu) children begin their formal education today. Some devotees purchase new work tools—whether books, computers or farming equipment—and still others pay respect to elders and request their blessings. Families and friends gather for parties and feasting.

Across India, gratitude is expressed for the end of a scorching summer season and the approach of cooler days.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu

Ganesh Chaturthi: Hindus celebrate Ganesha with vibrant colors, figures & treats

Pink elephant statue close-up with bangles and jewels and paint

Lord Ganesha. Photo by Kaushal Jangid, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 13: The sight of thousands of colorful, detailed elephant-type figures and the scent of sweet modak treats signal that Ganesha Chaturthi has arrived in India!

Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the grandest, most beloved and longest festivals of India, and the Hindu god Ganesha is honored during this time, known also as Vinayaka Chaturthi. For 10 days—until Anant Chaturdashi—many Jain, Christian and Muslim families across India join Hindus in celebrating the event. Images of Ganesha are temporarily installed in public pandals (shrines) and in homes, and worshipped for several days, until they are taken to a local body of water and immersed.

Did you know? Lord Ganesha is believed to be the giver of fortune and one who can remove all obstacles to success.

Months before Ganesh Chaturthi, artists mold models of the elephant-god. Figures may range in size from less than one inch to almost 100 feet, most of them made of clay, Plaster-of-Paris, papier-mache or organic materials. In many areas of India, artists and industries earn a considerable portion of their yearly income preparing for Ganesh Chaturthi. Some regions host fairs, concerts, skits and dancing during the festival. Where an image of Ganesh is installed, the surrounding area is decorated with floral garlands, lights and more. Priests chant mantras to invoke Ganesha’s presence into the statues.

From a Hindu scholar: Hindu scholar, writer and activist Padma Kuppa writes a guest column in FeedTheSpirit this week, sharing her perspective on the holiday. And, Padma includes a delicious, traditional recipe as well. She includes in this column additional links to learn more about the holiday and its beloved foods.

GANESH: CLAY & PLASTER, FROM INDIA TO THE UK—AND BEYOND

Though clay models used to be the primary material of Ganesh figures, demand and price led to the use of Plaster-of-Paris, which is not biodegradable. When Plaster-of-Paris Ganesh statues were immersed into water—also covered in chemical paints that contain heavy metals—water pollution began threatening the environment and statues began washing up onto sandy beaches. In response, green initiatives have been launched across India. In Goa, the sale of Ganesh figures made of PoP was banned and a return to traditional clay or reusable figures is growing in popularity. In some areas, pools are set up for the safe immersion of statues.

Tens of thousands of Hindus in the UK publicly observe Ganesh Chaturthi, from Paris to London and beyond. In the U.S., temples and associations mark the festival, and the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival (PGF) is the largest Hindu festival in North America. Ganesha is also celebrated across Canada, in Malaysia and Singapore and in Indian populations around the world.

NEWS UPDATES: Get all the latest news on Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations with an article from The Hindu; a footage video from the Times of India; and a recipe from the Mumbai Mirror.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHindu