Mahavir Jayanti: Jains honor final Tirthankar, meditate, teach non-violence

Jain temple with elaborate gardens in front of busy Indian landscape, lots of buildings in back

A jain temple in Calcutta. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 19: A national holiday previously slotted for April 20 has recently been moved to today, Indian news sources report, as Jains arrive at 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.

Today, 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 Mahavir Jayanti contemplating and then living out the virtuous path, by performing acts of charity.

MAHAVIRA: THE LEGEND AND THE MAN

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, Mahavira preached on non-violence and righteousness until his death. He spoke of karma, and of the cycles of life and death.

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

NEWS: SIKHS IN TIMES SQUARE

Thousands of Sikhs and other community members recently gathered in Times Square, in an event for the holiday of Vaisakhi. (Economic Times has the story.) The event sought to educate non-Sikhs on the Sikh religion, as the group has experienced recent hate crimes. Some dubbed the day “Turban Day,” as the Sikhs handed out turbans and tied them on the heads of interested tourists and onlookers.

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Mahavir Jayanti: Jains honor the life of Mahavir and promote non-violence

Elaborate white temple with several pillars on street in India

The Shri Mahavirji Temple of Karauli, Rajasthan, in India, devoted to Mahavira. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, APRIL 2: The most significant holiday of the year arrives for Jains with Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the final Tirthankar, Mahavira. (In the Jain religion, each cycle of time, according to the laws of nature, gives birth to 24 Tirthanars. Though not an incarnation of God, a Tirthankar is a soul that has attained ultimate purity and possesses divine power.)

On Mahavir Jayanti, Jains visit elaborately decorated temples for religious rituals, prayer, and ceremonial baths of Mahavira statues. Many Jains spend this holiday meditating on the path of virtue defined by Jain teachings, and live out that path by acting in charity. (Learn more about Jain doctrine at JainWorld.com.) In India, Mahavir Jayanti is a national holiday.

BIRTH LEGEND AND LIFE OF MAHAVIRA

Jain belief holds that Mahavira was born the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala, in 599 BCE. While pregnant, Queen Trishala experienced a series of dreams about her unborn child, and astrologers revealed that she would give birth to either an emperor or a Tirthankar.

While young, Mahavira developed an interest in Jainism and began meditating. By age 30, he was an ascetic who spent more than a decade seeking spiritual truth. Mahavira spent the remainder of his life preaching non-violence and righteousness. (Wikipedia has details.) Mahavira spoke widely of the importance of karma, indicating that an accumulation of bad karma leads to suffering, confusion and continued cycles of life and death.

IN THE NEWS:
HOLIDAYS IN INDIA & A VEGAN YOUTH RALLY

Christians worldwide are gearing up for the Easter Triduum and Easter, but in India, a jam-packed week of holidays is also on the agenda. Experts are voicing fears for potential disruptions in stock market transactions, exports and shipments, as banks close for 7.5 of 9 days. (Business Standard reported.) This week in India brings the national observances of Ramanavami, Mahavir Jayanti, Good Friday and two annual days of closing, along with the regular closing on Sundays.

In Jaipur, a Jain youth organization will hold a rally promoting vegetarianism on April 2, as part of the week-long Mahavir Jayanti festival. The purpose of the rally is to raise awareness of eating ethically and non-violently. Devout Jains follow a vegan diet without root vegetables—so as not to kill the insects and bacteria living on the roots—and some eat before sunset, to avoid harming any insects that might be attracted to artificial light after dark.

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MAHAVIR JAYANTI: Jains mimic Tirthankar with nonviolence

“One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, water, fire, air, vegetation and all other lives disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.”

-Lord Mahavira

Square stone pillars inside a cave with Jain figures carved into the sides

A Jain temple in an ancient Badami cave in India. The temple features numerous sculptures, including one of Lord Mahavira. Photo in public domain

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24: Mediate on the complexities of karma and pay it forward today, for the most eminent Jain festival of the year: Mahavir Jayanti, the birth anniversary of the 24th Jain Tirthankar. Rather than belief in a single, monotheistic God, Jains look toward 24 historical figures known as Tirthankars, or individuals who achieved enlightenment while on earth and act as role models for others on the path to nirvana. Bhagwan Mahavir, in particular, preached ahimsa—ultimate non-injury, or nonviolence—in that it should be practiced not only in action, but also in thought and word. (Wikipedia has details.)

Mahavira extended his concept of nonviolence to all living beings, and today’s strict Jains abstain from harming anything down to the tiniest insects. The sacredness of Mahavir Jayanti is kept by the crowds that fill Jain temples today. In many parts of India, government offices, stock markets, schools and colleges are closed for the auspicious occasion.

Prior to Mahavira’s birth in the 6th century BCE, it’s believed his mother had auspicious dreams about the coming of a great leader. During her pregnancy, astrologers told Queen Trishala that her dreams signified a child who would become either an emperor or a Tirthankar; upon his birth, Mahavira was allegedly bathed in celestial milk by the god-king Indra, in indication that he would be a Tirthankar. Three decades later, the king-to-be renounced his throne, spent 12 years as an ascetic and began preaching nonviolence. He disputed the caste system, worked for social justice and promoted equality. Through the years, Mahavira gained immense control over his desires and senses, eventually letting go of attachment and aversion. At 72, Mahavira attained nirvana.

JAIN KARMA: LIVE AND LET LIVE

At its core, Jainism revolves around karma. “Jain,” derived from jina, calls its members to literally conquer themselves, thereby taking responsibility for their actions. According to Jainism, every act—intentional or not—that supports injury or violence will create harmful karma. (Looking to explain these concepts to kids? Check out IndiaParenting.) The harmful karma cannot be “canceled out” by good karma, but instead builds up through a lifetime and circulates back again. The goal of ahimsa is to prevent the accumulation of harmful karma, which will prevent one from reaching nirvana. Nirvana, freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, carves out the ultimate goal of Jainism.

MAHAVIR JAYANTI IN INDIA

While not in prayer or listening to the words of Lord Mahavira, Jains spend the Tirthankar’s jayanti volunteering, giving to charity or collecting donations that will save animals from slaughter. (Learn more, and access related articles from past years, at The Times of India.) Statues of Mahavira are given a ceremonial bath and, in some regions, set in an ornately decorated cradle and carried in a procession.

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Categories: Faiths of India