Summary: a Jain festival celebrating the birth of Mahavira
2018 Date: 29th March
Celebrated by: Jains, Indians (as a National Holiday)
Linked Holidays: Diwali (Jainism), Buddha Jayanti (Buddhism)
Background and Theological Significance
Jainism developed in the Dharmic theological tradition that originated and evolved in the Indian subcontinent over the course of thousands of years. ‘Dharma’ is a difficult word to translate, but in Jainism it broadly can be understood as the ‘path to the truth’. Central to Jainism is the liberation of the soul from karma over multiple lifetimes. The underlying principle here is that our attachments in life; to possessions, people, ideals, inevitably lead to suffering. Happiness and pain are not opposite forces but two sides of a wheel: the more we seek pleasure, the faster we turn the wheel and the faster we bring about pain to ourselves and others.
Jains believe in twenty-four great spiritual teachers called ‘Tirthankaras’, individuals who have conquered ‘samsara’ (the cycle of life and death) and can show others the path they must take. The most recent Tirthankara is Mahavira (a name meaning ‘great hero’), who lived in India in around the sixth-century BCE and is the most important figure in Jainism. By following the principles set out by him, especially ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), we are shown a path that we can follow in order for the soul to achieve ‘moksha’ (liberation).
The festival of Mahavir Jayanti is the celebration of the birth of Mahavira. Mahavira was born with the name Vardhamana in north-east India, the son of King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala. According to traditional Jain texts, he was born on the thirteenth day of the bright half of the moon in the month of Chaitra, in the year 599 BCE. Prior to his birth, his mother received a number of dreams foretelling the great virtue of her son. Astrologers interpreted these dreams to mean that he would either become a great ruler or a great spiritual teacher. The town in which he is believed to have been born is called Vasokund, and there is a place there called Ahalya Bhumi that has not been ploughed for hundreds of years due to the belief that it is the site of Mahavira’s birth.
Historians largely agree that Mahavira was a real historical figure, although they often place the date of his birth some decades later that traditional Jain teaching. His birth is of great significance to Jains because it is his life and teachings that Jains most seek to emulate. It corresponds to the festival of Diwali, when Mahavira is believed to have attained his final liberation and death.
Mahavir Jayanti has long been celebrated as an important annual festival, this was made easy because the exact calendar date of Mahavira’s birth was recorded in the earliest writings following his death. It is one of the few festivals that is celebrated by both the Digambara and the Svetambara sects within Jainism. It has taken on a great importance in the last century due to the changing religious landscape of India. Jains have always been a minority group compared with those who identify with the larger Dharmic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism but following Indian independence in the aftermath of World War II, the new government decided that at least one festival from the country’s major religious traditions should be inaugurated as a national holiday. Mahavir Jayanti was chosen as the festival of the Jains, making it possibly the most visible recognition of the group in India. Mahavir Jayanti has thus become a major cultural focus for Jains living in different parts of the world, as a time to remember the common faith that unites them with the rest of their Jain family.
Mahavira was very likely a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), and they both lived and taught in the same part of northern India. It is likely that Siddhartha’s early spiritual practices were influenced by Jainism before he adopted the Middle Way. The Jain festival of Mahavir Jayanti is likely to be influenced by the Buddhist festival of Buddha Jayanti, the Buddha’s birthday, reflecting the many similarities between their spiritual traditions. The links between these two great traditions show how these traditions are living and feed off each other as part of a broader tree of human understanding.
Mahavir Jayanti is one of the most impressive festivals in the Jain calendar. Jain temples are often beautifully decorated with flowers and flags to celebrate the birth of the last Tirthankara. Images of Mahavira are usually carried through the streets on chariots in a ritual procession called ‘rath yatra’, which is accompanied by many celebrants chanting special prayers. The images of Mahavira are then given a ceremonial anointing called the ‘abhisheka’, where statues in the temple are bathed with milk, honey, and water. In addition to worshipping in the temple, it is also traditional at this time to offer alms to the poor or to donate to charitable missions. Due to the central principle of ahimsa, Jains often campaign to release animals from slaughterhouses and have them put into rescue homes.
Sermons and readings are often read in temples to remind worshippers of the wise teachings of Mahavira. The principles of his philosophy include the Three Jewels of Jainism: right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. These are accompanied by the Five Mahavratas: non-violence (ahimsa), truth, chastity, non-stealing, and non-attachment. Together, these teachings are seen to have the power to liberate the soul from the cycle of pain that defines life and rebirth and help the soul to achieve peace.