Most of you already know that this is Holy Week for Christians and Passover for Jews. However, this is also when Jain communities from around the world celebrate Mahavir Jayanti. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that Jainism falls into roughly the same category as Zoroastrianism for me: I’ve heard of it and I know it’s ancient, but I can’t really tell you much about it. I’m working on changing that, and I thought I’d start with their most important holiday.
The holiday, Mahavir Jayanti, is also known as Mahavir Janma Kalyanak, so we’ll start with a brief lesson in Sanskrit. Kalyanak roughly means, “pious one.” Janma means “birth.” And Mahavira was the last enlightened/blissful one to appear during this time cycle. So, Mahavir Janma Kalyanak is a celebration honoring the birth of the holy Mahavira. The fact that we’re dealing with Sanskrit, also the language of Hinduism, should alert you to the fact that we’re talking about a holiday and a religion/philosophy arising out of India.
Knowing a bit about Mahavira will give you a sense of how ancient the Jain religion is. Mahavira was the 24th Tirthankara, a word that can be roughly translated as Liberated One. Born into a royal family, Mahavira left home at the age of 30 to begin his spiritual practice. He achieved enlightenment after 12 years of both intense meditation and extreme humiliation. Sutras describe how he roamed naked for over a decade, surviving on alms, rejecting all worldly comforts, and bearing ridicule with patience. At the age of 42, he began to share his teachings, which focused on non-violence and detachment. He taught for 30 years and died at the age of 72. Most scholars put his birth year at around 540 BCE. Since he was the 24th Tirthankara, there were 23 before him, which means that Mahavira was continuing a tradition that began long before he came into the world.
If some of the terms — like Liberated One, non-violence, and detachment — sound a bit Buddhist to you, they should. The Buddha and Mahavira were contemporaries born in the same region of the world. We don’t know if the two men ever met, but they were certainly aware of one another’s existence. We have written evidence of conversations between Mahavira’s disciples and the Buddha, and similar terminology emerged from both schools of thought. One of the primary differences between the two Enlightened Ones revolved around the practice of asceticism. The Buddha ultimately eschewed the extreme practices of Mahavira, focusing instead on the “middle way.” Also, the Buddha is considered the founder of Buddhism. Mahavira is viewed as a Jain reformer who spoke in the language of the people and promoted spiritual ideals that had existed for hundreds of years.
Over the centuries, Jainism was widely adopted as the state religion in many parts of India, although Hinduism is more prevalent today. Non-violence, self-control and pluralism represent some of the core teachings that remain central to Jainism. For many Jains, the principle of non-violence is embodied in dietary practices, and many Jains are vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, or vegan. The principle of self-control is similar to that found in other religions – be truthful, don’t steal, and don’t get overly enchanted with material possessions. And the principle of pluralism highlights that no one can lay claim to absolute truth. This tenet renders Jainism highly tolerant of other religious beliefs and practices.
Of course, entire books have been written on Jain history, beliefs and practices, but for this post, I was interested in how Jains, living in the U.S. today, celebrate Mahavir Jayanti. I was able to chat with a member of the Jain community in Raleigh, NC. In a general sense, this holiday is celebrated in the same manner as all religious holidays – with food, rituals (pujas), singing, and teachings. Although there is a common mantra said by all Jains, there are almost no universally-required directives for religious practice. As a result, each community is welcome to celebrate as they see fit and details vary. Some communities celebrate for several days and bring in speakers from around the nation. Others focus on community meals and pujas performed by local swamis. Some groups gather in a dedicated Jain temple, but the community in Raleigh meets in a Hindu temple. Even the dates are a bit loose. The date for Mahavir Jayanti, 2014 is generally listed as April 13. The Jain community in Atlanta honored Mahavira’s birth from April 11-15. The Raleigh community will celebrate this coming weekend (April 19-20).
Although I am just now meeting people from the American Jain community, their focus on children is readily apparent. They take the religious/spiritual education of their children seriously, and the kids are heavily involved in the Mahavir Jayanti festivities. In the Raleigh community, the elementary school kids are responsible for the cultural program, including both dramatic and dance performances. The middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are responsible for the teachings. They learn about Mahavira, the tenets of Jainism, and the cultural history of India as they prepare their program. A similar approach is taken at the Jain Center of Southern California. In viewing various You Tube videos of celebrations around the U.S., I was most struck by the elaborate costumes worn by both the boys and the girls participating in the presentations and performances. (I suspect the moms were responsible for that part.)
Overall, the holiday is a joyous celebration of a great Jain teacher. As in other religions, the holiday offers Jains a chance to come together, honor their past, rededicate their spiritual lives, eat, learn, and enjoy the young members of their communities. Stories about Passover and the Holy Week are everywhere in the media right now, and we can all learn more about those ancient celebrations. But don’t forget to send a few “Happy Birthday, Mahavira” wishes to our Jain friends from around the world. Better yet, call the Jain center in your area and see if there are ways for you and your kids to experience some of what they are offering. As for me, I’m making plans to attend Raleigh’s celebration next year.
Many thanks to members of the Jain Center of Southern California and the Jain community in Raleigh for their kind help in writing this post.
Video of Mahavir Jayanti, 2013 from the Jain center of Southern CA (a brief teaching by older kids and a dance performance)