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.

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.