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.


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.

Diwali: Hindus, Jains and Sikhs mark dazzling festival of lights

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19: The ancient Hindu celebration of Diwali—a global festival of lights—launches from India today. In acknowledgment of and gratitude for the triumph of light over darkness, Diwali holds 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.)

Preparations for Diwali begin weeks in advance: In a shopping bonanza comparable to the Western Christmas season, gold jewelry, fine clothing, sweet treats and household goods fly off racks in marketplaces across India, while at home, surfaces are scrubbed clean, 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. During this five-day period, the old year closes and a new year is rung in.

Did you know? Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit dipa (“light,” or “lamp”) and avali (“series,” “line” or “row”). For Diwali, rows of earthen lamps—filled with oil—are lit in homes and temples.

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) 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. To receive the blessings of Lakshmi on this night means a good year ahead. On Diwali evening, families gather for a feast of sweets and desserts and the sky is ablaze with fireworks. Tonight, the diyas will remain lit through the dark hours.

News from Delhi, 2017: In efforts toward a smoke- and noise-free Diwali, the sale of fireworks has been banned in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) this year. Read the story in the Times of India.

The day following Diwali is Padwa, honoring the mutual love between husbands and wives. The next day, Bhai Duj (also spelled Bhai Dooj) 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.


For Jains: 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. Today, many Jains fast, meditate on Mahavira and chant this Tirthankar’s words during Diwali.

For Sikhs: Sikhs mark the Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali, when Guru Har Gobind Ji freed himself and 52 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. For some Sikhs, Diwali also is a time to remember the martyrdom of Sikh scholar Bhai Mani Singh in 1737, and the eventual establishment of the Khalsa rule.


Find a kid-friendly approach to teaching about Diwali from National Geographic.

Access recipes, poems, wallpapers and more at

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

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.


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.


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.