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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 5.8 ► Social Rituals

Published: 22.12.2015

Human beings live in societies which construct social customs, norms and rituals to bring people together and give groups a distinct outward identity and character. In this chapter we look at the social customs of the Jain communities, but in India there are regional variations in social rituals, many of which show the influence of the predominant Hindu community, and these variations in ritual have travelled with the Jains overseas.

Jain literature describes many rituals, which are essentially social in nature, the major ones are described below: these include the blessings for a viable foetus (dhriti sanskaar or kholo bharavo), the birth celebration, the naming ceremony, the ceremony of giving solid food to a child for the first time, the commencement of learning, the 'sacred thread' ceremony, and the ceremonies for marriage and death.

Jains also perform rituals on the commencement of building a house, entry into a new house or business venture, and initiating the New Year's accounts, but there are other ceremonies, largely of a social nature: the 'sacred thread' ceremony (yajnopavit), 'thread tying ceremony' (raksaa bandhan), the lighting of lamps (Divali), worship of the goddess of learning (Sarasvati) and offerings to heavenly beings (yaksis and yaksas).

While some Jain social customs may show Hindu influence, there are distinctive Jain features to these rituals, such as the recital of the Navakara Mantra, worship using diagrams (yantras), snaatra pujaa and the recitation for peace.

The ceremony of blessing for a viable foetus is normally observed at the seventh month of conception; recitations are performed for the welfare of mother and baby; an auspicious red powder (sindur) is put on the scalp of the mother; and fruit, sweets and flowers are placed in her lap, as a mark of blessing and good fortune; and other gifts are also offered to the mother.

The celebration of a birth is performed with pujaa, offerings and sweets are distributed amongst the friends and relatives, and donations are made to institutions and individuals.

The naming ceremony normally takes place between the tenth and thirtieth day after the birth, when a paternal aunt or an appropriate woman relative names the child. Presents are exchanged and the occasion is celebrated with pujaa and a dinner.

The ceremony of giving the first solid food to a child involves the pronouncement of blessings, and is performed between the sixth and eighth month after birth.

The ceremony of removal of hair from the scalp for the first time (baabari) is performed in public as an offering to the 'heavenly mother' (maataa), accompanied by hymns, pujaa and dinner.

The ceremony of the commencement of schooling is performed when a child first goes to school; sweets are distributed, and books and pencils are given to other school children; prayers are offered to the goddess of learning and the child is given a pencil and paper accompanied by the recitation of blessings.

The sacred thread ceremony (yajnopavit) consists of giving to a child a three stranded cotton thread, representing the three Jewels of Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct, and this sacred thread is worn over the shoulder like a sash for the rest of their life as a constant reminder to follow the sacred path. Only a very few Jains observe this ceremony.

The ceremony of making offerings to the 'heavenly mother' (maataa) is performed to thank her for granting devotees' requests, such as the wish for a child or the resolution of a difficulty. Young virgin girls are invited to the ceremony, where their feet are washed and elaborate respect is paid to them, and they are treated as honoured guests because of the affection of maataa for young virgins. This custom is very much an influence from the wider Hindu culture.

The ceremony to celebrate completion of studies is performed with community pujaa and dinner, and often donations are made to institutions and charities.

The 'thread tying ceremony' (raksaa bandhan) is an expression of the wish for the welfare of a brother from a sister. Sisters tie a thread (raakhadi or mauli) around their brother's wrist; in return, brothers are responsible for the welfare of their sisters and present them with gifts. This ceremony is said to arise from a mythological story of Visnukumar muni, who protected the lives of Jain ascetics who were in danger from a jealous king and, in gratitude, the women of the region tied threads around his wrist and the wrists of other men who had helped the Jains.

The social ceremonies of Divali are celebrated as a five-day festival with daily rituals. This festival and the worship of the goddess of learning, which takes place on the fifth day after Diwali, is described in the previous chapter.


In Indian culture, marriage is a community event as not only two individuals, but two families are united. Until, and sometimes after, marriage, children generally live with their parents, and it is the parents' responsibility to introduce them (perhaps with the help of suitable intermediaries) to prospective marriage partners. It is quite misleading to refer to this as 'arranged marriage' - in practice, the couple has every opportunity over a long period to get to know each other, and the decision to marry belongs to them alone.

When it is agreed that a couple are suited, an engagement ceremony is held, to which prominent members of the community are invited, there is a ritual exchange of symbolic items and gifts and the engagement is recorded in an engagement document. This ceremony takes place in the home of the groom or in a community hall, and the date of the marriage is usually discussed at this stage.

The Jain marriage ceremony described below is based on the 'Text of Daily Duties' (Acaara Dinkar Grantha) compiled by Vardhamana Suri in 1411 CE, as the correct Jain rituals were lost for many centuries, and Jains appropriated a modified form of the Hindu marriage ceremony and still, in many cases, Jain weddings follow Hindu custom, but the principle of ahimsaa is not compromised by any aspect of the ceremony. As the prayers and mantras of a Jain ceremony are believed to guide the couple towards happiness, prosperity, longevity and spiritual advancement, there has been a revival of the Jain wedding ceremony. The marriage rituals are performed in Sanskrit and Ardha Magadhi and their translation is available in Gujarati.

When the date of the wedding is agreed, after astrological consultations regarding the auspicious day and time, invitations are sent out or made in person. The number of guests invited can be very large: many relatives and many members of the community have to be included. About seven to ten days before the wedding day, the bride's family sends a delegation of close relatives to the home of the groom bearing a special invitation, written by a priest, requesting the groom's family to bring the wedding party to the marriage ceremony. The two families prepare dresses and jewellery for the bride, which she will take to her new home. The groom's family presents their gifts ritually a day or two before the ceremony, and the bride's family's gifts are presented on the wedding day. There is no dowry system in the Jain community, gifts from the bride's to the groom's family are also prescribed by the community, but in most cases the bride or the bridegroom accept gifts in cash or kind, and the parents accept theirs in cash (canlo) which traditionally was considered a help towards the wedding expenses.

The Jain Marriage Ceremony

The marriage ceremony is conducted by a Brahmin or by any well-respected Jain. There are sixteen stages in the marriage rituals. The first three of which take place before the wedding day.

Maatruka sthaapan, the auspicious ritual at the bride's home, is an invocation of the heavenly goddesses: Brahmani, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Chamunda and Tripura, to take up temporary abode in the bride's home to ensure the happiness and fertility of the couple, and takes place between two and seven days before the wedding day.

Kulakara sthaapan, the auspicious ritual at the groom's home, is an invocation of the heavenly gods: Vimalvahan, Chakhsusman, Yashasvan, Abhichandra, Prasanjit, Marudev and Nabhi, to take up temporary residence in the bridegroom's home to ensure the happiness, fertility and maintenance of the family tradition.

Following these ceremonies, the skin of both bride and groom will be regularly massaged with beautifying substances such as perfumed oil, and turmeric. Pujaas will be performed in the temple for their wellbeing and the ritual placing of gold chains by each family around the neck of the son or the daughter (maalaaropana) takes place. This immediate pre-marriage period is one of rejoicing and celebration for the families.

After the day of the wedding, ideally seven days after it, but earlier if this is not possible, a further ceremony bids farewell to the deities who took up residence in the homes of the families.

Mandapa pratisthaa, the auspicious ritual at the home or wedding hall, invokes the gods of all locations to establish the sacred place (mandapa) within which the wedding will take place. This ceremony of the 'sacred point' (maneka stambha) takes place either on the day of the wedding or a few days before, at the bride's home; the maneka stambha is a simple wooden symbol, which evokes the blessings of the deities from all four points of the compass. Sometimes the ceremony does takes place at the bridegroom's home. The maneka stambha is placed in the mandapa, a sacred place within the cori, an area made by creating four corner pillars with arches of leaves (toranas). The marriage ceremony takes place inside the cori. A small low platform (vedi) in the centre bears the sacred flame.

Marriage procession. Bathed, dressed in his best clothes and jewellery, with a tilak on his forehead, the bridegroom worships the divinities and, with his relatives, begins the journey to the marriage venue. Traditionally, he would ride on a horse or elephant accompanied by musicians and singers, but nowadays, the ceremony is performed in a hall or hotel and the groom's party may travel by car. They walk ceremonially the last 100 yards or so towards the door of the hall, where the priest, who is to perform the ceremony, recites a mantra, praising Lord Adinatha, the first Tirthankara, emphasising the glory of the Jain path of purification, and praying for peace, contentment, health, happiness, friendship and prosperity for the couple. The bride's sister or an unmarried female relative circles ritually three times around the groom in a clockwise direction; this ritual is believed to ward off evil. The groom arrives at the entrance of the hall where he stands on a small stool and the bride's mother, with other female relatives, welcome him with symbolic gestures or the waving of a lamp (aarati) and places a red cloth or garland around his shoulder, but it is a custom nowadays for the bride to welcome the groom first with a garland.

The groom enters the hall, stepping on — and breaking — two earthenware bowls placed in his path; this ritual guards the ceremony against any evil influence. He is then led into the cori and the groom sits on the left of the two seats. His bride, elaborately dressed and ornamented, is escorted by her maternal uncles and takes her seat facing the groom, sometimes screened from him by a small curtain.

Mangalaastaka, Auspicious prayers, are recited to Lord Mahavira and his parents, Gautama, Sthulbhadra, Lord Adinatha and his parents, and Pundarik, Bharata and other cakravartis, all the Vasudevas and Prativasudevas. Prayers are also recited to Brahmi and Candanbala, guardian deities Cakreshwari and Sidhayika, and Karpadi and Matanga for protection. After a series of prayers, the priest places a cloth garland around the couple's necks, and then the bride's parents symbolically wash the groom's feet.

Hasta melapa. The priest puts the palm of the bride's hand on the groom's palm symbolising the beginning of a lasting relationship of unity between the couple. As this ritual is the most important, it must take place at the precise time deemed most auspicious. The priest recites prayers hoping that the bride and groom may become partners with a similar spiritual aptitude, enjoy the same things and have a lasting union by way of the joining of hands.

Torana pratisthaa, Vedi pratisthaa and Agni sthaapan Torana pratisthaa is an invocation to the goddess Laxmi to bless the couple. Vedi pratisthaa an invocation to the gods of the earth to protect the couple, and the ritual of placing the sacred fire (agni sthaapan) in a small basin (kunda) is accompanied by an invocation to the fire gods to bless the couple. The priest recites a series of mantras and prayers for happiness, honour, children, welfare and prosperity, and he makes offerings to Laxmi and the gods of the earth and of fire.

Houm is a mantra accompanying a series of offerings of food and drink, sacrifice and material wealth, placed in the sacred fire, to the protectors of the eight directions: Yama, Nairuta, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishana, Naga, and Brahmaanan; the nine planets: the sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu; all the 'sur' gods (muses);

the bhavanpati gods, such as Asura, Naga, Supama, Vidyuta, Ocean, direction, wind, and Stanitkumars; to vyantars such as Pisaca, Bhuta, Yaksha, Raksasa, Kinnara, Kimpurusa, Mahoraga and Gaandharva; the star gods such as the moon, the sun, planets, constellations and all the stars; the vaimanika gods such as Saudharma, Isana, Sanatkumar, Mahendra, Brahma, Lanata, Shukra, Sahastrar, Anata, Pranata, Aruna, Achyut, Graiveyak and Anuttara; the caturnikaaya-devas, recognised by their consort or weapon or vehicle or their special strength, Indra, Samanika, Parsada, all the Lokpaalas, Anika, Prakirna; lokaantika and the abhiyogika gods; all angels (dik-kumaris) on the island of Rucaka; and all seas, rivers, mountains, caves and forest-gods.

The priest puts an offering into the sacred fire after each mantra of ghee, betelnut, grains of jav (a cereal) and tal (an oil seed) - and each begins with the words aum arham and ends with swaahaa. The priest performs the first abhiseka by anointing the couple's heads with holy water (nhaavana) brought from the temple, then gotraacaar by reciting mantras and the genealogies of both families, and then announces the declaration of the marriage. He then blesses the couple and presents them with rice, flowers, incense and sweets, which they offer in pujaa to the sacred fire. In the key caar pheraa ceremony, the couple circles the sacred fire four times in a clockwise direction; the bride leading the first three rounds. The bride's brother presents rice grains to the bride and groom who, in turn, after each round, offer them to the priest, who makes offerings to the sacred fire, after reciting the mantras for each circuit. In the mantras, various components of karmic matter attached to the soul, and their effects, are recited. The couple is reminded that physical relations are the result of deluding karma, which may be enjoyed, but that their goal should be liberation from this.

In the part of the ceremony known as kanyaa daan, the priest offers grains of jav, tal, a small blade of grass and a drop of water to the bride's father or guardian and recites a mantra, which the bride's father repeats, handing over his beloved daughter. The groom accepts the bride by reciting a mantra. At this point the priest recites the seven vows: to share their married life with dignity; to respect and love their families; to respect both family homes; to foster love, equality and trust; to behave so as to maintain the respect of their families; to follow the ethical path in work, pleasure and spiritual advancement; and to be mutually supportive and supportive of society and the world, and the couple agrees to each of the vows. At this point the couple are invited to make their fourth circuit of the sacred fire, and led by the groom they offer grains to the fire. This seals the marriage bond.

The priest sprinkles a little holy powder on the heads of the bride and groom (vaasksepa). Then the bride's father offers water and tal to the groom, who passes them to the priest who, sprinkles them on the bride. With the second abhiseka, the priest blesses the couple saying: 'You two have been married. Now you are equal in love, experience, happiness and good conduct. You are true friends in happiness and misery, in virtues and faults. May you become equal in mind, speech and action, and in all the good virtues.'

With the unclasping of hands (kar-mocan), the priest recites mantras and says: 'You have released your hands but your love is unbroken.' The bride's father gives a symbolic gift to the groom. The community then pronounces blessings of congratulation on the couple and the invoked or invited gods are reverently requested to return to their abodes.

After this, the couple is given a send-off by their relatives, and return to the bridegroom's home, visiting the temple on the way. It is the customary to hold a reception and dinner for the guests before the bride and groom depart, when individual congratulations are offered to the couple.

Plate 5.8 Jain wedding in a traditional mandap (Demontfort Hall, Leicester: 1989)

Rituals of Death and Bereavement

Birth and death are natural phenomena for human beings. The soul is the one unchanging element in the living being; until the soul is purified by shedding all the karma attached to it, the type of being into which it will be reborn depends upon its karma. The body is only a temporary abode for the soul and when someone is dying this belief offers some solace. When Jains visit someone who is dying, whether at home or in a hospital, they sing hymns and recite the Navakara Mantra. A dying person would like to receive, during this crucial period; forgiveness for any wrong committed to others during his or her lifetime, and to forgive all who have done wrong to him or her, and to have a peaceful death. If the dying person cannot chant, someone else will substitute so that the dying person is allowed some noble reflections, and the soul leaves this world in a peaceful state.

Indeed, these simple rituals are performed not only for Jains, or even for fellow human beings, but also for all living beings: if Jains know that an animal is dying, they will visit to it and quietly recite the Navakara Mantra. The most famous example of this is the story of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third tirthankara, when he found two snakes dying in a burning log; Parsvanatha recited the Navakara mantra to the snakes, which were then able to die in peace, and according to the Jain scriptures, they were reborn as Dharanendra and Padmavati, the heavenly attendants of Parsvanatha.

The first ritual after death is a recitation of the Navakara Mantra, hymns and incantation of the jinas and Shantinatha, until the body begins its journey towards the cremation ground, crematorium or undertaker's premises. In India, a dead body is normally cremated within a day of the death. The corpse is secured on a funeral bier and close relatives carry it to the crematorium in public procession. The body is placed on the funeral pyre of logs of wood or sandalwood and covered with more wood; it is then sprinkled with ghee, incense and flammable materials. A close relative makes three circuits of the pyre, chanting mantras before lighting it. It takes about two hours for a body to burn. After the body is consumed, the participants in the funeral ritual return home, bathe, and purify themselves by chanting mantras. It is customary that women do not take part in any of these rites. Jainism forbids the act of sati, when a widow will fling herself upon her husband's funeral pyre. Jains consider sati a sin, an act of violence.

For two days after the cremation the family members of the deceased are consoled by the community with repeated recitations of hymns and narrative stories, emphasising the Jain belief in the temporary nature of the body and the continued life of the soul. On the third day, the ashes are taken and thrown into a nearby sacred river, but if there is no river nearby, they are put into a pit, thus the physical body composed of the five material elements, returns to its origin. It is believed that the aura of mourning around the deceased's home remains for three days, but it is alleviated with the benefit of special prayers, hymns and recitations for peace, resulting in a gradual normalisation of the bereaved family's life. The third day ends with a visit to the temple where donations to worthy causes are made, but some observe the period of mourning for the deceased for up to thirteen days, when temple worship or pujaa is performed in the presence of community members and relatives.

In the albeit rare event of the death of an ascetic away from a populated area, for example in a forest, other ascetics or disciples take the body and expose it in a carefully selected spot, where there is a minimum of living beings. Animals or carrion birds may devour the body. In populated areas, the community will take responsibility for cremating the body of an ascetic on a sandalwood pyre.

Recent emigration of the Jain community abroad has made it necessary for them to modify these rituals. After death, the body is cremated and the whole community congregates at the crematorium. For three to seven days before the cremation, community members visit the bereaved's home and offer the relatives all possible support, sing hymns explaining the temporary nature of the body, and pray for peace and the permanent bliss of the soul of the deceased. The community cares for the bereaved family for their daily needs, and if somebody requires help — financial or otherwise — the community attempts to provide for them. The undertaker brings the body to the home of the deceased about an hour before the cremation. The family members, relations and close friends offer their respects to the departed by chanting hymns, and the coffin is then taken to the crematorium and placed on a platform for the final rites amidst the intonations of 'Jai Jinendra'. The final rites constitute of recitals of the meaning of navakara and the four refuges of the arihant, siddha, saadhu and the Jain faith, and the details concerning the achievements of the deceased are retold. This is followed by a silent meditation of two minutes for the peace of the soul, a sermon on the temporary nature of the worldly life and advising those present not to feel sorry for the departure of the soul, who is going to be reborn in a new body, then more hymns and the asking for forgiveness, before the body is consumed by the fire.

The funeral participants gather in another room or outside, and once again offer prayers, express sympathies and make donations to humanitarian or animal welfare causes. There are no restrictions on the participation of women in the funeral process and, in the home, rituals are identical to those practised in India.

Some people do not visit the temple after a death in their household. This is due to the influence of Hindu religious customs and Hindu views on religious purity. The Digambar Jain texts, Mulaacaara and Trilokasaara, sanction this practice if it is the custom of the locality. Svetambar texts, such as Vyavahaara Bhaasya, Hira Prasna and Sen Prasna, permit the performance of pujaa immediately following a death in the household, but only after bathing. The texts advise to use one's judgement as to whether one's state of mind is appropriate for pujaa.


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Abhiseka
  2. Arham
  3. Arihant
  4. Asura
  5. Aum
  6. Aura
  7. Bandhan
  8. Bharata
  9. Body
  10. Brahma
  11. Brahmin
  12. Dharanendra
  13. Digambar
  14. Divali
  15. Diwali
  16. Gautama
  17. Ghee
  18. Indra
  19. Indrani
  20. Jainism
  21. Karma
  22. Karmic matter
  23. Kinnara
  24. Kulakara
  25. Laxmi
  26. Leicester
  27. Mahavira
  28. Mandapa
  29. Mantra
  30. Meditation
  31. Muni
  32. Navakara Mantra
  33. Padmavati
  34. Parsvanatha
  35. Saadhu
  36. Sanskrit
  37. Sarasvati
  38. Siddha
  39. Soul
  40. Svetambar
  41. Three Jewels
  42. Tilak
  43. Tirthankara
  44. Torana
  45. Toranas
  46. Vardhamana
  47. Violence
  48. Yaksas
  49. Yaksha
  50. Yaksis
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