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Jainism : The World of Conquerors: 5.3 ► Popular Jainism and Rituals

Published: 17.12.2015

This chapter on 'Popular Jainism' is dedicated to the daily and other regular practices and rituals, which are popular and are actually performed or typically followed by large numbers of the Jain laity. The regular practices are known as 'rituals' (kriyaas or caryaas) that are intended to lead the devotees on a journey from the 'outer' to the 'inner' world of the self.

Every religion has some rituals, but the purpose and meaning of ritual may be variously explained according to the religion in question. In Jainism, ritual is regarded as part of Right Conduct. Rituals should be performed with as much understanding of the meaning as possible, with the utmost devotion and in the prescribed order as laid down by the scriptures and enshrined in tradition. In this way, one may achieve the full benefits of these spiritual observances, but mere 'empty' performance of rituals, or performance out of habit or for the sake of appearances, is of little benefit to the devotee. However, it must be admitted that the majority of people who attend ritual performances do so more for community motives than from a full understanding of the spiritual meaning of the rituals. This is not, however, to imply that their attendance is without value for the community, but merely recognises the situation as it is. The performance of rituals as a group or community is regarded as of greater merit than their performance by the individual alone, a practice not unknown to other religions. The performance of rituals may be unnecessary for a spiritually advanced individual, but in the earlier stages of spiritual development they aid one in devotion and worship. Group rituals help to keep the community together and provide a sense of common identity, and such gatherings for communal ritual provide a medium for popularisation of the religion.

Over the centuries, Jains have developed a series of rituals of varying frequency, e.g. daily, fortnightly, four-monthly and annual. Some essential religious observances are performed once in a lifetime. As might be expected, there is no complete uniformity of ritual observances across all Jain sects, 'schools' and communities. The rituals among the image-worshiper (Deraavaasi or Murtipujaka) Jains are colourful and varied when compared with the devotions of non-image worshipping Jains (Sthanakvasi or Terapanthi). In addition to the sectarian differences between Svetambar and Digambar, the rituals may vary locally or a worshipper may introduce to their variations in private devotions. There are many rituals, which are observed by ascetics and laypeople alike, such as observance of the six essential duties, and some are performed either by ascetics or by laypeople.

Religious leadership among Jains

Jainism has no priesthood. The priests, rabbis, imams, and even the Brahmin caste of the Hindu religion, have no direct counterpart in Jainism. Although the ascetics have an important role as religious teachers for the laity, they form in no sense priesthood. They are respected and venerated in the rituals, and play an important part in guiding religious activities, however, they do not act as intercessors or mediators between the laity and any divinities; they have no part in the administration of temples, indeed their peripatetic life precludes this. With rare exceptions, their presence is not essential to the rituals of the laity; they perform their own daily and periodic rituals.

There are certain ritual functions, which are infrequently delegated to trained or qualified specialists (vidhikaarak). A temple which holds a consecrated image of the Jina will need to make provision for the essential daily ritual veneration of the image, and the laity perform this service in the course of their devotions, bathing and anointing the image, and making the ritual offerings before it. Often, however, the temple will employ a temple servant (pujaari) whose particular function will be to carry out these duties to the sacred image, performing the full daily rituals. Pujaaris should, preferably, be Jains, but often are not; they may well be Brahmins but may be of another caste. Pujaaris may lead the prayers and invocations on ritual occasions.

Despite the absence of a priesthood in general, it may be mentioned that there are many rituals, such as consecration ceremonies and purificatory rites, for which a supervisory category of advanced or scholarly laymen was developed during the middle ages, called yatis among Svetambars and bhattarakas among Digambars.

Jain rituals provide a framework for individual personal devotions. The daily rituals envisage the solitary worshipper performing devotions whether in the temple or before the image of the tirthankara in the home; rituals are also performed communally. Community worship takes the form of the singing of hymns, interspersed by the chanting of prayers. The celebration of festivals may involve the whole community and may open with the Navakara Mantra, continue with hymns, devotional singing and dancing, celebrating events in the life of a tirthankara, and end with the lamp-waving ritual of lights (aarati). A celebration of this nature will incorporate ritual elements but it is supplementary to the formal rituals, which constitute the recommended daily or periodic religious exercises of the pious Jain. Women, as well as men, perform the rituals in the home or in the temple.

The Jain rituals are meaningful and often very beautiful. They evoke devotional feelings in worshippers. The Prakrit (and occasionally Sanskrit) language adds melody and dignity to the ancient prayers and has the additional advantage of uniting all devotees, whatever their daily language. On the other hand, there is a danger of excessive 'ritualism', that is, of seeing the rituals as the religion, an end in themselves, without understanding the purpose behind them. Rituals, undertaken with proper understanding, help the faithful to develop the right attitude towards their spiritual progress. The Jain seers initiated certain pujaas and other rituals to enhance Jain worship as a counterbalance to the attractions of the colourful Hindu bhakti (devotional) worship, which became widespread in India from the seventh century CE. Rituals may take the form of austerities, visits to the temple, pujaa, aarati, and the six essential duties.

The Six Essential Duties

Jains should perform six daily essential duties, known as the aavasyakas (Mulaacaara 1919:7.15 and Uttaraadyayan 1991: 26.2-40). The Jain essential duties may seem to be complex and time consuming; as they take about three hours, mostly in the early morning and late evening. However, they are meant to enhance the quality of life, physically, mentally and spiritually, for the practitioner. Scholars point out that these practices date back around 2,500 years and their continuation attests to their value.

Equanimity; The detached attitude and practice of equanimity (saamayika) produce mental tranquillity. As a ritual it is often performed three times a day, sometimes more, in the home, in a temple, upashraya, forest, or in the presence of an ascetic, by adopting specific yogic postures. The ritual consists of reciting a particular series of sacred sutras and taking a vow to sit in equanimity, self-study and meditation for fortyeight minutes. Forty-eight minutes, one-thirtieth of a day, is a traditional Indian division of time, but it is interesting to note that it is very close to the average attention span of the human mind according to modern psychologists. It ends with the recitation of a concluding series of sutras, an expression of desire to perform the ritual many more times, and a plea for forgiveness of any transgressions committed during the performance of saamayika. One may continue to perform this ritual a number of times by repeating the first series of sutras together with self-study and meditation, and it concludes with a single recitation of the concluding sutras.

Veneration of the Twenty-Four: The 'veneration of the twenty-four' is called the caturvisanti-stava, a recital in veneration of the twenty-four tirthankaras of each time cycle, with the intention of developing their faith and virtues in one's own self. This recital may be performed in isolation or as part of more elaborate rituals (described later in this chapter) such as the caitya vandana, deva pujaa, pratikramana or other pujaas or pujans.

Veneration of Ascetics: This ritual is called the guru vandana, by which respect for ascetics is expressed, egoism is reduced and humility cultivated. By the recitation of this ritual, ascetics are invited to accept offerings for their needs. This ritual is regarded as helpful in gaining Right Knowledge, through service to the guru and through hearing the guru's teaching.

Penitential Retreat: This ritual is called the pratikramana. It is a ritual of confession, making atonement for transgressions committed during the past day or night. Atonement is made by meditation with bodily detachment, the recitation of hymns and sutras in praise of the tirthankaras, and asking for forgiveness for the transgressions accompanied by an expression of intention not to repeat them. Prayers for the welfare of all living beings are also offered in this ritual.

Renunciation: This ritual (described under austerities in chapter 4.13) is called the pratyaakhyaana. It involves taking a vow to abandon, that which is harmful to the soul and to accept that which is beneficial. The ritual of renunciation or austerity requires detachment from material things; especially those associated with sensual pleasures and helps to develop self-control and Right Conduct.

Meditation with Bodily Detachment: This ritual is called the kaayotsarga or 'abandonment of the body', as self-contemplation can only be achieved if one forgets the body and meditates on the true self. We spend too much time attending to the physical body, its needs and pleasures and forget our true self, the soul. The aim of the kaayotsarga is to channel concentration away from the corporeal and onto the noncorporeal self, the soul. It is performed by standing or sitting silently in a meditative posture for variable lengths of time (forty-eight minutes or more) initiated and terminated by recitation of the Navakara Mantra.

Yoga, meditation and austerities necessary for spiritual progress are part of the essential duties, and donations (daana) are regarded by many as part and parcel of these essential duties.

Digambars believe the essential duties are for the ascetics, who perform them. Somadeva, the tenth century ascetic scholar, advised the laity to perform deva pujaa, vandanaka, self-study, restraints, austerities and the fourfold donation of shelter, food, medicine and books.

Rituals on special days: Jains perform special rituals, penance and austerity on the 2nd, 5th, 8th, 11th and 14th or15th day of each half of a lunar month, and on the five auspicious anniversaries of the tirthankaras. They perform elaborate penitential retreats on the 14th day (among Sthanakvasis, the 15th day) of each lunar month, and three times a year on the 14th day of the fourth month (caumaasi caudasa), and annually on samvatsari, the holiest day in the Jain calendar (late August or early September).

Every year paryusana, an eight-day sacred period of forgiveness and austerities, is observed. Digambars celebrate this festival as dasa laxani parva, for ten days, concentrating on the ten virtues of the soul.

Annual and Lifetime Obligations

The Sraaddhavidhi prescribes the laity to perform at least once a year the following eleven duties, and once in a lifetime some special duties (Vajrasen ed.1996: 317, 336). It advises if it is impossible to perform these duties individually, one should perform them collectively with others.

Service to the Order (sangha pujaa): One should venerate the fourfold order by respectfully providing for the needs of ascetics, e.g. clothing and books, and offering gifts to laypeople of the sangha.

Reverence to Co-religionists (saadharmika bhakti): One should show reverence to co-religionists by inviting them into one's home for meals, and help them by providing both material needs and spiritual guidance.

Triple Pilgrimage (yaatratnika): This ritual of triple pilgrimage consists of participation in pujans and festivals for the veneration of the tirthankaras; participation in the chariot processions and religious festivities of the temples; and participation in the Jain pilgrimage to important sites such as Satrunjay, Sammet Sikhara, Girnar and Pavapuri.

Veneration by Anointing an Image (snaatra pujaa): A Jain is expected to perform snaatra pujaa at least once a year. Jain tradition believes that this pujaa of veneration to the Jina is the re-enactment of the ritual performed by celestial beings at the birth of a tirthankara.

Fund raising for Temples (deva dravya): Laypeople are expected to contribute, or motivate others to contribute, funds for the maintenance, renovation and construction of temples

Elaborate Pujans (mahaapujaas): These elaborate pujans involve the decoration of images of the tirthankaras, the decoration of temples and their surroundings and the recitation of elaborate sacred sutras. The pujans are planned to encourage the devotees to participate in temple worship, although many visitors are attracted by the spectacle.

Devotion throughout the Night (raatri jaagaran): This devotion involves worshippers singing hymns and performing religious observances throughout the night on the designated holy day, and on the anniversary of the birth or death of prominent ascetics.

Veneration of Scriptures: (sruta pujaa): This devotional ritual involves pujaa of the scriptures by making symbolic and monetary offerings to the goddess of the scriptures, and putting the scriptures on public display.

Concluding Ritual (udyapaan): The concluding ritual involves honouring the participants, and giving them a gift to mark the final day of an auspicious religious observance. The observance may be the worship of the nine auspicious ones (navapad), that is the five 'supreme beings' (parmesthis): arihant, siddha, aacaarya, upaadhyaaya and saadhu; the three jewels: Right knowledge, Right Faith, Right Conduct and the austerity (tapa) or the veneration of the 'twenty auspicious ones' (visa-sthaanaka): a four hundred day ritual venerating the attributes and pious activities of twenty auspicious ones; or the vow of forty-five days of alternate fasting and eating (upadhaan) with traditional daily religious activities.

Glorification of the Order (tirtha prabhaavana): This ritual promotes Jainism and the Jain way of life through celebrations of the occasions such as the arrival of ascetics at a particular place, holy days or holy occasions, and consecration ceremonies.

Atonement (suddhi): In this ritual, one confesses one's faults in front of an ascetic, usually every fortnight, every four months, or once a year, and performs penance. Lifetime Obligations: At least once in the lifetime, laypeople are expected to:

  • Build a temple, or help to build one, which is considered a meritorious act that helps spiritual advancement. During the construction, one must take care in the choice of land, the use of materials and the utilisation of honestly acquired wealth. One should bear in mind the purity and purpose of a temple building and be honest in all dealings related to it, and encourage the artisans by being just to them.
  • Donate a consecrated jina image to a temple.
  • Participate in an image installation ceremony.
  • Celebrate the renunciation of a son, daughter or another family member.
  • Celebrate the birth, initiation or liberation of prominent ascetics.
  • Commission the writing of religious works, and the publishing and the public reading of the scriptures.
  • Build an upashraya, prayer hall or bhojansaalaa (dining hall).
  • Take the vows or the pratimaas of a sraavaka (see chapter 4.10)

(Bhuvanbhanu 1978: pp.188-193).


Title: Jainism: The World of Conquerors
Dr. Natubhai Shah
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Edition: 1998
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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Arihant
  2. Bhakti
  3. Bhattarakas
  4. Body
  5. Brahmin
  6. Brahmins
  7. Concentration
  8. Deva
  9. Digambar
  10. Dravya
  11. Equanimity
  12. Fasting
  13. Girnar
  14. Guru
  15. Jain Calendar
  16. Jainism
  17. Jina
  18. Mantra
  19. Meditation
  20. Murtipujaka
  21. Navakara Mantra
  22. Parva
  23. Paryusana
  24. Pavapuri
  25. Prakrit
  26. Pratikramana
  27. Saadhu
  28. Samvatsari
  29. Sangha
  30. Sanskrit
  31. Siddha
  32. Sikhara
  33. Soul
  34. Sruta
  35. Sthanakvasi
  36. Sthanakvasis
  37. Svetambar
  38. Tapa
  39. Terapanthi
  40. Three Jewels
  41. Time Cycle
  42. Tirtha
  43. Tirthankara
  44. Tirthankaras
  45. Vandana
  46. Yatis
  47. Yoga
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