The Jain Spirit of Forgiveness: Paryushana

Palitana Jain Temple | Courtesy of indianmirror.com

All parts of the world have their own customs and we all celebrate in similar and different ways. We are all familiar with our festivals and holidays in the United States, but we are often unfamiliar with the customs and celebrations of many of our foreign neighbors. Many of their holidays contrast greatly from ours. For example, the festival Paryushana, which is held in India each year as a celebration among the Jain population, is considered one of the most sacred days of the year to Jains. The festival started over two thousand years ago when Jainist monks refrained from traveling during the rainy monsoon season, on account of the many kinds of bugs that would naturally come up from the ground. Jainist monks avoid stepping on these bugs as part of their religion, since they believe that it is harmful to their own selves to inflict any harm on any other living things. As part of this festival, there are a variety of activities that take place during this week-long celebration. Paryushana typically last between eight to ten days, and during this week, the main goal is for participants to seek forgiveness for their sins. Paryushana usually takes place in either August or September each year, depending on their lunisolar calendar. The word Paryushana means “to come together,” and when they come together for this festival, Jains dedicate themselves to worshiping and to fasting.1

Starting Paryushana by gathering for meditation | Courtesy of saddahaq.com

There are two groups in Jainism: the Svetambara and the Digambara. The two Jain sections only have minor differences in beliefs concerning clothing and women. Digambaras practice nudity as one of the requirements to achieving liberation, whereas Svetambaras don’t believe that nudity is needed for salvation. Digambaras also believe that women lack the body and will to reach liberation, so they need to be reincarnated as a man before they would be able to attain such a goal. But Svetambaras say that women are able to get to the same spiritual liberation as men. The way that they both celebrate Paryushana is by fasting and participating in several spiritually enlightening sessions of meditation. One difference during this festival is that Svetambaras read from the Kalpa Sutra, a Jain text, and Digambaras read from the ten chapters of the Tattvartha Sutra.

Since Jain monks avoid walking from one town to the next, they stay in temporary locations during this week of Paryushana. Most commonly a town will invite Jain monks into their homes and let them stay for the duration of the festival, welcoming them with a ritual, one of which is presenting the monk with a milk bath, which is a purity ritual that cleanses the monk of germs and keeps his body healthy. Paryushana is a period of remorse for the sins Jains have done in the previous year, and they pray and ask for forgiveness to remove the gained karma (Jains define karma as actions that predict their next life). This karma differs from Hindu karma due to how extensive Jain karma applies to their life. Instead of just good or bad actions contributing to karma as is case in Hinduism, Jains believe that thoughts and words also apply to gaining positive or negative karma. They also vow to control their desires for material pleasures as part of the festival. To do this, they disown any possessions and avoid eating anything. This spiritual fasting lasts for the whole festival, but some simply cannot fast the entire time. It is mandatory, however, to fast on the last day. On the third day of this celebration, the sutra books are displayed in homes of Jains, where these texts are worshiped with religious songs. On the fifth day of Paryushana, ceremonies are held in monastic temples where Jains meditate and read from the Kalpa Sutra and Tattvartha Sutra. During this special ceremony, the group listens to stories about the mother of Mahavira, the founder of the faith. The purpose of the stories is to remind those gathered about the core teachings of Mahavira, about the importance of positive thought, that living beings should not be harmed, that there is a brotherhood among fellow Jains, and that forgiveness should be shown to all living beings. There is also an invitation to visit all neighboring Jain temples. The last day of Paryushana is the most important. On this day Jains participate in fasting, and the ones who fast extensively are honored because of their good example for other followers. This day is also when Jains ask for forgiveness from friends and family for any wrongs they have done in the past year toward them. On the final night of the festival, it is the custom to have a Swami Vastyalaya dinner, where all Jains, no matter their social caste, are welcomed and they all sit together to eat and drink. It is a time to explore the inner self and become a better person.2

Prayer to religious figure Mahavir | Courtesy of freepressjournal.in

Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India, dating back to the sixth century BCE. Today, Jains account for 0.4% of the population of India. The founder of Jainism is Vardhamana Mahavira, whose life spanned from 540 to 468 BCE. Mahavira is thought to be the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, or spiritual teacher of the righteous path to liberation. He belonged to the warrior caste, but abandoned his family and possessions out of fear for a painful death. He went to purify himself to attain a state of bliss. In his forty-second year, he began preaching his religion all over the country for thirty-two years. Mahavira claimed to have gained full enlightenment, and thereby became a Jaina, or conqueror, and became the leader of those who sought Jaina, or Jainism. The present form of Jainism was shaped by him. Originating on the Indian subcontinent, Jainism is one of its oldest religions. Its followers claim that Jainism is actually much older than Mahavira, that it has prehistoric origins dating to before 3000 BCE, before the beginning of Indo-Aryan culture.3

 Jains have very strong and specific practices and values. Jains are probably the most nonviolent group of people in the world. They attempt to never harm humans or animals, or any life forms, and they regularly undergo long fasts, participate in meditation, pull their hair out by the roots two to five times a year, walk barefoot, and in some cases, for monks, do not wear clothes at all. Jains have doctrines that contain beliefs about the nature of the world, beliefs about what one should and shouldn’t do, and what one should value. The five doctrines for its followers are Ahimsa (non violence), Satya (truth), Asteya (no stealing), Brahmacharya (self restraint of marriage and sexual relations for holy people), and Aparigraha (non possessiveness). In the Jain tradition, qualities that are important are the giving of education, shelter, and food, and the curing of illnesses, and encouraging the protection of all humanity. Those who practice these values are thought to reap the benefits of wealth, power, and good fortune, and to have virtuous sons and daughters, as well as being reborn as a god. Jainism emphasizes that the suffering of rebirth can be brought to an end, and that achieving moksha, or the liberation from that cycle of rebirth, is the best reason to practice Jainism.4

Jain man fasting | Courtesy of vice.com

Fasting is very common in Jainism, and is one of the key elements in the festival of Paryushana. It is more often done by Jain women than men. The reason Jains fast is to purify the mind and body, as it reminds one of Mahavira’s emphasis on renunciation and asceticism. During the fast, the Jain must not just stop eating but also stop wanting to eat; therefore, they can’t desire food or else the fast is pointless. There are four different types of fasting practiced by Jains: complete fasting (giving up food and water completely for a period), partial fasting (eating less than you need to avoid hunger), vruti sankshepa (limiting the number of items of food eaten), and rasa parityaga (giving up favorite foods). Some Jain monks fast for months, following the example of Mahavira, who fasted for over six months. Others have fasted for a year, like Sri Sahaj Muni Maharaj, who completed his record-breaking 365-day fast on May 1, 1998. These people are usually praised during the festival of Paryushana, because they have set an excellent example for other followers. The last type of fast is Santhara, or fasting to death. It is a procedure where a Jain prepares for death when the body is no longer capable of serving itself and when death is a matter of undisputed certainty, most often related to old age. Before the body dies, the intention is to purify the body, remove thoughts of personal things, and lift ones karma. Those practicing Santhara avoid desires and dislikes, so they can concentrate on the spirit while they approach death. Santhara has been seen as the ultimate way to remove all sins and karma, liberating the soul from the cycle of rebirth.5

Meditation in Jainism | Courtesy of www.jainsamaj.org

Meditation also takes place on the week of Paryushana. The purpose of practicing meditation is to purify the mind, speech, and body. During this week-long festival, Jains try to stabilize the mind and concentrate on achieving salvation. There are four kinds of meditation: sorrowful meditation (related to suffering of impatience, grief, and agony of disease), inclement meditation (related to harsh thoughts, lacking mercy), righteous meditation (beneficial to help self and others), and spiritual meditation (focus on mind). All of these meditations help destroy karma from the soul.6 For Jains, the soul has three parts: the atma dravya (soul as one unit of infinite soul substances), ananth gunnas (its infinite qualities), and ananth paryaas (the modifications/expressions). Jains interpret the soul as not a man, woman, rich, poor, ugly, worker, husband, wife, son, daughter, or heavenly/hellish being, but as only an unchanging spirit. Jains consider the soul as something that can take place in any form in life, and so all should be treated equally, which ties back to a meditation service during Paryushana that encourages all followers, no matter what social caste, to participate.7

Directing our focus to other customs in the world opens our minds to being able to see their perspectives. We all may have similar morals, but holidays such as Paryushana brings a whole new meaning to the linking of religions. We may not fast, but we commonly ask for forgiveness in prayer to our god or gods, and hold special days for our holy figures. The goal within Christianity, for example, may be to enter the pearly gates of heaven; the holy week of Paryushana unifies Jains as a group to reach one goal: liberation. The Jainism that started many millennia ago is still practiced today. The forms of fasting and meditation are valued so highly that many go to extreme measures in these conditions. For Jains, karma influences a Jain’s life greatly by guiding what they do everyday, not just in actions but in feelings and thoughts as well. It may be difficult to see how this religion works, especially compared to Western beliefs, but in a Jain’s eyes, fasting and forgiveness is absolutely pure and necessary to attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth into the transcendent state.

  1. Michael McDowell, World Religions At Your Fingertips (New York: Penguin, 2009), 225-226.
  2. David DeRocco, The International Holiday & Festival Primer (Canada: Penguin, 1996), 15.1-15.2.
  3. Ottilingam Somasundaram, “Jainism: Tamil History,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 58, no. 4 (Oct-Dec 2016): 471-474.
  4. Sherry Fohr, Jainism (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 1-3.
  5. “Religions – Jainism: Fasting.” BBC. September 10, 2009. Accessed October 09, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/jainism/customs/fasting_1.shtml.
  6.  Dr. Rajendra Kumar, “Meditation in Jain Scriptures,” Jainism Literature Center – Articles. Accessed October 11, 2017. https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralsm/affiliates/jainism/article/meditation2.htm.
  7. Encyclopedia of Jainism, December 2013, s.v. “Meditation-Dhyan in Jainism,” by Smt. Arpita.
The Jain Spirit of Forgiveness: Paryushana
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The Jain Spirit of Forgiveness: Paryushana

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28 Comments

  • I am really impressed by this article. I have learned a little about Jainism in the past but never fully read too much about it. This article provided great insight into a religion that is so foreign to my own. I like how they are very concerned with things most people do not even think of. Not wanting to even step on little bugs because they are a living things as well is just crazy tome but also admirable.

  • This article was very well written, and it gives the reader a great glimpse into what might be a completely foreign religion and culture. I didn’t know anything about this celebration, but upon reading this article, I found it to be very beautiful. I hope that others who read this article share that view and can obtain a more open mind to other religions in the future.

  • before reading this article I have very little knowledge about Paryushana. I thought is was extremely interesting that they would not kill bugs. only because here in America we kill any bug that we fell that is scaring us so I couldn’t imagine how many people would go against it if we had that type of religion. I do enjoy how their religion is non violent, that is something we need today.

  • Your article was very informative. I think this religion is one of the more interesting religions there is in the world. I think that you conveyed just how important this festival, Paryushana, is to the peoples of this religion. I had no idea about the four different types of meditation. You provided enough information about all four in a way that was easy to understand. Westerners are not always the most open minded of people when it comes to religion and we often have a hard time understanding religions very different from Christianity and Catholicism, but your article made it easy to grasps the concept of this religion.

  • This article was amazing and so interesting. It is always interesting to read and learn about different religions and cultures and to learn about this one was different because the writer incorporated Jain spiritually which is fascinating to learn about. before reading this article I never knew that there was several different types of fasts that were a part of this celebration. It was nice getting to read and learn more about this complex religion.

  • Great job! No doubt, your article deserves to be nominated for an award. This is my second time reading this article and I really love it. It is always interesting to learn about different cultures and religious rituals. It is astonishing that some Jain monks fast for months. Moreover, I found the belief of not hurting another living thing really amazing. In closing, I really enjoyed reading your article.

  • This was a really interesting article to read and I am glad I came across this article because Jainism seems to be such a beautiful religion and I have never heard of this religion before so this was definitely interesting to read about and learn something new. This article expanded my knowledge on this subject and I am glad I came across it

  • Before reading this article, I had never heard about the festival of Paryushana. It is interesting to learn about all the different cultures they have all over the world. This is one that takes place in India and lasts a week long. The festival focus on liberation. I really enjoyed reading this article and learning the different rituals, and how the traditions of other people all over the world work.

  • I remember learning about Jainism and how interesting I though it was. I find it very interesting how they believe in not killing any living thing, even small bugs. They won’t go outside after it had rained because bugs would come out of the ground and they did not want to step on them and kill them. This article really explained how important Paryushana is for the Jains and it really made me want to research this religion more. Great article!

  • I admire how much information was provided in this article. It was very detailed. I always enjoy learning about new religious practices and I found this one very interesting. I admire how they choose to not harm any beings whatsoever, as that is very selfless. I wish I had the determination to fast for liberation, but I honestly do not think I could fulfill that requirement. I think that a lot of people might find it easy to judge other religions for their practices, but with the education of other religions, and realizing that everyone is entitled to believe in whatever they desire and no one in above another, it is nice to see such varieties. That is why I really enjoyed this article because it sheds a light on a religion that many in this country may not be familiar with. It is very important that everyone is educated fully on just how many religions are in existence, as the one you may have been raised to be a part of may not be the one that suits you the best.

  • Great article choice! I have to say, I had no prior knowledge of this particular topic, so it was a total learning experience. Thank you for that! Paryushana was indeed a very intricate religion, but you explain it’s origins and meanings in a way that even newbies (like me) can understand easily. No wonder you are nominated for best overall research, your information throughout the article is complete and really enriches the value of your writing. Great job!

  • Wow, i really learned something from your article. A lot of the things you said were very surprising, about the women and how they had to be reincarnated. Also how they don’t harm bugs, American kill bugs daily, but that really means something to them. I cant help but ask myself how they established these rules and regulations. what are their influences? Also its interesting reading about another religion, because living in America we are so use to the same religions. so it open my eyes that in other countries people believe in a totally different thing than you.

  • Paryushana celebration was such a beautiful celebration to think that the meaning of the work itself means to come together. It was so interesting to read that the oldest religion in India still stands as .4% of the populations religion today. This article was such an interesting read and had so much to offer. The images to were so captivating.

  • It was always fascinating to learn about other cultures and religious rituals. this article was particularly interesting because it talked about the religion of Jain spirituality. The author wrote a culturally aware of the festival of Paryushana and what the rule/requirements that come with the celebration. I enjoyed reading this article because it allowed me to learn about the values, morals, and traditions of others.

  • It’s always good to learn something new everyday. I’m glad I got to learn what the true meaning of Paryushana is and what’s its purpose is as well. I had no idea it was such a sacred day for the Jains. Along with this day, meditation was one of the key elements for this sacred day as it cleared the mind, speech and body. This article was very informative and I appreciate the detail that was put into this article.

  • This is a really interesting article, there is a lot of information, and it is all very captivating. It is really awesome to learn about the different customs of the Jain religion. I did not realize that there were two different sects of this religion, and they are very different. It is crazy that in one sect, women do not have the potential to reach the same spirituality as men, but in the other sect, women do. I liked hearing more about the holiday of Paryushana.

  • Although I don’t personally believe in any of them, I enjoy learning about other religions and beliefs. Your article on the festival of Paryushana was very enlightening and you described the festival in such a beautifully artistic way. I find myself in awe of people who commit to fasting because their beliefs require it, and for such an extended amount of time. I like that you touched on the Jains views on peace and non-violence, there are a few other religions that could take their example.

  • I really had no background information or any knowledge in general about Paryushana before reading this article. I learned so much about it from reading this and actually looked up more information on my own. This festival is a part of the Jain religion. I always like to read about different religions and different celebrations within other cultures. I like to try and compare their celebrations to some my culture may share and also to see all the differences. Very interesting article to read.

  • The article is about a festival about Jains and about the Jain religion. I find it interesting how the community all joins together and celebrates the Jains. The fact that the Jains don’t want to go any where because bugs come up out of the year is interesting. This article was very well written, and I also enjoyed the images.

  • I enjoy learning about different religions and faiths often. Jainism has been explained to me a couple of times, however this article did a much better job at it. The importance of Paryushana was held well and the description of the different practices was also very informative. I thought I was familiar with meditation before reading this article but now, after reading, I realize I was wrong. I like the ideas behind Jainism, and agree with the belief of devoting to not hurt another living thing.

  • Very detailed article with so much information. I had never heard of Paryushana or the Jains but I was completely interested in learning about them as I read your article. I found the different levels of fasting to be interesting, and the last fast bringing about death. I like that the purpose of the fast was not simply to not eat, but to not desire food, making it a more meaningful fast. It was interesting to me that the monks believe in reincarnation and moshka to escape the cycle and make it into the after world.

  • This article is obviously well researched through the encompassing information on Jainism. By focusing on the goal of forgiveness, the article framed Jainism in a way that western culture is able to wrap their heads around without completely understanding how the religion supports this. The different kinds of fasting were fascinating, because I know that during Lent, Catholics have a form of fasting as well. Still, it is hard for me to perceive why someone would starve themselves to death. Great article!

  • Well written article that does a great job at explaining Paryushana. It is interesting to learn about other religions and various festivals the celebrate. It seems that living the live practicing the Jainism religion would take a lot of discipline and dedication. One would have to work hard to follow all of the practices such as sweeping the ground before they walk to make sure not to harm any other life form.

  • Before reading this article, I knew very little about Jainism and I especially didn’t know anything about Paryushana. This article was very detailed and told the importance of Paryushana very well. Not only did you detail the festival but also the importance of meditation and fasting to the Jains. Prior to this as well, I didn’t know that there were two sectors of Jains, the Svetambara and the Digambara. Overall this was a very informative and well written article.

  • I really enjoyed this article, coming into it I really had no background knowledge of Paryushana, and I had a very broad understanding of Jains. It was really cool learning about the purpose of meditation. Overall this was a very informative article I really enjoyed it. It really amazes me how these people refuse to hurt anything or anyone. Whether it is by accident or purpose, it’s beautiful but bizarre at the same time.

  • The United States is referred to as a melting pot of different cultures. However, we rarely are entirely understanding of ideas different than our own. For instance, the idea of people being in the nude would make us a little uncomfortable and we would find the idea inappropriate for a public setting. But that does not mean the United States is incapable of doing it, it just means that we need to try harder and be open-minded to new ideas and different practices.

  • Wow! I really liked your article a lot. You have efficiently and effectively structured you article. It’s amazing to know how Paryushana is considered one of the most sacred days of the year to Jains and that the festival started over two thousand years ago. Furthermore, it was interesting to know that purpose of meditation was to purify the mind, speech, and body. To sum it up, it was an informative and a good read.

  • What a detailed description of Paryushana and what it means for Jains. I never knew that there were several types of fasts included in this celebration and they are all meant to cure and cleanse the body of sin and karma. Jainism is such a beautiful and complex religion devoted to not hurting another living thing, it was nice being able to read more about this faith.

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