The main Jain festival of the year is Mahavira Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Today the followers of the Jain religion form a community of more than one million and a half living in India, and they celebrate this day with great zeal and devotion.
Mahavir is the "Jina" or "Conqueror", under whose guidance his devotees are encouraged to conquer the karma-rebirth cycle, this being the goal of the Jain religion. Mahavir was a kshatriya prince (warrior caste) of North Bihar in Northern India. At the age of 30 he became a wandering ascetic. Thirteen years later he reached illumination. His followers form four orders: monks ('Muni' or 'Sadhu'), nuns ('Sadhvi'), laymen ('Shravaka') and lay-women ('Shravika'). Around the year 80 AD the Jains split into two sects, the Digambaras and Shvetambaras.
Ahimsa or non-hurting of life is the main principle of
Jainism. Even unintentionally and the involuntary stepping on an ant may
have serious consequences for the soul. Not only living things, but
everything in nature must be respectfully treated.
There is no place for God in Jainism, which has constructed a complicated theory of karma and karmic matter. Karma is that general energy of the soul that causes its attachment to matter and its subsequent defilement, a kind of link between matter and spirit. All the effort at liberation, therefore, must be directed to controlling karma, and all by autonomous activity.
Any mediation of divine grace or forgiveness is rejected as evading the problem of sin, suffering and redemption. Each person must work out his own deliverance. According to Jain tradition the wheel of time in this visible world is forever turning. The flow of time is without beginning and without end.
Whatever may be said about the philosophy of Jainism, it must be acknowledged that its practice to a large extent seems to achieve results.
The two sects namely the Digambaras and the Swetambaras
have slightly different stories of Lord Mahavira.
According to the Digambar school of Jainism, Lord Mahavira was born in 615 BC but according to the Swetambaras, he was born in 599 B.C. Though the two sects believe that he was a son of Siddhartha and Trisala, Digambaras believe that the expectant mother had 16 auspicious dreams before the child was born and 14 dreams according to the Swetambaras.
According to the legends Lord Mahavira was conceived by Brahmin Rishabhdeva's wife Devananda. However the Gods transferred the embryo to Trisala's womb. The dreams of the expectant mother were interpreted by the astrologers who stated the child would be either an Emperor or a Teerthankar.
Other doctrines held by the Digambaras but rejected by the Shvetambaras are:
1. Only men can obtain final liberation (moksha), women must be reborn as men.
2. The images of the Tirthankars must be represented with downcast eyes, nude and unadorned.
3. Mahavir never married. 4. Once the highest stage of knowledge is reached, a saint can sustain life without eating
5. By the 2nd century AD the entire canon of sacred books was lost.
Mahavir Jayanti is largely spent in prayer rather than in
any ostentatious display of jubilation. On this day Jain devotees visit
sacred sites and worship the Teerthankars or the religious gurus. The
event holds special significance in Gujarat and Rajasthan, due to the
ancient shrines at Girnar and Palitana in Gujarat.
In places with a sizeable Jain population peaceful processions are organised where children put up skits depicting different phases of Mahavira's life. This day is considered to be auspicious enough to undertake new ventures or organise other social activities.