Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Belief, for Jains, is a very important part of life, in fact the core of life. However, it is not a form of fundamentalist belief or a belief in one truth and one God or the set written scriptures of God. Instead it is a faith in oneself and one’s own powers and potential to live truthfully and ethically and overcome hardships and suffering. Prayer and worship is aimed at building this inner strength as opposed to seeking salvation and emancipation from an external being. Belief drives everyday action and provides strength at times of despair and pain.
Gods or Tirthankaras are role models and teachers of ethical living. They have lived a life which has helped them attain liberation and left a light of wisdom for all of us to follow. This wisdom is the Jain philosophy and its virtues. It is believed that right knowledge is the best gift one could have as it shows the path to eternal happiness and enlightenment.
The benefits of right belief on individuals and communities are significant especially in a time of unprecedented global change and transformation. They provide inner strength and stability and a framework for negotiating and adapting to worldly living.
For Jains living outside India, belief is critical to their adaption and assimilation. Community is seen as a natural extension of the individual and one of the most important acts is to build a temple and community centre where faith is sustained and nourished through collective action and worship. It is remarkable how active the Jains are in this sphere even though they are so far away from their homeland.
Texts and scriptures have an importance in religious worship, but different Jain sects give different emphasis to these. For example, The Kalpasutra, is a sacred text used by the Shvetambaras during the Paryushan festival and is recited and celebrated during this time. It contains the stories of the lives of the 24 Tirthankaras or prophets of Jainism and rules of code of conduct of monks and nuns.
The Digambaras place a strong emphasis on scriptures and their study and encourage discussion and dialogue about them. There is a strong emphasis on this. Even Sthanakvasi Jains attach importance to scriptural study and reflection. They are written in Prakrit and Ardha Maghdi, ancient language of India which have links to Sanskrit. Ardhamaghdi was the language of common people during the time of Lord Mahavir whilst Sanskrit was the language of the educated elite Brahmins. Thus not only the faith, but even the language of the scriptures was democratic and non-discriminatory.
The scriptures were written almost a thousand years after the death of Lord Mahavira. Oral recitation and memorization was given significant importance and is critical even in this day and age. Many religious rituals are conducted in these ancient languages which have been preserved over all these years and even young people in Britain can recite prayers and rituals which were originally written in these words.
The interpretation of these texts changes over time and different emphasis is given by different spiritual leaders and saints. Even lay people are allowed to interpret them and write articles and books based on their interpretations. Many have done so and there are scholars who are not brought up in the Jain tradition but are highly respected.
Death is a comma, not a full stop. Life and living is the key to immortality – there should be no fear of death but instead an active attempt to seek liberation and salvation through right living and right conduct. The ceremony of death is performed collectively and the body is cremated within a few hours of death and not preserved any longer than absolutely necessary. The focus of prayer and funeral rites is on a peaceful afterlife and a prayer for ultimate liberation.
Family and community come close together to support the bereaved at this unfortunate moment. It is a duty for close family members to do this. The philosophy encourages detachment and therefore makes it easier for people to accept death of close relatives or friends as they are seen as independent souls on their journey to eventual liberation. However, the practicalities of closeness and attachment are also respected and people are allowed to express their emotions at this difficult time.
As it is the soul which transmigrates, the cremation of the body is seen as natural and environment friendly. Burial is seen as unnecessary as the body is now pure matter and devoid of any life.
There are many festivals in the Jain calendar. The most important of these are Mahavir Jyanti (birth of Lord Mahavir), Diwali (Enlightenment of Lord Mahavir) and Paryushan or Daslakshan (festival of forgiveness). The dates follow the lunar calendar and not the Christian calendar so they vary from year to year. The festivals are celebrated at temples and community centres wherever Jains live or if such facilities are not available then local community halls are hired for this purpose. They are always celebrated collectively and Jains make a point of coming together during these special days.
For example, during the eight day Shvetambara festival of Paryushan, there is a lot of fasting. It is a time to apply a handbrake on life and focus on personal salvation and liberation. The ideal fast is for the full eight days without any food whatsoever – it is not compulsory but many endeavour to do this at least once in their lives. There is a daily communal prayer and lectures and readings from the sacred scriptures. The eighth day is the day of forgiveness. On the ninth day, there is large and colourful fast-breaking ceremony where people come to ‘spoon-feed’ those who have fasted for the eight days.
The distinctive feature of these celebrations is the way in which they spiritually recharge individuals and the community. Faces light up and spirits are lifted and rejuvenated. They play a key role in the renewal of commitment to faith and the uniting of the community. None of these events are exclusive.
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