Myths and Rituals in Jainism 

Shugan C. Jain
International School for Jain Studies, New Delhi

Jainism is the religion of seekers. It propagates duality of existence, as sentient and insentient beings. There are infinite sentient beings. The core belief is that every sentient being has an independent soul defiled by karmic impurities. These kārmika impurities called karmas are the sources of pain and pleasure, high and low status and existence in different destinies. When the defilement (kārmika impurities) is removed completely, the individual soul experiences the state of perfect knowledge and bliss forever and transcends the cycle of birth-death-birth. At this stage, the soul becomes supreme soul (paramātaman) and the owner is called Jina/Arhat/Omniscient. This is the highest objective of life to be attained and the process of moving up from bahirātman (external oriented or empirical soul) through antarātman (inward looking soul) to parmātman is called mysticism /spirituality/adhyātman in Jainism.The equivalent expressions in Jainism for the word ‘mysticism’ are: Śuddhopayoga, Arhat and Siddha state, Paṇḍita-Paṇḍita Maraṇa, Paramātman-hood, Svasamaya, Parādṛṣṭi, Sāmarthya-Yoga, Ahiṁsā, Ātmasamāhita state,Sambodhi, Samatva, etc. All these expressions convey identical meaning of realizing the transcendental self/ paramātman/just pure soul on liberation /death of the owner body.

The journey from Bahirātmanto Antarātman to Paramātman is traversed through the medium of moral and intellectual preparations, which purge everything obstructing the emergence of potential divinity. The preliminary observances include accepting only ahimsaka food, abstinence from seven bad habits, observance of six daily essential religious cum moral duties and a regime of five minor vows (anuvratas) for householders. Before this final accomplishment (emergence of potential divinity), a stage of vision and fall may intervene. The whole mystic way goes through fourteen stages (called gunasthans) which are like different phases in a single process of growth, involving the movement of consciousness from lower to higher levels of reality, the steady remaking of character in accordance with the “independent spiritual world”. 

Myths and rituals

The meaning and significance of myths and rituals transcend the temporal and spatial dimensions. Since these represent the ways of expressing our collective as well as individual identities, therefore these constitute the major corpus of Jain mythological narratives. In this paper, an attempt is made to take the some of the following popular myths /principles and associated rituals of Jainism as described in its philosophical and narrative literature. 

  • Ahimsa as supreme spiritual value: Cow and lion representation, The Speaking parrot parable, implements of monks, Emphasis on purity of food and water (purifying water, shelf life limits, plant food excluding the plants themselves and the root vegetables, day dining, non use of leather and animal products in day to day life), Lord Neminath’s wedding. Forgiveness (Lord Bahubali), Tolerance (Lord Parshwanath)
  • Devotion: Navkar mantra, Temple visit daily, Svadhyaya, visiting and serving monks, Bhaktamar stotra,
  • Self effort: Mainasundari
  • Self restraint for avoiding accrual of bad karmas- example anger management; seven abstinences, avashyaks, anuvratas, philanthropy, pujas, parvas, yatra
  • Essentiality of renunciation: Lord Adinath and dance of Nilanjana in the royal court
  • Annihilation/ purging of karmas i.e. Nirjara: Self suffering (Tapas external and internal; Meditation, svadhyaya, pratikramana, fasting, humility. Lord Bahubali episode at Sravanbelgol, Lord Mahavira’s tapasya and even today performed by monks (Jungle vale Baba).
  • Sallekhana/samadhimarana as the way to enhance future lives.  Lord Mahavira as a lion in earlier birth. Snake couple and Lord Parshwanath, Stories in Jnatadharmakatha