Religion 101

Today (September 19, 2012) is the first day of the multi-day festival of Paryushana (“Coming Together”), one of the two most important festivals in Jainism. Paryushana runs for either 8 or 10 days, depending upon the particular Jain sect, but in either case it’s a period of intensive fasting, meditation, prayer, seeking forgiveness, and spiritual renewal for India’s perhaps 6 million Jains (a tiny yet influential minority there, compared with India’s 960 million Hindus).

Jainism is, along with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, a religion that was born in the subcontinent of India. Its founder, Mahavira, is thought to have been a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, both of whom lived and taught their own respective spiritual paths in India during the 6th century BCE (“Before the Common Era” — a scholarly and nonsectarian alternative to BC, which is short for “Before Christ”).

Along with Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, Jains believe in reincarnation (the soul never dies, but is instead reborn again and again in a seemingly endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth), in karma (the moral quality, good or bad, of one’s current deeds in the present life will determine the nature and quality of life that one will subsequently experience in future lives), and that the ultimate religious goal or spiritual aim is to eventually attain final liberation or total release from this otherwise endless “wheel of rebirths.”

Being different religions, of course, each of these four religions of Indian origin holds differing views with regard to the specific mechanics of how karma is generated, and how to go about seeking that ultimate, final (and infinitely blissful) release from the cycle of rebirth once and for all.

The characteristic Jain emphasis is that since karma is what binds the soul to the wheel of rebirth, release from rebirth is best approached by minimizing (if not eliminating altogether) the generation of any additional new karma, while accelerating the exhaustion of one’s existing accumulation of karma.

This can be done through the practice of austerities, sometimes severe (Jain monks are noteworthy for their heroic extremes of ascetic self-discipline), and by observing an ethical code perhaps best known for its emphasis on ahimsa, absolute nonviolence or “harmlessness” toward all living things (Jain monks are also known for gently sweeping the ground before them as they walk, to avoid even inadvertently treading upon the tiniest of creatures).

Like most religions, Jainism is subdivided into various sects or branches. The two main Jain sects are known as the Svetambara (“white-clad”) and the Digambara (“sky-clad”). These terms refer to the fact that Svetambara monks characteristically dress in white clothing (symbolizing purity), whereas the more extreme Digambara monks go about naked (nudity being regarded as an essential ascetic practice, expressing complete renunciation of material goods and values).

For the festival of Paryushana, the Svetambara sect observes an 8-day festival, while the Digamabara sect (who commonly refer to this festival as Daslakshana) observes a 10-day festival. With some variation, depending in part upon locality, in general the Digambara sect begins its observance of Paryuashan this year on September 19, while for the Svetambara sect its 2012 celebration began on September 12.