Jain Paryushana – A Journey to Free the Soul


Fazal Ahmad, UK

The Jain festival of Paryushana in August, is an 8-day period in which their adherents fast, pray, abstain from intoxicants, seek forgiveness and perform meditation to detach themselves from this world and focus on their spiritual development, and finish with a celebration known as Samvatsari (forgiveness day). In some senses, it resembles the focus of Muslims during Ramadan. Jains will seek forgiveness from all living creatures that they may have caused damage to, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Jainism is concerned with the spiritual journey to free the soul from materialism, ignorance and suffering. The lay members vow to be vegetarian and to be peaceful, whilst the ascetic priests have stricter vows including non-violence, truthfulness, celibacy, giving up the accumulation of worldly things and a detachment from the world.[1] Their scriptures record the relative importance of the worldly life:

‘The wise man looks upon life as a mere dew drop which quivers upon the tip of a blade of kusa grass, to be whisked off or blown away by the breeze at any moment.’ [2]

Shunning worldly desires is common to all prophets and faiths. Again, the scriptures describe the key focus of lay followers:

‘Forgiveness, humility, straightforwardness, purity, truthfulness, self-restraint, austerity, renunciation, non-attachment and chastity are the ten duties {[of lay people].’ [3]

The Jains eventually split into two sects; the Digambara (meaning sky-clad, i.e. those who believe nirvana cannot be attained if one has possessions) and the Svetambara (meaning white-clad, i.e. those who wear white clothing and have more liberal views than the Digambara) with differences in whether or not to wear clothes and eat food, the status of women and scripture. [4] Both are seeking detachment from the world, but one is a more extreme interpretation.

One of the great leaders of the Jains (a prophet in religious jargon) is Mahavira (as) (599 – 527 BCE) from Bihar in northern India. He was from the same era as Confucius (as), Socrates (as) and Buddha (as). Indeed, many scholars note the many similarities between Mahavira (as) and Gautama Buddha (as) including that they were both born to princely families in northern India around the same time, both renounced that status at the age of 20 and then went on a similar spiritual journey including renouncing the worldly life and turning to meditation. Could they be the same person but whose followers took different paths? Mahavira (as) was preceded by other potential prophets from previous generations in the Jainism line including Parshavanatha, Neminatha (said to be a contemporary of Krishna (as)) and Rishabhanatha.

Jains do recognise a Creator in their scriptures [5] unlike Buddhists. They have a similar understanding of the spheres of life to other faiths, including a Middle World where humans live, and then 8 hells with progressively worse conditions for those whose souls regress, and multiple heavens for those whose souls progress to detach from the world. This is not too dissimilar to the journey of the soul as expressed in many other world faiths including Islam which talks of seven heavens.

Jains also believe in a cyclical view of human development, with advancement led by regression and then a return to advancement. In their view of the latter days, human behaviour was expected to degrade into warfare, greed, immorality and ‘unwholesome merrymaking.’ At that time, human decline would be mirrored by extreme weather (hot days and cold night) and rampant diseases. [6]

Comparing the behaviour of some extreme Muslims, the Promised Messiah and founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) wrote: ‘A Jain or a Buddhist is afraid of and avoids killing even a mosquito or a flea.’ [7] The Promised Messiah (as) was noting the characteristic of Jains to be conscious of not even hurting the smallest of creatures, even when about to sit down. The original teachings of Islam also taught peace and that the killing of an innocent person was like the killing of all mankind, but also provided practical measures to maintain peace given the natural inclinations of mankind. Jains see the causal link between violence and suffering:

‘Suffering is the offspring of violence – realise this and be ever vigilant.’ [8]

So, although Jainism presents a more extreme expression of ascetism in some of its followers including renouncing clothes, food and adopting celibacy, their main mission of freeing the soul from vices and worldly possessions would resonate with people of many other faiths.

About the Author: Fazal Ahmad is the Editor for the ‘World Religions’ section of The Review of Religions. He also serves as the Global Operations Director with Humanity First, and is responsible for poverty alleviation projects in 54 countries, mainly in Africa, South Asia and Central America.

[1] Eliade, Mircea & Couliano, Ioan (1991), The Eliade Guide to World Religions, Harper Collins Publishers, USA. p.165

[2] Acarangasutra, 5.5

[3] Tatthvarthasutra, 9.6

[4] Bowker, John, (1997), World Religions, Dorling Kindersely, UK. P. 47

[5] Acarangasutra 5:123-40

[6] Campbell, Joseph, (1993), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, UK. p.262-265

[7] Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam, (1989), Jesus in India, Islam International Publications Limited, Tilford, UK. P. 11

[8] Acarangasutra 3.13

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