Jainism: A tradition of non-violence

Paryushana-parva is the holiest period of the year for the followers of the Jain faith. In 2019, that eight-day period is Aug. 28 through Sept. 3.

Jainism is an ancient religion of India; its origins trace from millions of years ago up to the 24th leader, Mahavira, who lived in 500 BCE. At present, there are four or five million followers, most of them living in India but also in countries around the world. Many live in the United States and Vijay Shah, a Jain and professor at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, observed, “There are a few Jain followers in the MOV area.”

During Paryushana-parva, the devout believers rededicate themselves to the ideals of Jainism and their five vows:

¯ ahimsa – to cause no harm to other beings by action, speech or thought.

¯ satya – to seek truth and be truthful.

¯ asteya – to accept only that which is freely given, refraining from stealing.

¯ brahmacharya – to be chaste and faithful to one’s partner.

¯ aparigraha – to avoid cravings and greed and to reject attachment to worldly.

¯ possessions and status.

Dr. Shah explained, “All Jain ideals stem from the basic belief in the practice of non-violence in one’s thoughts, words and actions. Jains aim at all times to show respect and non-violence to even the tiniest of life forms. Along with the practice of non-violence, there is also the belief in karma theory and cycles of rebirth. Jains believe that a being is born in human form after millions of progressive cycles of rebirths from lower forms of life. It is only from the human form that self-realization and the Jina stage can be achieved. Because a Jina has conquered all vices and has no karma left, the mechanism of rebirth is dismantled, and the person is liberated from the cycle of rebirths. Given this conceptualization, Jains consider our human life a priceless opportunity to pursue spiritual development.”

During the Paryushana-parva festival, people pray, meditate, recite the Kalpasutras and fast. The most common prayer in Jainism is the Namokara mantra, an expression of deep respect toward beings who have evolved spiritually.

The Kalpasutra is a Jain text that contains biographies of saviors such as Mahavira that have succeeded in crossing over life’s stream of rebirth and have prepared a path for others to follow.

“Lord Mahavira,” Dr. Shah elaborated, “was a king who left all his worldly possessions and attachments to start the difficult journey to self-realization. After 12.5 years of meditation, he finally achieved the enlightened state of Arihant or Jina. For the rest of his life, he preached the path he had discovered. His teachings were ultimately put into written form in the manuscript called Aagams.”

Jains fast in order to remove karma from their souls and add merit toward release. An eight-day fast is common during this time. Dr. Shah added, “Jain fasting can be very stringent. In some cases, no food intake is permitted, only limited boiled water. However, there are many different types of fasts, and the duration of the fasting period may depend on the devotee’s capacity.”

On the last day of Paryushana-parva, believers participate in a day of atonement called Samvatsari. This one-day fast lasts about 36 hours, beginning at sunset before the day of the fast, continuing through the fast day, and ending after sunrise on the following day. Participants also grant and seek forgiveness and resolve to treat everyone in the world as friends. They say, Micchami Dukkadam or Khamat Khamma – “If I have offended you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or action, then I seek your forgiveness.”

Asked what it is like to be a Jain within the United States, Dr. Shah reflected, “In keeping with the practice of non-violence, Jains are vegetarians. We face the same challenges as do all vegetarians. Overall, the United States culture is very respectful and open, so there is nothing difficult about following whatever religion one may prefer.”

Other holidays in August (interfaith-calendar.org/2019)

¯ Aug. 1 – Christian: Lammas (celebration of harvest by placing bread baked from first yield on altar).

Orthodox Christian: fast in Honor of Holy Mother of Jesus.

¯ Aug. 10 – Jewish: Tish’a B’av (fasting to remember destruction of Temple in 586 BCE and 70 CE).

Islam: Waqf al Arafa (during Hajj, praying by pilgrims for forgiveness and mercy).

¯ Aug. 12-15 – Islam: Eid al Adha (Ritual of sacrifice to recall Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to Allah).

¯ Aug. 23 – Hindu: Krishna Janmashtami (birth of Krishna).

Vijay Shah is a professor in the Division of Business Accounting and Professional Services at West Virginia University at Parkersburg and the co-chair of the Social Justice Committee. He earned Ph.D. and MBA degrees from Kent State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT BHU in India. Find the group on Facebook at Mid Ohio Valley Interfaith.

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