Once a year, around the monsoons in India, Jains observe the festival of Paryushan. During this time, the community comes together at temples to pray, meditate and to listen to religious discourses by learned teachers. At these gatherings attended by men and women of all ages, people seek forgiveness for any hurt or harm they may have caused through speech, thought or action, to other living beings.
In the Jain tradition, there is no creator-God. However, the highest ideals are represented through liberated souls who are beyond all worldly aspects. Jain devotion entails walking in the footsteps of such souls, sometimes nominally called bhagavan, or God.
In the monsoon of 2014, I follow Rekha Jain and the greater community she is a part of through the festival of Paryushana.
Rekha is a 38 year old Jain home-maker and mother of two, in Bangalore, who observes a fast during Paryushana every year. She begins by eating one simple meal in the day for the first few days, which she reduces steadily, till she eats or drinks nothing.
Rekha goes to the temple every morning at 7:00 AM in the morning where she prays till 1:00 in the afternoon. After which she spends the rest of her day at home reading, praying and meditating on her own or with family.
We follow Rekha to the Terapanth Sabha Bhavan in Bangalore where people from the community settle in. They make space for each other quietly, trying to fit as many in front of the stage.
At the temple, Sadhvi Kanchan Prabha addresses the community and begins to talk about the importance of forgiveness. This is one of the core principles practices during the festival where individuals ask forgiveness of any wrong they may have done or hurt they may have caused in the last year. Absolution is asked from the most minute insect to one’s closest relations.
For a moment there is absolute silence in the hall. Then this is broken by synchronous chanting led by Sadhvi Kanchan Prabha, till the entire space seems to reverberate. Silences are a prominent motif in Paryushana.
Though a time of frugality, applying mehendi on the hands is a customary way of expressing joy during the festival. Even though it isn’t a celebratory period in the conventional sense, Paryushana is a time to be thankful and positive.
It is a time for fasting, meditation, and intense introspection. All these elements are interrelated. Rekha explains to me that the more frugally she eats, the less the material world around her matters.
Such practice is not limited to adults. A young boy sits to meditate with a fierce concentration along with his father and other people in the main hall. This is a reflection of many from the younger generations who are consciously involved in their practice.
The austerities continue at home. Rekha and her sister-in-law, Sanjana, help each other get ready for their evening pratikamana. On asking Rekha when she started her practice, she answers that she couldn’t put a date on it but that it has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.
Like Rekha, many of the adherents who come to the temple follow these practices to move towards the ideal of the liberated soul.
During a conversation with Rekha, I ask her how she copes when she feels tired or hungry. She answers that she reminds herself “mujhe mere mann ko sthir rakhna hain, svasth rakhna hain” (“I must still my mind and keep myself healthy”). Determination is what, I understand, keeps her going.
Rekha summarizes the Jain pursuit incisively—
“Bhagavan ban ke bhagavan ki puja karte hain”
(“One must become God in order to worship God”).
Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju