A festival of forgiveness

A festival of forgiveness

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Monsoons in India are traditionally understood to be the four months of rain that visits this subtropical part of the world.

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A country which has relied through history on its rich flora and agriculture, the monsoons are a time of plenty. Over a long and rich history, plenitude became festivity, eventually interwoven with religious and cultural practices.

The small, loosely knit community of Jains celebrate this season in a slightly different way.

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One of the ideals of the Jain tradition is restrained appetite – material, gastronomic, and otherwise.

A cornerstone of the Jain tradition is the awareness of the delicate interdependence of all things in this world, summarized in their motto, “parasparopagraho jivanam“. To conduct oneself well in the context of the interconnected nature of reality, Jains are encouraged to follow non-violence and forgiveness.

During Paryushana this year, we spoke to a number of Jains and visited a number of places to understand the spirit of the festival.

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We met Arinjay Jain, 37, and Rachna Jain, 36, who said that during Paryushana they try to work on restraint and on their willpower to go beyond their senses so that they can focus on meditation and prayer.

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Within Jain asceticism, the conduct of non-violence is taken to meticulous detail. Some Jain ascetics carry brooms to brush aside small creatures which may be on the ground ahead of them.

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The traditional Jain understanding is that during the monsoons, as life flourishes, the soil also is alive with innumerable small creatures. The Jain ascetics, who otherwise travel place to place to avoid attachment, stay rooted in a single location to avoid killing all these organisms in the soil as they walk. This period is referred to as chaturmasa or chaumasa, which literally means “four months”.

Through these four months, all sects of Jainism have a number of days at a stretch set aside for a festival known as Paryushana. While many other festivals during this time are often the celebration of life in its richness, Paryushana focuses on the subtler nuance of the simple acts of day-to-day existence. It is also designed to bring awareness to the balance of the present moment.

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The word “paryushana” means “coming together from all directions”. The festival is devoted to the multifaceted contemplation of one’s life. This is further consolidated through rituals which reflect on one’s actions in the canvas of the world. Not only are the conscious errors taken into account, but emphasis is also given on all the consequences that one may not be aware of.

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Inevitable suffering, for example, is caused to others by mere existence, even through the acts of eating, breathing, walking, and so on. The ideal is to strive to rise above these causes and consequences, towards liberation or moksha. Akshat Jain, a student and a very profound 13 year old said “After moksha, you can be free. You are free from pain, but you also have to give up happiness.”

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Since forgiveness is not asked of the universe or from a creator-god but from one’s friends, family, and from actual living beings, in general, the significance of forgiveness as a first step to the Jain ideals of conduct cannot be overstated. Only through forgiveness can the cycle of violence be realistically ceased, and building on this idea, a few rituals are conducted by adherents during Paryushana.

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During Paryushana, the holy scriptures which reinforce the Jain ideals are read.

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Cleansing and self-control, two key ideas to the Jain way of life, are discussed not only in theory, but are also practiced actively during this time. Adherents often fast during Paryushana. This not only has a personal benefit of resting and cleansing the body, but also serves as a reminder in the greater act of renewing the vows of Jain ethics. The fast itself is strict, and those who are fasting often live on only small amounts of water for several days at a stretch.

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There is a ritual called pratikamana, where one remembers and seeks forgiveness from even the smallest creatures one may have hurt through the course of walking in the conducting day-to-day life.

While pratikamana can be practiced daily, weekly, or at other frequencies, many Jains have a custom of practicing pratikamana at least during Paryushana.

Pratikamana that is practiced during Paryushana can be rigorous; the participants stay in the same spot for the duration and do not take breaks to go the bathroom or to drink water. Many of the participants would have fasted all day.

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These ideals and the importance of awareness and forgiveness in striving towards them are not isolated and individuals have converged on similar conclusions in other parts of the world.

In 1995, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu set up the Truth and Reconciliation Project (TRP). Started after apartheid was abolished in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Project was a court-like process of hearings. In that space, victims expressed their anguish and share their stories with the people who were at the root of their sufferings. Some of those who were responsible for these violations of human rights were given amnesty for their crimes, but everyone was made to face the atrocities that they had committed.

image12This image is edited from the original owned by Elke Wetzig (Elya) and is subject to CC BY-SA 3.0

A statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “I hope that the work of the commission, by opening wounds to cleanse them, will thereby stop them from festering. We cannot be facile and say bygones will be bygones, because they will not be bygones and will return to haunt us. True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.”

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On the subject, Neelam Lalwani, a 46 year old wedding planner, said “Paryushana is temporary, but the subconscious mind is always working, so constant reflection is important; it affects your whole life. Forgiveness takes a lot, but it helps.”

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Forgiveness and the Jain ideal of ahinsa or non-violence are closely related. In some ways, forgiveness is the ultimate practice of ahinsa, and something that many people find difficult to practice. However, the young Prerna Bhandari, a 13 year old student, seems to have a clear view on the subject. “If anyone hurts you, it doesn’t mean you have to hurt them back,” she explains. She loves animals, and adds “ahinsa is important— not killing animals— tigers are almost extinct, and we have to save them.”

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The abstract ideal is captured well in the customary prayer that is recited during this festival:

Khamemi savve jiva
Savve jiva khamantu me
Mitti me savva bhooesu
Veram majjham na kenvi
Michchhami dukkadam

Translated, the ethical ideal remains as clear:

“I forgive all living beings.
May all souls forgive me,
I am in friendly terms with all,
I have no animosity toward any soul.
May all my faults be dissolved.”

Adherents of the festival often say michchhami dukkadam or uttam kshama. When said to another person, by itself, each of these two phrases is understood to encapsulate the idea of begging forgiveness for any misdeeds committed knowingly or unknowingly. It is used as a bridge to seek forgiveness of each other.

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True to its spirit, Paryushana, unlike many other festivals, does not end with an excess of expression, but in quietness. Over a long and rich history, plentitude became festivity, but to the Jains, it is a festival of restraint. The rain is no longer just flourish and life, but it is catharsis, both from the past and for the future.


Text: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Sweta Daga, Simar Kohli and Dhruva Ghosh

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