Jain holidays and festivals largely revolve around important events (such as births and deaths) in the lives of the thirthankaras, or saints. There are said to be 24 thirthankaras, the last of which was Vardhmana Mahavira, the organiser of the Jain religion.
Each of the three Jain sects may celebrate slightly different festivals — so not all Jains will celebrate every one of the holidays listed below. Other Jain holidays, such as Mahamastak Abishek, are not celebrated every year (it shows up only once every 12 years).
Dates of Jain Holidays 2012
*Note: Because there are two months of Shravan in the Jain calendar this year, not all Jain sects are in agreement as to which of those months Paryushan should be celebrated. Another possible date for Paryushana Parva is 20 September 2012.
Dates of Jain Holidays 2013
Descriptions of Some Jain Holidays
Akshaya Tritiya: A day of fasting and pilgrimage. Those who fast are ritually rewarded with sugar cane juice. Often participants vow to abstain from unboiled water for the rest of their lives. The ritual is meant to honor the first thirthankara, Rsabhanatha, who is said to have broken an extensive fast with sugar cane juice received from the hands of Prince Sreyamskumar.
Anant Chaturdashi: Digambara Jains celebrate this during Paryushan. It involves austerities, special worship, and often a procession to the community’s main temple.
Bhai Beej: Called the Festival of Brothers, this holiday is somewhat like the Hindu Raksha Bandhan. According to tradition, the brother of Shraman Bhagawan Mahavir was sad when the latter achieved nirvana, so his sister, Sudarshana, took him to her house for comfort.
Dashalakshani Parva: Part of the Paryushan festival
Diwali: This is India’s annual festival of lights, celebrated throughout the nation. The Diwali holiday has additional importance to Jains, who celebrate it as the day that Mahavira achieved nirvana / salvation. Diwali is the beginning of the Jains’ new business year, so on this day, old accounts are settled and new accounts opened. Some businessmen (depending upon sect) may buy new account books on this day and worship them along with an image of Lakshmi and other material possessions as part of a ceremony. However, this facet is not universal, since some Jain sects consider it idolatrous. It seems more of a carryover from the Hindu traditions for Diwali. Hymns, fasting, and meditations are, however, common means of celebrating this important holiday.
Jnan Panchami: Worship of pure knowledge. Jnan Panchami takes place five days after Diwali and is celebrated in reverence for Jain scriptures, the Agamas. On this day, fasting, meditation, atonement, worship of the holy books, and holy recitation take place.
Lokashah Jayanti: A time to celebrate scholarly people. This festival honors the 15th century reformer Lonka Saha who founded the Sthanakvasi sect of Jains, opposed to temple worship and the use of idols of any sort.
Mahavir Jayanti: Celebrates the birth of Mahavira, the 24th and last thirthankara and the greatest Jain prophet. According to some Jain tradition (not all), Mahavir was conceived by Rishabhdeva, a Brahmin wife, but was supernaturally transferred to the womb of Trishala, wife of the ruler Siddhartha. Although this seems confusing given a Jainist assertion that supernatural forces are nonexistent, it is part of a tradition tying him to a long cycle of thirthankara rebirths. In any case, Trishala Devi and King Siddhartha were Kshatriyas and pious Jains who had been taught by the 23rd thirthankara, Parswanatha. On Mahavir Jayanti, there are parades, celebrations, and sharing of the faith.
Paryushan: A festival of fasts and spiritual awareness held for 8 to 10 days. All Jains are expected to fast at least the final day, but many will fast longer — for the entire duration of the festival. Another aspect of this holiday is the asking of forgiveness from friends and relatives for both intentional and unintentional wrongs. This is the Samvatsarik Pratikraman, or annual atonement. Paryushana is a major Jain festival emphasizing ahimsa, reading of the scriptures, a focus on salvation, preservation of animal life, and symbolic cleansing.