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Celebrating Mahamastakabhisheka

Our correspondent in India takes us to the greatest festival of the Jain, a religion dating back to the sixth century B.C.

The subcontinent of India has given birth to three great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, each of which has flourished for thousands of years.

Once every 12 years, thousands of Jains flock to a sleepy town in the southern state of Karnataka to celebrate one of their great feasts – Mahamastakabhisheka.

The climax of the week-long festival is the anointing of the colossal stone image of Bahubali, an important Jain saint, with sandalwood water, coconut milk, saffron water, pieces of silver and flowers.

A philosophy and a religion, the origins of Jainism are obscure. According to Jain tradition, the lives and examples of 24 fins, (conquerors in Sanskrit), gave birth to what we call Jainism.

These 24 jinas lived according to four vows: avoid injuring any living creature; never lie; never steal; and renounce property. The 24th jina, Mahavira, practiced a fifth vow: celibacy.

Modern scholars regard Mahavira as the founder of Jainism. Born more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, Mahavira, which means “Great Hero,” was the son of a powerful chieftain. He lived the good life until his parents died when he was 30 years old. A struggle with his brother for the throne ensued and after a vicious battle, Mahavira triumphed. But, as the legend continues, the great hero gave up his quest for material pleasures and yielded the throne to his brother. Then, wearing just a thin garment, he embarked on an ascetic’s quest to discover the meaning of life and death. He discarded his garment after more than a year of pilgrimage and wandered “sky-clad,” or naked, for the rest of his life. After a dozen years, Mahavira experienced nirvana, or inner enlightenment, and his questions about the nature of life and death were answered.

Bahubali, the focus of the festival recorded here, migrated to Karnataka during the midst of a famine some 300 years after the death of Mahavira.

Regardless of who founded Jainism, the teachings of the Jain have existed for more than 2,500 years.

According to the Jain, everything has a soul, not just humankind, and in the beginning everything is pure. Actions make one unclean. Therefore the purpose of life is to cleanse the soul.

Today an estimated 3.5 million Jain, a tiny minority, live in India. Unlike India’s Christian, Muslim and Buddhist minorities, this peaceful and unassuming people have lived in harmony with the Hindu majority for centuries. They have been much more obliging to their Hindu neighbors.

But the success of the Jain in commerce, trade and the arts has provided them with influence far greater than their numbers might suggest.

Cheryl Sheridan, a freelance photojournalist, travels frequently to India.

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