By Brianne Donaldson.
Editor’s Note: This reflection is Part 2 in a series exploring the Jain festival of Paryuṣana at the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago. Read Part 1 here. Also, the names of Jain community members under the age of 18 years old have been shortened to their first initial.
A row of large plastic pitchers lines the serving table at the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago. Each pitcher is filled with a different kind of water prepared with either coconut, lemon, mung beans, or sugar and warm spices. For many of the Jain guests at today’s fast-breaking celebration of Pāraṇā, this will be the first food they have had in days.
The word “pāraṇā” derives from the Sanskrit root “pṛṇ” meaning “to fill.” Pāraṇā comes on the ninth day, after the auspicious eight-day festival of Paryuṣana, in which Jains personally and communally reflect on intentional and unintentional harms they may have done, caused to be done, or approved of in thought, speech, and action—toward any of the 1.8 million life forms detailed in the Jain universe.
Food plays a major role in Jain philosophy and ethics. Because Jains believe that every existent entity—whether plant, animal, or person—has a core life force, or jīva, Jains endeavor to minimize their impact on as much life as possible. To help with this practice, Jain philosophy divides up life forms according to their number of senses. For example, a plant, microorganism, or elemental earth or water body possesses the single sense of touch. Insects variously display the second, third, and fourth senses of taste, smell, and vision. Humans, mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish also possess the fifth sense of hearing, as well as mind, although even single-sensed plants are endowed with an interior consciousness (Findly 2008).
Jains understand that there is a karmic cost to consuming life forms, and aim low on the scale of sensed beings. Most Jains are vegetarian from birth, eschewing meat, eggs, honey, and certain root vegetables whose cultivation destroys the entire plant or is especially disruptive to the growing environment. Although this level of attention may strike the typical westerner as impractical, the benefits to self, other, and community are deeply pragmatic. One need only consider the overwhelming data provided by multiple global analyses that the single most effective change an individual can make to curb climate change, resist animal abuse, and protect the environment is moving toward a plant-based diet (Henning 2011, Goodland and Anhang 2009, Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010).
During Paryuṣana, many Jains practice additional modes of fasting to deepen their reflective mindfulness, mental purification, and the accumulation of beneficial varieties of karma (puṇya prakṛtis). Many will give up eating terrestrial plants and greens during the eight-day festival and eat simple meals of rice and pulses. Others may engage in partial fasts in which they eat limited meals during the day. Fewer still will undertake a pre-set number of upavāsa, meaning an entire day with only boiled water. Some may even fast from speaking.
Pāraṇā is the day when those who have been fasting intentionally are honored by family and friends, and fed by the community. In the Jain Society of Chicago, this event is a spectacular explosion of color, tastes, and jubilation. Community members begin cooking in the pre-dawn hours, and volunteers set up rows of cushioned mats, flanked by nearly 150 ankle-high tables, each set with a bronze thali platter and small dishes for the fast-breaking meal. Behind each table is the name of a specific community member and the type of special fast he/she undertook. Many of the signs read “Atthai,” referring to the most common fast of Paryuṣana, consisting of eight upavāsa, or eight days with only water.
The hushed conversations among the food crew are fractured by the sharp crackle of a microphone, and immediately the quiet preparations of the morning are swallowed up by recorded rhythms of tabla and harmonium summoning the arriving guests to the hall with clapping and song.
Some of those who have been fasting have already had an early morning celebration, and this public Pāraṇā is merely the second party of the day. Groups usher their fasting family members toward their prepared tables as if in a birthday procession. The colorful Indian suits, scarves, and saris pour through each doorway, as living confetti for the event.
Volunteers quickly bring out the pitchers of flavored waters, filling small cups in front of the honored guests. They are followed close behind by servers bearing silver pails of dahl lentils and baskets of crispy papadum.
In the entryway, money changers rifle through two cash boxes breaking large bills for visitors who want to offer single dollars for fasting guests. H. sits next to her father, who is concluding the Atthai fast, and her infant brother. At eight years old, this is H.’s second year of fasting for two upavāsa. When I asked her why she would give up food for two days, she shrugged with a smile, “I just wanted to.” The sheer age range is remarkable. The 150 fast-breakers range from seven-year-olds to teenagers, young professionals, and seniors well into their eighties.
Nirinjan Shah, a 73-year-old accompanied by his wife and daughter, has completed an annual Atthai fast during Paryuṣana every year since 1987. As we talk, a continual stream of people interrupt, bowing to Nirinjan with the Jain greeting “Jai Jinendra,” and carefully lifting a spoonful of dahl or coconut water to his mouth. The taste is met with laughter and embraces. Dollar bills fall on the table and passersby touch his hands and knees in signs of respect.
This same respect is afforded to all those who have fasted, whether child or adult. Just as Jains accumulate the negative karmic consequences of their own deeds, or in approving the deeds of others, they also benefit from supporting the positive actions of their friends and neighbors. Darshana Shah, one of the temple’s primary coordinators for youth education explains that “These people fast on behalf of everyone who cannot.” So, when a visitor leans close to offer a spoonful of sweet water to I., a 13-year-old just completing 16 upavāsa (that’s 16 days with only boiled water!), the sentiment is one of congratulations as well as profound gratitude. “I did it to push myself,” I. tells me. “I wanted to think about what I eat. When you eat something, you need to think about it.” Every passerby also shares in the fruits of her experience, and their gifts are an expression of appreciation.
Yashesh Makwana, a young hotel manager, described his Atthai fast as a means to practice self-control—“Controlling my temper, slowing down my thoughts,” he elaborates, both of which he understands as essential aspects of the Jain commitment to nonviolence, or ahiṃsā. His sister-in-law Bhamini who manages a nearby branch for a national tutoring company, also fasts one day per week year round—“When you are constantly full,” she tells me, “your mind races, you are competitive . . . When you are hungry, your mind slows, you can speak greater truth; your thoughts are more clear and pure.”
Fasting during Paryuṣana is a voluntary activity that benefits the self, the community, and our planetary fellows. From the two-day fast of a second-grader, to the much-lauded 30-day fasts of two community members sitting atop the stage in seats of distinction, Pāraṇā is a time of spiritual, physical, and mental exploration, rather than coercion. Jain philosophy unapologetically holds out ahiṃsā as the preeminent virtue of human life. Yet, Jains also recognize that every person—every jīva—must come to this lesson through their own experience. In this light, Pāraṇā holds out an ethical ideal that we might freely dial back our desires for the sake of enriching our own life, while also preserving the freedom of other lives who would otherwise be affected by our daily habits.
And what a persuasive ideal it is. Pāraṇā is a reminder that living more lightly on the earth is not only somber asceticism, but can usher in new traditions of abundance, color, tastes, and celebration. As I chatted with Lina Shah, who was completing a week-long fast and whose husband serves as current president of the temple, she asked me if I would feed her.
Having studied Jainism, and learned alongside Jains, for many years, these personal moments of invitation still take me by surprise. I feel exposed in my strangeness, unsure how to engage authentically in a tradition born of another place and people. Yet, all around me resonated an ideal beyond location and tribe; that we would try to care for ourselves and our planetary kin through our everyday actions—and when we falter, there are others who will help to nurture those goals on our behalf. Far from impractical, this idea seemed preeminently realistic and humane. I dipped the spoon into the rice, and lifted it forward. As her mouth closed around the bite, our eyes met and I simply uttered, “Thank you.”
 Jainism is comprised of two major sects. Paryuṣana is celebrated by the Śvetāmbara majority. The Digambara minority celebrates Daśa-Lakṣaṇa-Parvan. In the U.S., both communities frequently share the same space and these festivals overlap in meaning and timing.
 Readers will notice the prevalence of the surname “Shah” in this article. “Shah” is a very common surname in Northwestern India, especially for those historically in trading families.
Findly, Ellison Banks. 2008. Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 70-147.
Henning, Brian G. 2011. “Standing in Livestock’s ‘Long Shadow’: The Ethics of Eating Meat on a Small Planet.” Ethics & the Environment Volume 16, Number 2, Fall, 63-93.
Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. 2009. “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?” World Watch Nov/Dec 2009, 10-19.
Pelletier, Nathan and Peter Tyedmers. 2010. “Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000–2050.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Early Edition 4 October. 10.1073: 1–4.
Brianne Donaldson writes about global philosophies that help rethink relations between plants, animals, and people, with a special emphasis on Jainism. Donaldson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College. Find out more at www.briannedonaldson.com.