What Jainism Means To Me—And Why I Should Probably Talk About It
I am a Jain. In fact, you only need to know my full name to know what faith community I am a part of. However, despite the evident last name, my faith and spiritual practice have always been a deeply personal matter to me—something I seldom talk about.
Until now, that is. And there’s a reason why that’s changing.
In her inspiring and thought-provoking TED Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a single story. In a nutshell, when a single facet of anything is repeated over and over and over again, there is danger of it becoming a stereotype of the much larger phenomenon itself.
Recently, Jainism has been in the news, but for the wrong reasons. According to some estimates, there are about four million people who identify Jainism as their faith. That’s a diversity of four million individual stories. However, when mainstream and social media pick two or three stories and repeat them over and over and over again, there is danger of those stories becoming the stereotype for that faith community.
Hence, I’m sharing my perspectives here on my Jainism.
You see, I’m writing this not just because of what’s in the news. I’m writing this also because of a recent conversation at my workplace. A colleague, a deeply intelligent and introspective person, was intrigued by my faith and asked me some interesting questions. I tried to answer the best to my ability, and thought I had done a decent job, until my colleague said, “Jainism is quite radical, isn’t it?” I was startled and replied, “No, Jainism is actually quite gentle.”
And there it is—two competing versions of the same faith community. I write this knowing that last week, a 13 year-old girl in India lost her life two days after concluding a 68-day chaturmas fast. I am also aware of the controversy surrounding the practice of ‘santhara’ wherein Jains undertake a purifying fast as a culmination to their life journey. I empathize deeply with the loss of life, and I also know that the stories of those families are not mine to tell. So, I am going to tell only my own story.
I have been deeply disturbed by the vitriolic comments that I have seen being posted on social media. It’s also ironic, because it seems that those responding in violence are engaging in the very same behavior that they are condemning.
I am choosing to share bits of my own story as a Jain here to provide a balance to the narrative. I hope others who follow Jainism will share their own stories as well. The more stories we get, the more nuanced the picture that emerges of any community.
You see, I grew up with a broader, gentler, more mindful version of Jainism.
My parents were my spiritual teachers without them ever saying so, or my perceiving it to be so when I was growing up. It’s in looking back that I see the evidence of their guidance through their own interpretations of the three basic principles of Jainism--Ahimsa (non-violence), Aparigrah (non-greed), and Anekatantvad (multiplicity and pluralism).
My parents did not impose their interpretations of religion and rituals on me. They had their own spiritual practices in keeping with the three principles. Among other things, my mother would spend an hour every morning doing Paath, a quiet meditation where she would read religious texts silently to herself. She would sit on an elevated surface, on a mat in which she would wrap up the texts and the mooh-patti afterwards. Similarly, my father would say Paath quietly to himself before starting with his day. He also had a beautiful voice in which he sang bhajans on special days. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of Diwali celebrations where the whole family would get together and after the brief puja in the evening, my father would sing different bhajans, followed by a delicious meal prepared by my mother.
When my mother did her deep meditation and my father sang religious songs, they would emanate stillness and tranquility. In a sometimes-chaotic homelife due to circumstances beyond my parents’ control, those moments of serenity were precious indeed and an affirmation of normalcy.
My mother did not eat many root vegetables, and she also limited the purchase of leather and silk goods. My father would tell us not to pluck flowers and leaves from plants, saying simply that once plucked, the flowers and leaves would die, but if left on the plant they would live longer and look more beautiful. He would also insist on us finishing everything on our plate and abhorred food waste. The underlying belief was the same—to minimize harm to other living beings and to be mindful of how we used resources.
My father would also rescue abandoned pups and kittens and birds, and he also taught us to do the same if we spotted a creature in distress. My mother showed deeper sensitivity towards the women who came to our house over the years to help with cleaning and washing. My parents taught us to offer water on sweltering summer days to the rickshaw-pullers upon reaching home. The underlying spiritual practice was, again, mindfulness and kindness to those around us.
My spiritual beliefs and practices are founded on my parents’ and have continued to evolve according to current realities.
I own both leather and silk items, but I am mindful of my consumption habits. I buy fabric bags and purses and look for leather alternatives when I buy footwear. In general, I prefer plants and flowers that are alive and thriving, although I occasionally buy flower bouquets to gift to others on special occasions. I follow a vegetarian diet, and have little difficulty in doing so as I know how to prepare a variety of vegetarian meals and live in a place where the ingredients are easily available.
Over the past few years, I have taught myself basic gardening to get a better handle on my health and because I like learning new things, and I occasionally grow root vegetables and plants. When I harvest those vegetables, I am mindful. I take them out of the soil in a way that causes minimum disturbance to the organisms living in the soil. I avoid using metal tools that could kill earthworms and instead brush the soil away with my fingers. I have also inherited my father’s love of animals and birds, and have embarked on my own mini-adventures over the years, rescuing birds and pups in the most unexpected places.
When I go to the farmer’s market, I look for cheese made without animal rennet, and if I can’t find any, I don’t buy any. I have reduced my consumption of commercially-produced milk and other dairy products as I have become more informed about some of the questionable practices of large-scale dairy farms and factories.
I like visiting different places of worship because many such places have an atmosphere of serenity to them—a positive energy that one can tap into. Some people participate in that energy by visiting each idol and bowing their head in obeisance. I tend to find myself a quiet corner and sit there in simple silence. That stillness amidst the hustle and bustle is charged with a deep vibration of its own. I find the same stillness in other places as well…out in ‘nature’, by the side of a water-body, in a sunrise and a sunset, in long walks, and in the serenity of my own home.
Over the years, I have come across instances where my faith and spiritual practices have been misperceived.
My home does not have idols, in keeping with the practices of my Sthanakvasi community. I also do not do puja in the morning. Instead, I sometimes simply recite Navkar Mantra quietly to myself at the beginning and the end of the day. According to the Shvetambar Sthanakvasi community, there is no ‘god’ in the traditional sense of the word. For this reason, once a close friend used the label of atheist or nastik for me. At another time, I was asked if I followed any spiritual practices at all. Jainism, however, is not an atheistic faith. It could be described as transtheistic or even transpolytheistic, in keeping with the principle of Anekatantavad. In other words, it acknowledges that there are many perspectives on ‘god’ and ‘religion’ and each religion is rooted in its own valid reality, but at the same time transcends those perspectives.
I have also heard Jainism being described as a branch of Hinduism. Although there are many Jains who also identify themselves as Hindus and/or follow Hindu rituals and practices, according to Jain history, ancient Jainism is said to predate Hinduism in terms of having no beginning and no end. In addition, in the ‘modern’ form of Jainism, shaped heavily by the last Tirthankar Mahavir Swami about 2500 years ago, the Hindu caste system does not hold validity as all souls are seen as equal and equally capable of attaining enlightenment. Yet, many Jains may identify themselves with gotras (related to the concept of caste) as a cultural and historical practice. In my immediate family, I believe the concept of gotras was already getting diluted in my parents’ lifetime. In my current life, it holds significance only as a historical connection to a certain community.
While I engage in limited religious rituals, my spiritual practice goes beyond the daily activities. Over the past decade, I have experienced both deep personal loss and heartbreak, and each experience has deepened my spirituality. In addition, the harsher experiences in life have made me gentler in my approach to my subsequent experiences. I have learned to gradually and, if possible, gently disengage from situations where any kind of violence seems imminent—emotional, mental, verbal, or physical. Sometimes, when I can’t avoid the situation, I try to remember to respond with mindful silence. This perspective extends to negative behaviors and toxic situations, both an inevitability in modern life where dysfunction coexists with function in many ways. I truly believe in the principle of Jainism that violent thoughts harm the thinker as much as the person against whom the violence is directed, and so the non-acceptance of negativity and non-participation in toxicity have perhaps been my biggest take-away from the most challenging of my life experiences thus far.
It has not been easy. In our present society, gentleness and simplicity are often misperceived as weaknesses and targeted as so. However, whenever I feel doubts about my approach to life, my faith and spiritual outlook give me inner strength and confidence to retain my own unique inner voice.
That unique voice surfaces now and then. Once, when I shared that my mother did not eat certain vegetables, I was told that there was no fun in living half a life. I replied, “Just because my mother has her beliefs and practices does not mean she’s living half a life.” I’m glad that I gave voice to my thoughts then, and I hope that I will continue to do so because we all have our own beliefs and practices, and those beliefs and practices make us whole, not halves.
So, does engaging in these practices make me a Jain? Or does being a Jain make me engage in these practices?
Does it even matter? Does your spiritual practice have to be separate from your everyday life?
This has been a long post, and while I have tons more that I can write, I’m going to stop.
I will end this with one final thought: I think now, more than ever, the world needs everyday religious and spiritual practices that are deeply rooted in non-violence and empathy. One only has to switch on the news to understand what I’m talking about. And you don’t need to be a Jain to know and practice non-violence and empathy for a more just, a kinder world for us all to coexist in.