Seemingly drastic changes to lifestyle may sometimes be the most natural course of action. In Bangalore, we found a bright example in the 47-year-old Vallari Shah.
Vallari was an IT professional in a multinational consulting company. Four years ago, she gave up her lucrative career to pursue what makes her happy. Her life now is summarized simply, in three words: gardening, dancing and meditation.
We visited her beautiful home in Whitefield to have a conversation about her realizations and motivations in choosing to live a low-impact life.
Vallari and her husband Rajesh, moved back to India from America seven years ago, largely because they wanted their two boys to grow up closer to their culture and roots.
Growing up as Jains, the couple had the basic tenets of ahinsa or non-violence, aparigraha or restrained consumption and anekantavada or multiple-viewpoints entrenched in them.
However, they wanted to be able to practice the teachings beyond the rituals and the prayers in a responsible way. In that effort, they were inspired hugely by Satish Kumar’s philosophy of ‘Soil, Soul and Society’ which outlines the significance of a harmonious existence with the world.
From pulling out of the stock market and only investing in ethical, socially responsible companies to saying no to plastics and food that isn’t local produce; Vallari and Rajesh have made thoughtful changes to each area of their lives.
In Bangalore, they adapted their home into becoming more energy-efficient and less wasteful.
Vallari, who is an avid community gardener, began farming an array of fruits and vegetables on her terrace as well as on an empty plot next to her. Not before long, her neighbours got involved too.
Today, she was produces a majority of the food that her family consumes, out of her garden, completely chemical-free.
From using solar-power to reworking the entire plumbing system in their house to reuse water, they have managed to create an eco-friendly living space.
These improvements supplement their lifestyle, which follows the refuse-reduce-reuse-repair-recycle mantra. In combination, these create a life that is more energy-efficient and less wasteful.
When asked if such a life is difficult or challenging, Vallari makes the natural strength of their decisions clear. “Things are only challenging when you don’t want to do them,” she explained.
With a strong drive to live by the core principles of Jainism, the Shahs preserve and practice the Jain ideals through their own life and work.
Text, photographs and video: Gayatri Ganju
We met Neelam Lalwani for the first time during Paryushana, the Jain festival of forgiveness. To her, forgiveness does not begin and end with the festival, but is something that needs to be practiced everyday. She exuded a sense of kindness that stayed with us, and we arranged to meet her once again to understand her idea of Jainism.
“Instead of introducing myself as a Jain, I try to let my conduct reflect Jain principles; otherwise it may become a conflict between religious identity rather than about the conduct of life.”
Over the course of her life, Neelam’s ideas about Jainism transformed. Having grown up in an orthodox family, all the Jain rituals and customs were ingrained in her, but the reasons behind them were not always made clear. Later in life, after tragedy struck, these very same Jain principles, especially the ideas of karma and acceptance provided a source of comfort.
"KARMA MIGHT BE THE REASON WE MET."
The Jain worldview holds that all beings undergo reincarnations till they are liberated from the cycle of birth and death. This process is guided by one’s actions, embodied in karma. The nature of karma is thought to be a form of very subtle particles which get attached to the soul and entangle it with this world.
Neelam is very interested in understanding how karma influences her life. She says that it is the one thing she believes in very strongly. She feels that because we are all connected, things will even out in this life or the next.
She tried to explain her idea of karma by telling us that because we came to her home, spoke to her and shared food with her, we must either be related by karma from a previous life or we are creating karma that will bind us through subsequent lives.
The idea of inspecting action and consequence seems reflected in various ways in Neelam’s worldview.
Neelam explained how she reasoned out the inner meanings behind the Jain practices. “Often, these practices were started for reasons which are not relevant anymore but they continue to exist because people become superstitious,” said Neelam. “In fact, I myself end up following rituals and religion which I have habitually known. I try to slowly reduce symbolic rituals, but it is not easy to move past old habits.”
Indeed, she seems keen to interpret Jain ideals in a practical way. She confirmed that following religion thoughtfully has helped her flourish and find happiness.
“If everyone followed Jainism instead of just calling themselves Jain, many of the problems of the world will be solved. We do things mostly by imitation, but I think we need to get over our divides and labels. We’re all the children of one mother.”
Indeed, many of her ideas and conclusions are not isolated, but have been distilled through her own experience of life.
Neelam, who is now forty six, was married at the age of twenty two. However, at the age of thirty five she tragically lost her husband to a heart attack. She already had two young sons and was initially not planning to marry again. She had a change of mind, and slightly over a year later, she later married Shankar Lalwani, and has happily been with him for a decade.
Neelam also has one daughter from Shankar’s first marriage. Neelam’s daughter is only nine years younger than she is. Despite this being unusual, Neelam said that the relationship between her and her daughter has always been very loving. The feeling of mutual acceptance was present from the beginning.
Neelam is also blessed with two grandchildren from her daughter who call her ‘supernani’, or ‘supergranny’. Neelam told us she feels lucky to have been a part of so many loving families.
PRACTICE, NOT PREACHING
Neelam’s idea of family is indicative of the current journey she is on, reflecting on her experiences, and how Jainism has shaped her.
Neelam practices restraint in life in many ways. For example, she cooks only what is required, and shares food if there is extra. They don’t waste food or eat food that is left for days. She tries to teach water conservation to her children and her staff. “We didn’t use firecrackers for Divali. You know, it’s interesting, when people use science as a reason to not use firecrackers because it causes noise and air pollution, everyone listens. When we use Jainism as a reason, because countless minute organisms are being killed, people don’t understand.”
While she did say that no one belongs to each other in the end, referring even to her own children, she also said that “If you are able to give love to someone, no matter who they are, they become yours.” She smiled and added, “Now that you have come here and I have given you love, you also belong to me, isn’t it?”
She further explained that to her, being a true Jain means looking inside yourself for answers. She doesn’t go to mandir, or temple, everyday. “Worship—to me—does not mean going to mandir and asking Bhagavan, or God, for the answers. Mahavira was a man who took the time to introspect his own life. Chanting Mahavira’s name won’t make me like Mahavira; I have to take the qualities of Mahavira and apply them in my life. We have to find the answers ourselves; we have to ask ourselves who we are and where we’re going.”
She had similar ideas about her business. Praying for things will not make them happen. She had to make them happen.
Neelam runs an event planning company in Bangalore that handles weddings, family events and corporate functions. She built the company from scratch with the support of her husband.
“I’ve learned so much by observing how my husband interacts with people. His ability to see the good in people and look past people’s tendency to be selfish has helped me look at the bigger picture in life.” Her husband has also helped her practice forgiveness.
Neelam doesn’t treat her clients just as paying customers, but as souls she is helping. She involves herself in her work in a way she feels may be most useful. For example, she often offers words of advice for the young couples she meets through her wedding events.
“The most important thing to remember is not to expect anything from anyone. If you need something, you must communicate it, otherwise feelings will be hurt and resentment will build. Being open with your partner—or any other person in your life—is the way to ensure respect and happiness. Accept each other,” she explains.
While Neelam is open to contemporary ideas about dating, she does hesitate about cultures mixing. In the journey of her life, she has faced enough obstacles without having to add the idea of a mixed-marriage, so her belief is that with everything else that could go wrong, having the same background does help.
One day, Neelam hopes to become less materialistic and lead a more meditative life, but when asked about the possibility of taking diksha, or becoming a nun, she acknowledged that it wasn’t for her. Becoming an ascetic isn’t something she is ready to take on, but she does want to get more involved in contributing to the community. Her hope is to open an old-age home. She feels that in our society, it is usually the elderly that are the most neglected.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
Neelam has changed her way of thinking over the years. She believes that karma works on all people, following any religion, and it’s not just Jains who have the ability to reach moksha. “Karma is a balance sheet that continues until you hit a ‘zero/zero’ balance.”
Karma is also a reason not be ‘fake’ according to Neelam. “Your actions are always going to be attached to you. Don’t think anything that you’re doing is for society or anyone else, because at the end of the day your karma is only yours. Remember that nothing on this planet belongs to us. Everything is temporary.”
Text: Sweta Daga and Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Sweta Daga
A digambara Divali
Divali, the festival of lights, is one of the most diversely celebrated festivals in India. This auspicious festival is important to different communities for various reasons. For much of the Hindu population of India and abroad, Divali is illustrative of good triumphing over evil, when Lord Rama, his wife, and brother return from exile as heroes. It is also when homage is paid to the goddess of prosperity and wealth, Lakshmi, along with the remover of all obstacles, Lord Ganesha. In the state of West Bengal, Goddess Kali is worshipped instead of Lakshmi. For members of the Sikh community, it is the time when Guru Hargobind freed himself and several Hindu kings from the prison of an Islamic ruler. In addition to these, there are many other kinds of Divali celebration throughout India.
For Jains, it is when Lord Mahavira, the last tirthtankara attained nirvana or liberation.
While the religious reason for Divali is diverse, celebrations are similar. Across India, families and friends gather to pray, eat, shop, light lamps, and burst firecrackers together. However, even on this occasion, Jains celebrate in a more restrained fashion.
At a digambara temple in Bangalore, people gather before sunrise to pray and offer a laddu, or round sweet, to Mahavira. After the sweet has been blessed, it is gathered and sent to orphanages and given away to poor communities.
The festival is not restricted to the temple. Jains celebrate Divali at home too. Pavan and Kalpana Argawal, a young digambara couple who originally hail from Rajasthan, allowed our team to document their Divali puja, or ritual prayer, at their home in Electronic City, Bangalore. They woke up at 4:00 AM to go the temple, and afterward came home to prepare for their family puja, and celebrations.
Pavan, 34, is a chartered accountant working for the software company, Infosys. Kalpana, 31, is a homemaker.
They have one son, Arush who is almost 7 years old.
“We do try to teach Arush as much as we can about Jainism,” said Pavan, “It is an important part of our lives, and Divali is a significant festival because of Lord Mahavira’s enlightenment.
While Pavan said he does not normally approve of firecrackers, he admits it’s difficult to say no to his son when all the other children are exploding them. “We try to encourage him to use the smaller crackers, or the ones that just light up, so we don’t disturb all the living creatures affected by the loud sound and pollution.”
Pavan explained that according to the tradition of Jainism they follow, on Divali they perform nirvana utsava or liberation festival to honor Mahavira’s nirvana.
It is also held that Mahavira’s prime disciple, Gautama, attained kevalgyan on this day. Kevalgyan is analogous to omniscience and Divali lamps in the Jain tradition represent the illumination of knowledge. Praises of Gautama are also chanted.
In addition to Mahavira and Gautama, there is symbolic worship of Sarasvati, the presiding goddess of knowledge and wisdom, and Lakshmi, the representative deity of wealth. The holy scriptures, or shastras are also sometimes worshipped.
Like many Indian religions, rituals have come to become an important aspect of Divali even within the digambara tradition in Jainism.
Food is one way Jains do participate in Divali that is consistent with everyone else. This is one of the only festivals that Jains make a variety of special foods, from savoury pakodas, or fried snack, to sweet coconut barfi, another type of milk sweet.
“We make these dishes mainly for the guests and family that come calling during Divali,” explained Kalpana, “In the villages, it used to be that this was the time where we could visit each together for a festival without as many dietary restrictions as Paryushana. It is a happy time for us because Mahavira attained moksha, or nirvana.” However, even here, there is a simple meal of rice, lentils, mixed with sugar and clarified butter that is eaten for lunch to honor Lord Mahavira’s simple lifestyle.
While the Agrawals did prioritize their religious prayer, it was clear that celebrating together as family and community mattered just as much on this day of joy.
Text and photographs: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh
In September 2014, we met a young svetambara nun, Sadhvi Risabh Ratna. At 29 years old, she tookdiksha almost four years ago. Currently she is working on her Ph.D on the subject of Jain yoga.
Her spiritual journey, however, started much earlier.
She explained that she never felt like she belonged in society and her normal life was not bringing her the peace and happiness. At the age of 15 in her hometown of Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, she met a woman who would change her life.
Sadhvi Rishab Ratna recalled “I met her at our religious pathshala, or school. At that time, she was about to take diksha. She told us about the cycle of life, about karma or actions and about our atmas or souls.
I felt awakened by her words—she was giving my inner soul a voice; she said everything I was feeling but wasn’t able to say.
She is now known as Sadhvi Lalitang Priya and is living in Rajasthan.”
With solidarity from these meetings, Rishabh Ratna decided to become an ascetic. Her family did not think she was old enough to take such a drastic decision.
A MISFIT IN THE WORLD
With a small parable, sadhviji explained how easy it is to be misunderstood by those who value material life over inner experiences.
“There was once a village where every person was blind. Even the children that were born there were blind. Finally, a child was born with sight. He would describe things that he would see, but the villagers thought that there was something wrong with him. They took him to the village doctor.
The doctor, also used to their own reality concluded that the problem was his eyes and proceeded to gouge them. Then the child became like everyone else.”
“Similarly,” she explained, “when you’re in a materialistic society and you get spiritual sight, people don’t understand why you only want to talk about the soul.
I have internal peace that can’t be explained. It can only be felt. The material happiness we chase after is only fleeting but the real, everlasting happiness can only be found internally. You have to look for it.”
When asked about the contradictions between these ideas and mainstream life and philosophy, she said “We don’t know the absolute truth so one must accommodate contrary viewpoints in an appropriate way. It is through the idea of anekantavada, or multiple viewpoints, that we try to understand each other.”
“I was so clear in my decision I felt like I was wasting my life in these traditional social circles. I had many questions about who I was and where I was going.”
Her parents tried to change her mind, but she ran away from home. Eventually, she did return, though still resolute on her decision to become an ascetic.
“It’s not that I made this decision because of a disappointment in life, or a hard life, I actually had everything I needed—I came from a wealthy family, I had a good relationship with all my relatives, I was even an award winning dancer—I had all the luxuries and opportunities in life, but I still wasn’t happy.”
Finally, she took diksha at the age of 25 after getting consent from her parents.
“I did work hard for this life, but I feel that once you’ve taken diksha, you are free.
Even now, when my mother comes to visit me, she will cry. She is still attached to me, but I have left that life and I don’t feel like I am missing anything. Ascetics are still very much part of a social thread, and we have the love and care of thousands of Jain families instead of just one which was once our own.
Why should I love one when I can love many?”
Sadhvi Risabh Ratna further articulated the idea of attachment in Jain philosophy. “When a Jain family pays respect to the ascetics, it is a form of vayaccha, or selfless service, that they do because of theirshradda or devotion. It is not something they do with hopes of receiving something in return; it is not transactional, it is unconditional.”
THE HEART OF A WOMAN
We asked her if being a woman ascetic is any different from being a male ascetic.
“Only your atma or soul, which is genderless, is influenced by your karma, so in the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, you can achieve kevalgyan or omniscience. People can even achieve it if they’re not Jains, even if they’re not ascetics; you just need a pure heart.”
Sadhvi Rishabh Ratna explained that to her the differences were only limited to physical and functional ones.
“Though,” she adds, “as sadhvis, we cannot go out on our own for sadhana, or pursuit. I wish I could do it, but you can only travel or meditate together with other women, because there is fear for the physical safety of a woman.
My wish in the next life would be to be born in a man’s body but with the heart of a woman, because usually only a woman is able to lose herself completely in love and devotion.”
“A woman can love more deeply because she can give herself with abandon.
For example, in society she is the one who forgets everything, changes her name, and leaves everything for her husband.
Only a woman could do that.”
Text and photographs: Sweta Daga
Early in April, we were talking to various people to find different voices on Jainism. We found our mark through a number of coincidences and approximations, and everything fell into place when we set out to meet a nun and a monk from the sthanakvasi sect in Bangalore.
They are siblings; out of four brothers and one sister in a Jain family from Delhi, the two of them became Jain ascetics. Their three brothers went on to have families.
A CHANGE OF HEART
Sadhvi Darshanprabha took diksha at the age of twenty one in the year 1976. She is now fifty nine. She did her BA from DU, and continued to study after becoming an ascetic; education is encouraged in Jainism. She did her MA and PhD in Rajasthan. Darshanphabha ji said that she never was religious, and never attended a religious gathering. She said that after avoiding clergy for most of her young life, she did go to a gathering once for no particular reason. Her experience there convinced her to become an ascetic. Her family resisted a lot, she says, but they knew that the goal was worthy, so they eventually yielded.
When we asked her about her experiences of performing sadhana, or pursuit, she explained that religious contemplation leads to detachment. She elaborated that one feels like one has neither enemies nor friends; that we are, in a sense, alone. It also awakens spiritual abilities, she added, and that one thus enabled with any extranormal abilities needs to be careful lest one accidentally triggers events through a spoken word alone.
We asked her what change she has observed amongst the adherents who attend the ashram, which is the place where ascetics take refuge.
“Young people come to attend discourses, they discuss and debate, and it is a joy to see that,” Darshanprabha ji enthusiastically responded, praising the youth. Earlier there were very few young people interested in religion, she said, and added “Most people coming to the ashrams today are young people. They have a lot of interest in understanding the spirit and learning the truth. They are interested in the Jain philosophy, and they pay close attention. The youth are awake, but the older generation holds them back fearing a loss of control or authority. This gives rise to a conflict of egos, which ultimately serves no one.”
We asked her about the importance of the Jain idea in our contemporary times which seem to be plagued with violence all over the world. She led with the example of our country. She explained that India has changed through non-violence, much of which proliferated in the political sphere through Mahatma Gandhi.
“Violence solves nothing in the long term. Only non-violent means can reach long-term solutions. Even a child will resist if you use force, over time they will become stubborn; if you ask the child lovingly, they will listen to you. Any real change can only be brought slowly, through non-violent means.”
India, she said, has retained its legacy through thousands of years because of the saints and ascetics who have always lived here. They can enable and propagate peace and ethical life; today the many kinds of available media extend this reach. People can hear such discourse easily today, Darshanprabha ji explained. They may not react at first, but it works slowly. One can’t say which exact blow of non-violence turns out to be effective.
“Every non-violent strike has its worth. The hundredth one may break through, but one can’t ignore the ninety-nine blows that preceded it.”
When we asked her how an ascetic may affect a lay person, she illustrated the relationship by comparing an ascetic to a shopkeeper. If someone comes seeking the wares, the shopkeeper will pull out his yard of cloth, but not everyone will buy it. Likewise, many people come to ascetics, and amongst them, some actually think about what they discuss here and let it change their lives. Others come and go, but they are back to their own routine; one can’t help them.
WORK OVER WORSHIP
Naresh Muni, Darshanprabha ji‘s brother, took diksha in 1982. Since then, he has been trained in Sanskrit, Prakrit, shastras, and agamas, amongst other subjects. His view was that sadhana changes one’s inner nature and increases joy.
On ahinsa and the conduct of ahinsa, Naresh ji explained that ahinsa is there to help even the smallest being. Jainism, he says, makes a distinction between plants and animals and different kind of animals; not all beings can sense pain equally. The higher the being the more sensitive it is to violence, he added.
“All life can sense intentions in a manner of speaking,” Naresh ji continued, “and for example if you water a plant with a joyful heart, it will blossom, but if you abuse it and water it but begrudgingly, it will wither.”
We asked Naresh ji about figures important to Jainism in a historical sense. He mentions that Samprati and Kumarpal were important kings who did much to proliferate the Jain cause. Jainism has historically relied on the administrative figures for the religion to spread. Most administrators have a spiritual mentor, he added. Spirituality precedes politics; a good guru can give a proper direction to a state.
On being asked, Naresh ji briefly explained sallekhana as something that takes root in giving up attachment of the body. When the body is deemed no longer fit for service, it may be best to discard it. Jainism emphasizes that all beings have souls, and the soul transmigrates upon death. The loss of one body is no great loss to an ascetic.
On the subject of divinity, Naresh ji explains that every soul is divine, but not every soul is equally manifest. Jainism enables that manifestation for every soul; it does not depend on the mercies of a single creator god.
We wanted to know why there are temples within the Jain tradition despite the lack of a creator god. Naresh ji did not mince words. “Vedic traditions have influenced the Jain religion over time,” he said. “Temples are an example. Temples were initially made just as a mark of preserving the religion, but over time it began to get distorted and gather ritual practices, which has changed the Jain religion from its original form to how we follow it today. There is nothing wrong with meditating in front of a stone idol, though. A stone idol doesn’t react to any prayer nor to any profanity.” It is a Jain ideal to be completely detached from the world.
We asked what would a reasonable way be to bridge day-to-day life with divinity. Naresh ji summarized that “The only thing is that if you have to follow religion, serve people, help people. God is not affected by your activities, but people are.” He further emphasized that the Jain philosophy of anekantavada, or the multiplicity of perspectives, can help work through contradictions. “Anekantavada is the most important tool. Multiple perspective can resolve all conflicting views to get to the truth. Jainism doesn’t say that what is mine is true; it says what is true is mine.”
We were curious about the attire and artefacts of the nuns. We spotted some nuns making what we thought was cloth that many Jain ascetics use for covering the mouth, called the mukhavastrika.
We were given a small summary on the subject. According to the nuns, the mukhvastrika has symbolic value, but it has a practical utility too.
It has eight fine layers and is designed to ensure that even the hot breath gets filtered and cooled down so that it doesn’t kill the small organisms in the air. It also ensures that spit isn’t spread when one speaks. It is changed every fifteen or twenty days, for hygiene.
The mukhvastrika, however, is not made of cloth in the conventional sense. It is made of rice. The rice is boiled, flattened, dried, and made into a material like paper or cloth. It is folded and pressed for a number of times, and finally a thread is attached, the sheet is folded in, and pressed again. It is then dried and it becomes crisp on its own, after which it is usable. Drinking-grade water is used and care is taken throughout the process to avoid killing any organisms. Materials other than rice can also be used.
The terapanthis and sthanakvasis use the mukhvastrika as a matter of routine, we were told.
A YOUNG TRAINEE
Suman Baweja, in her mid twenties, is from Rajasthan. She has been with Darshanprabha ji as a lay trainee for five years, and she informed us that her diksha was scheduled for later in the year.
Back home, she has parents, a brother, and a sister. We asked her about her experiences. We were all pressed for time, so she summarized quickly. “I grew up religious, and liked going to religious gatherings. When I expressed my interest, my parents resisted and advised against it. However, when they sensed my conviction, they allowed me to pursue what I wanted.”
We asked her if she misses her family or the comforts of a day-to-day life. “I missed my parents,” she said “and went back and forth in my mind about my decision. But I worked through my doubts, I am convinced and happy with my chosen path.”
Text and photographs: Dhruva Ghosh
Additional commentary: Sweta Daga
Sea of white
If we’d met them in any other circumstances, it would have been difficult for us to picture Neha and Bineeta as novice ascetics.
Both of them, young and beautiful, were giving up all familial and material attachment to choose a path that is austere and often difficult. We followed them through the diksha ceremony which would initiate them as Jain nuns.
Having spent time around them for a week we noticed that through all the chaos and grandeur of the ceremony they had found a sense of deep internal strength and calm. Like they were ready.
Bineeta walks onto stage behind the other diksharthis on the first morning
of the ceremonies. The audience settle in for what is going to be a week of
extravagant celebration, pomp and show.
Bineeta has her hair blow-dried by her sister, Anjali, as she gets ready for the evening ceremonies with some of the other women diksharthis. As she stands over her sister, almost protectively, she tells us that she’s a fashion student and has designed all Binita’s outfits for the diksha.
Neha waits silently for the make up artist to start on her. There’s a lot of
fussing and discussion over her getting ready and she seems excited about
having a say in choosing the colours that are painted on to her face.
As the girls are getting ready the atmosphere in the room is abuzz, with mothers, sisters and aunts flitting around them, adding extra touches and chattering. The girls seem to enjoy the attention and shimmer, choosing the right shade of eye-shadow and having their hair styled.
Neha twirls in her skirt to see how much it can flare up and we’re struck by
how young and full of life she is, and by everything that she’s giving up.
Neha’s hair gets a final flourish. Soon, in the mundan ceremony, she will have her head tonsured. Once she becomes a nun, she can no longer have long hair for the rest of her life.
We tell Binita that she’s looking like a princess. She smiles at us with her eyes still closed and says “Not for long”.
The make-up artist works on the final touches on Bineeta’s face. She gently asked a few times whether she needs to have so much on and was told that the next week of finery would make up for her entire life of austerity.
Bineeta in the ceremonial procession known as the varghoda, surrounded by her family. Below, the crowds scramble and even get violent in an attempt to grab the smallest scrap thrown down by the diksharthis.
Having sat through the varghoda for hours in the morning sun, Bineeta is
brought immediately back to the venue with the other diksharthis.
Exhausted and weighed down by her heavy clothes, she tries to get up to go
to the bathroom. Before she can even get to her feet, she is pulled back by
other attendees, who don’t let her leave.
Just before the mundan, Neha’s family say their final goodbye to her in this present form.
Neha takes her first few steps as a nun, or a sadhvi.
As soon as her mundan was done and she shed her heavy finery for white robes, she is absorbed into a sea of white. This is her new family who now assumes responsibility to fuss and fret over her.
Neha pays her respects to elder sadhvis before she stands on stage. She will face the audience for the first time as a young nun. In this new incarnation, she seems totally washed over by a sense of calm and deep contentment.
Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju
A festival of forgiveness
Monsoons in India are traditionally understood to be the four months of rain that visits this subtropical part of the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
During Paryushana, the holy scriptures which reinforce the Jain ideals are read.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
This image is edited from the original owned by Elke Wetzig (Elya) and is subject to CC BY-SA 3.0
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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
From one family to another
Diksha, in India, refers to the ceremony of formal initiation into a tradition. In Jainism, diksha is the ceremony through which a lay person becomes an ascetic, and adopts several vows which they are expected to follow throughout the course of their subsequent lives.
Amar Shah, his wife Bina and their two children, Romal and Binal all took diksha together in Andheri West, Bombay in early May. The event transpired with immense fanfare, over a week, during which the family were shuttled between Pujas at different venues, wore extravagant clothes that were changed for every ceremony and had an audience of thousands while they gave up everything they owned. We followed the Shah family through some of the tender, tired and ecstatic moments of their journey towards renunciation.
Amar and Bina prepare to dissolve their family and to adopt the ascetic tradition within Jainism. We were unfamiliar with such proceedings, and, being granted access to such a private gathering, We watched on curiously.
Amar Shah helps his daughter Binal put on her ornamental crown. This is their last week together, as a family, after which they renounce all ties and barely see each other again.
Romal and Binal, who are twenty and eighteen years old respectively, share a calm moment at home, between functions. Binal listens to her brother practicing for his stage performance. This is the last time he will be playing.
Binal sits with her close friends and cousins as she has her mehendi done. The atmosphere around her is jovial as the teenagers discuss the latest Bollywood films. She stays quiet, a bit withdrawn, listening to the chatter and gently smiling the entire time.
In a room downstairs, Romal’s cousins bring him chocolate cake which they try to feed him. Expecting him to relish a large last indulgence, we watch as he takes a tiny nibble and then no more. He tells us that he no longer desires to do things to merely appease his senses.
Amar and Bina get ready for a mid-day ceremony. Tensions run high for their immediate family, who are under a lot of pressure to make sure that all the events run smoothly. However they, the diksharthis, remain islands of calmness in that storm.
During the four kilometer long procession, the varghoda, musicians in colourful costumes set the tone with vigorous drumbeats. Close to thirty bullock carts, carrying the diksharthis and their family, follow.
Romal Shah throwing his wealth, symbolized by bundles of rice, into the crowd. There is a tussle to grab the little packages being thrown off the procession. The parade brings traffic in Andheri to a near-standstill.
Binal listens to her best friend, Anjali, just before walking to the stage. Through the week, Anjali has been right by Binal’s side. She seems to know what Binal is going to ask for even before it is said out loud.
Binal and Bina bow towards Muni Tirthabhadra who is on stage.
Amar Shah dances with ecstatic abandon on stage just before his mundan which is a ceremonial tonsuring. He needs to be held by a muni, so that he doesn’t lose balance.
Bina Shah pays her respects to one of the elderly sadhvis. Bina will leave for her mundan ceremony, where her head will tonsured and he will be given her white robes.
In their finery, Amar and Bina Shah greet the audience. The strength of the
community is evident; to participate in the event, Jains from all over
Bombay have gathered for the week, braving the merciless Bombay
summer. The time has finally come for the diksharthis to formally join the
faith and start their new lives as ascetics.
Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju
The first Jain jam: starting a dialogue
In March 2015, Rajiv Rathod and Sweta Daga from Project Anveshan and Manish and Vidhi Jain from Shikshantar hosted a small gathering of Jains in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The participants held a collective dialogue concerning Jainism’s relevance in the world, especially in relation to social change. Project Anveshan is creating a feature length documentary exploring Jainism, thus this meeting also provided valuable insights and opinions for the Anveshan team.
Members of the Jain community from different parts of India attended the three-day meeting held at Shikshantar and Tapovan Ashram. It was an inter-generational group, with diverse backgrounds and interests. We shared a common goal of using Jain principles to engage with the challenges we face as a community.
Rajiv Rathod and Manish Jain
On the first day, participants met at Shikshantar where Manish Jain opened the session, setting context for the Jam. He asked, “We’ve all been given the gift of Jainism, but now we have to decide how to connect Jainism with larger social issues.”
Kapil Jain, who works with an NGO called Sankalp, said he’s never had the chance to connect with Jains on larger social issues, but these are just as important as the rituals.
Kapil Jain and Manish Jain
Rajiv explained Project Anveshan and the film. He also spoke about his thoughts on the main principles of Jainism, anekantavada, aparigraha, ahinsa, etc. and how the film will focus on the relevance of Jainism in the context of contemporary social issues.
We then had an opening circle dialogue where we asked each other the following broad questions:
We began to discuss all the different rules and rituals associated with Jainism, and how the next generation isn’t interested in learning them. Vandana Mehta, a scholar from Ladnun answered several questions on this topic. From the questions, it seemed to us that many people adhere to the rituals or even the ethics because they are fearful of bad karma.
Sheetal Sanghvi and Sampat Bapna
Sheetal Sanghvi, from Urban Ashram, noted that “Religion is similar to people following a map, while spirituality is similar to people walking and making their own path.”
Sampat Bapna, the founder of Sukoon India, asks people to donate household items they no longer use to those who need them. He noticed that the Jain community has access to material resources, but that these resources aren’t distributed as well.
The second day was held at Tapovan Ashram, which was started by Dr. R.C. Mehta, who is the retired Dean of the Rajasthan Agriculture College. He promoted pesticides and chemical farming for many years. He eventually realized that accumulation of wealth does not bring happiness, and took responsibility for his work; to him, the damage he was doing through work stopped making sense. He became an organic farmer. Mehta Uncle, as he is endearingly called, gave us a tour of Tapovan. Here, he has spent twenty years rejuvenating the land and creating a new space for people to connect with nature.
Manish Jain put forward his view of things today. “The game being played is destroying everything in the name of progress. We shouldn’t look to make incremental fixes. We should alter it completely, not make minor changes. The Jain way of life might offer an alternate way to live on this planet. Let’s explore those possibilities,” he said.
Rohit Jain explained his work at Banyan Roots, which works in the area of organic farming. He says, “Conventional farming is usually tainted with violence and that is a significant aspect to consider when we contemplate humanity’s relationship with the world.”
Rajesh Shah, who has worked on water issues for decades, pointed out how today we do not think of consequences. We drive our cars faster, waste resources, and pollute all without any apparent consequence. We have been taught to ignore consequence, he observed.
Rajesh Shah and Neha Jain
We then had two rounds of an activity called World Café, where we broke into two small groups, and had longer conversations around the following questions:
Some learnings were:
On the last day, we gathered at Shikshantar in the morning and started by sharing more of our work in a group circle. We then answered the following questions:
Lastly, we discussed our own individual dream projects, but also how we would like to work together toward systemic change. We came up with one collective project to focus on: how to move toward organic food.
After three days of great collaboration and exchange, we look forward to our next steps, and engaging further with more of the Jain community.
Text: Sweta Daga
Photographs: Harsh W
Prabhakant Jain, Sweta Daga, Rohit Jain and Ranjana Sukhlecha
Rethinking the world with Manish Jain
What would Jainism in practice look like in today’s world? How could core Jain principles be translated into contemporary action? Anveshan sought answers to these questions and went to Udaipur, Rajasthan to meet Manish Jain, co-founder of Shikshantar, which is a ‘people’s institute for rethinking education and development’.
Before systematically rejecting thoughtless globalization and founding Shikshantar, Manish worked on education, social policy and other human-development issues with leading intergovernmental and transnational organizations.
UNLEARN TO LEARN
Shikshantar aims to challenge the monopoly of factory schooling and to regenerate our imagination about learning and living. The movement asks “Is a non-violent, harmonious world of ‘swaraj‘ or ‘self-rule’ really possible and how do we go about co-creating it?”
Manish thinks that it is necessary to question some of our fundamental assumptions around progress, success, happiness, development and education. He is extremely concerned with the loss of traditional knowledge and gift culture values taught by our grandparents and the force with which the youth are being taught masses of fragmented unrelated facts, soul-killing consumerism and competition, and the general disconnect with the nature that is rampant today. Manish believes that “the school system is actually dumbing down human beings.”
At its most basic level, unlearning starts with looking at the realities and possibilities of life from other points of view. Shikshantar helps foster the conditions where people can overcome this deep conditioning of contemporary society and then re-engage with society again in more meaningful and creative ways.
UNMAKING THE MACHINE
Manish explained that most people whose inner core of being remains alive and active represent the modern school’s failures, not its successes. Indeed, what schools have succeeded in doing is creating people who want to compete with each other and ‘get ahead’ to serve the interests of global economic elites. We are basically taught to believe that money is the ultimate god of life and we must be slaves to it.
Manish is encouraging many families around India to consider taking their children out of schools and letting them pursue their own program of self-designed learning. His 13 year old daughter also follows this way of life. In the same vein, many parents have rejected the contemporary industrial rat-race culture that breeds ambition, competition, authoritarianism, village and are re-exploring important questions about their lifestyle.
As an alternative, Manish has designed a different kind of place of learning at Swaraj University. True to its name, it emphasizes the ideal of self-rule (or rather harmony of the self) and reflects many philosophical ideals of Jainism.
Although most of the work Manish has undertaken involves rethinking education, the Shikshantar community has undertaken other parallel movements in community media, organic farming, gift culture among others, which rethink the world we are creating for ourselves and for the generations to follow. He describes that many of the most powerful social movements around the world today are coming back to what can be seen as essentially Jain principles such as self-awareness, deep empathy, zero waste, voluntary simplicity and degrowth.
Shikshantar is a place that encourages working patiently with people, but which also addresses some of the biggest social issues head-on.
COMMUNITY AND CHANGE
As Jains, Manish feels that our generation of Jains holds a great responsibility towards the planet and that a lot of strength rests within the community to encourage large-scale change. He gave us a small example; “Somebody was telling me that India has gone too far with chemical farming and we cannot go back, it is too big of a problem. I said in reply that the day the Jain community decides that they want to go fully organic, this entire country will change overnight! That kind of power is sitting within the (Jain) community.”
Raising questions of wastefulness and of conflict, both of which manifest in so many ways, Manish feels that Jains have countless ways of intervening and creating lasting value for the greater society. He is, however, struggling to understand how to deeply engage with the Jain community.
Manish Jain with his wife Vidhi and daughter Kanku. Manish strives to create a world that can support all kinds of families.
These ideas reflect Manish’s interest in addressing the central realities of human existence, most of which are being lost to contemporary industrial fast-paced life. Most of his real learning came not from his Harvard professors but from his ‘illiterate’ village grandmother. He notes that “For her generation (and generations before that) the concept of waste or wastefulness did not exist. It was not even an option. It becomes all the more important to raise these questions about what is means to live in harmony with our eco-systems in the 21st century where the culture of ‘use and throw’ has over-run the planet. She and many other so-called illiterate women know much more about living and practising Jainism in daily life than the educated new generations.”
But Manish also questions the Jain identity and the risks it faces today.
Is following a few rituals enough for the Jain community to preserve their culture, or do they have to find new ways to live the philosophy more deeply in the modern world? If people keep being taught that the West has all solutions to our problems, what value or meaning will the Jain philosophy itself continue to have? Should Jains try to enable more people to live a holistic life and build an alternative non-violent economic and political system? Should Jains send their children to factory-schools? What role can Jains play in the development of natural and sustainable agriculture? How can they enable more localised control of resources, production and consumption?
As he gave us some questions to ponder, he explained that these are not issues unique to the Jain community.
JAINS IN DEED ARE JAINS INDEED
According to Manish, there are many people in the Shikshantar network who live in a way that is similar to the Jain ideal. Many of them are not born Jains and are not living in the Jain community, but often their daily lives are ethics are much more austere and truthful than what is followed by ordinary lay Jains. Manish says, “And that is actually the thing we have to remember that you are not born a Jain but are (Jain) from choosing to work with the core principles.”
He adds, “I find myself inspired a lot by Jain philosophy and the questions we are asking always have some seed reference point from those. But as community, I do not know if the ‘Jain community’ makes sense anymore as an organizing entity for evolving Jain thought. People will not like when I say that the biggest obstacle to evolving the Jain philosophy today is the Jain community itself.
Because it has become deeply steeped in only some rituals and formalities, I do not want to say ‘hypocritical rituals’, as it is not my place to judge them. However, not everybody outside the Jain community finds these rituals meaningful or inspiring to the challenges they are facing. We need to bring systems level thinking to our personal actions.”
He says “We Jains should have used our consciousness and wealth to be leading the non-violent movements for rethinking the money system and interest/debt, eco-architecture, zero waste, natural farming, renewable energy, deep democracy, ecological conservation, etc. Instead, many others have taken the lead while Jains are way behind the game. Unless our spirituality also engages questions of how we live in this material world, it will be irrelevant.”
Manish says, “Many people outside also find Jains to be very self-righteous and morally arrogant about their vegetarianism. We need to let go of this false superiority and embrace a more loving and humbler path of co-learning and partnership with many other communities, particularly Dalits and Tribals.”
“I think that there is another level of depth that we can go to, which we are not yet going to, and hopefully with different projects that are happening around India and the world, we can try to bring that up and highlight it for ourselves and our community,” he adds with a glimmer of promise.
Manish unlearning with other learners at Shikshantar.
Manish points to the work on forgiveness and non-violence by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as shining examples of what may be viewed as Jain processes.
QUESTIONS FIRST, ANSWERS LATER
We went to Manish Jain for answers, but he urges that we should ask even more questions. And learn to hold the space for deep listening to these questions open.
Just as Jainism encourages many perspectives, Manish also suggests that we re-look at this whole system of wealth, militarization, consumption and economic growth. We need to shake up the story of the god of money.
Any person today can create meaningful social change by first deeply reflecting on these things, and then acting on the realizations thoughtfully and with deep integrity. Even the new Pope has raised a different level of thinking about the future of the planet in his Encyclical.
Manish encourages working from the depths of the Jain worldview and radical rethinking both using and within cultural frameworks in general.
A hundred years ago, Gandhi ji unleashed the power of Jain thought in service of a new vision of swarajand freedom for India which rippled and continues to ripple across the planet. Perhaps, it is now again time that we also learn to apply the old ideas of self-restraint, harmony and forgiveness in new ways to bring society out of the slumber it is in and help forge a new story for the well-being of all life on the planet.
Change begins at home. Manish Jain’s daughter, Kanku is designing her own learning path at Shikshantar instead of going to school.
Manish Jain holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, International Relations and Political Philosophy from Brown University and a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. He spent several years trying to unlearn what he learnt from these Western universities. He was an investment banker with Morgan Stanley, but he quit his corporate career and worked as a consultant in several developing countries in the areas of educational planning, policy analysis, research, program design and media/technology with UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, the World Bank, USAID and the Harvard Institute for International Development. Manish went on to cofound Shikshantar and Swaraj University. He has worked with Shikshantar for the past seventeen years. He is passionate about organic farming, slow food cooking, filmmaking, cooperative games, gift culture and bicycling.