Aug 20, 2005

Modern Jainism

This is an interesting story that highlights some of the extremes in modern Jainism - the young 17-year old who has chosen the path of ahimsa as a life direction, versus the businessmen, diamond merchants, and other affluent members of the community who equate vegetarianism and sobriety with fulfillment of the most important Jain values.

I have ruminated before in these pages about how vegetarianism has taken the place of a broader, more inclusive vision of non-violence, and represents an essentialization of the broader values that should be considered in the definition of Jainism. I would almost argue that adherance to vegetarianism has taken on a ritualistic fervor all its own within the community, at the expense of other, equally important facets of the philosophy, like the importance of multiple viewpoints.

India's Jains take nonviolence to new levels

Palm Beach Furniture
By Nirmala George
the Associated Press

August 20, 2005

NEW DELHI · Dressed in a coarse white cotton sari, her hair shorn and a small square of white cloth covering her mouth, Sadika Sansiddhi looks nothing like other 17-year-olds.

Two years ago, she left her middle-class home to become a nun in the ancient Jain religion practiced by more than 4 million people in India.

Her parents and grandparents opposed her decision. They were Jains, and believed in the small daily sacrifices the religion demands. But they wanted to spare Sadika the deprivation and hardship she was choosing. Eventually, after two years of demand, they relented.

Along with 15 other nuns, Sadika now lives in a rundown building in a crowded New Delhi neighborhood. They sleep on bare cement floors, spend long hours in meditation and read religious texts. Ahimsa, or nonviolence, guides their lives, and much of what they do is dictated by their efforts to kill no animals, not even insects.

Only a tiny percentage of Jains have chosen Sadika's path. But as India joins the global economy, it is the ascetics who have become one of the most powerful symbols of an older, more religious India. They beg for food; they travel by foot; they are celibate.

Like Hindus, Jains believe in reincarnation. But while Hindus believe all souls are part of a universal spirit, Jains believe in an independent soul reincarnated in pursuit of an ultimate state of happiness. Salvation is obtained by personal effort -- austere, nonviolent lives.

Jains take extraordinary measures to avoid killing. Groups of ascetics are often seen walking along roads, sweeping the ground before them with a soft cotton brush to make sure they do not step on insects. Some, like Sadika, wear face masks to make sure they don't accidentally breathe them in.

Jainism, similar in its asceticism and monastic discipline to Buddhism, originated in India around 500 B.C. Swetamber Jains wear white unstitched robes. Digambers -- or "sky-clad" -- wear nothing.

"If we had to wear clothes, we'd have to beg for money. That is an obligation we can do without," said Muni Shiv Sagar, a 46-year-old Jain sadhu, sitting naked on a raised wooden platform to spare his audience embarrassment.

A wooden water bottle and a fan are his only possessions. A meal consists of one handful of grain --"just enough to stay alive," said the sinewy ascetic.

Traveling, he said, is by foot only, walking for weeks at a time along ancient routes, sleeping in temples or the homes of Jain lay people.

Yet some Jains have no problem at all with wealth. Its lay believers are among India's richest communities, long known for their diligence, honesty and being considerate employers.

"Why are Jains successful in business? In three words -- it's humility, humanity and hard work," said Anil Jain, a tax consultant.

"We don't drink, don't smoke, eat only vegetarian food, don't go to clubs or night spots. Even the younger generation of Jains don't get too many opportunities to spend money," he said.

Copyright © 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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