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.

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Rajiv Rathod and Manish Jain

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.

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Kapil Jain 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.

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:
What is the one thing that is worrying you the most about the world we’re living in?
What are the big challenges facing the world today?

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Sheetal Sanghvi and Sampat Bapna

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, 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.

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Rohit Jain

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.”

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Rajesh Shah and Neha Jain

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.

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World Café session

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:
For round one: What challenges do we personally face trying to live with Jainism?
For round two: What about Jainism inspires you in your work or personal life?

Some learnings were:
Living a Jain lifestyle is difficult when family and friends have other demands. For example, a Jain lifestyle is simple, and without many material possessions. Today, however, success often means having access to money, a home, a car and other things.
People didn’t realize that Jainism was part of their work until later in life.

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Prabhakant Jain, Sweta Daga, Rohit Jain and Ranjana Sukhlecha

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:
How does the Jain community catalyze into a larger social movement for the well-being of the planet?
How do we deepen our visions and projects as Jains and bring these into the wider Jain community?

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




Prayers and pigeons in Kerala

In November, I traveled through Kerala with my parents on a sightseeing trip, where I took them to all some of the ‘must-see’ places like Munnar, Alleppey and Fort Cochin. This trip was five days long, and we went at break-neck speed, sleeping at a different location every night, so it wasn’t in the plans to see any Jain mandir in Fort Cochin—until it actually just happened.

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My dad had asked our local guide about temples in Kerala who mentioned that there was a small one in Fort Cochin. Before we saw the rest of the city, we went to the temple. I wasn’t expecting a large Jain community in Kerala and wasn’t surprised when I was told there are only about three hundred Jain families in and around Fort Cochin. These Jains migrated decades ago from Gujarat to set up businesses in Kerala. However, this community is vibrant and committed, and the temple has an interesting story. The priest told us that the statue of Dharmanatha, the fifteenth tirthankara, was lost during the reconstruction of the temple. Somehow, in the middle of the monsoons, the same statue found its way back to the temple.

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When we arrived we met some of the trustees of the temple. They told us about Praful Shah, a stanthakvasi Jain, who is famous for coming to the temple every day for almost twenty five years for one purpose: to feed the pigeons who live at the temple. Praful Bhai’s dedication is a remarkable reflection of the Jain idea of parasparopagraho jivanam, which states that all beings are connected through the service they extend to each other.

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The pigeons at the temple bring to mind some famous research by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner, which postulates that pigeons can exhibit ‘superstitious’ behaviour. In this temple, it seems that the pigeons recognize the sound of Praful ji’s motorcycle. When they see him, they know to circle the temple three times before they are made to listen to a prayer, after which they are fed.

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Over the years, this feat has also become a tourist attraction. By the designated time of 12:30 PM, there was a large crowd who had gathered. I noticed that many people were interacting with the birds already, posing for pictures and feeding them. At one point, the temple volunteers asked the visitors (most of whom were Indian) to stop feeding the birds. This did not deter them, as they were determined to get their new Facebook profile pictures in first.

My parents were not happy about this. My mom commented, “No one is listening. They were asked not to go the area where the pigeons were waiting, and they’re still doing it.” I decided to ask Praful Bhai about it when we met.

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At 12:30 PM exactly, he came in with his helpers. As promised, the pigeons really did circle the temple exactly three times, and then listened to a prayer, after which Praful Bhai and others fed them uncooked grains.

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They go through thirty kilograms per day, and Praful Bhai has paid for most of it himself, or through his family and friends. “When I started doing this, there were ten birds, then it went to fifty, and now it’s in the hundreds.”

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I spoke to him about why he’s been doing this, and how he feels about the tourists who come. He smiled and said, “I do this because I feel I have a duty to help these animals. However, we can’t speak in anger, it defeats our purpose here. If you are going to serve others, do it with a peaceful mind. Yes, it’d be nice if people listened, but maybe its because we weren’t able to communicate properly. In Jainism, the biggest thing is to try to live and let live.”


Text and 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.

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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.

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Pavan, 34, is a chartered accountant working for the software company, Infosys. Kalpana, 31, is a homemaker.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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In addition to Mahavira and Gautama, there is symbolic worship of Sarasvati, the presiding godess of knowledge and wisdom, and Lakshmi, the representative deity of wealth. The holy scriptures, or shastras are also sometimes worshipped.

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Like many Indian religions, rituals have come to become an important aspect of Divali even within the digambara tradition in Jainism.

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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.

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“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.

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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




All the way to Timbuktu

Anantapur district is one of the driest areas in all of India.

Here, in October 2014, We found ourselves amongst a group of activists, experts and concerned citizens who had gathered from all over India to talk about a range of issues, including gender rights to alternative education politics and ecology.

The gathering was at a place known as the Timbuktu Collective.

This is a place of growth and creative transformation. As their latest annual report states, “A piece of dry degraded land 24 years ago, Timbuktu is today a green wilderness and an agro forest habitat. Timbuktu has been our learning space where strategies for eco-restoration, organic farming, alternative construction, alternative lifestyles and alternative education were developed.”

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I had the privilege of attending the first ever Vikalp Sangam at the Timbuktu Collective over a weekend. ‘Vikalp Sangam’, or ‘Alternative Confluence’, is a people’s movement “providing a platform to constructively challenge and learn from each other, build alliances, and collectively evolve alternative futures.”

Vikalp Sangam was created by several different organizations, from Kalpavriksh, to Deccan Development Society, Bhoomi College and Shikshantar to name a few.

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Ashish Kothari with Manish Jain, two of the co-hosts of Vikalp Sangam.

Three days were spent trying to understand each others’ work and experiences, and how overlaps can be made. In the process, I managed to speak to a number of them.

Many people spoke about creating a society of trust, instead of what today seems to be a society based on fear-driven decision making.

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Manish Jain, a co-founder of Shikshantar, spoke about how we have all been conditioned through various mediums to think that there is not enough in the world for everyone, so we must compete with each other to get the most. “We have to change this thought process. Vikalp Sangam wants to talk about abundance and not scarcity. When we think in terms of abundance, we don’t have a reaction of needing to collect things, we are free to use only what we need because we know that there is more.”

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One of the participants, Sangeetha Sriram, shared her thoughts on her social business in Chennai, called Restore. “I started Restore as a space where the community could gather and gain positive energy, and build together. Restore sources only pesticide-free products, and all at fair prices for the farmer. We don’t follow the market prices, because they are falsely created, but go by what inputs the farmers has put in. The community who comes to shop at Restore also knows that our products are organic, even though we don’t have the label. They trust us, and the farmers we work with, and it is that circle of trust that we are trying to restore. If we can’t trust our farmers, who can we trust? Anyway, at the end of the day, we don’t own anything, we’re just using it temporarily.”

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Another participant, V.B. Chandrasekaran of the Chatti Mahatma Gandhi Aashramam, spoke about using ahinsa in his activism. His newest initiative is a walk for the Polavaram Project which is a proposed dam coming up across the Godavari River located in Andhra Pradesh, while its reservoir spreads in parts of Chhattisgarh and Orissa States.

The project will displace several hundred families and Chandrasekaranji hopes to march to the villages and start a dialogue. “I don’t want to do any negative dharnas, or protests. That has not solved anything. Many times as activists we’re always reacting to things, and it can be exhausting.  I want to go to the villages which will benefit from the dam and ask the village, ‘Can’t we do this without submerging your neighbours? If it is benefiting you, can you help your fellow man?’” When we asked him if he thought this would work, he smiled as said, “What do I have to lose?”

Through these conversations, we sensed that there is perhaps there is some urgency in affirming that we are not alone. That we not only share ideas with like-minded individuals across the globe. That we are intimately connected to many different kinds of people through our day-to-day lives.

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The sense of isolation, some aspects of which is magnified by urban life, are assuaged by sangams like these. Places like Timbuktu refresh this trust of community, creating oases for alternative ideas to thrive.

We went to one of the driest districts in India, and yet it had plenty to offer. We came back with the sense that there are larger communities ready to welcome anyone who is willing to participate in a holistic, thoughtful way of life.


Text and photographs: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh




Awakening

In September 2014, we met a young svetambara nun, Sadhvi Risabh Ratna. At 29 years old, she took diksha 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.

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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.”

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“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.”

Rejecting luxury
“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.

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“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.

Unconditioned love
“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 their shradda 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.”

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“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