Staying rooted

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 consumed, out of her garden, completely chemical-free.

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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.

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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




Neelam's journey

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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Family matters
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.

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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?”

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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.”

Applying Jainism
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.

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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.”

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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.

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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




A gradual transition

Sanket Jain hails from Devendranagar in Madhya Pradesh. Twenty five years old, he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree covering the subjects of politics, history, Hindi and English. But unlike many young men of his age, Sanket does not pursue a usual profession.

In his own pursuit, Sanket is known by the name Pandit Vivek Shastri. He is a lay priest within the digambara order of Jains.

Within the Jain tradition, the distinction between laity and ascetics is made through the participation in a diksha or initiation ceremony. However, since Jain asceticism is particularly restrictive, over time lay priests who bridge the gap between household life and asceticism have come into existence.

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Such lay priests undergo rigorous studies in discourse, and learn many languages. They are also often responsible for teaching laypeople and for conducting rituals and worship. Some of them become ascetics later in life.

Vivek ji told us that he was interested in pursuing the Jain religion in a rigorous way ever since the May of 2005, when he was deeply influenced by the digambara ascetic, Acharya Visuddhasagar ji. Visuddhasgar ji’s conduct and discourses caused an inner awakening, according to Vivek ji.

Sanket, who was given the epithet of ‘Vivek’ or ‘wisdom’ by Acharya Visuddhasagar ji  feels that his life had been given the right direction towards liberation. He was particularly struck by lack of desire, jealousy, greed, fear and other such qualities in this man who would later become his mentor.

We were intrigued and we asked why he chose the path of becoming a lay priest, instead of the more advanced station of becoming an ascetic.

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Vivek ji responded that he wanted to travel more freely and teach people about the Jain tradition. Digambara ascetics, he added, have a very austere life with many restrictions. Moreover, in contemporary society, it is difficult for naked monks to wander or teach unabated. Pandit Vivek Shastri, however, harbours the hope that one day he may take diksha and become a monk.

We learnt that since Jain asceticism is so austere, adherents are often absorbed into the order over a long period of time, often spanning years. The life and conduct of such aspirants are made progressively austere and simple.

The state of clothing is especially a prominent indicator of the spiritual station of a digambara monk. Even Jain laypeople and householders set aside saffron or white robes for religious occasions, including the festival of Paryushana.

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Digambara Jain monks often go through several stages of renunciation. As a first step, the adherent gets to wear a white kurta-pyjama, which is a traditional Indian outfit of a long shirt and drawstring trousers. The colour white signifies the ideal of the lack of any quality, and helps create a peaceful state of mind, according to Vivek ji.

The next state is to wear a dhoti-dupatta, which are two long lengths of clothes, one draped below the waist and one on the upper body. Mahatma Gandhi is known to have adopted such attire for a stretch of his life.

In the next stage, one wears a khandavastra-koupin, which constitutes a small length of cloth for the upper body and a loincloth. By this time, the practitioner would be eating a single meal a day out of a bowl. All food eaten by Jain monks not only follow strict rules of vegetarianism, but it also has to be given voluntarily by a layperson. Jain monks do not beg, but are known to accept food from appropriate sources. The act of giving food to the hungry is known as ahara dana considered deeply sacred. Jain laity considers themselves fortunate if they are able to feed a Jain monk.

In the next stage, the bowl and the khandavastra are forsaken, and the practitioner would be wearing a loincloth and would be eating a single meal a day out of his own two palms.

In the final stage, the practitioner would get rid of the koupin or loincloth as well, and emerge unfettered as a digambara monk, or muni.

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Since the monastic tradition of the digambaras is rugal to the point of forsaking even clothing, we wanted to know what the perspective was on temples, and especially more so because Jainism is a non-theistic religion. Pandit Vivek Shastri explained that in the Jain tradition, one does not go to a temple because some god resides there. One goes there for the purity of the atmosphere, which helps steady one’s own mind. He added, however, that chants and worship can indeed invoke the idol into a powerful artefact of the spirit.

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We wanted to know why such a keen emphasis was placed on such extremely frugal meals and on rejecting clothes as a part of the practice. Like many others we have spoken to, Vivek ji led with “Jainism is not a philosophy. It is a way of life.” He also emphasized that Jain ethics stem from scientific or rational reasons.

All things we consume, including food and clothes, may fuel desire, which is to be avoided to attain liberation, explained Vivek ji. Digambara means “sky-clad.” These skies can be eclipsed by desire, which is like clouds.

When we shed desire, it is like rain. After that, the skies are once more immaculate.


Text: Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Sweta Daga




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