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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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