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.”
Manish JainUnlearning involves understanding the strengths and limitations of various ways of seeing, knowing and organising ourselves.
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.
Shikshantar is a place that encourages working patiently with people, but which also addresses some of the biggest social issues head-on.
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.
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.”
Manish Jain with his wife Vidhi and daughter Kanku. Manish strives to create a world that can support all kinds of families.
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.
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.
Manish JainIf unlimited economic growth of wealth, military violence and exploitation of nature are so critical to urban life, what does it mean for the Jain practice of simple, non-violent living?
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.”
Manish JainWe must continue to ask what are the economics and politics of Mahavira? Indeed, Jainism gives us intellectual permission to even explore game-changing ideas about the whole concept of private ownership, the military and nationalism.
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 unlearning with other learners at Shikshantar.
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 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.
Manish JainWe need to evolve a powerful Jain critique of modern institutions and their control over our lives. I think we even should design a Jain alternative to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
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.
Change begins at home. Manish Jain’s daughter, Kanku is designing her own learning path at Shikshantar instead of going to school.
A hundred years ago, Gandhi ji unleashed the power of Jain thought in service of a new vision of swaraj and 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.
Manish Jain speaks about the economics of happiness
Below is one of the several talks by Manish Jain. Here he talks about farming, land, education and the loss of tradition and human nuance.
Click the image above to hear a podcast from Audio inCite by Andrew Geller.
Text: Simar Kohli
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.