Early in April, we were talking to various people to find different voices on Jainism. We found our mark through a number of coincidences and approximations, and everything fell into place when we set out to meet a nun and a monk from the sthanakvasi sect in Bangalore.
They are siblings; out of four brothers and one sister in a Jain family from Delhi, the two of them became Jain ascetics. Their three brothers went on to have families.
A change of heart
Sadhvi Darshanprabha took diksha at the age of twenty one in the year 1976. She is now fifty nine. She did her BA from DU, and continued to study after becoming an ascetic; education is encouraged in Jainism. She did her MA and PhD in Rajasthan. Darshanphabha ji said that she never was religious, and never attended a religious gathering. She said that after avoiding clergy for most of her young life, she did go to a gathering once for no particular reason. Her experience there convinced her to become an ascetic. Her family resisted a lot, she says, but they knew that the goal was worthy, so they eventually yielded.
When we asked her about her experiences of performing sadhana, or pursuit, she explained that religious contemplation leads to detachment. She elaborated that one feels like one has neither enemies nor friends; that we are, in a sense, alone. It also awakens spiritual abilities, she added, and that one thus enabled with any extranormal abilities needs to be careful lest one accidentally triggers events through a spoken word alone.
We asked her what change she has observed amongst the adherents who attend the ashram, which is the place where ascetics take refuge. “Young people come to attend discourses, they discuss and debate, and it is a joy to see that,” Darshanprabha ji enthusiastically responded, praising the youth. Earlier there were very few young people interested in religion, she said, and added “Most people coming to the ashrams today are young people. They have a lot of interest in understanding the spirit and learning the truth. They are interested in the Jain philosophy, and they pay close attention. The youth are awake, but the older generation holds them back fearing a loss of control or authority. This gives rise to a conflict of egos, which ultimately serves no one.”
We asked her about the importance of the Jain idea in our contemporary times which seem to be plagued with violence all over the world. She led with the example of our country. She explained that India has changed through non-violence, much of which proliferated in the political sphere through Mahatma Gandhi.
“Violence solves nothing in the long term. Only non-violent means can reach long-term solutions. Even a child will resist if you use force, over time they will become stubborn; if you ask the child lovingly, they will listen to you. Any real change can only be brought slowly, through non-violent means.”
India, she said, has retained its legacy through thousands of years because of the saints and ascetics who have always lived here. They can enable and propagate peace and ethical life; today the many kinds of available media extend this reach. People can hear such discourse easily today, Darshanprabha ji explained. They may not react at first, but it works slowly. One can’t say which exact blow of non-violence turns out to be effective.
“Every non-violent strike has its worth. The hundredth one may break through, but one can’t ignore the ninety-nine blows that preceded it.”
When we asked her how an ascetic may affect a lay person, she illustrated the relationship by comparing an ascetic to a shopkeeper. If someone comes seeking the wares, the shopkeeper will pull out his yard of cloth, but not everyone will buy it. Likewise, many people come to ascetics, and amongst them, some actually think about what they discuss here and let it change their lives. Others come and go, but they are back to their own routine; one can’t help them.
Work over worship
Naresh Muni, Darshanprabha ji‘s brother, took diksha in 1982. Since then, he has been trained in Sanskrit, Prakrit, shastras, and agamas, amongst other subjects. His view was that sadhana changes one’s inner nature and increases joy.
On ahinsa and the conduct of ahinsa, Naresh ji explained that ahinsa is there to help even the smallest being. Jainism, he says, makes a distinction between plants and animals and different kind of animals; not all beings can sense pain equally. The higher the being the more sensitive it is to violence, he added.
“All life can sense intentions in a manner of speaking,” Naresh ji continued, “and for example if you water a plant with a joyful heart, it will blossom, but if you abuse it and water it but begrudgingly, it will wither.”
We asked Naresh ji about figures important to Jainism in a historical sense. He mentions that Samprati and Kumarpal were important kings who did much to proliferate the Jain cause. Jainism has historically relied on the administrative figures for the religion to spread. Most administrators have a spiritual mentor, he added. Spirituality precedes politics; a good guru can give a proper direction to a state.
On being asked, Naresh ji briefly explained sallekhana as something that takes root in giving up attachment of the body. When the body is deemed no longer fit for service, it may be best to discard it. Jainism emphasizes that all beings have souls, and the soul transmigrates upon death. The loss of one body is no great loss to an ascetic.
On the subject of divinity, Naresh ji explains that every soul is divine, but not every soul is equally manifest. Jainism enables that manifestation for every soul; it does not depend on the mercies of a single creator god.
We wanted to know why there are temples within the Jain tradition despite the lack of a creator god. Naresh ji did not mince words. “Vedic traditions have influenced the Jain religion over time,” he said. “Temples are an example. Temples were initially made just as a mark of preserving the religion, but over time it began to get distorted and gather ritual practices, which has changed the Jain religion from its original form to how we follow it today. There is nothing wrong with meditating in front of a stone idol, though. A stone idol doesn’t react to any prayer nor to any profanity.” It is a Jain ideal to be completely detached from the world.
We asked what would a reasonable way be to bridge day-to-day life with divinity. Naresh ji summarized that “The only thing is that if you have to follow religion, serve people, help people. God is not affected by your activities, but people are.” He further emphasized that the Jain philosophy of anekantavada, or the multiplicity of perspectives, can help work through contradictions. “Anekantavada is the most important tool. Multiple perspective can resolve all conflicting views to get to the truth. Jainism doesn’t say that what is mine is true; it says what is true is mine.”
We were curious about the attire and artefacts of the nuns. We spotted some nuns making what we thought was cloth that many Jain ascetics use for covering the mouth, called the mukhavastrika.
We were given a small summary on the subject. According to the nuns, the mukhvastrika has symbolic value, but it has a practical utility too.
It has eight fine layers and is designed to ensure that even the hot breath gets filtered and cooled down so that it doesn’t kill the small organisms in the air. It also ensures that spit isn’t spread when one speaks. It is changed every fifteen or twenty days, for hygiene.
The mukhvastrika, however, is not made of cloth in the conventional sense. It is made of rice. The rice is boiled, flattened, dried, and made into a material like paper or cloth. It is folded and pressed for a number of times, and finally a thread is attached, the sheet is folded in, and pressed again. It is then dried and it becomes crisp on its own, after which it is usable. Drinking-grade water is used and care is taken throughout the process to avoid killing any organisms. Materials other than rice can also be used.
The terapanthis and sthanakvasis use the mukhvastrika as a matter of routine, we were told.
A young trainee
Suman Baweja, in her mid twenties, is from Rajasthan. She has been with Darshanprabha ji as a lay trainee for five years, and she informed us that her diksha was scheduled for later in the year.
Back home, she has parents, a brother, and a sister. We asked her about her experiences. We were all pressed for time, so she summarized quickly. “I grew up religious, and liked going to religious gatherings. When I expressed my interest, my parents resisted and advised against it. However, when they sensed my conviction, they allowed me to pursue what I wanted.”
We asked her if she misses her family or the comforts of a day-to-day life. “I missed my parents,” she said “and went back and forth in my mind about my decision. But I worked through my doubts, I am convinced and happy with my chosen path.”
Text and photographs: Dhruva Ghosh
Additional commentary: Sweta Daga