Our journey to seek a wholesome understanding of Jain principles and philosophy took us to Rajasthan – a place where we were to meet Suri Sri Ajay Sagar ji.
We did not yet know it, but speaking to him would remind us once more about the true beauty of human connections.
In the land of the kings
Braving the scorching heat, one fine afternoon, as we set our eyes upon the intricate carvings of the Ranakpur Temple, little did we realise that we were in for a most fascinating experience. We decided to head towards a neighbouring village called Ghanerao nestled on the edge of the Aravalli Hills. Both ascetics and royal families have dwelled here in the past, and the place is still an abode of serenity for those in search of peace.
We met Suri Sri Ajay Sagar Suri ji, – a mandirmargi svetambara monk – at a gyantirtha within the temple complex. A gyantirtha is any place of pilgrimage for those who seek knowledge. Draped in a single piece of white fabric, Ajay Sagar ji instilled a sense of warmth and comfort in anyone who met him. His heartfelt smile greeted us and in an instant it felt like we were no longer strangers. However, owing to some prior commitments, he said that he was preoccupied at that moment. He asked us to visit him in a few hours.
To keep ourselves occupied, we decided to take a walk through the lanes that housed several complexes built with air-conditioned rooms for devotees and ascetics. Appetizing aromas wafted in from the bhojanalayas, which are communal spaces where food is served to resident ascetics, scholars and others. We also came across several abandoned buildings that seemed like they had been there for a long time.
Old books in new places
When we got back, Ajay Sagar ji led us into a hall where a few monks were seated. The entire hall seemed steeped with the illumination of the souls present within. In a corner, a white sheet separated a few monks from the rest. Ajay Sagar ji wiped the floor before sitting down, a ritual that he followed sincerely every single time.
All around him were a few original and rebound manuscripts scattered on the floor. He had decided to sort them out according to books or granthas, with each grantha containing one or more of the manuscripts. With the occasional breeze flowing in, the pages fluttered in the wind and the ancient scriptures unfolded before our eyes. It was almost surreal to see him seated close to these ancient texts that he was compiling. It is by chance that he was still here because he was scheduled to embark on a journey on foot to Mandani village near Sarohi for the four months of the monsoon. During this period, known as chaturmasa, Jain ascetics, who otherwise walk from place to place quite frequently, remain in one place and avoid walking; this is to avoid accidentally killing the small organisms which thrive in the soil and the puddles during monsoon. However, Ajay Sagar ji had decided to stay back for a bit to sort out these texts which were of prime importance as every grantha needs to be maintained in chronological order.
A surprising chat
We began our conversation with him, and it covered many areas. From the universal law of existence, the law of karmic attraction, to the principles of gratitude and acceptance, we discussed many nuances of human existence in great detail. He expressed his concern over the way in which today’s society has been influenced by technology including computers and smart phones, etc. He spoke of the market and how it manipulates everything. “All this directly affects your thinking,” said Ajay Sagar Suri ji as he straightened a few pages of an old manuscript.
We informed him that since the last time we met, we had managed to give some focus and direction to our research. This included the five themes: parasparopagraho jivanam, ahinsa, anekantavada, and samyaktva.
“Parasparopagraho jivanam. Yeh aapne acha pakda hai. (All souls are helpful to each other. You have latched on to the perfect thread). It is in fact an innate thought, a basic one. It perhaps provides that immediate experience of being human that will lead us to conclusions and concepts like ubuntu – we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. Of course, the tribal people not only understood this but also followed this religiously. On the other hand, we who are living in the city have created several illusions out of this concept,” said Ajay Sagar ji.
Emotional restraint is key
Despite being a monk, Ajay Sagar ji is fully aware of the issues plaguing society today. He recalled an incident wherein an eighth grade student was addicted to pornography and how he helped the child through the difficulty.
He also spoke extensively about emotions and how we are all driven by them. “If you are attached to your emotions, you will always carry that baggage around. Travel light,” he said with a smile.
Apart from that, he also mentioned how emotions end up sticking on to oneself and affect our day to day actions to a point where there is a large gap between our self-image and our actual self. To put it succinctly, when we experience something that we presume to be negative or wrong, we tend to think about it over and over. According to him, that is how one would define being neurotic. “The way I understand neurosis is that you act in the now by thinking about how you have been affected by it in the past. This whole thing of reacting from the past but being in the now creates a lot of confusion and in the end you are not really being true to yourself. If something has happened in the past, there’s nothing really you can do about it. Focus on the now because that is important,” he explained. According to him, in today’s world, there are several things like misinformed education, internet, smartphones, media and peer pressure that are potentially toxic to our life and spirit. They not only pollute our existence but also bind us to the materialistic world.
Following a non-violent path
When we began talk about adopting a non-violent lifestyle, Ajay Sagar ji led the discussion with an example which illustrates the importance of context. Many vegans and other such groups, he said, who talk about non-violence most these days do so symptomatically. In comparison, the teachings of Jainism are holistic. Vegans, he said, want a blanket prohibition on the use of milk, cheese, ghee, cattle based agriculture, etc. Some of them do so in the name of Lord Mahavira’s path of non-violence, but ultimately they promote a much more dangerous lifestyle based on polluting equipment, chemicals, etc. They take the most severe ascetic practice in line with scriptures on non-violence out of context and apply it to the common householder who feels burdened with the guilt, which is wrong. To explain further, Ajay Sagar ji also discussed some apparent internal contradictions within Jain lore. He noted that Rishabhdev – the first tirthankara – showed people how to farm and urbanise themselves, but the twenty fourth tirthankara said that we must be devoid of all such attachments because by that time we had already reached a point where our civilization rested completely on our mastery over other animals. So, how do we define complete non violence then, asked Ajay Sagar ji.
He explained the riddle a little more. He emphasized the importance of context, and that we must understand that some of the things the tirthankaras were talking about were said at a time when situation, circumstance and events demanded these changes which would eventually lead to the gradual evolution of society.
Keeping in mind the importance of leading a Jain lifestyle, which is basically a compassionate life that requires an individual to conform to certain principles, Ajay Sagar ji compiled a list of basic questions that he would ask people from time to time. These questions enunciate the dos and don’ts associated with Jain lifestyle. These may seem restrictive to a modern mind, Ajay Sagar ji adds, but are self-evident true in the light of spiritual inquiry. These are things that the heart really calls for, and form the fundamental and basic principles of Jainism. The questions are:
- Who are you attracted to? Kind people or unkind people?
- How do you like to be treated? Kindly or unkindly?
- What kind of a person would you rather be? Kind or unkind?
- Your food should be acquired using what means? Kind or unkind?
Once we have the answers to these questions, he said, we will understand why it is necessary to go through change fundamentally and not merely caress the surface. He also placed utmost importance on focusing on compassion.
A final moment
As we were leaving the gyantirtha that evening, we told Ajay Sagar ji that we had earlier mentioned this scheduled meeting to Dhaky ji. We told him that Dhaky ji had remembered him fondly.
He placed his hand on his heart and closed his eyes. We could sense that he was in a state of deep bliss.
We could, at least in that moment, sense the depth and beauty of the human connection between the two scholars, evidently magnified within Ajay Sagar ji by the most subtle comfort of just knowing that someone exists out there who would know the true value and nuance of the material that we were discussing in that place.
Text: Simar Kohli and Rajiv Rathod
Additional commentary: Akshatha Shetty
Photographs: Simar Kohli