I don’t know much about Jainism besides the fact that they are extremely devoted to non-violence, like the “extreme-to-the extreme” sort of extremity. This past Sunday March 27, 2011 we attended an event where two 20 year old girls were converting to become Jain Nuns. These two girls are my age. At this age I still feel like a little child trying to understand the world – how in the world can these two girls decide that they will be nuns for the rest of their lives?
The place was decorated as if there was a wedding ceremony going on. There were over 300 guests at the event, I’m sure. The two high cheek-boned girls sat on stage while the MC is yapping her head off in Bangla; I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then a video slide show popped up after the MC walked off the stage. The lights dimmed and the music shook the room. I was shocked when the photos came up. Were these girls in the slideshow the same girls on stage? In the slideshow were normal-looking girls who wore jeans and t-shirts, saris, sunglasses, etc. There were some photographs that looked like it was taken off of their Facebook profile. You know, the pictures were young girls hold the camera 30 cm away from their faces and shot their own picture. There were pictures of their college friends, their travels throughout Europe, their family members and their youth. They were just as normal as you and I.
I thought: Why do they want to give up all of these things, all their loves ones, their friends, their education, their wealth, their happiness to become nuns? Why are they betraying their parents after so many years of raising them up? Is this how they are repaying their parents? I couldn’t understand why they wanted to leave everything they’ve ever known to hibernate forever as nuns at the age of 20.
Jainism is one of the most ancient religions of the world, similar to Buddhism in many respect, and emerging from the same heterodox classical Indian world of the Ganges basin in the earthly centuries BC. Like Buddhism it was partly a reaction to Brahminical caste consciousness and the readiness of the Brahmins to slaughter huge quantities of animals for temple sacrifices – but the faith of the Jains is slightly more ancient and much more demanding. Jains pluck their hair out by the roots; Buddhists shave their heads. Jains have to have their food given to them without asking; Buddhist monks beg for food.
Before becoming Jain Nuns they must go through a formal transition known as diksha. After going through diksha –a process where they plucked out every strand of their hair, left their family and belongings and learned how to fast and meditate, etc. – they change their names and cannot turn back to being who they were. New expectations are set for them:
- never again use a vehicle, must walk everywhere barefoot
- take food only once a day
- do not use Western medicine
- abstain from emotions
- never to hurt any living creature
- must not react to attacks
- must not beg, cry, complain, demand, feel superiority
Jains have5 vows that they must take:
1) Non-violence: extreme commitment to being harmless.
If a Jain nun is plucking her hair out of her head and sees a louse they are not allowed to harm the louse, and they are not to continue plucking the hair because that means they are destroying the lice’s home.
2) No untruth: extreme commitment to being honest.
When people tell time they are unaware of different clocks and different time zones. If a Jain is asked what time is it they will not tell you an exact time, instead they would say, “Right now in this place the time is around ______.” They do this because they don’t want to lie to people.
3) No stealing: extreme commitment to never take anything that doesn’t belong to them.
If a Jain comes to someone’s house they will not sit down until they are told to do so. If they sit down before they are offered the seat, that would mean they are stealing the seat since the seat does not belong to them.
4) No sex: extreme commitment to abstinence.
They can’t think, fantasize or have sex. Any of those would violate their commitment to abstinence.
5) No attachments: extreme commitment to not being too close to anything.
They believe that all attachments bring suffering that is why they give up everything; their belongings, their reputations, their money, their careers, their goals and dreams, their wealth, and most importantly their family. This is one of the main principles of Jainism called aparigrapha.
Sallekhana is the ritual fast to death. Jains regard it as the culmination of their life as ascetics. It is what they all aim for and work towards as the best route to Nirvana. And no, sallekhana and suicide are not the same things. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is a triumph over death, an expression of hope. Jains believe that death is not the end; that life and death are complementary. So they embrace sallekhana you are embracing life on room at another. With suicide death is full of pain and suffering. But sallekhana is a beautiful thing. There is no distress or cruelty. As nuns their lives are peaceful and giving up the body should also be peaceful.
After death the soul renews through reincarnation. It’s like this: when your clothes get old and torn you get new one. So it is with the body. After the age of thirty, every year it gets weaker. When the body withers completely they should take a new one, like a hermit crab finding a new shell. For the soul will to wither and in rebirth you simply exchange your torn and damaged old clothes for a new one.
There’s still a lot more to Jainism that I do not understand. After reflecting on my experience with the two 20 year girls converting to become Jain Nuns this was what I concluded. I’m not satisfied with this conclusion but it’s the only one that makes my heart feel at peace: There must be something I am missing that these two girls are gaining. There must be something about life that they know about, something I do not and cannot wrap my mind around. I’ve been conditioned to think that having attachments is a good thing and being loved is a beautiful thing. All my life I’ve been told, and have come to believe, that being attached to my surroundings, to my family, friends, peers, education, wealth, etc. is a necessity.
For them it seems like their understanding of the world is different from mine. To them life and things in it are only temporary, they do not remain with us forever. Neither belief is right or wrong.
*Most of this information and writing is from William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives.