Jun 17, 2009

Acharya Tulsi: Peaace and Austerity

By Parveen Chopra

Some years ago, when work in the Indian parliament came to a screeching standstill following a boycott by opposition parties protesting against the official "whitewash" of the Joint parliamentary Committee report on a stocks scam, Acharya Tulsi, the most high profile Jain guru of them all, was asked to mediate. He succeeded in breaking the impasse, which could have brought the government down, using a singularly unlikely strategy: talking to the parties concerned about anekantavada, the Jain doctrine of non-absolutism, which holds that all human judgments and perceptions of truth are only partially valid, and that one must accommodate points of view other than one's own.

When asked to elucidate the doctrine, Tulsi responded like a Zen master. He picked up a table clock, the only valuable in his spartan room, and asked rhetorically: "Is it good?" Obviously, the correct answer is that it is superior to many clocks and inferior to many others. The point he was trying to make is that it is also made of plastic and glass; further, basically, it is an arrangement of electrons and protons and soon. Therefore, a story does not have just two sides, it has many, and all of them may be relatively true or false or both in degrees.

Tulsi was keenly aware of the relevance of Jainism's non-absolutism (nonviolence at a psychological level) and radical pacifism in today's busily pluralistic world. He also believed that although the danger of another world war may have receded, human greed and economic imperialism continue to unleash their fair share of violence on the world. Consequently, he was thinking global.

Under his guidance, a campaign had been launched to impart practical training in ahimsa (nonviolence). His missionaries carried his message abroad, while he himself continued to meet many dignitaries and religious heads such as the Dalai Lama, confabulating to promote peace and harmony in the world.

"Both peace and war originate in the minds of men," he said in his address to the world conference on peace and nonviolent action held at Ladnun, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, in December 1995. "We have paid little or no attention to the question of transforming the human psyche."

It is this issue, which cut his life's work out for him. The answers came in the form of the well-known Anuvrat movement in 1950, and the later introduction of preksha meditation and the Science of Living course for students.

To find out more about the man, his mission and his motives, I traveled to Ladnun, virtually a one-horse desert town. Here, the headquarters of the Tulsi establishment is spread over 125 acres. The place is peppered with billboards carrying homilies from Tulsi and other Jain gurus of the past. The atmosphere is one of unhurried efficiency. Although Tulsi was forever undertaking padyatras (walking trips), this was his first visit since early 1995, after having anointed Mahaprajna, 76, as the head of the Terapanth sect in his place, at a public ceremony in New Delhi—an appointment that had been widely hailed because Acharya Mahaprajna was highly regarded as a yogi, philosopher and writer. Tulsi was staying in one of the rooms in a block reserved for monks of his Terapanth (Shwetamber) order.

The Acharya, now known as Ganadhipati, was a compact man with limpid eyes and large ears ("a sign of spiritual advancement," one of his acolytes whispered to me), who looked remarkably fit and alert for his 83 years. A Sanskrit and Prakrit scholar, he spoke in chaste Hindi in a measured tone. Perhaps in keeping with the unremittingly austere nature of his religion, he avoided the emotional approach or any oratorical flourishes even in his discourses, except perhaps an occasional anecdote or teaching story.

He sat cross-legged on a wooden divan as I sat on the uncarpeted but spanking clean floor. He was patient and solicitous, but filtering clear answers from his voice, muffled by a surgical mask that covered his mouth, proved difficult. He took pains to explain the complex Jain principles. The interview was continuously interrupted by streams of visitors, rich and poor, sweating city slickers and turbaned Rajasthanis. He blessed all of them, without exception, with a raised hand, mumbling a mantra.

What inspired a religious head like him to launch the popular Anuvrat movement, aimed at social reform and moral regenerations? "Human suffering," he replied. "Religion," he elaborated, "has two aspects: Modes of worship which vary wildly from religion to religion and a code of conduct which is more or less universal. I consciously chose to work on Character and conduct."

Since ordinary people find the five big vows (nonviolence, nonstealing, celibacy, non-acquisition and speaking the truth, common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) too intimidating, he developed a "minimum moral code" undated with vows such as: I will do my best to avoid contributing to pollution; I will do my best to avoid contributing to pollution; I will observe rectitude in business and general behavior; I will not resort to unethical practices in the elections.

The last one so endeared him to the then Indian Chief Election Commissioner. T.N. Seshan that he wanted Tulsi to stay in New Delhi in April, believing that his mere presence in the capital would contribute to cleaner and peaceful elections.

Anuvrat instantly brought Tulsi into the limelight. In the first flush of India's Independence, the need of the hour was felt to be nation rebuilding and eradicating social evils. Tulsi's crusade was seen to dovetail with those aims and the he struck a chord among the towering statesmen of the times, Gandhians and social reformers including Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash (JP) Narayan. JP went to the extent of saying that Tulsi was carrying on the work started by Mahatma Gandhi.

Anuvrat became a massive movement in the 1960s and the 70s. Tulsi had led many nationwide padyatras, logging over 100,000 km, administering the Anuvrat oath.

Preksha dhyan was the logical next step. Explained Tulsi: "I had started noticing that many people were unable to keep their vows, particularly about shedding addictions. What was needed was a method of inner purification that could give them the requisite strength." Surprisingly, the Jain tradition was not known to have handed down any such system. He entrusted the job to Mahaprajna, his right-hand man and alter ego, who scoured the Jain scriptures and found enough references by the mid-1970s to enable him to develop preksha meditation, with inputs from modern human psychology.

Preksha literally means looking deeply, the technique involves engaging your mind fully in the perception of the subtle internal and innate phenomena of consciousness to control your passions and purify emotion. Jeevan Vigyan (the Science of Living) aims at the all-round-physical, mental, emotional and moral-development of the student.

To carry on and coordinate all these activities, many institutions had come up under Tulsi's tutelage. The main one is the Jain Vishva Bharati in Ladnun. Set up in 1970 and deemed to be a university in 1991, it offers postgraduate courses in Ahimsa and Peace research, Jainology, and Prakrit (the language of the Jain scriptures, the Agamas). The university has over 1000 postgraduate and doctoral students on its rolls. Foreign students can study free here.

One of them, a 24-year-old American, Rence Kinnaman, stayed here for just two months but was overwhelmed by her experience: "I didn't become a Jain, but I became aware of life around me. I now have an increased awareness of all life. We're in this together."

Indeed. Jainism's new appeal is ecological. Pointed out Tulsi: "Jainism includes air, water, fire, earth and the vegetable kingdom in its ambit of nonviolence." This pacifism stemmed from the belief that the world is packed with an infinite number of embodied souls. At the lower level, the souls inhabit plants and trees, and microorganisms in the four elements. But higher or lower, a soul is a soul and Lord Mahavir's stricture is that no being is to be killed or harmed.

Accordingly, Jain monks carry a whisk to sweep aside any insects on the ground. Thy mask their mouths to avoid killing airborne microorganisms by inhaling them. Explaining why they insist on traveling on foot, Tulsi said: "It puts the least pressure on the earth's resources." They do not use electricity either and are allowed only a couple of mugs of water to sponge their bodies instead of having a bath. This spartan lifestyle means that although Jainism may by relevant today, it won't find too many takers. Agreed Tulsi: "It demands strict self-restraint and renunciation."

What most people will find hard to accept is sallekhana—fasting to death. Dharmanand, who runs Tulsi's Delhi center, says without betting an eyelid that his mother did sallekhana and that 100-odd devotees opt for this religiously sanctioned euthanasia every year, usually after their bodies become too enfeebled, by age or sickness. Jains believe that this is the way to die consciously and heroically, and thus conquer death.

Another famous Jain-born, Osho, went to the other extreme, towards indulgence, according to the Tulsi establishment. On his part, Osho missed no opportunity to castigate Tulsi, for example, for dabbling in politics. It is well-known that top politicians and administrators sought Tulsi out (the Rajiv Gandhi government's appeal to him for mediation led to the Rajiv-Longowal accord in Punjab). Right or wrong, this is what Tulsi had to say on the matter: "I involve myself in anything—familial, social or political—that has any bearing on spirituality."

Today Tulsi has become a synonym of Jainism, even though his Terapanth, founded in 170, is the smallest and the newest Jain sect. Mahaprajna attributes it to the fact that "Gurudev (Tulsi) has had not only a vision, but also inner resources to give if form and movement."

Tulsi hailed from a devout family of Jain traders in Ladnun and showed early leadership qualities and a spiritual bent of mind. Destiny knocked when Acharya Kalugani, his family guru, came for a visit, About their meeting, Tulsi later said: "His divine face fascinated my heart and I used to gaze at him for hours." He took his monk's vows at the age of 11, and by the time he was 16, he had already started attracting acolytes. Kalugani appointed him Terapanth's ninth acharya when he was just 22.

Tulsi had since shown great organizational ability and the mind of a progressive man. Among other things, he had instituted a rigorous training program for the monks and nuns of his order. A mammoth project to edit and computerize the 32 Agamas went on under his guidance. And to obviate the injunction against monks using mechanical means of travel, he created a new order of semi-monks called Samans who routinely fly to other countries.

"Americans are all ears when they hear that Jainism had influenced Mahatma Gandhi who in turn influenced Martin-Luther King," says Sthitprajna, the 30-year-old chief Saman.

Tulsi had also tried to unite the fractious Jain community by opening lines of communication among the sub-sects of the Digambers and Shwetambers.

Although a champion of inter-faith harmony, Tulsi didn't mind discussing Jainism's uniqueness. He was quick to refute the uninformed belief that Jainism was born as reaction to the excessive ritualism in Hinduism. "Jainism and Buddhism were part of a parallel Negganth or Shraman (ascetic) culture in India which is perhaps pre-Vedic," he asserted. Further, Jainism is less fatalistic. "According to the Vedic religion, not even a leaf stirs without God's will. But Jainism does agree that God arbitrates in human affairs. This puts the onus for one's destiny on oneself and on self-effort."

What continued to engage his mind was religion's impact on society, which he believed was paramount.

The one thing that remained long after I had departed from Tulsi's calming presence was the sincerity of all his concerns and the utterly simple core of his teachings, contained in a slogan he had coined: Jain bano na bano, good man bano—it doesn't matter if you become a Jain, aspire to become a good man, a moral man.

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