Sep 3, 2009

The Jain Community of Present Days

Mr. Lothar Clermont,Thomas Dix & Dilip Surana

The Sangha
Among the Jains, the community of followers is divided into the ordained (monks and nuns) and a vast multitude of lay followers these two groups have always been closely associated with one another. By convention, the lay following in Gujarat and Rajasthan supervises the selection, training and conduct of the ascetics. Their morals strictly watched and even the slightest cause for complaint results in their expulsion from the class of the ordained. Sometimes their background is investigated and often the executive committee of the lay following rejects unworthy applicants for the selection of abbots This supervision, however, extends only to those monks belonging to one's own sect, reminding one a little of the Free church of Scotland.

Monks and nuns
There is a fundamental difference in the concept of monk hood as understood by the Europeans and the Jains. The west associates this concept with the idea of a settled existence which binds one to a community, whereas the Jains associate with it the idea of eternal wandering from place to place, with no permanent residence.

Consequently, Monks and nuns, who take their vows seriously and through their ascetic achieve liberation or, moksha, are thus the ideal for the community and consequently very highly respected. Since they are compelled to lead the lives of homeless wanderers, certain social obligations, which in the West identified with religious orders, lay people for example, performed the responsibility of running hospitals and schools.

To become a monk it is necessary to take five great vows': not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, the vow of chastity, and renunciation of property. The vow not to steal implies the renunciation of everything that is not essential for survival. In some extreme cases, this may mean that a monk will, sleep huddled and doubled up on the floor to occupy an area less than the length of his body. Renunciation of property also means not becoming attached to things and places. Consequently, the monk has to be permanently on the move. Originally, Mahavira had permitted monks a rest period of only a day in a village and five days in a city. Later, this extended to one week and one month, respectively, it is for this reason that Jain communities have constructed lodging and community halls at several places. These are very often the focus of community activity. The monks and nuns use these community centres for delivering their Sermons and seek to promote morality among the lay-followers. For this, they are shown extraordinary gratitude and reverence in the form of the ritualistic washing of the feet or through prostration. The vow not to lie, is to mean the matching of words with deeds.

The life of the homeless ascetic is extremely hard for he has to dispense with the comforts of life such as a soft bed or a bath. The ascetic leads a regulated life, day divided into four equal parts for preaching, self-study, meditation and collecting alms.

The monk is to wake up around 4.00 am and after performing ablutions to reflect on any transgressions he may have committed the previous night. At the break of day, he inspects his body, clothes and his place of rest for insects, in order to remove them to a place of safety. After this, he preaches and studies. He cannot begin his tour for alms before 10.00 in the morning. Even this activity governed by strict rules; the donor must not be the same person who provided the monk shelter for the night, the food should not have been prepared especially for the monk, and it should neither be taken nor be bought for the monk. He must eat before sunset, since after nightfall there is a danger through oversight of swallowing tiny living beings. At 3.00 pm, the clothes and body again inspected for animals. No light can be brought into lodging as this too may injure the insects. After nightfall, the monk has to concentrate on meditation or the recitation of mantras.

Apart from this code of conduct, monks often take an additional vow, mostly with regard to fasting, which has developed into a complete system by itself, lasting ranges from the renunciation of certain foodstuffs to a total rejection of food. Several monks are capable of setting records, for example, in 1923, ascetic Sundarlalji fasted for eighty-one days.

Within the community of monks, the monk rises to various ranks, from muni (monk) to Vachaka (instructor) Upadhyaya (instructor) and Acharya (master). In most cases, the lay people celebrate the necessary ceremony as a festival.

Earlier, the goal of every monk was to die through self-starvation on a mountain after twelve years of practicing asceticism. Today this is hardly the case. However, it is quite common to refuse food in the case of an incurable disease or in the face of death.

The entire community comprising of the ordained and lay followers select the candidates for asceticism. Only those found with a morally unblemished character and pure in body accepted into this spiritual class. Provided these criteria are met, one can join from the age of seven-and-a-half years. For three years, one remains a brahmachari during which stage one may keep a tuft of hair and only take some of the vows of self-discipline, following this, the ascetic reaches the next, higher stage of kshullaka. At this stage, he must undertake the vows and begin the study of the scriptures.

The performance of the Pravrajya ceremony marks the initiation of a fully ordained monk. This ceremony includes the discarding of clothes, the handing over of the dhoti, the mouth cloth, the alms bowl, broom and stall to the monk. Finally, to tear out the last five tufts of hair from their roots, and this is extremely painful. This lengthy ceremony (which lasts for a month) is as magnificent as it is expensive For example, the candidate once again returns to the world bedecked with jewels, and these jewels then auctioned at the end of the ceremony. The cost of the ceremony is borne by the family of the prospective monk, or if this is not possible, by the entire community.

The ordination is a matter of honour for the family who may also use it for the purposes of publicity. Since the Jains are often very rich, the ordaining of a person from such a family is cause for an extended celebration lasting for days. In the first chapter of her book, A River Sutra, Gita Mehta has described the ordaining of the son of a millionaire jeweller beginning with the crisis in the life of the young man, she weaves in the conflicts arising in the family over the son's resolve to renounce the world. Despite this, the event is utilised to publicise the family's wealth, at the same time it reflects the family's desire of being admired.

The lay followersThe principle of not killing any living being is also enjoined on the non-ordained as the highest ideal. Therefore, from very early on, the choice of profession for the Jains was restricted. They are normally not soldiers, nor are they farmers since the ploughing of the field would inevitably result in the death of the smaller living beings. Until recently, the Jains could not study medicine since religious reasons forbade them to dissect. Consequently, the professions typical of them are banking, money lending and especially, the jewellery business in the modern world with its traffic system; it is no longer possible entirely to protect animals. The Jains have managed to reconcile this state of affairs due to their sense of pragmatism: since they cannot, as lay followers, ever achieve moksha. They prefer to let the ascetics achieve completion and perfection by strictly observing the vows taken by them rather than seeking to realise these themselves.

Since all life is regarded as sacred and inviolable, the Jains are in principle vegetarians. For improving their karma they feed rats, snakes and ants. In Bombay, there is a man who is earning his livelihood by being carried through the Streets on a bed - as food for the bugs. For Europeans the animal hospitals run by the Jains are strange: it is not only animals suffering from a disease which are brought here but also those which were sought to be saved, perhaps from slaughter, and were so purchased in the market or even directly from the butcher before the deed was committed . In 1875, there were three hundred and ninety-five cows and buffaloes, four blind calves, eight hundred and ninety-four goats, twenty horses, seven cats, two monkeys, two hundred and seventy-four hens, two hundred and ninety ducks, two thousand doves, fifty parrots, twenty-five sparrows and thirty-eight other birds in the animal hospital in Ahmedabad. Some of these hospitals even maintain insectariums where insects brought in before the monsoon, so they can be safe. A certain number of them then kept in one room and the room closed for about ten years, since it assumed that all life would have gone out by then.

Devout Jains are involved in minimising the influx of negative karma and in maximising the inflow of positive karma. They seek to achieve this goal by practicing great self-discipline and by avoiding all kinds of excesses, such as unnecessary travel, useless or sinful speech and the excessive expansion of commerce and business. Instead, they restrict themselves to their residential areas, eat moderately and are charitable. All this activity, including the decision to fast totally, achieved through repeatedly making vows to this effect.

A famous method of fasting, which obviously leads to achievements, which could set records, is to fast on one day, then to take one meal, fast the next two days and have a meal on the following day, then fast for the next three days etc. Having reached the limits of one's physical endurance, one should reverse the process to break the fast gradually. In recent times, a woman has succeeded in stretching the period of fasting and of gradually bringing it to thirty days. For this, she required a total of sixteen months.

Lay people can take the 'five small vows' as opposed to the five great vows' of the monks. This means renunciation of certain foodstuffs such as meat, honey, pumpkins, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, since according to the Jain religion several souls inhabit this foodstuff. Drinking water must be strained and boiled, and after sunset, nothing should be eaten.

Jainism, like all other Asian religions, lays a lot of stress on meditation. A conscious Jain meditates at least once daily for forty-eight minutes, and there are some who meditate two or three times in a day. The prerequisite for successful meditation is indifference towards everything worldly, neutrality, and being kindly disposed towards all living beings.
In addition to these activities, which presume self-discipline and control, the devout Jain imposes on himself six necessary duties daily. These include the glorification of the Tirthankaras, daily worship at the temple, the taking of a vow, revering one's guru, maintaining one particular posture and making a confession. The confession plays an important role in the worship. It can either be reeled off as a list of sins or take the form of an auricular confession made to the guru or monk.

An enormous amount of self-discipline is required to put into practice these vows and restrictions. This self-discipline is the basis of the Jain religion. Since no deity intervenes and the purging of the karma depends on the individual's effort, it clearly means an extremely difficult and thorny path has to be trodden by the individual. A European misses the Joie de vivre a little. This the Jains, like all other people, undoubtedly acquire along the way but the religion itself does not expressly mention it.

Certain social achievements deserve admiration. In contrast to the Hindu milieu, the widows, for example, enjoy a better and unproblematic status. If a marriage is in the offing and the family is too poor to bear the expenditure, the burden is shared by the entire community. In addition, the Jains finance the education of a student from a common fund: students receive a stipend, money for books, and personal necessities, and live in the Jain hostels in big cities. In return, the students have to keep the community informed of their progress and have to attend the class on religion daily. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Jain community is particularly well educated and cultured. This is yet another reason, in addition to their affluence, why Jains are often envied and resented.

Rituals accompanying life
The adaptation of certain ideas from Hinduism has resulted in the Jains having to perform innumerable rituals; a few are briefly mentioned here.

Five months into the pregnancy, the prospective mother is blessed with holy water to the accompaniment of the recitation of mantras in the Garbhadhana ceremony (the laying of the fruit of the womb) performed for the happiness and prosperity of the child.

Three months later, in a similar ceremony, prayers held for the birth of a boy. Soon after the birth, the horoscope is drawn up, which is very important for every Indian. In addition, mantras (devotional incantation) are recited to Ambika (refer to the chapter on Mt. Abu for the significance of this goddess)

On the third day the infant is, shown the sun during the day and the moon at night for the first time.

Within a month of the birth, mother and child cleansed of the impurities accompanying the birth in a ceremonial bath. A few days later, the child named either by the parents or a particularly respected family member or by a highly revered guru.

Sometime between the age of one and five, the child's hair is shorn off ceremoniously and the hair is either consecrated to a deity or buried in a temple.

If a Jain is devout or reveres a particular guru, he can become a member of the following through the performance of the Samana ceremony especially for this purpose. Although practically every family has its own traditional guru, yet the choice is of the individual. He can make decision at any time, once the individual concerned attains majority and provided he feels the need for it.

The marriage customs too are very similar to those of the Hindus. These include the long drawn out process of the parents selecting the partner by means of horoscopes and initiating inquiries. Another example is the Circumambulation of the holy fire and the tying together of the hands of both partners with a string.

We have already seen how important it is for the Jains to take vows, so after the marriage the couple should promise before a monk to refrain from doing certain things for a certain period of time, and if possible for their whole lives.

Even the last rites are similar to those of the Hindus the corpse is cremated and the ashes scattered in the river. The only difference is that the pile of wooden logs are on a small base made of stone or metal so as not to injure any living beings when the wooden logs are set ablaze.
This very brief overview of the rites of passage is necessarily of a general nature, i.e. the rites mentioned here may differ from region to region and sect to sect. Naturally, the degree of devoutness, the fact whether a family is conservative or liberal as well as the level of education play as decisive a role here as in Europe.

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