On Jainism and Social Justice
As Jains around the world meditate and reflect on the final day of Paryusan, the events of this day nine years ago give us further pause of Jainism’s meaning and message. Our prayers and thoughts are with the families of those souls whose lives were taken on that terrible morning. We all mourn those who perished and, in our mourning, must reflect upon how such awful deaths can be prevented. One could argue that acts of terrible violence on the scale such as the attacks of September 11th, 2001 renders the non-violence philosophy of Jainism at best impotent and at worst irrelevant to modern international relations. What does Jainism’s principle of ahimsa (non-violence) really have to say vis-à-vis atrocity, aggression, and violence? Genocide in Sudan. Nuclear threats in North Korea. Extremism in Iran. Militant xenophobism on the rise in Europe. Continued civil conflict in many parts of India. Persistent unjust military action by the United States in several corners of the globe. For those of us who care about social justice, we cannot sit idly by. The politics and economics of power lead in one direction: violence, disease, and suffering, most often towards the poor and most vulnerable members of our society. We must fight against atrocity and aggression, and we must win. Neutrality is not an option; though we directly may cause no violence, by allowing—and in fact indirectly benefiting via the global economy—we are all culpable. It well beyond my scope here to discuss whether Jains should support military action in Iraq or Afghanistan or Kashmir or Sudan. That is far too deep and difficult a question for the present moment. A broader caveat I should make now is that my understanding of Jainism is limited to the last ten years of my life. A slightly more approachable question is the role of ahimsa in the battle against militarism. And while it is true that Jainism is perhaps the world’s only major religion on behalf of which no wars have ever been fought, that fact does not bear too heavily on the power struggles of the present day. Here the most important figure in my mind is Shrimad Rajchandraji. The Jain philosopher and disciple of Mahavir, born two years prior to Gandhiji, was one of the single most important philosophical influences on the Mahatma’s life. They were close friends through the end of Shrimad Rajchandraji’s life, and exchanged a series of letters that would bear heavily on Gandhiji’s later political actions. The British Raj was a devastatingly powerful and violent empire and yet it fell ultimately to the hands of a largely non-violent struggle. Gandhiji’s brilliance was that he engaged and intertwined spiritual and political matters, arguing for Indian internal self-reliance, simplicity, and detachment while fighting politically for dignity, self-governance, and freedom. There are three primary threats to global peace and security: militarism, materialism, and religious intolerance. I have spoken above about the Jain’s response to militarism: ahimsa (non-violence). To materialism, Jainism says: aparigraha (non-possessiveness). To religious intolerance, we say anekantvad (non-absolutism). In my reading (again with the caveat that I have only begun my own learning process), these three Jain responses—ahimsa, aparigraha, and anekantvad—to the earth’s most pressing problems—are not merely natural arguments that flow from Jain’s philosophy but rather they form the very core of Jainism itself. Jainism seems to me to be at once a spiritual and political philosophy, and that is the fundamental reason why Jainism remains relevant to modern societies. Now, materialism. So engrained is materialism in our society that it has become cliché to even lament the materialism. The reality TV shows. The soul-less, aesthetic-less odes-to-concrete strip malls. The disregard for environmental justice. The 220 million tons of garbage each year that the EPA estimates our country generates. On a personal level, vegetarianism and attempts to limit personal environmental impact and waste, driven by Jainist philosophy, are important. But doing our own parts does little to prevent the strip malls. To fight materialism at a broader level, we need to succeed in inculcating our institutions and businesses with Jain principles. This is intensely practical as well as spiritual, as Gandhiji states about Rajchandraji in Experiments in Truth, "People normally believe that truth-telling and successful business never go together. Shri Rajchandbhai on the other hand firmly believed and advised that truth and honesty were not only useful but essential to all good business. Morality is not packed within a prayer book, it is to be practiced and lived in all stations of life. Religion and morality sustain both good life and good business.” This notion will appeal to young Jains who are driven by their parents and society to succeed. The question is, can we succeed at business and work in a way that furthers our spiritual development and that drives social justice? The answer to me is yes, but it does require work. Big business these days after all make huge profits on environmental degradation, violence towards impoverished workers, cigarette smoking, guns, alcohol, and fast food. The way to win this fight is not through withdrawing from the marketplace, but rather by entering the marketplace giving consumers better products. Religious intolerance is a mainstream, dangerous force throughout the globe. The use of the proposed Islamic cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero by right-wing politicians to inflame Americans’ suffering from the twin tower attacks was but the most recent example in American political life. In India, violent groups under the guise of the Hindu religion continue to threaten the very fabric of Indian secular democracy. From Al-Qaeda to the present Iranian government, militants defile the name of Islam for their own gains. There are countless other examples throughout the globe. Jainism’s view of anekantvad stands strongly against such absolutist thinking, and argues that the heart of all religions is the stewardship of the soul. Taking this spiritual view, the trends towards militarism, materialism, and religious intolerance are symptomatic of an underlying disease process: our global society’s losing touch with our souls. This is where the depth of Jainism can help us all. Indeed, if ahimsa, aparigraha, and anekantvad are the central motifs of Jainism’s spiritual and political philosophies, then the supremacy of the soul is the religion’s essence. In Gandhiji’s words, with concepts heavily influenced by Shrimad Rajchandji: "Religion is the spiritual quality of the soul. It is embedded in human nature in visible or invisible form. By religion we are able to know the duty of man, by it we are able to know our relations (or kinship) with other living beings. But all this requires the capacity to know one’s self. If we do not know ourselves we cannot know others rightly. By religion one can know himself.” Today, we can communicate across the globe literally at the speed of photons, but the neurons in our brains are so inundated with extraneous (mis)information that we easily are led astray. Increases in the incidence of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, violent video game addictions among children, and motor vehicle accidents caused by texting are three public health symptoms of this phenomenon. The deeper meaning of these symptoms is that, despite the remarkable, wonderful democratization of knowledge, we and our children are at greater risk than ever of not knowing our own souls. There are no simple solutions here, other than study, meditation, reflection, persistence, and faith. Faith in ourselves and in others, that belief in the veracity of our souls, is something that I have seen to be engrained among my new family members who had the fortune of growing up Jain. This faith provides resilience against the distractions of the modern world. Interestingly, the single most important principle that my father a passed on to me was this very point, summarized in one of his more memorable teachings: "I am that I am that I am that I am, and so it is”. Today I was reminded of this when we repeated "So hum” during Pratikraman. I feel that Jainism should permeate our work and personal lives and not only be present when we decline meat or take samayik or go to temple. If we are to make Jainism relevant to the world, if we as Jains are going to fight for social justice and against disease and ignorance and violence and environmental degradation, we need to incorporate Jainism into the institutions that we are a part of. This in my mind is also how we will make Jainism relevant to our children. There are only ten million Jains around the world, but the story of Shrimad Rajchandji and the birth of a free India is testament enough to the insight and impact that Jainism can have on the broader world. And so, on this last day of Paryushan 2010, coinciding with nine-year anniversary of the deadliest attack on American soil, we mourn those who were lost, and in their memory, we reflect upon how we can work towards a more peaceful world. I firmly believe that Jainism has much to offer to achieve this vision.
Michhami Dukkadam, Duncan