You may wonder that as a Jain – a religion followed by so few people in the world compared to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism – what difference can you make in the context of interfaith dialog? It is true, Jains form a very small percentage of Indian population (estimated around 0.5% of India's population, by 2001 census, but the actual number may be a closer to 1%). Add to that additional challenges, and you might think there is not much that you as an individual can do or influence as a Jain in the larger interfaith dialog. But we beg to differ.
Let us look at the challenges and how they have been addressed by various Jains throughout the history, resulting in influencing society at large in some very important ways.
The first and foremost challenge is at the philosophical level. Who is a Jain? He/She is that person who has faith in the fundamental teachings of the Tirthankars (Jins who spend their lives expounding the path of libration) and whose prime goal is towards the purification of his/her soul. Taking the point further, a Jain's ultimate goal would be to attain complete independence from every other Jiv and Pudgal (what we refer to as Karmic Bondage). So if one is trying to liberate oneself from all bondages, one may ask, why should we work on building bridges with others? Interestingly, Jainism also tells us about "Parasparopgraho Jivanam – that all lives are bound together by mutual support and interdependence”. Our relationship with other living beings has been established over multiple birth-cycles. Under normal circumstances interdependence would give rise to attachment. How does one go about managing these seemingly opposite goals – of detachment, while managing interdependence? The answer lies in self-purification, and with the purification of the soul we expose our true compassion. True compassionate nature of one soul inspires and helps to uplift another soul without getting unduly attached (effectively learning to live in an interdependent universe without attachment). By its very nature a detached person has a better grasp of truth and because of this their efforts to improve society are very effective. Jain history has sufficient examples of how saints have made a major impact on society without diverging from their core goal of reaching Moksha.
The next challenge is that Jainism does not believe in proselytizing (i.e. forcefully converting). How does one bring about change in people's beliefs without converting them to Jainism? It is related to the process of bringing about change. Mahavir and Buddha lived during similar periods. Based on available literature one can clearly say that Buddha was a great orator, very convincing, and direct in his approach. He called a spade a spade and did not hesitate to directly criticize the existing social ills of casteism and Brahminic superiority. Mahavir was not only against all forms of casteism but also against any form of gender bias. However, his approach was more subtle. Mahavir was logical, highly interactive, and always presented a contextual and a relative argument. Rather than directly criticizing the Brahmins he actually worked with them. In fact all his initial followers were Brahmins. Mahavir apparently believed that the best way to improve a Brahmin (a person proud of his heritage and religious beliefs) is not to criticize him but to remind him about the true qualities of a Brahmin. There is reasonable historical evidence to substantiate that Jains did not convert many Brahmins to traditional Jains, but many scholars agree that the vegetarian culture among many Brahmins and other Indian traditions of the time could be credited to the Jain influence.
Fundamental to Jain philosophy is an approach that says change will not happen by claiming philosophical superiority, but by making people understand and realize the core values – the core values that bring about an inner change. Mahavir told Gautam Swami that his path did not have monopoly to salvation; salvation can be achieved in multiple ways. This is one area where the approach of eastern faiths is different than the Abrahamic faiths. The key point here is respecting and understanding the other person's point of view, even when one has areas of disagreement. If one handles the situation properly, you will find more areas of agreement and very few areas of disagreement.
Yet another way of bringing about change can be gleaned from the famous Chandanbala episode. This unique occurrence highlights many aspects of the Jain philosophy. However, the point that we want to highlight is the systematic approach that Mahavir followed to bring about a social change. To bring about change people first need to be made aware that there is an issue; second, that the issue needs to be clearly highlighted, third a correct path needs to be shown by setting a personal example, and ideally one would like the transformation to occur without hurting anyone's feelings, including those of the perpetrator responsible for the ill. For six months Mahavir would go to different houses for alms, but after seeing the house he would simply return without accepting any food. This created tremendous amount of curiosity in the town as to what mistakes the townspeople were committing that the saint would not accept alms from them. Second, even when he accepted the food from Chandanbala, he did not do that at the first instant, but did so at the second instant; highlighting both the state and the suffering of a female slave. Third by fasting for six long months he set an example, and showed his willingness to sacrifice himself for the just cause. Finally, in this whole episode, Mahavir never criticized or accused any individual directly, he simply brought to limelight the ills of the society and by doing so he brought about a major social transformation.
For Jains, Mahavir is a highly revered Tirthankar. Out of great respect Jains call their Param-Guru as Bhagwan Mahavir or Mahavir Swami. But does it matter to Mahavir weather we refer to him as Vardhaman, Mahavir, Swami, Bhagwan, or by any other name? For Mahavir, the only thing that mattered was that other souls should also reach the same highest level of purity that he had succeeded to attain. Mahavir set the example of self-improvement, equality, and humility for others to follow.
The above points are by no means comprehensive but they seem to bring out the salient approaches followed by Jain seers and leaders during their interactions with other communities. In many respect these points reflect the fundamental Jain concepts of Ahimsa and Anekantvad.
Looking beyond Mahavir, and his life, we note a few key historical events that exemplify the influence of Jains in the Indian Society.
Today, around 400 million Indians are practicing vegetarians or at least believe in a vegetarian heritage, according to a survey conducted by The Hindu newspaper. Followers of Vedic tradition or Sanātana Dharma (loosely referred as Hinduism) were traditionally not vegetarians. Hindu texts such as Vedas, Upanishads, or Gita specifically do not prohibit meat or other animal products for consumption, though consumption of such items are discouraged. There are, in fact, many references in these texts that encourage vegetarianism. For example, the text describing the laws of Manu mentions, Law 48: "Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to (the attainment of) heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun (the use of) meat." Jain monks after Mahavir's time seem to have used the combination of logic, highlighting references to their own Hindu religious text, and ayurveda to convince the larger Indian population of both the spiritual and health benefits of a vegetarian diet.
The largest influence of Jains across the Indian continent occurred during the Maurya Dynasty. Chandragupta Maurya adopted Jainism and eventually became a monk. Chandragupta was a disciple of Acharya Bhadrabahu and is believed to have observed the rigorous Jain ritual of santhara towards his death. There is some dispute about Chandragupta Maurya's son Bindusara's religious belief, some claim he followed Jainism, while others claimed him to be a follower of the Ajivika faith (third stream of the Shraman tradition, now extinct, that believed in Niyati - destiny or fate). It was Ashoka the third, Mauryan monarch who had the most influence on the Indian society. Ashoka's empire ranged from Afghanistan to the north-west, Baluchistan to the west, Northern Tamil Nadu to the south and Bengal to the east. While the early part of Ashoka's reign was quite violent, he became a follower of the Buddha's teachings after his conquest of Kalinga in the present-day state of Orissa. In one of his earlier battles as a prince, Ashoka was injured in Ujjain. During this period he stayed in a Buddhist monastery for a prolonged period where he was treated in hiding to protect him from the loyalists of his elder sibling Susima. This is where he seemed to have developed a liking for Buddhism. Ashoka and specially his venerable son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra did a lot for the spreading of Buddhist philosophy outside India. Even though Ashoka favored Buddhism, there is significant evidence of his also being influenced by Jainism. One of his wives Padmavati was a practicing Jain. Without taking anything away from Buddhism's strong commitment to Ahimsa, vegetarianism per se is of secondary importance in Buddhism. There is sufficient evidence to show Buddha supported and even promoted vegetarianism, but there is also evidence that Buddha did not specifically edict his followers to practice vegetarianism. Ashoka, on the other hand, specifically enacted a law against killing certain animals and promoted respect for all life form and nature very aggressively. He banned live sacrifices and sport hunting. Ashoka urged his people to follow a vegetarian diet, and prohibited the practice of burning forests or agricultural wastes that might harbor wild animals. A long list of animals appear on his protected species list, including bulls, wild ducks, squirrels, deer, porcupines and pigeons. This clearly appears to be a Jain influence. Finally, the person who contributed most to Jain influence in the Maurya dynasty is Samrat Samprati (224-215 BCE), grandson of Ashoka. Samrat Sampati was a practicing Jain and has been credited to have built over 125 Jain temples. While details on the duration of his reign vary, there is little doubt about his significant contribution to the Jain heritage.
The 34 Ellora caves excavated on the Charananadri hills near Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, were built between 5th century and 10th century. There are 12 Buddhist, 17 Hindu, and 5 Jain caves, built in proximity. These caves demonstrate the harmony and the friendly interaction that occurred between the different religious groups in southern and south central parts of India during that time period. Jain caves were built in the Jain Digamber tradition. A recent publication of the history of Tulu language, still widely spoken in coastal Karnataka, speaks volumes of the great and positive influence the Digambar Jain community had over the development and traditions of that area.
Bhinmal today is a small town in the Jalore District of Rajasthan, but at one time it was the capital of ancient Gujarat. At that time the town was called Bhillamala. A booming trading place between 4th and the 12th centuries Bhinmal played a big role in the spread of Jain influence in both Gujarat and Rajasthan. Stone inscriptions of the year 1277 A.D. are found among ruins of temples. Bhinmal is also known for its contributions to mathematics, astronomy, art and literature. Jainism seems to have had a huge influence in defining the culture of both Gujarat and Rajasthan, regardless of the fact that Jains are a minority in these states.
Jains have had interesting interactions with Islamic leaders and kings. Many early Islamic invaders and rulers did destroy a lot of Hindu and Jain temples. The native population was prosecuted and many families who were earlier following Jainism did convert to Islam (documentation of such conversion is available in areas like Rajasthan and southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu). On the other hand we also have incidents when Muslims fought for Jains against other Muslims to protect Jain shrines.
Jinaprabha Suri's (d.1333) interactions with Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq (r.1325-1351) are quite interesting. Jinaprabha went to Delhi to meet Muhammad bin Tughluq to recover an idol that had been taken from a temple during his conquest of Gujarat. During his first visit, he was able to impress Tughluq with his knowledge of all religions and Indian philosophical schools. The Sultan awarded the monk with some gifts, but not the statue that he was looking for. However, soon after when Tughluq faced certain religion related administrative issues and needed advice on how to settle it, he invited Jinaprabha Suri to Delhi. This time Jinaprabha Suri was treated with a lot of respect and was able to recover the sacred statue.
Akbar the Great, the 3rd Mughal emperor of India honored Hiravijaya Suri, the leader of the Shvetambara Tapa Gachchha. Hiravijaya Suri persuaded the emperor to forbid the slaughter of animals for six months in Gujarat. Akbar also abolished the Sujija Tax (confiscation of the property of deceased persons) and Sulka Tax (a tax on pilgrims). Apart from freeing caged birds and prisoners, Akbar is said to have given up hunting and meat-eating. He also declared "Amari Ghosana" banning the killing of animals during Jain festival of Paryushan and Mahavir Jayanti. He rolled back the Jazia tax (tax on non-Muslims) from Jain pilgrim places like Palitana. Jainism also played a huge part in Akbar's philosophical thinking. In defining the faith Din-I-Ilahi, he used the idea of a single God from Islam and Vedanta, but Jainism seems to have influenced the concept of Non-Violence and tolerance to all view-point. Jain monks also gained the respect of the Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan.
The interaction of Shrimad Rajchandraji and Mahatma Gandhi are very well documented, and well know. We have included a contributive article from the Atlanta Jain Center that describes this point in more detail.
Acharya Sushil Muni acted as an intermediary between the Government of India and Sikh community during the troubled times in Punjab. Acharya Mahapragya lectured about forgiveness to Muslims (based on Islamic principles) after the sectarian Gujarat riots. Recently, Acharya Mahapragya co-authored a book with Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (Ex-President of India) titled "The Family and the Nation”, that talks about the way to channelize the inherent good in Indian culture, irrespective of religious affiliation, to build a stronger, more humane society.
So to summarize, Jains, even with their relatively small population, made a big positive impact on the society. They have interacted with others keeping the basic principles of Ahimsa and Anekantwad in mind. So when we, Jains living in Northern America interact with people of other faiths, if we use compassion as our guide and not attachment to our Jain faith, we too can make contributions in our unique ways. Always respect and try to understand other's point of view. There may be disagreements, but in the initial meetings, search for common ground. Learn about the goodness in others and try to emphasize that. If we follow this approach one would soon realize that we have many things in common and that we may have something to learn from others too. Learn what is appropriate to talk and discuss things in cordial and appreciative manner. Going beyond Interfaith activities, it is the responsibility of a true Jain to fight for just causes. Fighting for truth is not easy, it involves commitment and sacrifices. Practice of Ahimsa is not easy, but when we learn to practice it both physically and emotionally, we do feel a unique sense of satisfaction that words cannot describe. We can stay silent, but in the words of Abdul Malik Mujahid in his article ‘Why Interfaith dialog', "Silence may not kill, but dialogue definitely heals. Dialogue opens minds and the human touch opens hearts”. With participation in interfaith dialog, we too can open minds and touch others.