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A Gentle Faith

Nonviolence is key to the Jain way

By Cameron Knight · August 17th, 2005 · Cover Story
jainweb082Photo by Cameron Knight
The suburban home in Amelia looked similar to any other Ohio home hosting a gathering. Cars lined the driveway and the chatter of children drifted from the backyard. But this wasn't a birthday party or a family reunion.

More than 2,500 years ago Lord Mahavir, the 24th and last Tirhankara, or spiritual leader of the Jain religion, was born. After 12 years of meditation, Lord Mahavir had a spiritual realization and spent the next 30 years preaching in India. Now his followers are known as Jains, and on July 17 dozens of local Jains gathered for a ceremony, called puja, in the home of Sam Patel of Amelia.

"Puja" roughly translates into prayer or worship and is a common ceremony in Jainism. Puja takes place under every full moon in India, but in the U.S. the practice is less common because to Jains keep busier schedules, Patel says.

Puja celebrates the life of Lord Mahavir, who attained moksha, or enlightenment, and taught others how to follow the path he found. But Lord Mahavir is not considered a god, nor are any of the other 23 Tirhankaras in Jainism.

"Jainism is not a religion; it is a philosophy of life," says Anusuya Shah.

Shah is a Jain from Singapore and the mother of the president of the Jain Center of Cincinnati and Dayton, located in West Chester, which is the only Jain Temple for more than 250 miles.

Jains attempt to live by five mahavratas or great vows: nonviolence, non-possession, honesty, not stealing and sexual restraint. These principles are adopted by monks, who follow them strictly, while lay people do the best they can.

The fundamentals of this philosophy are mirrored in puja.

Before the ceremony, like doctors preparing for surgery, Patel and others working in the puja secure knots in the scarves they have wrapped around their faces.

But this is not for modesty's sake. The scarves prevent them from inadvertently harming other living beings.

"When you speak, your breath can be hard on things like air bacteria," Patel says.

This form of nonviolent expression is practiced in part due to the Jains' belief in reincarnation. Jain monks try not to even step on grass.

Similar to the Hindus who surround them in their native land, Jains are vegetarian, and in some cases are fruititarian, meaning they will only eat the parts of an organism that will not kill it when removed. In puja, this principle can been seen through the use of milk when cleaning the statue of Lord Mahavir and the use of rosebuds when adorning the singashan or temporary temple in which the statue is set.

But their nonviolence does not stop there, according to Geeta Hemani, president of the Jain Center.

"Nonviolence is not just in terms of deeds, but in terms of your thoughts and feelings," she says.

Shah, Hemani's mother, explains.

"If I scold her and tell her things, it means that I am killing her feelings," Shah says. "This is equivalent to killing an animal."

But this principle can't be followed by simply tying on a scarf.

Wearing a small white mask instead of a scarf, Aacharya Rupachandgi, a Jain monk, descends the stairs of Patel's house to deliver a message during the puja. The people in attendance flow around him, and children are moved away from where he sits. It is extremely disrespectful to touch a Jain monk.

Until recently, Rupachandgi would not have been allowed to travel anywhere his feet wouldn't take him. But the growing population of Jains in the United States has caused some rules to be relaxed, so that teachers from India can nurture Jain practice in this country.

"My daughter got married and came to the U.S.," Shah says. "But she can't teach her children and her children can't teach their children."

"So the monks changed their vows," Hemani says. "They adapted to this day and age."

But the process a monk must follow has remained the same for thousands of years. First, a monk gives up all material possessions in a process called diksha. They cannot even own food; monks traditionally beg for meals.

Then the monk, through prayer and meditation, attempts to attain kavalgyan, which is the spiritual revelation Lord Mahavir experienced when he attained infinite knowledge. Through this knowledge, Mahavir reached the goal of Jainism: enlightenment or moksha.

Hindus also strive for moksha and Buddhists possess a similar idea, but Jains believe their faith to be much older than the others.

In a centuries-old tradition, Patel holds a small vessel with a spigot over a large pot. His guests gather around him and fill similar vessels with the liquids that have washed over their founder's statue. They then take turns pouring the liquids through Patel's vessel, creating a handheld fountain.

This ritual is difficult for Patel to explain, but it is for the participants' benefit, he says.

In the United States, many Jains have achieved material success. Their teachers remind them of the importance of the principle of non-possession.

"We have all the power, human beings have all kinds of power in their bodies," Shah says.

With a child in her lap, Hemani echoes her mother.

"What we believe is that each of us can be like God," she says. ©



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