There are between four and five million Jains in the world (mostly in India), but that’s not the main reason why we hear so little about Jainism. Jains are generally thought of as gentle, kindhearted, simple-living people who don’t wish to hurt a fly. Literally. Ahiṃsā is one of the pillars of Jainism. The term means the absence of desire to harm any life forms. In practice this translates to vegetarianism, as well as scrupulous non-violence and non-injury. One of the faith’s holy texts defines violence simply as
“… removal of life by careless activity of mind, body and speech.”
Well, about that:
Social distancing amidst #covid19 induced lockdown went for a toss in Manpada area of #Dombivali after a group of Jain monks and their disciples from #Mumbai gatherd in a Jain Temple on Thurs morning
Read @fpjindiahttps://t.co/HyQU2kX08E@KDMCOfficial #CoronavirusOutbreakindia pic.twitter.com/DwwvcxpQrH
— Dipti Singh (@diptivsingh) May 29, 2020
Social distancing amidst the COVID-19-induced lockdown went [out the window]… after 50 Jain monks and their disciples from Mumbai gathered for a religious function in a Jain Temple on Thursday morning. … A video of Jain monks and devotees reaching the temple and gathering near the temple on Wednesday and Thursday for a religious event shows how [participants] are mocking the social distancing norm.
Upset neighbors claim that a few of the Jain monks initially told everyone who inquired that there were going to be only 10 people in the temple, tops, and that they’d stay inside. The permit they were granted for the gathering was apparently based on that same representation. But soon,
[O]ver 50 monks were seen near the temple premises on early Thursday morning, followed by the many devotees.
Complained one resident:
“These monks came from a red zone, from Mumbai which is an epicenter of coronavirus in the state. Were these monks … screened, do they have permission to travel during a lockdown? The police have not replied to our queries. They have put our lives in danger.”
The story perhaps has a haughty fear-of-outsiders whiff to it. But if the allegations are true, the Jains in question have almost certainly violated not just the lockdown order, but their own sacred Ahiṃsā principle as well. That’s both disappointing, and dangerous to others.
If there is a dark side to Jainism, it was ably brought to the fore in a 2019 BBC story about young people in India who are joining the religion in bigger numbers than before. Once they undergo deeksha, the ritual of worldly renunciation, and enter monastic life, they’re no longer allowed to hug their loved ones or even look their parents in the eye. Ever.
A Jain nun or monk, we learn,
… will never use a vehicle, never bathe, never sleep under a fan, and never speak on a mobile phone again.
It would be one thing if young people decided to take up that lifestyle after truly coming of age, but it’s not uncommon for preteen kids to get roped in. The BBC interviewed a 12-year-old boy who’d skipped weeks of school to attend a prolonged ascetic retreat, from which he returned covered in boils, with blistered feet, and weighing 40 pounds less than when he went in. He loved it, he said.
“I want to move away from my karmas, my sins. So I want to take deeksha. My guru says I should take it sooner rather than later, so I want to take it before I turn 15.”
A young follower who’d already taken the deeksha recounted that while her life once centered on “family, friends, beauty and career,” she’s now free of such concerns.
“Here we only think about soul, soul and soul,” she says tranquilly.
The monks’ and nuns’ personal gurus can be male or female. These spiritual authorities hold tremendous sway over their acolytes. One newly-minted nun says her guru is
“… everything to me. She is my world. Whatever she says, that is it.”
Does all that sound healthy to you? Me neither. Does it remind you of a cult? Me too.
When Christopher Hitchens asserted that religion poisons everything, I guess there was a reason he didn’t carve out an exception for Jainism.