Recently, a young Jain couple in Surat made the news for their decision to embrace monkhood and renounce not only their wealth of 100 crore but also their three-year-old daughter. This got me thinking a lot about the dichotomy between wealth and religion. The wealthier we get, the more we donate to our religion. Yet in many ways, the wealthier we get, the less religious we actually are.
Last month was the annual "Paryushan" holiday for the Jain community. It is meant to celebrate self-purification and to increase their individual spiritual growth. Fasting and meditation are the two key components of these eight holy days. Many try to fast for at least one day while others do it for all eight.
As the wealthy young opt for "diksha," they also have an outside world that they've come from which will continue to be there as a support if and when needed.
In theory, fasting is good for the body. I also believe it is good for the mind and for each individual's spiritual growth. I've done it so many times now but the only person who knew about it was me. Over the years, it seems like while the Jain population has remained static, the number of "athais" (those who undertake the eight-day fast) has exponentially grown. At times it feels like a competition in my community—where families are trying to "out-Jain" each other!
I recently saw photographs posted on social media of a friend's family who literally travelled halfway around the world to attend an "athai" function. There was a lavish celebration held at the most exclusive five star hotel and hundreds attended. By the clothes, the staging, and ridiculous amounts of food served, I couldn't tell if I was looking at a wedding reception or a religious celebration.
I started mentally tabulating the amount of time, money and effort spent for one woman's "athai" and it troubled me deeply that one person's self-purification was not only racking up huge costs but also adding to pollution—was it not possible to simply skip a few meals? Do they realise how much food this celebration would have bought for the starving?
How can the Jain community accept this and not see it as standing in complete contradiction to its verses that speak against excess?
I kept these thoughts to myself for almost a month. But then I read about the young couple receiving "diksha" in Surat. Let's forget the fact that they both decided to partake in a regular life before choosing to become monks—they got married and had a child and then had the luxury to walk away from it all. The couple (and the community) believe that by giving up their massive net worth and their child they are sacrificing greatly, but it actually speaks to their privilege and not their spirituality.
A couple more Jain monks will likely not change the world the same way that starting something like the next Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation [with their wealth] could.
I've spent a good amount of time with Jain monks and we've had a wonderful opportunity to even compare notes of our lives with each other. Often, those who receive "diksha" are seekers, runaways, or people who view the Jain religion as a comforting refuge from the real day to day challenges of their life. I understood that and I also appreciated the fact that a place could empower them to become messengers of a simpler way of life.
But recently, especially over the last 10 years, I've been hearing more and more cases of monks who despite having every other option chose this path. It has become the ultimate sign of "Jain supremacy." It's almost like the belief is there that "moksha" is faster to achieve because of privilege.
Part of a monk's life is withdrawing from the greater world. In theory, you are supposed to give up all your security blankets. But these days, as the wealthy young opt for "diksha," they also have an outside world that they've come from which will continue to be there as a support if and when needed.
Do you think a monk diagnosed with stage 3 cancer without a family is going to get the same treatment as these Surat monks? Who out of them will be flown to the US for treatment? I think we know the answer. We also know that every accomplishment within the monk world will be celebrated, commended and even revered far more because it has come from someone with privilege who chose to give it up. Sure they may not ask for special favours but who are we kidding when we know how much of a part favouritism and "status" even in religion.
In the case of these "privileged" monks, I equate monkhood with how I view dying—it's the easy way out. Living is the tougher choice... It takes routine, discipline and great self-control.
Is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps for a religion that struggles to teach its ways to the world and stay modern and in the news it's a good thing. Personally, I know my privilege and background pushed my own story of recovery from traditional medicines into the spotlight. These traditional treatments had existed for a long time and were talked of by many, but my "status" made them more prominent. That hasn't stopped me from doing good but I know what that privilege also means. My message relies on my education and acquired experiential knowledge. I'm using what I've been gifted with to be the best version of myself as a Jain I can be.
I wish this young Jain couple could have started a foundation and deposited their ₹100 crore there. They could have used it to and used it to teach the true philosophy behind the religion through their actions rather than by turning away from their worldly life. You don't have to go to movies, hang out with friends or be a parent if you don't want to even in the "real world". A couple more Jain monks will likely not change the world the same way that starting something like the next Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could. Not everyone gets to be in the privileged position in the first place to have the opportunity to be a Bill and Melinda Gates.
You don't need to renounce your money to do some good with it. And you certainly don't need to be a monk to behave like a saint.
In the case of these "privileged" monks, I equate monkhood with how I view dying—it's the easy way out. Living is the tougher choice—that's what I equate with our actions. It takes routine, discipline and great self-control. There is no pre-dictated formula in your own life so it's actually much more challenging and thus that much more "moksha" fulfilling. Make choices within your privilege to lead the life you wish.
At the end of the day, you don't need to fast to have a celebration. You don't need to spend your money to prove your devotion. You don't need to renounce your money to do some good with it. And you certainly don't need to be a monk to behave like a saint. If you follow these simple rules, you will actually lead a simple life and uncover the real spirit behind Jainism.
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