Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Non-violence leads to the divine

This is a double-header week for the Itinerant Chorister. See also my post on the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor.

I paid a two-part visit to the faith of Jainism. On March 24, I went with Manish Mehta to his lecture at St. John's Episcopal Church in Plymouth, in order to get some background. Then this Sunday afternoon, April 11, I took in part of the celebration of Mahavir Janma Kalyanak at the Jain Temple of Greater Detroit, at 29278 W. 12 Mile Rd. in Farmington Hills. This holiday celebrates the birthday of Mahavir, recognized as the founder of Jainism, about 2600 years ago.

In Jainism, people revere the Jina, the people who have overcome their inner enemies and reached spiritual perfection. There are 24 of them who are among the group who are revered (Mahavir being the most recent), although all Jains aspire to become Jina. Furthermore, they regard all living things as having the potential to become Jina following some cycle of reincarnation. Hence they observe strict vegetarianism, and the most devout ascetics constantly hold a cloth over their mouths in order to avoid accidentally ingesting an insect.

Along with the concept of karma, or liability for one's misdeeds, many of the ideas that I have expressed so far are held in common with Hinduism and Buddhism (although Wikipedia claims that the concept of karma within Jainism is different from within Hinduism). Indeed, many Americans are likely to confuse Jainism with Hinduism. But some things that separate Jainism are: eternity of the universe (destruction of the universe is a Hindu belief); absolute non-violence, extending vegetarianism to the avoidance of eating seeds and roots of plants because of their role in sustaining and propagating plants, and hence souls; equality of all beings, plants included; tolerance of multiple viewpoints; the universal prayer known as Navkar Mantra; the potential for each soul to achieve Moksha, or the highest level of being; each being as master of its own destiny; and emphasis on forgiveness.

Manish brought up the question of whether Jains believe in God. To answer this, he brought up several characteristics of God from other faiths that are not shared in the Jain beliefs. These include God as creator, as destroyer (as in Vishnu in Hinduism), or a merciful or benevolent God, as in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others. The sense in which Jains do believe in God is that they see a spark of divinity in all beings, with the potential to be developed to a higher level, even to the level of Moksha, through these methods: right faith, knowledge, and conduct; meditation and penance; and reincarnation, with each reincarnation holding the promise of bringing a soul closer to divinity.

The central teachings of Jain are: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, chastity, and lack of attachment to possessions. These are observed by all Jains, but are more strictly followed by nuns and monks. Practicing Jains each decide what practices they will follow according to the level of comfort and practicality they are willing to live with.

Jainism is a minority religion in India, with 5 million adherents there, and 350,000 in diaspora, primarily in North America. Their beliefs have had much influence on Indians who are not Jain, notably Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideals of non-violence were influenced by Jainism. Certain trades have a very strong presence of Jains. Even in North America, the marble and stone trade is dominated by Jains, and they have a large presence worldwide in the diamond trade. In India especially, they tend to be in business and law, while in the diaspora, they tend to work more in medicine, academia, and engineering. What all of these professions share in common is a lack of violence toward any living thing.

This photo shows a figure of Mahavir behind the archways on the left side. The silver boxes in the foreground are containers for monetary donations, and the bells hanging from the ceiling are sounded to get the attention of the Jina.

I arrived at the temple looking for my host, Manish Mehta. The person who greeted me first, however, was a friendly man named Avi Shah. I told him who I was looking for and said that my excuse for being late was that I visited the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor earlier the same day. He was familiar with the Unitarian Universalists, and pointed out that their philosophy of non-violence coincides with the Jains. Regardless of the reasoning or supernatural justifications behind it, both of these faiths ended up with a similar purpose.

There are many small figures of the protector gods and goddesses arranged around the temple.

Whoever started the saying "quiet as a church" was not thinking of the social hall downstairs at the Jain Temple. Any social hall at a place of worship for that matter, with kids running around and playing, and people chatting. This one seemed especially spirited, though, and included people shouting and pushing to clear the way to bring food from the kitchen to the serving tables for the lunch.