Few things have simultaneously puzzled, intrigued, tortured, enraptured, dominated, bedevilled and promised enlightenment and salvation to the hapless human race than religion.
I think we can all see historically that it has also been a forceful and dramatic agent of conflict, of moral rectitude, and of diminution of anyone or anything not in congruence with current mores, although more often derived from political power than philosophy.
From time to time often in response to stratification or other venal shortcomings within the current dominant religion, other very different religions and belief systems spring up. We can see this most recently in Europe with the Reformation, but it has, of course happened over human history.
One such example of course is Buddhism, a breakaway from Hinduism in a way, brought about through the teachings of an enlightened Gautama Buddha. There is no deity, but a system of living and self enquiry that retains an appealing simplicity over 2,000 years later. It consists of a series of precepts for being IN the world, but the inner world is striving for detachment; in time differing shades of opinion and practice have resulted in what appear to be competing versions of the Buddhist path to release from the cycle of life.
The Jain religion is tiny by comparison to most world religions, and to my knowledge, excepting their diaspora in other countries, exists only in India and in discrete Indian communities. There is no deity, but a succession of Tirthankaras – individuals who are represented as having achieved enlightenment through various means and practices. Chief among the Jain tenets is a profound respect for all living things, with, to westerners, a surprising breadth of interpretation. This is based on the philosophy that everything has differing levels of senses, feeling and awareness.
I witnessed a striking example of compassion from a Jain acquaintance who worked as a jeweller in Delhi. One of the hotel watchmen had told him of a donkey stranded on an island in the road not far away, rather dazed and injured from being struck by a vehicle. My friend immediately went to see what was happening, and on the spot got a couple of men and a flat cart to rescue the donkey and bring it to where a vet could tend to its thankfully not serious injuries. Once treated and calmed down, the men were instructed to take the donkey outside the city to some meadows where it could recover. My friend also arranged for bales of green fodder to be taken to the donkey on a daily basis until it was quite well enough to manage on its own.
Not only do they not consume any animal products in any form, but they further restrict the harm they do by principally consuming things which occur without unnecessary tillage, such as fruit, nuts, preferably wild grains and greens of all sorts. They will not eat things that grow below the ground, such as garlic, onions, – the tillage destroys worms and other soil biota.
As one might expect of a human creation, Jainism has devotees who take their their interpretation to a much more stringent level than others. The most striking of these are the Digambara, or ‘sky-clad’ who might be seen from time to time, usually in the countryside. They do not use any form of transport other than their feet, they will not sleep except in consecrated premises, and they will not eat other than food which is freely given to them. They never beg or ask for sustenance. However the most obvious mark of these sky-clad people is that they go naked, for fear of trapping an insect in the folds of their clothing, they often wear a cotton mask over their mouth and nose to prevent accidental inhalation of creatures, and they also gently whisk the ground before them to avoid treading on any living thing.
There is an astonishing selflessness among Jains, even to the point of denying the self. The most dramatic example I can point to in this respect is the willing self starvation by a Jain nun in one of their holiest sites, at Shravanbelagola in South India. The story of this woman’s surrender of her physical being is recounted wonderfully by William Dalrymple, noted India-phile and historian in a work entitled Nine Lives, to which I add a link here