Jainism: Upholding Non-Violence, Compassion And Respect
Jainism may be an ancient religion, but its ideas and values are timeless responses to a modern world fraught with problems such as climate change and political tension.
At the core of the faith are the virtues of non-violence, compassion and respect for all living beings – from humans right down to plants and microorganisms.
The followers of Jainism, called Jains, do not worship a creator God. Instead, they follow the examples, and subscribe to the teachings, of a succession of 24 Tirthankaras (or enlightened spiritual teachers), a Sanskrit word that translates to “fordmakers”.
Fordmakers are so called because they had all found the ford – a passage across the stream of endless reincarnations – to enlightenment, where the soul is finally free from cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Having succeeded in their quest, they shared the path that they took so others can follow.
The most recent Tirthankara of this era is Lord Mahavir. His teachings have been compiled into sacred books known as Agam Sutra and are widely followed by Jains.
For Jains, the ultimate goal in life is to attain the Three Jewels of gyan, darshan and charitra, which refer to the right knowledge, right belief and right conduct respectively. This constitutes the path to enlightenment.
Key Tenets of Jainism
The foundational premise in Jainism is ahimsa, which is translated as “non-violence”. Jains avoid causing harm, whether intentional or unintentional, to any living being through their speech, actions or thoughts, choosing instead to practise compassion towards all life forms.
Anekantavad is another important principle in Jainism. Translating to “non-absolutism”, it is about respecting all points of view. Jains believe that there are different perceptions of the truth, and unless one is enlightened, only limited viewpoints can be seen or experienced.
Aparigraha, meaning “non-possessiveness”, is a call to Jains to minimise their desire for material things and limit their attachment to their possessions. Living a simple life is how Jains conserve the world’s scarce resources.
Jainism in Practice
Jains strive to live their lives in accordance with the Five Vows: ahimsa, or non-violence; satya, which refers to truth at all times; asteya, not taking anything without the permission of its rightful owner; brahmacharya, the practice of celibacy, or chaste living for lay followers; and aparigraha, limiting desires.
They greet each other with “Jai Jinendra!”, which means “Honour to the Supreme Jinas!” “Jina” is another name for Tirthankaras. Translated as “victor”, it is in reference to how the Tirthankaras achieved victory over cycles of reincarnations. This greeting is a reminder for all Jains to reach their ultimate goal of attaining enlightenment.
Worship, for Jains, involves performing prayers, reciting scriptures and singing holy songs. To them, the most important prayers revolve around being alert about one’s actions, confessing wrongdoings, seeking forgiveness and resolving not to repeat mistakes. All these rituals should be practised with focused attention and quietude for the well-being of the followers.
When it comes to their diet, Jains are strict vegetarians as they do not consume food that has been obtained through the violent act of killing an animal.
They refrain from eating root vegetables as well, because roots host microscopic life forms that contain living souls, and, according to Jainism, should not be killed. Another reason is that Jains believe that many root vegetables are ananthkay, which means “one body with infinite lives”, and are hence best avoided to minimise violence.
Drinking alcohol, taking drugs and smoking cigarettes are also forbidden in Jainism.
In Singapore, the Jain community is close-knit and comprises about 2000 people from 450 families. They hold prayer meetings, religious classes and celebrate major Jain festivals at The Singapore Jain Religious Society.
Major Events in the Jain Calendar
Paryushan, Ayambil Oli and Mahavir Jayanti are some of the important festivals that Jains commemorate.
Rather than being a celebration involving sensory excitement, Paryushan is about reflecting on one’s chitta, or state of being.
During this time, Jains focus on the enrichment of the inner self, with many choosing to fast to purify the soul and attain internal peace.
On the last day of the festival, they pray for all the energies that have been spent externally to return to the eternal self. Reflecting on their actions, thoughts and words, they bow down to ask forgiveness for any that may have brought pain and suffering to other living beings.
Jains also observe Ayambil Oli, a religious period of nine days during which food is prepared without any oil, dairy or spices.
The intent is to divert attention from pleasures, focusing instead on abstinence and simplicity, to seek inner silence.
Mahavir Jayanti is a joyous event celebrating the birthday of the twenty-fourth Tirthankara, Lord Mahavir.
The occasion sees Jains gathering to sing Lord Mahavir’s praises and retell the stories of his childhood with the purpose of remembering the values and virtues of the most recent Tirthankara, whose example every follower of Jainism aspires to follow.
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