Saturday, April 21, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

What the world owes to Jainism
By Khushwant Singh

DESPITE ten years in Delhi’s Modern School, an institution founded by the Jain family of Lala Sultan Singh, his son Raghubir Singh and currently controlled by Raghubir Singh’s son General Virandra Singh, I knew nothing about the Jain faith. Even in college I had some friends who were Jains but never got to know anything about their religious beliefs except that they were strict vegetarians. I also learnt that Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Jain tenets and Jains were among the richest of the rich of our country. Also, their temples were amongst the most beautiful in India.

It was only in the 60s when I had to teach a course in comparative religions at Princeton University and later in Swarthmore College and the University of Hawaii that I read books on Jainism in order to pass on the information to my American students. I was deeply impressed with what I learnt. I admitted if I had to choose a religion to subscribe to, it would be Jainism. It came closest to agnosticism and the code of ethics to which as a rationalist I subscribed to. In the 1970s whenI was Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, then the largest and the most influential weekly journal in the country, I wrote to Chief Ministers of all states that if they imposed a blanket ban on shikar in their states in honour of Jain Mahavira, I would give them all the publicity they wanted. Eight Chief Ministers responded to my appeal and banned killing for sport. I might mention that at the time, the Jains who owned The Times of India group of papers, including the Illustrated Weekly of India, had been deprived of control over the company and it was being run by the government. The Jains had nothing to do with my anti-shikar crusade. As a matter of fact when the Jains regained control of The Times of India group, they sacked me.

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The great Maharaja of Punjab
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Storm in a chat show
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Paying the price for being upright?
March 24, 2001
World’s changing morals
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A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
March 10, 2001
Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
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Sensing disasters before they strike
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Mystery behind mystic numbers
February 3, 2001
Of time-wasting rituals
January 20, 2001

Since we are celebrating the 2600th anniversary of the founder of Jainism, I take the opportunity to inform my non-Jain readers who probably know next-to-nothing about this religion something about it.

The word "Jain" is derived from jina, the conqueror, or the victor, i.e. one who has conquered himself. Jains believe that their religious system was evolved by 24 tirthankaras (ford-finders or makers of the river crossing), three of whom — Rhishabha, Ajitnath and Aristanemi — systematised their religious doctrines. Most of Jain hagiography is legendary. But we do have reliable historical evidence of the existence of Parasvanath (872-772 B.C), the 23rd tirthankar, and the 24th, Mahavira (599-527 B.C.). There is reason to believe that in its formative phase, Jainism was a reaction against Brahminical Hinduism.

Vardhamana Mahavira (increasing-great-warrior) was born in 599 B.C. in Kundagrama, a town north of Patna. He was the second son of a nobleman and was reared in the lap of luxury. The Jains love to enumerate everything. According to them, the child Mahavira was cared for by five nurses and enjoyed five kinds of joy. When he came of age, he was married and his wife bore him a daughter. But neither his wife nor his child, nor affairs of state occupied his mind. On the death of his parents (according to one version, by suicide), he took permission of his elder brother to retire to the jungles. He was then 30 years old. For 12 years, he fasted and meditated "in a squatting position, with joined heels, exposing himself to the heat of the sun, with knees high and the head low, in deep meditation. "In the midst of abstract meditation, he reached kevala (total) omniscience. He became nirgrantha (without ties or knots).

Mahavira discarded his clothes and spent the next 30 years of his life wandering from place to place.He spoke to no one, never stayed anywhere more than one night, ate only raw food and strained the water he drank. He allowed vermin to feed on his body and carried a broom to sweep insects away from his path lest he trod on them. People scoffed at him and often tormented him. But he never said anything to them. He died in 527 B.C. or, as the Jains put it, at the age of 72 "he cut asunder the ties of birth, old age and death".

Everything, animate or inanimate has jiva (life-force). No one has the right to take another’s life. The way of deliverance, said Mahavira, was in the pursuit of three gems (tri-ratans), or rules of conduct: right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. Right conduct prescribes five principles: sanctity of life (non-violence is the supreme law); truthfulness; respect for property; chastity; and abandonment of worldly possessions.

God has no place in Jain theology. Instead, Jains believe in "enlightened" human beings because escape is only possible in the human form. Jains also reject the Vedas, the priestly order of the Brahmins and the caste system.

Jain influence in India is largely due to the comparative affluence of the community. Some of India’s biggest industrial houses are owned by Jain families — Dalmias, Sarabhais, Walchands, Kasturbhai Lalbhais, Sahus, Jains. The proportion of literacy among them is also high. Mahatma Gandhi who was greatly influenced by the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) elevated it from a personal and ethical creed to a programme of national and political policy.

Busybee Behram

Every town and city has some person or the other who personifies that town or city. For me Bombay was personified by the cartoonist R.K. Laxman and the columnist Behram Contractor who wrote a small daily column Round and About. There was also Mario Miranda but he quit the city to return to his native Goa. Laxman and Behram remained Mumbaikars like the Gateway of India and the Kala Ghoda. One is gone. Behram died in the morning of April 9.

For the years I was with The Illustrated Weekly of India, all three of us worked under the same roof. I saw Laxman and Mario every working day. Behram occasionally. He was an elusive character usually lost in himself. He was a lean, grey-haired man in a shabby bush shirt and creaseless trousers who did the round of the office floors like a ghost. He rarely talked to anyone. A gentle smile hovered on his face. I often saw him in crowded streets or sitting alone in an Iranian restaurant. He was said to be a hard drinker and a chain smoker. During days of prohibition, he was known to visit his favourite haunts called Aunties (they were run by elderly women) where he could get his rum or gin. He was a mysterious figure. Few people recognised him but everyone in Bombay read his column in The Evening News: short, witty and full of whimsy. His main characters were a dog Bolshoi, two sons (he was a bachelor) and a man who lived some floors above him. He had a style uniquely his own. No sooner he left The Times of India group, people stopped taking The Evening News and it died out. People started taking Midday, largely to read his column. Then he started his own paper Afternoon Despatch & Courier. His readership went with him.

Late in life Behram married a much younger and a very attractive Muslim girl, Farzana. She brought discipline in Behram’s life. He cut down on cigarettes and liquor, started wearing smart clothes and even talking to people. From eating greasy biryani in Iranian eateries, he ate gourmet food both at home and the city’s best known restaurants. Farzana also became his business manager. Together they launched a lavishly illustrated Upper Crust, devoted to tasty food, vintage wines, cut glass, good china and cutlery. It was an expensive magazine catering to expensive tastes. I did not think it would last long. I was proved wrong. With Behram’s name added on to Farzana’s (the force behind Upper Crust), it did not fail. With Behram Contractor gone, I feel when I go to Mumbai next either the Gateway or the Kala Ghoda will be missing.

Dress danger

In an engineering college workshop, the instructor saw a trainee wearing loose garments which could get caught in a machine. He admonished her: "You must not wear loose garments while working with machines. Wear tight-fitting clothes."

The girl replied, "Sir, if I wear tight-fitting clothes, it might imperil the life of the boy working on the adjoining machine.

(Contributed by S.P. Dhawan, Chandigarh)