Mahavir Jayanti in the Times of Corona-ed World / Neelam Jain
It is Mahavir Jayanti today, one of the most important days in the Jain religious calendar. As the Jain community celebrates the birth anniversary of Bhagwan Mahavir by exchanging greetings on email or whatsApp messages, it seems Nature has taken upon itself to celebrate this auspicious day on a grand scale, Universal in nature. The Universe knows no geographical boundaries, hence the divine celebrations are playing out on the entire planet.
The Corona virus has mandated we rethink how we live, consume, and treat others. I will briefly mention only two principles that Lord Mahavir gave to the world that seem like a balm on the Corona-ed human soul.
The current state of the world is very appropriately reflected by the opening lines of Charles Dickens famous novel A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …” It tells about a time of chaos, conflicts, and despair, as well as happiness. It, in fact, tells us about the time of extreme opposites without any in-betweens.
Something similar is unfolding on planet earth today.
As I sit pondering over the birth celebrations of Lord Mahavir since when I was a child, the images of community events where school-children performed plays and songs depicting the life of the Teerthankara, the liberated One, flash before my eyes. It was a time of community gathering, celebrations, much fun and socializing, followed by lots of sumptuous food eaten together. I recall with much nostalgia the annual speech I was asked to deliver, in English (at age 7 onwards, because I studied in a convent school!), on his life and principles. I knew by rote the main tenets of Jainism and Lord Mahavir’s three-fold path of Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct. For many years it continued thus, and I could have rattled off the entire Four-fold or Eight-fold Path (they are different for ascetics and householders) without pausing for a breath. Yet there was no deeper thought, no time for reflection on the teachings of this noble, liberated soul. Posters and banners proclaiming the lofty tenets of the world’s most non-violent religion were put up all over town, but how much was followed by people is anyone’s guess. As indeed it often happens in most religions.
However, today, as I sit locked up in my house – Coronavirus indeed has locked up indoors practically all humanity, I am having some Eureka moments! Yes, the wisdom of all my Mahavir-Jayanti speeches, scripted by people more learned than a 7-year-old, is gradually dawning on me. I feel the lessons humans have failed to learn by volition are being taught by Nature, à la science experiments demonstrated in a lab. Humans are perforce made to sit back while Nature takes over and teaches. The coping stone of Mahavir’s teaching has been “Live and Let Live,” kindness to all beings and cruelty towards none. He even went to tell humanity that plants too have a life, and therefore deserving mindfulness from humans.
The fact that the deadly Corona virus most probably originated from wet animal markets in China has forced mankind to rethink cruelty towards animals. In India most slaughter houses are shut, people are shunning animal flesh, eating healthy and vowing to continue with their kindness towards other living creatures. Humans are not the only inheritors of this beautiful planet. We have encroached in most downright manner, the habitat of birds and animals, cocking a snook at the principle of “Live and Let Live”. Now when the world, locked up behind closed doors, sees animals hitherto unseen on the roads roam freely, does it realize that in our race “to live” we forgot to “let others live”. We need to let the animals and birds, the air and water, sky and earth breathe and own their space in the universe. Our rapacious ways and the choices we make will not only kill them, but spell our own doom. In fact, we can live only if we let others live. The choice we had in “Live and Let Live” is long gone.
Another important tenet that Mahavir gave to humanity, and my most favorite one, is the beautiful precept of Aparigraha, or, in simplistic terms non-attachment to material things. Aparigraha is one of the virtues in Jainism, and one that was uncannily prescient when Mahavir expounded it more than 2,500 years ago. It is also one of the five vows that both householders and ascetics must observe. Non-Violence, Non-Stealing, and Truthfulness we all believe are necessary virtues, but when it comes to Aparigraha we are neither aware nor believe the same is very important virtue in higher pursuit of life.
Aparigraha is the virtue of non-possessiveness, non-grasping or non-greediness. Aparigraha is the opposite of parigrah, and refers to keeping the desire for possessions to what is necessary or important, depending on one’s life-stage and context.
In my current ruminative mood, I was wondering that the end of winter is usually the time for big-ticket sales in all shopping malls as well as online commerce sites. At this time of the year, one would have seen teeming crowds stocking up on “discounted goods,” unmindful of their need. But forced lock-downs the world over have seen people managing with what they have and no one is any the worse for it. When man‘s avarice could not be checked by any wise person’s advice, Nature had to step in and teach mankind a lesson it is not likely to forget any time soon. Instead of hoarding unwanted stuff, most people are decluttering their homes and spring-cleaning wardrobes. The world is seeing the benefit of minimalist life. This minimalist lifestyle, or Aparigraha was preached by Lord Mahavir at a time when the world probably was still unspoilt by abundance of material possessions. While excess consumption leads to bigger houses, faster cars, fancier technology, and cluttered homes, it never brings happiness. This, the world is being forced to see in the times of Corona virus. “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient,” said Alexander, the great Greek conqueror about himself just before he died.
We don’t need a full house, we need a full life. This is going to be a life-changing resolution. Lord Mahavir’s other teachings of Forgiveness, Compassion and Sacrifice are as pertinent in the new world order when there seems to be a tectonic shift in human consciousness. Of that later!