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Ahimsa – the ultimate winner

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JAINISM AND THE

CONCEPT OF EQUALITY

[Interview given to Millennium Institute, Arlington, VA, USA on the eve of the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religions.]

The issue is the perspective of Jain religion concerning a proper relationship with those who differ in gender, race, ethnicity, culture, class, politics or religion.

Jain religion is an open and democratic religion with a comprehensive perception of reality. It is indeed a way of life. One does not have to be born Jain to practice Jain religion. One does not have to be converted to it. One can start practicing its tenets in individual and collective life without any ritual or ceremony. The important point is that Jain religion puts due stress on an individual’s social responsibilities as an integral part of his struggle for self-emancipation. Thus to be kind hearted, one must actually do good to others, not exploit, cheat, abuse or harm them. What is also important is that Jain religions regards all souls as equal be it those of humans or any other living beings – small or big.

As a religion, its doors are open to anyone irrespective of place, region or country of birth or colour, caste or creed or sex.

By its very essence, Jain religion does not subscribe to division of society by caste, colour or creed. It regards men and woman as equals. As per the Swetambar Jain sect, one of the 24 Apostles (Tirthankaras) of Jain religion was a woman called Mallinaath.

Jain religion does not recognize differences in gender, race and ethnicity as coming in the way of developing healthy interdependence. It is against any exploitation on grounds of gender, economic status, ethnic moorings or racial origin.

Equality between men and women is brought out in “Sutrakratanga Niryukti” which says, “Just as a woman is liable to destroy the character of a man, so a man might destroy the character of a woman”. Jain “Agamas” regards wife as a ‘dhammasahaya’ – one who is a pillar of support to man in religious, spiritual and social pursuits.

Education to woman has been a Jain tradition right from the early period of its first apostle Lord Rishabhanaath. Jnatadharmakatha and Jambudvipa Prajnapti give an account of 64 arts of women who used to acquire mastery in dance, music, fine arts, culinary art besides languages, mathematics’ and writing.

Lord Rishbhnaath was so respectful of his mother that he did not get initiated to asceticism till his mother was alive.

Queen Trishala, mother of Lord Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankar inspired her son to take to the path of virtue, lofty ideals, detachment and compassion. During her pregnancy her 16 dreams (as per Digambar tradition) or 14 dreams as per Shvetambar tradition reflected the nobility of her soul and her tranquil, peaceful and compassionate nature. Mahavir imbibed in her womb itself love for all forms of life and elements of nature.

Chandanbala is a remarkable female personality in Jain religion. She was an enslaved maid servant from whom Lord Mahavir gladly accepted food. He recognized in that suffering woman the ingredients of a true and sincere devotee with talent towards religious devotion. She became Pravartini equivalent to Acharya in the Sangh of Monks.

It is also noteworthy that among historical women sadhvis (monks), there used to be women from all Hindu castes Brahmin (Preachers) Kshatriya (Warriors) and lower castes and all of them became highly learned and promoted Jainism vigorously and effectively. There are numerous other similar examples. Thus, the role of women in Jain religion has been very progressive and ennobling.

Jain religion has an attitude of respecting all enlightened benevolent learned and holy persons. Jain Mahamantra “Namokar Mantra” depicts this secular outlook very succinctly. In this prayer, Jains bow before the virtues and do not pray to a specific prophet or monk by name. This Mahamantra has the charismatic strength to destroy sins and to make a human being open and responsive to learning from all learned persons.

Jain religion stands for peace and works to eliminate wars, conflicts and violent bloodshed. Differences should be settled between individuals or nations through peaceful negotiations.

Jain principles are universally applicable and provide very valuable base to develop interfaith creative engagement for spreading the culture of non-violence, for restraining the mad pursuit of consumerism and materialism, for developing objective approach to issues through an attitude of non-absolutism (Anekant) and for promoting limiting of wants and desires through practice of voluntary denial and abstinence (aparigraha).

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