A Non-Violent, Vegetarian Atheism

A Punjabi Sethi speaks of her introduction to Jainism through marriage
A Non-Violent, Vegetarian Atheism
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

The name on my passport is Madhu Sethi Jain. I chose not to let go of my maiden name (quite an anachronism that word, maiden) when I got married. Inevitably—well, almost always—the immigration official looks perplexed when he sees my name each time I fly in or out of Delhi. Many of the officials can’t resist asking how a Sethi married a Jain.

I saw the question marks materialise in the eyes of many family members when they learned that I was going to marry a non-Punjabi, and a Jain at that. They were too polite to verbalise their surprise. But a cousin known for his sense of humour presented me with a cotton mask, the kind Jain monks of some sects cover their mouths with to avoid inadvertently swallowing insects. The envelope in which it was placed had a lazily scrawled line: “For pure, clean and filtered love.”

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All that my Punjabi family, most of whom are devoted meat-eaters, knew about the Jains was that they were vegetarians, abstemious, and their monks wandered around naked and shoeless, with white cotton masks on their faces. For a few of them, the world was divided into the maas-eaters and the ghaas-eaters. They were blissfully unaware of the fact that Jainism was not a branch of Hinduism but a separate religion, much like Buddhism. Nor did they or I know that there are different sects: not all monks wear masks, not all of them go about without any clothes.

I confess I didn’t know much about Jainism. Culturally, sartorially and linguistically, there was hardly any difference between the Jains and Hindus. Yes, they were predominantly vegetarian, but so were many of the relatives in my mother’s family.

It was only many years into our marriage—I married a physicist and professor—that I realised that, underlying the apparent similarities between Hinduism and Jainism, there are fundamental differences. Jainism is quasi-atheistic. There are no gods or goddesses; nor is there a God. There are 24 Tirthankaras who have achieved moksha. But there is no Jain pantheon in which they reside—and they are to be emulated, not worshipped. The axis on which the beliefs of the Jains rotate is the principle of non-violence: it is supposed to permeate every aspect of their lives.

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I realised just how different the Jain religion is when I first visited a Jain temple in Delhi. The cleanliness really surprised me. The temples are clean and dry because there are no offerings—no flowers, no garlands, no prasad. There are no offerings because there is nobody to worship here. Those who come to pray are here to ask the Tirthankaras to show the way to moksha. And, most importantly: you can’t ask a deity to grant you a favour, because there isn’t any deity. There is no concept of mannat in Jainism, unlike other religions that have taken root in India.

Marriages and last rites can be markers of differences between reli­gions, and between cultures. Rivers and mountains are not sacred for Jains, as they are for the Hindus. They cremate their dead but the ashes are not immersed in any river that is considered sacred. They can be buried anywhere.

I never realised the misconceptions about Jains until I went to Rashtrapati Bhavan to interview Giani Zail Singh, freshly anointed as president of India. Just as I was about to leave, he remarked that I did not look like a Jain. When I told him that I was a Punjabi who was married to a Jain, he grinned: “Jaini itne hatte-katte nahin hote.” In other words: Jains are frail and short. And, alas, I was neither.


­(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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