Todd and I explored a Jain Temple complex an hour north of Bangalore one morning. We headed to the area in search of a Hindu Temple that our friend Rahul had recommended to me. But instead, we found this mountain top cluster of buildings. The landscape North of town is very arid and rugged with large boulders. It was a very hot day and we saw lizards sunning themselves in the hot sun!
While Hinduism is the most prevalent religion in India, Buddhism and Jainism are also present (as well as Islam and Christianity too). But Buddhism and Jainism both seem to be more explicitly in contrast to Hinduism—which legitimizes stratification in Indian society by saying that castes/social classes have a religious basis and that the pathway to eternal life is through reincarnation which eventually leads you up the caste latter. In contrast, Buddhism and Jainism say that everyone has access to God and both highlight a religion based on peace and equity.
The Buddhist story in India is particularly interesting since Buddhists have mass conversions of the dalits, or the untouchables (lowest caste), since it is a faith that tells them that they are worthy people rather than at the lowest run of the social system. This association between Buddhism and dalits is so strong that I have heard people use the terms interchangeably. So, at work I heard a grad student say to her professor that she is wanting to support the Buddhists on campus, and especially since one committed suicide recently. But what she really meant was that she wanted to support the lowest caste/first generation graduate students who are struggling with fitting into the university system. But she was interchanging the word Buddhist and Dalit at will.
The connection between Buddhism and Dalits is so strong that it is unusual for people in India to be Buddhists who are not dalits, or at least it is viewed as surprising. Since my mother is Buddhist, this tension has been an issue for her. It is easier sometimes to hide the fact that she is Buddhist to some more devout Hindus.
But I digress. Jainism has over 4 million followers in India and around the world. It does not have the explicit tension that Buddhism does. The religion is most known for its strict rules about nonviolence. Jainism is so peace oriented that it is even protective of insects—so much so that Jains not only are vegetarians but the also do not eat root vegetables since cutting the root kills part of the plant. Plus, it kills microgranisms and insects on the roots.
All of the buildings were under renovation, and some seemed to barely be held up by scaffolding, which made Todd nervous. But in true Indian fashion, the hospitality was incredible. The construction workers motioned for us to enter the temples despite their ongoing work and even opened closed parts of the temple and removed dropcloths so that we could see the artistry.
you have to take off your shoes in any temple in India. The beautiful inlaid marble in the one temple reminded me of the Taj Mahal.
This temple seemed to be one of the main ones in the complex. The center had a larger statue and then the outer rim of the temple was lined with 53 smaller statues that looked like this one below, right. Best I can tell, they are saints. Jain does not have elaborate deities like Hinduism or the ominous calming presence of the Buddha. But lots and lots of this same image. Each statue was only slightly different, such as a different jewel for the third eye. The last few statues had a crown of cobras above the heads. The structure of the temple reminded me of stations of the cross in Catholicism, and the 53 statues seemed to be significant given that the construction worker pointed to the number and said, 53! The little towers below signify the 53 saints, which are housed in the temple beneath of those towers/flags.
Many of the Jainism principles are similar to Quakerism, the faith that I follow. Jains believe that every living being has a soul and each soul is “is potentially divine, with innate qualities of infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss (masked by its karmas)” (says Wikipedia). Because we all have the potential to be devine, every soul is sacred and thus the great focus on nonviolence. Again, from Wikipedia, When a soul is freed from karmas, it becomes free and attains divine consciousness, experiencing infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss. The triple gems of Jainism (“Right View, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct”) provide the way to this realization. There is no supreme divine creator, owner, preserver, or destroyer. The universe is self-regulated, and every soul has the potential to achieve divine consciousness (siddha) through its own efforts. The purpose of life is to undo the negative effects of karma through mental and physical purification. This process leads to liberation accompanied by a great natural inner peace.”
I’m not sure of the significance of the hanging bell, but we saw one in most of the temples.
Jain monks and nuns walk barefoot and sweep the ground in front of them to avoid killing insects or other tiny beings. We did not see the two holy men sweeping that we encountered, but we weren’t really looking to see if they were, so maybe we just didn’t notice. Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced (particularly through the guidance of Shrimad Rajchandra) by Jain tenets such as peaceful, protective living and honesty, and made them an integral part of his own philosophy.