When President Barack Obama nominated Ashton Carter, who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics, as the next defense secretary, a friend of mine jokingly suggested he would like to nominate me for that position. I responded, “A vegetarian Jain will not make a good secretary of defense,” adding the afterthought, “… unless you want peace everywhere to break out.”
I practice Jain dharma. For lack of an appropriate word, dharma is often loosely translated as “religion,” but “way of living” is more accurate. I did not have a religious upbringing and rarely went to temples, but have come to love the teachings of Jainism and also to appreciate their relevance to challenges facing modern society.
First, a few facts about Jainism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Its most recent founder was Mahavira (599-527 BCE), a prince who left home at age 30 in search of spiritual knowledge, attained enlightenment through meditation, and traveled extensively for three decades to spread the principles of Jainism. He roamed our planet approximately concurrently with, and not far from, another great spiritual leader Gautam Buddha, although no record exists of the two ever having met. Jainism predates Mahavira, who was the 24th founder of the religion. There are approximately 5 million Jains today, most living in India.
Jainism’s most important tenet is ahimsa, meaning nonviolence toward all living beings. Jains do not participate in wars and conflicts and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet. Jain monks wear a mask over their mouth and carry a broom to sweep the ground before them to avoid accidentally swallowing or injuring even the tiniest forms of life. Ahimsa for Jains entails refraining from all forms of cruelty, be they physical, verbal or mental. One of the biggest annual festivals for Jains is kshamavani (Forgiveness Day), when each Jain asks forgiveness from all friends and relatives for any deeds or words that might have hurt them in any manner during the past year. Mahatma Gandhi, who was profoundly influenced by Jainism, said: “No religion of the world has explained the principle of nonviolence and its practice in real life so deeply and systematically as Jainism. Mahavira was surely the greatest proponent of nonviolence.”
Another essential principle of Jainism is called aparigraha (nonpossessiveness), which urges minimization of desires, needs and worldly possessions. Jain monks renounce all material belongings and attachments, and lead an ascetic life of meditation and self-discipline, devoid of selfishness, jealously and anger. Additionally, Jain philosophy espouses the principle of anekantvad (nonabsolutism), which advocates acceptance of plurality of viewpoints and holds that no single perspective may capture the whole truth.
The ultimate goal is moksha, namely liberation of soul from worldly bondage and the cycle of birth and death. The path to moksha lies in purification of one’s soul through right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. One who has attained moksha, such as Mahavira, is known as a Jina, and his followers as Jains. Jainism does not believe in a superhuman creator of the universe — believing instead in a self-sustaining universe with no beginning and no end.
I conclude with the primary chant of Jainism, called namokar mantra: “I bow to the conquerors of self; I bow to the liberated souls; I bow to the spiritual leaders; I bow to the spiritual teachers; I bow to the monks.”