Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;
Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.
Belonging is not expressed in any specific way. One reason is that it has never been nor does it seek to be an exclusive community in any way. Jainism is founded on inclusivity and accepts difference as normal. It is up to the individual to express their belonging primarily through service, teaching or charity. In India, belonging may be different and is expressed in the followership of particular monks and nuns or alignment to certain clans. However in the urban areas, even these distinctions are breaking down and Jains are uniting through location, temples, beliefs and dedication to community upliftment.
Charity is one expression of belonging and there is social status given to the donors. Also as Jains generally are a very successful business community with integrity and respect, belonging to a Jain group can help with business and social networking among high quality entrepreneurs. Here there can be direct benefits from belonging and social status. The impact of this is much less in foreign countries where Jains have settled.
Jains do have several sacred duties – the first is a daily penitential retreat or pratikramana in the morning and evening in order to rid the believer of karma. Forgiveness is requested, penance is performed and no further repetition of the acts is sought. There is also an annual festival of atonement and repentance called paryushana, which involves listening to sacred texts and taking positive steps with regard to ahimsa and fellowship to fellow Jains, visiting temples and right living. The words ‘micchami dukkadam’ are said requesting forgiveness of those who have been harmed in any way.
A person following Jainism is expected to observe basic vows – called anuvrats – as part of ethical living. These vows include non-violence, non-possessiveness, simplicity and non-materialism, self-restraint, honesty and sincerity. They are also expected to follow key religious rituals, but there is no pressure from community to do so. A significant amount of freedom is given to the individual to practice their faith. As a result, there is also considerable variety of expression. Throughout history, women have been more spiritual than men and have shown a greater degree and depth of devotion. Even the numbers of nuns have always outnumbered the numbers of monks by at least three times.
Commitment is recognized through the observance of rituals and participation in festivals and special ceremonies. Generally no special status is given to those who are more committed than others – credit for ethical conduct is accumulated by the individual directly and there should be no seeking for outer glory or recognition. Each individual is expected to look at the mirror – not to admire their own beauty but to introspect on their actions and how synonymous they are with their values. Self-improvement is constantly encouraged and this is why Jains everywhere are natural leaders.
Egoism is discouraged and selflessness is encouraged in the Jain tradition. Each and every individual is believed to be unique and worthy of equal respect. Family is more important than the individual and there is strong family unity and loyalty. Community as natural extension of family is also important and worthy of support, nourishment and preservation.
The soul is the permanent feature of the individual, not the body or its material accomplishments and successes. Religion places the highest emphasis on the soul and encourages the individual to communicate with the soul and connect with its inner beauty, purity and wisdom. It educates individuals not to place too much importance to the physical body and its outer appearance and material possessions. This can easily clutter the mind and prevent the soul from attaining liberation.
Families practice their faith through collective worship and collective participation in special ceremonies and festivities. Just as family is seen as a natural extension of the individual, community is seen as a natural extension of family. During special festival days, there is communal worship. All this serves to bind the family and community together and forge unity and commonality. A large number of volunteers are needed for organizing and promoting communal worship and for coordinating these gatherings and celebrations. This also provides an opportunity for selfless service called seva which is central to the faith. None of these events are exclusive for the Jains, and outsiders are welcomed with open arms.
Thus the faith promotes community cohesion internally and externally and helps sustain values such as mutuality, sharing, caring and humility which are very relevant to modern society. All worshippers are treated equally and no-one has a special status or merit in the act of prayer or worship and this promotes equality.
The very basis of the Jain faith is pluralism and a respect for alternative viewpoints – anekant. This is manifested in practice – Jains are very active in inter-faith dialogue and are also seen as excellent assimilators wherever they migrate.
There is diversity within the tradition as there are different sects and sub-sects – Shvetambara, Digambara, Terapanth, which respect one another even though they are different. It was around the 4th century CE that the two major divisions developed within Jainism. The Shvetambara or white robed ascetics live mostly in the northern India, whereas the Digambara or sky-clad ascetics are to be found in the south although today, Jains of both sects are spread out all over India. There is a lot of similarity between the values and scriptures although there are differences in the practices and rituals.
Today, community groups are drawn on cultural and religious lines and there are many mixed groups, especially in the West where such sectarian boundaries are seen to be irrelevant when the community itself is so small. Even differences between faiths are not seen as a threat but as an opportunity to learn and grow through difference. For example, many Jain homes would have Christmas trees during Christmas. The smallness of the numbers in Britain has not in any way dented the resourcefulness of the community – in fact, quite the contrary.
There are beautiful temples and community centre all over India and numbering in the tens of thousands in total. Here in the UK, the first major temple was build in the city of Leicester and the second one in London at Potters Bar, close to the M25. Each of them are built with elaborate stone and marble sculptures and are open for school visits. There are only 35,000 Jains in the United Kingdom, but Jains have temples and community centres in many major cities in the UK run and funded by the community.
Citizenship is a key part of religious practice – in fact Jains are supposed to have the highest sense of responsibility and accountability to the planet, and hence citizenship and the observance of law is a key component of this. There are hardly any Jains in prison throughout Britain and on the contrary, their values have inspired many citizenship initiatives throughout the country – making them good role models in many instances.
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