Meet the millennial Jain monks
The scene resembles a wedding. It is 6.30 on a dark January morning when four middle-aged women in bright saris climb out of a white sedan, straightening crumpled pleats and securing hairpieces. They disappear under an illuminated sign that reads “Vijay Prasthan Utsav”, or “path to victory”.
At the Shimpoli Cricket Ground in Mumbai’s Borivali suburb, all signs point to a grand celebration. A gushing fountain draws in restless children, flowers adorn every pillar and devotional music spills from a large shamiana where 16 men and women aged 14-45 are set to take diksha, or an oath of renunciation. Ten are under the age of 30.
These include financially-secure professionals and promising students, including 29-year-old Sanket Parekh, the biggest media draw, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and self-confessed atheist, who revealed he paid Rs12 lakh in annual income tax; Sneha Kataria from Bengaluru, an investment banker with Goldman Sachs; Viral Dedhia, a biochemistry postgraduate, and 18-year-old twin sisters Khyati and Khushboo Dedhia, who are accompanied by their mother, Kritika. These “pathfinders” will give up every material comfort for a life of severe hardship—Jain asceticism is considered more severe than other religions like Buddhism.
Thousands of members of the Jain community are in attendance, including 64-year-old Hemant Shah, a newly retired businessman from Canada who has flown in to oversee the logistics. Shah closely assists Acharya Yugbhushan Suri Maharaj (known as Pandit Maharaj), the presiding guru at the ceremony, and also doubles up as a media representative. “You’ve come just in time, the most important part is about to begin,” he says, his booming voice carrying easily over the music as he leads me towards a carpeted wing of the shamiana, a VIP section of sorts. We pass disgruntled men—the genders are strictly divided, my presence unwelcome—but Shah reassures them and swiftly walks me across the stage, where religious proceedings are under way, to the section where the women have gathered.
Here my presence barely registers. These mothers, aunts, cousins and family friends will not tear away their gaze from the stage for a second. Their loved ones are celebrities today, as evinced by the blown-up portraits tethered to the tented walls, and they command the attention of every audience member, press photographer and camera drone.
The familial ties that bind these people will hold for only a few more hours. The closest kin are called forward to strip the renunciants of worldly possessions—each piece of jewellery is removed and tucked away. Not a single face betrays nerves or reluctance. There are only loose, uncontained grins.
These future monks and nuns leave the stage, trailed closely by family members, who will now perform the final ceremonial rites. In this hour-long interval, the diksharthis will be shaved and showered (for the last time, they are only allowed to sponge their bodies hereafter) while those in attendance will settle down for a vegetarian breakfast feast, again with segregated seating for both genders. Meanwhile, on stage, an emcee encourages the crowd to participate in a spirited round of money-raising—families donate lakhs of rupees to fund future religious ceremonies. Shah says the one I am attending cost a few crores.
When the diksharthis return to the stage, via an elevated ramp, the audience leaps up in excitement; they have to be coerced to return to their seats. Flower petals are showered on these stoic, tonsured white figures as they move forward to take the vows of renunciation and assume their new identities. The possessions allowed in their new lives are lined up in a corner of the stage: a duster, a bowl, a white square of cloth to sit on, and a walking stick. Pandit Maharaj confers each with a new title, marking a fresh start, and in the process erasing the identities they have held from birth. Jain monks don’t retire to mountain-top monasteries. Going forward, they will travel across cities by foot, except during the monsoon months, pluck their hair out strand by strand—a painful and controversial exercise called kaya klesh—and scavenge for food.
One of the younger female monks gives in to a yawn; it’s been a long morning.
The Jain community is divided into two broad sects: the Digambars, those who are clad in the sky (a poetic euphemism describing their practice of nudity), and the Svetambars, those who wear only white. The two groups share a core philosophy and adhere to the five basic vows, or mahavratas—non-violence (ahimsa), truth (satya), not stealing (achaurya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and detachment (aparigraha). A notable difference lies in how they view women. Digambars believe that a female must be reborn as a man to attain moksha, while women of the Svetambar sect are on equal spiritual footing with men. Moksha, freedom from endless reincarnations, is the ultimate goal of both sects. This is made possible through strict asceticism.
In India, news stories about the difficult choice of renunciation faced by Jains tend to highlight a newly ordained monk’s educational, professional or financial background—the material life they have left behind. These have ranged from an IIT engineer and business tycoon to a class XII topper and a New York-based fashion retailer. Bipin Doshi, a Jain scholar at the University of Mumbai, argues that none of these cases is an anomaly; successful, career-driven Jains are commonplace, as are erudite monks. According to the 2011 census, the Jain community, which numbers around four million, also has the highest literacy rate in the country. A similar level of achievement, Doshi says, can be found in Swaminarayan monks. “They also have a number of cases where young, highly educated sadhus devote themselves to spiritual life—some are from Berkeley, some are from Oxford.”
Though Jain monks hold no bank accounts, and never deal with money, their needs, Doshi says, are secured by implicit, informal insurance. “The Jain community is fairly resourceful and takes care of them,” he says. “There is an organization called Jito (Jain International Trade Organization). They pay for any medical treatment that is required for a sadhu, any amount. It may be from a few thousands to a few lakhs or more. Jain sadhus don’t have to bother about their livelihood or medical care.”
There are around 16,000 Jain ascetics, according to Doshi. And the number of dikshas carried out each year is increasing. Doshi says barely one or two per cent return to regular life. The repercussions of such disavowals are purely spiritual, setting you back on the path to moksha. Of these 16,000, around 12,000 are sadhvis, or female monks. Women greatly outnumber the men, both at the diksha ceremony I attended, and in the community.
The agency of a ‘sadhvi’
Manisha Sethi probes this unique aspect of Jainism in her book Escaping The World: Women Renouncers Among Jains, for which she undertook months of intensive fieldwork, documenting the lives of sadhvis in north India. “Jainism’s unique insistence upon women as legitimate soteriological agents sets it apart from other models—such as the Brahmanical model which conceives of it as exclusively male, with the female representing that which has to be renounced (maya is figured as feminine),” she says on email.
During her interaction with these female monks, Sethi, a religious studies professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, found that many of them rationalized this skewed gender ratio as a by-product of female nature—komal, soft and empathetic and hence more suited for renunciation. But Sethi says there are other factors to consider. When a Jain woman renounces worldly pleasures, she is accorded “great honour”, and gains agency she might rarely have found in her previous life.
“Becoming a nun is a sensible alternative to the uncertainties of marriage, which remains a deeply patriarchal institution among most Jains,” Sethi says. “Renunciation allows a woman to carve out a zone of autonomy and agency. Instead of pursuing the housewifely ideal of stri-dharma, with its emphasis on placing first the needs of father, husband and son, a nun can pursue the spiritual ideal of atma-kalyan, and seek the betterment of her own soul. Further, as many monastic orders now allow women new opportunities to pursue higher education and to travel throughout India, renunciation offers opportunities that they may not have been able to pursue if they remained in the world with the strong familial expectations of marriage and motherhood.” According to Sethi, work participation rates for Jain women are among the lowest in the country.
The Dedhia family, for instance, had four women take diksha at the ceremony in Borivali. Kritika Dedhia took the vow of renunciation with her daughters Khyati and Khushboo. “My wife had expressed the desire to take diksha earlier, but at that time our daughters were not settled. Being a housewife, she had a responsibility at home,” says Kritika’s husband, Ashok Dedhia, an advocate practising at the Bombay high court. “My daughters had taken a break from studies and were studying Jainism with Guruji (Pandit Maharaj). We asked them to then decide whether they wanted to pursue a professional career or a spiritual career. After staying at the Jain Upashray (accommodation for Jain monks) for eight months, they decided on the latter. In a way it is lonely now, but I am comparing this with a daughter’s marriage, with time you adjust.”
Ashok’s brother Manoj Dedhia, also an advocate solicitor with the Bombay high court, says his 20-year-old-daughter, a law student, similarly expressed a desire for renunciation 20 days before the diksha ceremony. “It was a surprise but I was happy. She is going on the right path, and she will be able to handle it. Since her childhood, we have provided a (spiritual) atmosphere, and have been talking to various mahatmas. She was with Sahebji (another name for Pandit Maharaj) for the last year and a half, studying the principles of Jainism.”
Ashok now plans to move in with his brother and parents, and I ask if he would ever consider going down the same path as his wife and daughters. His response is straightforward: “I don’t have the courage.”
The grand ‘diksha’ ceremony
The initiation and send-off of a future monk is a large-scale celebration, with multiple functions over three or more days during which they are feted as brides and kings. However, the pomp and expense of these affairs seems off-key, and in stark contrast with Jain principles of austerity. According to Doshi, diksha ceremonies have always adopted a celebratory tone because absolute renunciation is the highest possible achievement for a Jain. But the extra frills are a product of our times. “Weddings in earlier days were very different from weddings today,” he says. “Similarly, the diksha ceremony has gradually changed over time.”
In Jainism: A Guide For The Perplexed, Sherry Fohr, associate professor of religion at Converse College, addresses this peculiar duality: The varshi dan ceremony (a procession held the day before the diksha ceremony) “re-enacts the year in the life of the Tirthankar (Jina) in which, having decided to renounce the world, he travelled around his kingdom, giving away all of his vast riches”. At religious ceremonies, it is not unusual for affluent Jains to make generous contributions, an altruistic act that promises karmic benefits. Fohr adds: “Although Jain doctrine prescribes renunciation of wealth to achieve moksha, contemporary Jain laymen instead tend to pursue wealth. This may seem paradoxical, contradictory, or even hypocritical to a non-Jain, but (…) this is because laymen must have wealth in order to be properly religious by devoting substantial portions of his wealth to religious giving.”
Since Buddhism and Jainism share core values of non-violence and asceticism, they are often thought of as cousins. But according to K.T.S. Sarao, professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Delhi, Jainism—which adopts a fourfold religious order of monks, nuns, sravaks (male laypeople), and sravikas (female laypeople)—sees greater participation from its laity. “Broadly, the traditions are similar, but Buddhism only considers monks and nuns as members of the order, which is not the case in Jainism. Hence the religion has many loyal lay followers and the level of involvement is more serious with Jains. Perhaps this is why Jainism survived and Buddhism declined very badly (in the country).”
The converse also holds true, though for altogether different reasons. Unlike Buddhism, the constraints that Jain monks face—they cannot use vehicular transport and modern technology, for instance—have limited the religion’s influence outside the country. This is changing with the sprouting of modern ascetic orders such as the Samans, founded by Acharya Tulsi in 1980. These monks follow a less severe model of renunciation in order to undertake and expound studies on Jainism.
Inside a jain ‘upashray’
A week after the ceremony, I meet Pandit Maharaj—the guru who facilitated and blessed the 16 dikshas—at the Jain Upashray in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. Hemant Shah greets me outside the building with a bottle of water: “Drink this,” he says. “We cannot consume water in front of him.”
Inside, at the centre of a large, bare room swathed in dim late-evening light, Sahebji, as his disciples call him here, is reading a newspaper. A large wooden desk rests in front of him, an unmade stretcher bed to his right. I’m told a health condition requires him to lie down every few hours. Shah leads me to an empty chair. I’m suddenly aware of my all-black wardrobe and every rustle and rattle as I forage in my handbag, piercing the stillness of a room where every piece of fabric is white, every expression untroubled. I finally pull out a notebook and pen. My dictaphone has to be put aside; the use of electronic devices near ascetic monks is forbidden.
“We believe even electricity has life,” says Sahebji. “Hence, being non-violent, we don’t use it,” he says, punctuating each sentence with a nod. “But we do not restrict those who have not taken diksha from using (technology). The Jain community is urbanized and highly educated. This is why, when they come into contact with religion, they are able to understand the logic behind it.”
Naveen Khimji Mota in his former life, the 60-year-old took an early interest in religious studies. At 14, he dropped out of school to study various scriptures at Banaras Hindu University, before taking diksha at the age of 20. He maintains an interest in science and current affairs, slipping in terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” during our conversation. “It is our responsibility to guide society in a proper way. And (for that) we must keep up with current affairs,” he says.
In 2009, he founded the youth-focused organization Jyot, which allows the community to engage with the new generation through active social media handles, live-streams of religious ceremonies and illustrated, shareable despatches on Jain philosophy. It has also produced films like Chal Man Jeetva Jaiye, an urban moral-based Gujarati drama, and holds annual on-ground events to increase spiritual awareness. Most successful among these was the Gyan Joyt Exhibition held in Ahmedabad in 2009, which was attended by more than a million people over 11 days, including the then-chief minister, Narendra Modi. I ask about the nature of the conversation Sahebji had with Modi and he smiles, saying, “Some religious matters, some politics.” Jyot is guided by Pandit Maharaj’s philosophy, though he never personally engages with a piece of technology, not even a mic. Shah tells me it took much persuasion to convince him to be filmed on camera at this year’s diksha ceremony.
Pandit Maharaj outlines the realities of Jain asceticism with a half-smile, stressing that suffering is part of the deal, and it is not for everyone. “We are strict,” he says. “So many times I have rejected a person who is not ready for this religion, though it is open to all castes and communities. They have to understand that detachment is important—we have nothing to offer materially, so anyone with those desires is not fit for this life.”
Before taking the vow of renunciation, one generally lives as an understudy with a guru for one-three years. This period varies according to the person’s age and ability, personal circumstance, and the ideology of each guru. An unresolved point of contention is the minimum age at which a person should be allowed to take diksha; Jain scriptures say it is permissible for anyone over the age of 8. “I do not give underage people permission (to take diksha),” Pandit Maharaj says. “Before one is of adult age, one cannot decide his or her immediate path. Very few are mature or have the strength or ability at a young age. But yes, the scripture allows bal diksha. A child also has the fundamental right—a right to religion—and it cannot be denied.”
Both Doshi and Sethi confirm that a silent reformation is under way within the community, and gurus increasingly refuse young children permission to attain monkhood, making instances of bal diksha extremely rare. The question of a reasonable age of consent and a child’s personal rights muddies the waters.
Film-maker Anand Gandhi, who researched Jain monks for his 2013 film, Ship Of Theseus, informs me of one case of bal diksha. It leads to a fascinating figure, Satish Kumar, environmentalist and founder of the Schumacher College in England, who was 9 when he railed against his mother, and professed a strong desire to embrace a monastic life. For nine years, he followed his guru on foot, falling in line with the rigour of monkhood. But by the time he was 18, a book on Gandhian philosophy had influenced him to spearhead real-world change, and he returned to regular life to become a disciple of another non-violent reformer, Vinoba Bhave.
Kumar eventually undertook an 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage, travelling from India to the US, guided by an ecological consciousness he says he attained from monkhood. In a 2013 interview with the High Profiles website, he ascribes the early spiritual tug to an inexplicable force. “At the age of 9, I decided to leave my mother, leave the safety and comfort of my childhood home and take on the life of a monk, where you have to pull out your hair (…) and sleep on a thin blanket—all that hardship I was ready to accept to find a way of the spirit. That can’t just come into your head at age 9, and so I would say that there must have been something in me from a previous life.”
One of the disciples I meet at the Jain Upashray is former engineer and IITian Bhavik Shah, who took diksha in 2013, and was renamed Muniraj Shri Bhuvanjeetvijay. It was an online chat with Shah that awakened a spiritual interest in Sanket Parekh, his junior in college, and prompted him to study Jain philosophy. “(Sanket) used to ask me questions about the soul and spirituality. Because of the knowledge I already had from Sahebji, I could answer them,” says Bhavik. Shah was an active member of the Yahoo! group JainList, billed as the “world’s largest Jainism discussion group”, which features links to academic articles and other Jain resources.
To a layperson, absolute detachment can appear illusory and quixotic, impossible to inhabit without slips, and I ask Bhavik about any discomfort in the days following his diksha. Once the pomp of the celebration quelled and quietude set in, what did the immediate after feel like? Stolid and straight-backed, he searches for an analogy “Those first days felt like…when you move from a small house into a really massive one. Or come into a lot of money after having very little. Exactly like that.”
While interviewing sadhvis for her book, Sethi says she observed a strong defence of their acts of renunciation. “What was central to their identity as nuns were their stories of how they secured ordination overcoming familial resistance,” she argues. “That is, their own agency defined their renunciation. They scorned the suggestion that a family tragedy, or poverty, had propelled them on to this path.”
I observe the same pride in agency when talking to Muni Satvabhushan Vijay Maharaj, who says that his pre-monk-self was a regular 30-something, with a job in the aviation industry that involved travelling between India, Singapore and Nepal. He makes clear that his was not a case of early devotion; his brother was the first in his family to renounce the world. Then, Muni Satvabhushan viewed monkhood with a dogged cynicism.
“I used to think these monks are a burden to society,” he says. “They’re unproductive, all they do is consume from others.” His brother eventually persuaded him to live with Pandit Maharaj for a week. “After training, I just never went back. I told gurudev I wanted to stay here. He accepted me without the diksha ceremony. My only regret is that I didn’t get here sooner.”
Order and Organization
Muni Satvabhushan patiently runs me through the ways in which the life of an ascetic is anything but unproductive—their life is entirely eco-friendly, they leave no carbon footprint, even their water consumption is limited to 5-10 litres per day (for sponge baths, washing clothes, etc.). It’s a sustainable ecosystem, run by a well-tiered management. “It’s organized, exactly like the corporate world. Experience and ability count here as well, but the intentions are totally different.” Familial bonds too, he explains, are not entirely shunned, they only take on a different shape. “But before I left, I ensured my mom and dad were financially taken care of. We have only cut materialistic relations with our family. We think of them, and pray for them, for all our lives.”
In the present age, when spiritual wellness is packaged and sold in various easy-to-digest forms, what is the enduring appeal of Jain asceticism? What makes able, financially secure millennials swap creature comforts for a lifetime of hardship? Both munis posit that apart from ethical and ecological benefits, theirs is the same search that propels others towards high-paying jobs and long-lasting marriages—a search for happiness.
For all the incredulous glances and scrutinizing questions that come his way, Muni Satvabhushan can only offer this simple explanation: “Society (today) is harassed with man’s uncontrolled wants and desires. In my previous job I was flying all the time, now I can only travel barefoot—but I’m happy.”