Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Identity Cr(ie)sis

I am a Jain. By birth.

By choice, I am a agnostic. By the way, as Jainism is based on the philosophy of Anekantvad - which essentially means "Each to his own", being a agnostic is not being non-jain. I am also a vegetarian by choice, though I do not differentiate between types of plant food or dairy products. I am aware and mindful of the violence humanity inflicts on the earth and its co-dwellers - and on my part try to minimize it as much as possible, without being fanatic about it. Which essentially means I am a happy middle-of-the-road person. My way of life will be frowned upon by ritualistic Jains, and will be frowned upon by hedonistic friends. So be it.

This past week has been one of Paryushan, the Jain festival of fasting and spiritual practice.

For my family, paryushan is business as usual. There are no changes in our routine, except that we sometimes go to Jain temple on the Samvatsari day, the day that most Jains fast, without partaking any food or water. I do not fast. For most Jains, paryushan is a period of spiritual practices, of fasting, of pratikaman, going to Vyakhan, and doing samayik. I do not do any of that. Nor does anyone else in my family.

This was not true with my parents. My father used to recite Bhaktamar every day of his normal life - all 48 shlokas, taking about one hour of his time, and would do it with joy and abandon. One of my favorite memories of him is him chanting the Bhaktamar with sheer joy and bliss. My mother, in my growing up years, used to do a full fast on every Panchami, and every paryushan was a time of spiritual activities. She knew the pratikaman by-heart, and used to lead several jain ladies in the practice. My husbands family are also passionate jains - with my mother-in-law visiting the Jain temple every day, before her meals, doing ekasana for the entire paryushan, and being a stoic jain in spirit and principle. My father in law, though did not follow Jainism's ritualistic ways of living, and though he was also a vegetarian by choice, there was little else he did by way of being a Jain.

This long explanation is just to make it known that whatever we follow in our family, has got nothing to do with my or my husbands parents. This is our way of life by choice. That being said, it is not that our family is a rebel. Most Jains my age are like us.

Till this time, this week, I have never had to think about the fact that I was born into a Jain family, or about Paryushan, and never had to defend it to myself or friends of mine.

The events in the last week, however, have changed that. Ban on sale of meat in several states in India, including Maharashtra, the state I call as my second home, along with a ban at Rajasthan, my birth state, presumably to respect the religious sentiments of jains, during our festival, Paryushan. Telling people that they should turn vegetarians because we Jains are observing days of spiritual practice is conceptually abhorrent and too invasive to me, even though I firmly believe that being vegetarian is a more humane way of life.

The social network and TV has been full of people condemning Jains. Some political leaders have spoken badly about Jains and asked them to leave "their" state. Jains, even Jain sadhus, have reiterated, some with disdain and some with harsh words towards the people who do not want to follow the meat ban. Celebrities have come out to oppose the ban and so on - the circus continues.

For the first time, I have had people ask me - Oh, so you are a Jain too, right? You do not want me to eat meat, right? And when I have responded that I really think that the decision of what anyone wants to eat today and any other day is theirs to take, I am asked again with an amused smile - Oh, so you are not a "real" jain....

All this has made me think about my identity. Yes, I am a Jain, as I was born as one. But I am not a meat-banning-and-forcing-peoples-choices kind of Jain. Yes, I believe is being compassionate towards animals and towards all humanity, but I don't think its any of my business to ask anyone else to also be the same. Its an individual choice, and a good one, in my considered view. However, I don't think this is the only way to be non-violent. There are other violent ways - avarice, dishonesty, laziness, materialism etc. Maybe I am violent in some other ways, which could be considered wrong by several other people of different faiths, but I don't accept anyone's right to force me to be how to be any other way than just what I am. I am willing to be persuaded, reasoned, but forced, no!

I am completely ok with people deciding to eat meat or any other thing during paryushan, indeed on any other day, if they are not persuaded that being vegetarian is not a good thing for them. I also believe and know that most Jains are like me. Each one to his own, is a most prevalent way of thinking, for most professional educated Jains.

I must speak up and say so. If I don't, then others who do not know what I think, will think I too want to force them as I am a Jain. My saying this publicly will make my Jain relatives and friends doubt me. It will make my non-Jain friends doubt me. Let them.

Wait - let me think some more. Am I sufficiently Jain? Am I willing to stand on the podium and support people who are opposing the meat ban?

Yes, I am.

Yes, I am a believer in live-and-let-live.

Yes, I need to let people know that there are tolerant, not-forcing-upon-other-people types of Jains too.

Yes, I will stand up and make my opinion known.

But wait - would I be ostracized by my extended family if I did that? My extended family knows what type of practicing Jain I am. Indeed, many of my cousins and their children are like me. However, what would be looked at askance would be about how I did not stand up for the jain point of view of vegetarianism at this time of so called crisis on the Jain community. How could I agree with the people who did not want the meat ban?

And, what about my mother, what would she say? my masi? my chacha? my mama? My mother would definitely be disappointed in my public tolerance of all things not jain, though not disapprove. My mother-in-law would chastise me and my husband and links with my husbands family would become even more tenuous. And my mama would definitely definitely disapprove. Next time when I meet these elders, I would be given a thorough talking to. I would be subjected to a lot of "Oh, how could you...?" - even by people who are like me in practicing jainism. And oh, does that mean no jain would marry my daughter? Oh My God......

Standing up for my convictions, I realize, will not be easy. Let me think again. Does this matter really matter? Would it really matter if I keep my opinion to myself and not subject myself to the necessary doubts?

Ok. decision time. I will keep quiet. Yes, given everything else, this is a sensible choice. And this is what I will do. Let the political parties and the gurus and the samaj ke thekedars sort this thing out. I have to live my life, take care of my business and take care of my daughter. These are things that are more important. Yes.

Anycase, maybe this will simply die its own death. The paryushan will get over in 2 days, and then we will be the same set of people who always were. The wealthy, unobtrusive, look-similar-to-Hindus types. Decision taken, dilemma resolved, I am at peace.

But I am not really. I am now worried more than ever on reflection. This is exactly how most middle-of-the-road minority people think when the fringe extreme elements of their religion start making extravagant, intolerant demands upon the others in name of religious identity. Most people simply choose to keep quiet, just like I am wont to. Most minorities consequently stand the risk of being identified by the religious intolerant actions, and several times, the price is high. Muslims have faced this for years and years, not just in India but at other places also. Recently, a muslim youngster in the US was accused of creating a bomb when all he was did was creating a home made clock.

Do I want my daughter to be forced to defend her identity like this innocent curious young boy? No. A thousand times No.

For the first time, I think about my identity, and how it affects me and others around me. Till now, I was always a part of the majority, and I never needed to think about it, but this time, I have walked in the minority shoes and realized how it exactly feels. It is not nice. Not nice at all.

I need to think again. And so do millions of other moderate Jains need to, too. Not just moderate Jains, all moderate muslims, all moderate human beings, who just want to let people be, to let people make their own choices. Moderate people who do not want their identities to become contaminated by the people who want to force other people to be like them.

Just what can we do to keep our identities intact and let them not be hijacked by others of our faith?