Published on 22nd January, 2022, in Economic Times.
2500 years ago, a great revolution took place in India. The country saw the rise of many monastic orders, in the middle of great affluence. The most popular amongst them were the Buddhists. But the Jains were the most resilient. The unique feature of the Jain monastic order was the monks who chose to wander without clothes. Buddhist monks wore robes and shaved their heads. Hindu monks smeared their body with ash and matted their hair. Another feature of the Jain monks was their desire to fast unto death. This feature of monks, sitting on top of stone mountains and fasting, has been documented in inscriptions of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. These were the sramanas, one who strives hard. But the question is, for what exactly were these sramanas striving hard?
All these monastic orders recognize the universality of hunger. All life yearns for food and comfort. So we give and receive goods and services. We feed and are fed. This creates debts: lenders and debtors. This establishes Swarga and Naraka.
People often confuse Swarga and Naraka with the heaven and hell ideas found in Christianity and Islam. In Christianity and Islam, God creates the world. He creates nature as well as culture. God provides laws that humans must follow and judges them on the basis of their conduct. If humans follow the law of God, they go to heaven, if they don’t follow the law of God, they go to hell.
But, Swarga and Naraka are based on the principle of karma. Karma is not about allegiance to any particular law or code of conduct. In karma, our engagements with the world make us either lenders or debtors. Lending propels us towards Swarga, the land of plenty, while debts hurtle us towards Naraka, the land of scarcity. In Swarga, we are repaid what is owed to us. In Naraka, we are bound by debts we have to repay.
This idea of many worlds of plenty and many worlds of scarcity, based on karma is a common theme across Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. This idea was illustrated in the game of snakes and ladders. It was said that Jain munis invented it. It explained how human beings oscillate between the worlds of plenty and worlds of scarcity based on whether they lend or borrow from others. This cyclical structure of moving up and down based on karmic baggage was further visualized by the symbol of Swastika. In the symbol, one is constantly going down and rising up from the world, from swarga to naraka and and back again to swarga. It is our endless, relentless merry-go-round of debit and credit.
But above Swarga there exists another heaven. This is known as the Siddha Lok in Jainism, Dharma Kshetra in Buddhism and Vaikuntha in Hinduism. These are the realms of super achievement. Achievement is attaining all the material comforts of the world, of indulging hunger. Super achievement is outgrowing it, attaining a state of contentment and tranquility. Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, realize that the purpose of life is not to satisfy our material needs. Material needs can never be satisfied. The more material things we get, the more insecure we get. Instead, we have to work on the root of material desire: our cravings and insecurities. If we outgrow our insecurities or cravings, we will achieve relative contentment and tranquility. This is the realm where the Tirthankara stays, in Jainism, where the Buddha stays, in Buddhism, where Shiva and Vishnu stay, in Hinduism.
So, while most human beings work towards finding material resources to satisfy their material desires, the Jain monks sought to outgrow hunger itself. The supreme manifestation of this was to starve oneself to death voluntarily, without craving for death. This was not suicide as they were not denying the world. They were only choosing to outgrow the natural instinct of hunger. It was a voluntary action of giving up the pleasures of life, including food.
The Jains say that Mahavira once declared that he would accept food only from the hands of a woman whose head was shaved, was in chains, and who was actually a princess. By laying such impossible conditions he was seeing how far he could control his mind, understand how the world worked and how the world would tempt him. Indeed, he did encounter such a woman. She was a princess who was enslaved and abused. She did offer him food. He then realized how the world worked. His balance sheet was full of loans and the cosmos conspired to repay it, and thus keep you entrapped in the cycle of rebirths. The only way to escape is to not seek food and write off all loans. Then you are not hungry and no one is obliged to offer you food. That is complete isolation – kaivalya. Reclaiming loans is an achievement, but writing off loans is the super-achievement and is only possible when you conquer hunger.