Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society among the Jains

Synopsis

How can one live by impossible ideals and values? The Jains of India are a flourishing and prosperous community, but their religion is focused on the teaching and example of ascetic renouncers, whose austere regime is actually dedicated to ending worldly life and often culminates in a fast todeath. This book draws upon a detailed study of an urban Jain community in Jaipur, north-west India, to offer the fullest account yet given of Jain religious belief and practice. It shows how renunciation and asceticism play a central part in the life of a thriving business community, and howworld-renunciation combines for Jain families with the pursuit of worldly happiness. The book is in five parts. Part I introduces the vivid mythology and doctrine of Jainism, and the traditions of Jain renouncers. Part II discusses the relations of Jains with other groups in Indian society, the politics of leadership on Jain communities, and the history, character, andcomposition of the Jain community in Jaipur. Part III contains detailed analyses of lay ascetic practices such as fasting and confession, traditions of imagery and iconography, and key religious ideas, such as the paradoxical doctrine of 'non-violence' (ahimsa). These are shown to turn on complexconceptions of the body and contrasting moral topographies of self. Part IV concerns relations between lay Jains and renouncers, and draws on recent writing on exchange and value to analyse the pivotal place of alms-giving in the Jain religion. Part V describes some of the closest connectionsbetween riches and renunciation, and shows how the pan-Indian festival of Diwali is adapted to distinctively Jain values and concerns.

Excerpt

Jain renouncers are men and women who have left their families and given away all their material possessions to lead a wandering life of asceticism and religious teaching. There are several different Jain traditions, and the rules which renouncers follow vary between them, but in all cases the life they prescribe is one of justly famed severity.

Jain renouncers all go barefoot, they do not bathe, and they do not shave or cut their hair, so in some traditions the men have beards, but it is common practice twice each year to pull out the hair from both the head and face by hand; and on many of the older men only wispy white remnants of a beard remain. All Jain renouncers carry a special broom with which to brush insects from their way without harming them. They lead a celibate and itinerant life, travelling in small, single-sex groups, and making their way on foot between towns and villages, teaching the importance of non-attachment and non-violence, and encouraging others to follow their example in fasting and other ascetic practices. the ideal, and in some cases the actual culmination of the renouncer's life, is a fast to death.

From whichever tradition they come, Jain monks and nuns make an arresting sight. the monks in the Digambar (or 'sky-clad') tradition go completely naked; in some groups of the Shvetambar (or 'white-clad') tradition, who all wear only simple white robes, neither monks nor nuns are ever to be seen without masks strapped to their faces to cover the mouth and nose. These practices are ways of realizing two of the most insistent concerns of all Jain renouncers: aparigraha, or having no attachments, especially personal property; and ahimsa, avoiding causing harm to even the tiniest living thing. the face-masks prevent insects from being accidentally swallowed, and minimize the harm which the renouncer's hot breath will cause to unseen life-forms in the air.

Thus a vivid image of a religious ideal--an exemplary ascetic life of world-renunciation, non-attachment, and non-violence--is inscribed on Jain renouncers' bodies and legible wherever they are present. and Jain teaching makes clear that this image is the central ideal of the religion.

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