No intrusion in Santhara, yes to meat ban? Jainism

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No intrusion in Santhara, yes to meat ban? Jainism's politics are inconsistent

Paryushan, or as I grew up to call it, Pajoshan, was a strange festival.

Not quite like Diwali or Durga Puja, which came with new clothes, mirth, and the bells and tinkles of indulgence. This was sober. A solemn commitment to bettering the soul. The one-week a year dedicated entirely, wholeheartedly, to control over self.

Invariably, some member of the extended family would undertake a fast. The first fast I recall witnessing was that of a cousin, who fasted for seven days.

Now the Jain fast, being more austere than most others I have encountered, often does not even allow for mineral water. Because to consume minerals is to violate the fast. There could only be clean, boiled, unadulterated water.

Never mind that boiling itself was, by Jain standards, an act of murdering the very microbes we were trying to save (by covering our mouths and staying clear of onions and potatoes). Such minor, and indeed, human, hypocrisies are inevitable. The underlying sentiment - the commitment to abstinence and austerity - remained uncompromised.

Another uncle, a few years later, undertook a 14-day fast - with an additional caveat. He would not speak.

Chalkboard hanging from his neck, he'd greet the relatives and well-wishers pouring in from across the country, with a quiet namaste and sign language. Or, when necessary, by writing on his chalkboard.

When the fast was over, he was thrown a magnificent feast.

Guests were flown in from across the country to congratulate him, and to watch - in whispered awe - as he ingested his first spoon of yoghurt and grain. It would take months for his digestive system to return to normal and for his body to heal from this spectacular feat of self-deprivation.

There were also fables and legends, things I heard my milieu of aunts and uncles whisper. A girl who collapsed due to low levels of sugar, but refused to allow the doctors to give her saline. Another who fasted for 30 days, all while climbing five kilometers uphill to a temple every day, for every day of the fast.

Pajoshan is, and has always been, a week dedicated to control over self. Never control over others.

My contribution: for that one week of Pajoshan, I'd give up potato-made Lays, and embrace the significantly less-desirable banana chips instead.

I could also, if I liked, decide to eat only before sundown, or to give up on all foods that grew below the earth, or do both. The permutations were as limitless as they were personal.

And that was the beauty of Pajoshan; you promised any form of abstinence of your own choosing, however feeble or life-threatening, and you stuck by it. You decided your own rules, set your own parameters, and followed through. No form of self-control was too pithy or too profound.

The santhara debate

Earlier this year, the Rajasthan High Court banned santhara (the Jain practice of fasting unto death). The Court cited the fact that it was akin to suicide and sati.

The Jain community in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (the two states with the highest population of Jains) were outraged.

They marched to the High Court in Jaipur, in what was a remarkably quiet and non-violent protest. With the hope that the equally quiet santhara would not be banned. The Supreme Court eventually stayed the Rajasthan High Court's judgement. This, I understood.

A Jain's relationship with food, health, and abstinence is a deeply personal one. An individual sets his or her own limitations, and pursues it relentlessly.

To fast is to attain glory. To be austere is to gain opulence. To deprive yourself - even to the point of death - is an act of the ultimate indulgence. Only those with no remaining worldly responsibilities may undertake it.

A blanket ban on santhara by the State would impede a Jain's ability to attain the greatest form of Jain glory. And the State, the Jains argued, should stay out of it.

This made sense to me.

What did not, however, was when one month later, the Maharasthra government enforced a four-day ban on the sale and culling of all meats in honour of the Jain festival of Pajoshan.

Pajoshan is, and has always been, a week dedicated to control over self. Never control over others. This austerity is beautiful and solemn because it is self-imposed. For if it were imposed by others, it would lose its value. When I watched a fellow-Jain wail on prime time TV about the plight of animals being beheaded in her backyard, I grimaced.

The irony was self-evident. Just north of Maharashtra, in Rajasthan, Jains were protesting against State intervention in their religious practice.

In Mumbai, they were collectively bargaining for it.

I understand, perhaps even share, her distaste for animal murder. But what I wished to remind said prime-timer is this:

Just like the act of slowly killing an animal may seem morbid, gory even, to someone who has remained within the Jain community all her life, the act of santhara, where one willingly kills oneself, will appear equally untenable to someone on its outside.

It would seem then, that the lessons the Jains in Jaipur and Bhopal had collected to impart during the santhara protests - that our religious practices are our own, not to be imposed, nor curtailed - were futile. They were lost along the highways and weeks it took to reach the BMC headquarters in Mumbai.

Pajoshan's over, it's time we make amends

Growing up, my favourite part of Pajoshan was always the very last day.

Fasts were broken, lavish feasts thrown, colourful clothes worn and potato chips shared.

Best of all was this: we would be ferried to the homes of relatives and asked to bow and seek forgiveness with an easy, pre-packaged, all-encompassing phrase I memorised over the years: Michhami Dukarram.

Michhami Dukarram literally means 'let all evil bear no fruit'. What it really means is 'let all my evils bear no fruit'. It is guaranteed forgiveness, no matter what the crime.

Very like a Catholic confession, but without the confessor having to lay out what exactly he or she wished to be forgiven for. Which is rather convenient.

Stealing food from tiffin boxes, losing my temper at siblings, being on the internet for longer than necessary, all that accumulated guilt - with one bowed head and an innocuous turn of phrase - phoosh. Gone. Perished in a moment.

As an adult, however, I can put the same phrase to better use.

Michhami Dukarran, to all chicken and beef eaters (though those are foods I am loathe to try myself). For our misplaced, hypocritical endeavour to enforce our beliefs on you.

If you had a wedding celebration, or a birthday party, or were simply craving non-lactose proteins terribly on an off-day, forgive us.

We understand, even celebrate, that choices with regard to food and sustenance are ours alone.

Our brethren in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh embraced calloused feet and summer heat to tell us so. Yet we failed them. Just as we failed you.

Sneha Vakharia

Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia