Religion and left-wing activism don’t mix well. Or so I’m told.
Unless you’re an atheist, you are subjected to long diatribes on why God is not real, religion is the opiate of the masses, and how faith kills political resistance and activism. While most of this feverish rage is directed to those of the Abrahamic religions, those practicing “Eastern” religions are shamed for being hippies – even when those people aren’t white and come from a long history of those faiths shaping their culture and identities.1
But, the faith that I was brought up with is the reason I am political. Jain values taught me compassion, solidarity and anti-capitalism. They drove my need to seek social justice and challenge the way in which we live today. Jain philosophy guided my journey into becoming an activist.
Jainism is a small faith with approximately 4-5 million followers, mostly based in India. It’s a fundamentally non-violent faith with strong anti-brahminist tradition, no real creation mythology and therefore no ‘gods’ (in the sense of an almighty being who controls things forever and ever).
I am not a practising Jain any more, completely (it’s hard to say when Jainism is more a way of living than a faith). I don’t accept everything about Jainism, especially not in the way that Jains practise Jainism today. But without growing up with Jain ethical principles and ways of viewing the world, I certainly would not have become the compassionate but radical activist I am today.
Anekantvada – or multi-perspectivism – taught me empathy.
Through anekantvada, I was able to see how other being viewed the world. I was taught to see other people and not judge them, but instead to understand them.2 For me, this was radical compassion in action. Instead of simply judging people and their actions, I was taught to understand their circumstances, place myself in their shoes and show empathy.
Anekantvada helped me understand my complicity in oppression: oppression as racism, as casteism, as sexism, as ableism, as specieism, etc. I was able to observe how norms were created, who they benefited, and why.
Reincarnation and karma theory defined the principle of equality for all.
Most Jains grow up vegetarian. We’re taught that all life is equal, that all living beings have souls3, and that – since time is infinite – our souls have been in pretty much every other form of being at some point in the past.4
Because all living beings are souls, we are all equal. Yes, in this life, I had been born human, but in others I had been a moth, or a pig, or type of grass. Therefore, in my worldview, I cannot see the difference between myself and any other living being. We are all souls, all equal – the only difference between us is Karma.
This worldview shapes how I saw ‘nature’. Growing up, I felt strong compassion for resisting environmental degradation because I could not see myself as distinct from other living beings around me. I also learned about symbiosis, and the lack of distinction between ‘nature’ and humans. I began to make strong connections between the plight of oppressed people and environmental destruction; people are animals, animals and plants were the same. All life was the same, and should be seen as equal.
Aparigraha – or non-possessiveness – led me to anti-capitalism.
Everything comes and goes; nothing is permanent. Jainism teaches us that being attached to material possessions is not useful because nothing is permanent. It also teaches us that attachment weighs us down, prevents the soul from achieving liberation.
As a child I was told I didn’t ‘own’ anything. I was taught to share; that what was ‘mine’ was something that belonged to everyone rather than my own. When my first tooth fell out and I hid it under my pillow hoping for the tooth fairy, I woke up with some stationary under my pillow and a note that I was to share these with my friends and my sister.
Capitalism doesn’t quite see things in this way. Private ownership at the expense of others is central to how the system works. All things are seen as ‘capital’; all goods are seen as ‘owned’ possessions (including labour) which have a exchange value, and that exchange value is a measure of your worth. In other words, everything is about owning possessions.
Modern capitalism is also hyperconsumerism. All happiness is linked to buying things. Feeling sad – buy something. Want to show love – buy something. Don’t have money – take out a credit card. As long as you’re buying things and owning things, you are doing ok. Hardly in tune with aparigraha.
Capitalism has never made much sense to me. The concept of owning things privately seem quite at odds to the way in which I view the world.
It did take me some time, however, to link Jain values with anti-capitalism as Jains tend not be critical of the way the world works. Capitalism, in its nature, hides how it works unless you start asking the awkward questions. When I did start questioning social injustice, I found my spiritual beliefs provided a strong critique to values that capitalism espouses.
Some caveats & why I can’t be a ‘true’ Jain
Jainism isn’t a religion about rules; it’s a faith of understanding that everyone has their own path. I’ve always appreciated it for its lack of interest in converting others, trying to judge everyone by universal rules, and general lack of authoritarian structures – though there are several religious sects with differing views on this.
Jainism isn’t perfect. My political journey was certainly shaped by Jainism, but I have also had to shed some of its beliefs. I have found Jainism to also be stifling, controlling and selfish. Its absolutist attitude to karma – action and consequence – means it lacks the capability to be self-critical. Jains are told to change themselves, not the world. So, when we face injustice and authoritarianism, we do not speak out against it.5
Jainism & Casteism
Its socio-political context in India and its long history of belonging to Hindu social orders places most Jains within the Vaishya (merchant) caste. 6 Anti-caste thinking is central to Jain theology, but in practise, many Jains are happy to work within the Hindu caste system. When I have spoken to my community about this, I have often been told that the reason for this is self-preservation; that as Jainism is a minority religion, we have had to adapt to Hindu / Muslim / Buddhist social hierarchies in order to survive. It’s no wonder, then, that Ambedkar didn’t become a Jain to stand up against oppression!
Homosexuality, trans and queer identities, and gender politics
Sexuality is generally not something spoken about because all sex is seen as generally a form of attachment. Therefore homosexuality is not criticised or demonised, it’s just not something people necessarily talk about. While the taboo around sex did cause me some personal problems with trying to accept myself, I never felt particularly ‘wrong’ for being queer from a religious perspective. Societal pressure – outside of the Jain community especially – did that far more successfully.
That said, there is a strong sense of keeping men away from women in religious contexts to prevent either from being ‘tempted’, which does assume heteronormativity.
It’s difficult to find information on Jain reactions to gender, especially given that the gender/sex dichotomy is something that was invented within a Western context. We know that there were genderqueer and third gender people in India historically and currently. Personally, as an agendered / genderqueer person myself, I have really struggled to find the language to explain what that means to my family and community.
In a contemporary context, we were always brought up with a strict gender binary, with strong gender roles and codes. I don’t know any other Jain folks who are trans within my community. Transwomen (hijras) are seen but not really spoken about when I was growing up.
Jainism is patriarchal. Women are seen as less able to achieve liberation in those current bodies. Communities of monks are allowed more religious authority than nuns. The issue does vary between different sects (one believes it is possible to gain liberation in a woman’s body, another does not).
Despite my interpretation of Jainism as being fundamentally anti-capitalist, Jains have typically made decent capitalists. Very similar to the Quakers, they are generally seen as trustworthy traders which has historically given them a strong advantage in business. Most practising Jains will stick to a form of ‘ethical’ business (in the sense that there would be moral codes that include no corruption, no cheating / criminal activity, some charity work), and will largely view their work as performing their duty to family and society. Family duty, in Jainism, trumps everything else.
A conclusion, of sorts
Growing up Jain is why I care about social justice issues, why I am passionate about liberation politics, and why I have spent my adult years working on decolonising and campaigning against oppression. I am not a fully practising Jain anymore for the reasons I highlighted above, but I appreciate so much it has taught me, and how much it continues to teach me.
I cannot listen to evangelical atheists whitesplaining how my religion is evil. I will not be told how I am a ‘hippie’7 and not radical enough for refusing to call myself an atheist.
Atheists will be called out for being racist when they try to convince me or anyone else of faith that religion is the problem.
A call out to other left-wing Jains
I also write this for other Jains who may feel similarly to me. For anyone else in the Jain community who is looking for a friend/ally in social justice work, intersectional work, decolonising work, please know you are not alone. I’m more than happy to chat with Jain (or ex-Jain) folks on twitter / facebook / email/ etc to see how we can support each other better.
- In India, the concept of being an atheist is not really recognised. Even if you don’t believe in God or gods or whatever the faith your ancestors practised, you are still of that faith. Atheists in the West are largely viewed as non-practising Christians even if they hate that faith. Religion is a form of cultural identity, ironically because that’s how the first white traders/colonisers divided India into Muslims or Vedic beliefs as a way of understanding India’s very diverse set of religious beliefs.
- This is not to say that I am free from being judgemental! Jain faith teaches you to aim towards these goals; they are the destination, not the expectation.
- The soul is called atma, atman or aatma. The embodied soul is called jiva. Individual life is jiva, the pure soul – embodied or not – is referred to as the atma. The distinction is not always clear though. Read more here.
- We’re also taught that our true self is the soul, and that our bodies are mere outer shells, burdened upon us due to karma.
- Perhaps this is why Jains have been so complicit (and supportive?) of the rise of Modi and Hindutva ideology.
- Jains belong to a lot of their own subcastes, per se. There were probably only invented in the last millenium, and are gradually eroding. Read more here.
- Hippies are basically white folks who decided that culturally appropriating whatever they deemed useful from the East. People who come from those traditions that they culturally appropriated from cannot be ‘hippies’. It was our culture that was stolen and converted into a lifestyle choice.