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Jains fast for peace

posted 23 Sept 2011, 06:07 by GujaratiSamajPenang   [ updated 1 Dec 2011, 20:00 ]

22nd September 2011 in the SUN Daily

By Himanshu Bhatt

WHEN 29-year-old Kinal Vora recently ended her fast in a simple ceremony in Penang, it was for those who were present no ordinary moment. Kinal had gone 16 days without eating a single morsel of food, as an act of intense spiritual devotion.

She was not alone. All across Malaysia, numerous other followers of the Jain religion also fasted, some for longer periods, in the private confines of their homes. Many went about their daily lives, without their friends and colleagues realising the incredible personal feats they were undertaking – all as a gesture of peace to our universe.

Unknown to many, the small community observed this extraordinary fasting period in a tradition that is being kept alive in Malaysia. Every year around September, adherents of Jainism – a sister religion of Buddhism and Hinduism – numbering about a thousand in this country, mark the religious occasion called "paryushan". The moving spiritual observance involves a process of personal introspection that entails a form of deep self-cleansing to strengthen one's principles.

While performing prayer and meditation, many Jains also take an oath to fast for a number of days, by consuming only boiled water between sunrise and sunset. Some give up food for a day, while many choose to do so longer.

It is common to see Jains of various ages – teenage students to the elderly – fasting for eight or 16 days without taking any food.

Fascinatingly enough, the longest fasting period ever recorded in Malaysia by an individual is attributed to a Jain elder in Kuala Lumpur. In 1995, Pravin Damani went 55 days without food for "paryushan".

This great fasting ceremony is rooted in the concept of compassion and non-violence that is at the heart of the ancient Jain philosophy. Jains are strict vegetarians.

Jainism's main figure, the ascetic Mahavir, who lived in the Indian subcontinent 2,600 years ago, preached abstention from hurting living beings not just by physical acts, but also through mind and speech.

And so Jains across Malaysia, a majority of whom are ethnic Gujaratis, recently strove for peace by observing the "paryushan".

 In Kuala Lumpur, many Jains converged at the community's temple in Bangsar. In Malacca, a Jain school, or "jainshala", has been running since the 50s, passing down the values and beliefs of the culture to young children and youths.

And little known to most people, Ipoh is home to the one of the largest Jain temples in Southeast Asia – a majestic ornate-domed building in First Garden.

Interestingly, the first Malaysian to be ordained a Jain monk was a Penangite who in the 1940s was severely affected by the atrocities of the Japanese army during the occupation of Malaya.

Ratilal Muni Gathani was in his mid-20s when his eldest brother was killed by a Japanese bomb which fell in Penang Street, and the tragedy moved him deeply. He was so struck that he renounced all worldly possessions and went off to India to become a monk and seek to understand life through Jainism.

It is in this spirit of healing and atonement, that one of the key gestures of the "paryushan" is a moving ritual where every member of the community asks forgiveness from others for any wrongdoing or offence.

Each person expresses to another "Michami Dukhadam" which, roughly translated means "I ask forgiveness for any hurt". Many find the discipline purifying, and emerge from the experience with renewed vigour.

Many Jains even sent text messages seeking such forgiveness to each other and to friends. The expression is made to seek pardon from not just people one may know, but also all creatures that may have been affected by one's misdeeds – from the smallest living cell to the highest human being. This small but powerful gesture is symbolic of the Jain faith's reverence for all life.

Indeed, it is a gesture of forgiveness, rejuvenation and continuity that Malaysians from all walks of life can derive inspiration from as they go about their affairs in the mortal world.

Himanshu is the Sun's Penang bureau chief. Comments: