The Satya Interview:
Muni Nandibhushan Vijayi, a Jain Priest
By Rynn Berry
Many people unwittingly regard Jainism—the
religion of ten million Indians and an increasing number of devotees
worldwide—as a branch of Hinduism; the Jains, however, maintain,
not without cogent archaeological evidence, that Jainism is the parent
religion of India. Mahavira, the most recent of the 24 jinnas (victors),
is considered the historical founder of Jainism, and with the Buddha,
is credited with having abolished animal sacrifice and introducing the
doctrine of ahimsa (non-injury) into the Vedic religion. The Jains established
the first animal hospitals (pinjarpols) in India as well as the world,
and are noted for practicing the stringent vegetarianism detailed below.
They imbue creatures such as worms, ants and flies with souls, and will
do their utmost to avoid injuring them.
I met the 39 year-old Muni Nandibhushan Vijayji at the Santinath Jain
temple in Bombay in 1993. He had been a priest since he was 15. A master
of many languages—he speaks Gujarati, Marathi, and Hindi—the
Muni has a reading knowledge of Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Maghadi (the
language of Mahavira and the Buddha), and considerable fluency in English.
We met on the top floor of the temple, where seven other monks were
staying at the time. Although the interview was held in the winter (January),
the air that wafted through the balcony windows was warm and heavy with
the pungent odors of Bombay; in the hubbub from the streets below, one
could hear street vendors hawking pomegranates, sugarcane, and custard
apples; songbirds alighted on the sun-washed balcony, and nonchalantly
strutted back and forth.
Why did you become a priest at such
a tender age?
There are two reasons why one would want to become a sadhu [male priest]—one
is unhappy with the world and desires to escape from it; one meets a
guru who inspires one to follow his example. In my case it was the latter.
After school, I used to go to hear a Jain guru who persuaded me through
his words and his example that I could only make spiritual progress
if I were to become a sadhu; so at the age of 15 I left school and became
a sadhu; I ceased my formal education, but in a sense my education really
began when I left school.
Are women allowed to become priests?
Yes, in fact the majority of Lord Mahavira’s followers were women,
which was more than 2,000 years ago. The Jain priesthood has always
been open to women. We call our female priests or monks sadhuis. As
a rule the sadhuis don’t speak in front of men; the sadhus speak
before male and female audiences; however the Jain Acharya or Guru Maharaj
[head priest] may appoint a woman to speak at Jain assemblies.
Are the Jains still prohibited from
eating such root vegetables as potatoes, carrots and radishes as well
as garlic and onions?
It is a cardinal Jain precept that one should never kill any form of
life. It is our belief that while these root vegetables are growing
underground, they have an infinite number of organisms attached to them.
By uprooting them, one is disrupting their lives and killing them. This
is contrary to the first Jain precept against taking life. That’s
why we don’t eat root vegetables. Our stomach is not a burial
ground for dead bodies.
How do you deal with mosquitoes, termites,
bed-bugs and crop-destroying pests?
According to Jainism, even these bugs have souls; so one must deal with
them very gingerly.
What if you were besieged by a cloud
of mosquitoes one night?
I would sweep them away with my whisk broom [rajoharam]. If they really
got bad, I would sleep under a mosquito net; but there is a difference
between my killing them and their committing suicide. [Laughter.]
Is the Jain layman as strict in his
dietary habits as a Jain priest?
No, not everyone is so strict. There are gradations, but everyone is
a strict vegetarian. We never wear leather, but some of our garments
are made from wool. We justify that by reasoning that wool grows on
top of the animal; so that to remove it is not causing the animal any
deprivation. Anyway, artificial fabrics are now rendering the wearing
of wool obsolete.
Did the concept of ahimsa originate
with the Jains?
It began with Jainism. Jainism goes so far as to say that you should
be concerned not only for the well-being of people, animals and bugs,
but also for the well-being of the soil, the water and the air: ahimsa
extends to all of nature. Jainism has always been very ecology-minded.
We should be unstinting in our efforts to care for all life forms—even
stones, soil, trees, water and air, which by the lights of Jainism are
also sentient beings.
Yes, but aren’t some beings more
sentient than others? How would you weigh the life of a man against
the life of a stone?
Jainism divides the world into five classes of beings whose membership
in each class is determined by the number of senses that each being
possesses. The highest class is that of the five-sensed beings, which
comprises people and the higher animals such as monkeys, parrots, dogs,
horses, elephants, pigs, etc. The next class consists of four-sensed
beings who are thought to lack the sense of hearing; they include the
larger insects such as flies, bees and grasshoppers. The next class
comprises three-sensed beings such as moths, ants, mosquitoes, etc.
that lack the senses of hearing and seeing. The third group consists
of two-sensed beings such as mollusks, crustaceans, worms, etc. who
have only the senses of touch and taste. The final group of one-sensed
beings includes trees, rocks, water, wind and fire—these too are
sentient beings and as Jains we have an obligation to treat them with
the same respect and care that we accord to any other life form.
Do the Jains hold the view that one
can be reincarnated in a higher or lower life form?
Basically, your karma in this lifetime determines what you will become
in your next lifetime. If you’ve been a slaughterer in this lifetime,
then you may be slaughtered in the next lifetime. There are no levels
of incarnation; one life form is not held to be higher or lower than
another. All are sacred.
What is a typical meal for a Jain monk?
The food must be fresh: We cannot eat food that has been stored overnight.
Is that because leftover food attracts
more micro-organisms, more bacteria, hence more life-forms?
That’s correct. If I want to eat something, I will go to a Jain
home and I will eat the food that has been prepared for me—but
as I said, it must be fresh, and it cannot contain root vegetables.
It’s considered an honor for a Jain family to provide sustenance
for a Jain monk. They invariably try to give us more food than we can
eat in order to obtain more blessings.
What are some of the rules that govern
your life as a Jain priest?
When we travel we must walk barefoot everywhere. We are not permitted
to touch a woman; we are not allowed to touch money; we never eat after
sunset; twice a year I must pluck out all the hair on my face and scalp.
Why do you pluck out all your facial
and scalp hair?
To increase parishaha [endurance of pain]. Parishaha strengthens the
spirit and reduces karma.
You don’t touch money. Is money
considered to be intrinsically evil?
No, money has the potential to be either good or evil; but, it is so
volatile that we cannot run the risk of touching it for fear of contamination.
Do the Jains still make it a point to
pursue innocent professions such as commerce and teaching in order to
avoid jobs which necessitate killing life forms?
In the old days, this was strictly true; but nowadays many Jains are
not so careful about the sort of work they do so long as it pays them
a good salary. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that if they
fail to follow the precepts of their religion, even in the workplace,
they will never gain enlightenment.
Jains are not permitted to own pets—is
this because it would be an intrusion in their lives, a meddling with
their karmic destiny?
As a rule Jainism discourages the keeping of pets; however, if you decide
to keep a pet, you are not really committing any great infraction of
the rules. But we feel it is best not to interfere in the lives of animals.
They should be allowed to live free and unimpeded. Of course, when animals
have been mistreated or abandoned, we believe in looking after them.
We have a long tradition of establishing hospitals and rest-homes for
animals. Jains all over India make a practice of going to slaughterhouses
to try and rescue animals that are about to be butchered. For thousands
of years we Jains have operated special institutions that are called
pinjarpols for the care and protection of helpless and decrepit animals.
There is scarcely a single town in Rajasthan or Gujerat that doesn’t
have a pinjarpol. We take care of stray cows, pigs, goats, sheep, birds
and insects—all creatures irrespective of economic considerations.
We keep veterinarians on hand to look after the animals regardless of
Do you think Jain ethical principles
will spread throughout the world?
Jainism is a very deep and demanding religious philosophy. There are
only a select group of people who are lucky enough to have it as their
religion and are capable of practicing it. Even the “Three Jewels”
of Jainism—right thinking, right knowledge and right practice—are
too difficult for most people to follow. Jainism is particular to India,
which is a very sacred place. In India there is a religion in every
grain of sand.
Rynn Berry is the author of Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the
World’s Religions (Pythagorean Publishers, 1998) in which a longer
version of this interview appears.