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November 1994
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 twenty-four 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 fifteen. 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, sugar-cane, and custard apples; songbirds alighted on the sun-washed balcony, and nonchalantly strutted back and forth.

RB: Why did you become a priest at such a tender age?
MNV: 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 fifteen I left school and became a sadhu; I ceased my formal education, but in a sense my education really began when I left school.

RB: Are women allowed to become priests?
MNV: Yes, in fact the majority of Lord Mahavira’s followers were women, which was more than two thousand 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.

RB: Are the Jains still prohibited from eating such root vegetables as potatoes, carrots and radishes as well as garlic and onions?
MNV: 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.

RB: How do you deal with mosquitoes, termites, bed-bugs and crop-destroying pests?
MNV: According to Jainism, even these bugs have souls; so one must deal with them very gingerly.

RB: What if you were besieged by a cloud of mosquitoes one night?
MNV: 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)

RB: Is the Jain layman as strict in his dietary habits as a Jain priest?
MNV: 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.

RB: Did the concept of ahimsa originate with the Jains?
MNV: 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.

RB: 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?
MNV: 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.

RB: Do the Jains hold the view that one can be reincarnated in a higher or lower life form?
MNV: 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.

RB: What is a typical meal for a Jain monk?
MNV: The food must be fresh: We cannot eat food that has been stored overnight.

RB: Is that because leftover food attracts more micro-organisms, more bacteria, hence more life-forms?
MNV: 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 that we can eat in order to obtain more blessings.

RB: What are some of the rules that govern your life as a Jain priest?
MNV: 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.

RB: Why do you pluck out all your facial and scalp hair?
MNV: To increase parishaha [endurance of pain]. Parishaha strengthens the spirit and reduces karma.

RB: You don’t touch money. Is money considered to be intrinsically evil?
MNV: 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.

RB: 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?
MNV: 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.

RB: Jains are not permitted to own pets — is this because it would be an intrusion in their lives, a meddling with their karmic destiny?
MNV: 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 cost.

RB: Do you think Jain ethical principles will spread throughout the world?
MNV: 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 Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes. This interview has been abridged from his forthcoming book, Devout Vegetarians: Conversations with Vegetarian Representatives of the World’s Religions to be published in Spring 1995. You can order Famous Vegetarians from Rynn Berry for $16.95 postpaid at 159 Eastern Parkway 2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238.


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