Health Diary of a Jain Monk

Introduction and Methodology

While writing the diary, we have kept in mind to lay down a true, as-it-is account of Jain monks. We do not try to paint a rosy, supra-normal or divine picture as happens mostly while writing about the monks. Rather we will take the liberty to say we have painted no picture at all.

Diary simply compiles informal conversations happened over three visits with Shwetambar Jain Sadhvi Popat Maharasa, and their interpretation in sub-text according to the Jain scriptures and traditions.

Though Jain monks are subject to uniform lifestyle and regulation, a lot of the text may not confer to other Jain monks. There are variations in terms of firmness in following prescribed lifestyle. Additionally the interviewed monk was female, and of young age, having roots in semi-rural part of Rajasthan. These attributes too significantly impact the overall case. Then there are differences in prescribed lifestyle itself varying based on sect-based divisions within Jainism. For example, Digambar monks follow many times more sacrificial and hard-strained traditions than Shwetambars.

The importance of the interviews was not just recording what the interviewee says, but even more interestingly analysis of thought sequence in a specific answer, and also in interpreting what interviewee meant and wanted to convey. Often a habit or a practice is justified through more than one reason or argument. The interviewee presents these reasons in a sequence that prioritizes the one that has most impact on her worldview and the highest conviction in her beliefs.

It is important to keep the above analytical angles while reviewing the below transcripts. A simple record of information passed by the interviewee only highlights what she said, but an oral record must also convey what lies underneath those words. Hence we have tried to dwell deeper into many of the Sadhvi’s comments to understand the essence of her words, and their relation with traditions of health care in Jainism.

Jain Monk- Caricature

An individual is recognised as a Monk  (मुनि/साध्वी) in Jainism by formally accepting Diksha (दीक्षा) which implies initiating the monastic order (मुनि जीवन), or in other words renouncing the worldly duties, possessions and family ties.

Jain monks undertake very serious forms of sacrifice. They choose a lifestyle which calls for very high control over self, to ultimately reach the supreme objective of relieving one’s soul from the vicious cycle of birth, death and rebirth (मोक्ष).

Life of a sadhvi is strictly regulated by five great vows (महाव्रत) of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-possession and chastity (अहिंसा, सत्य, अस्तेय, अपरिग्रह, ब्रहमचर्य). For their entire lives they cover their body with white unstitched cloth, walk bare-foot, do not grow hair, eat simple food, prohibit electricity, do not own materials, constantly practice rigorous meditation and fasting and never have a physical contact with another gender.

Food and Diet

Non-vegetarians get the worst yonis[1] in their next life, such as dogs, or demons. Nothing is worse than killing an innocent, helpless animal, and then eating it.

They are also generally hot-headed. You must have observed around how they get angry, or frustrated easily. It is because of their food.

Yes, (obviously) the level of this behaviour depends upon the frequency and quantity of meat they eat.

Oh! Obviously. The micro-organisms present in the killed animal are transmitted to the body of one who eats that. The animals have all types of diseases and infections. All that severely affects health of one who eats meat. It is not just unhealthy, but a source of horrible diseases and sickness.

Besides what is apparent in her comments, it is worth noting that non-vegetarian food is first detested in terms of meta-beliefs, followed by mental health and only then physical health argument. The sequence of thoughts to substantiate her point illustrates the grading of convictions in her mind.

Do you know how many micro-organisms jamikands (root vegetables) have? They grow up beneath the ground! There lakhs of organisms inhibit inside the fruit. When you eat a potato, you eat all of them.

And what will happen if you sow potato? Won’t a plant come out (of it). So what does it show? It (always) had life.

Also potato is the main reason why so many people get fat today. You also look like one who eats all this!

Jainism encourage regulation in food preferences that exclude root vegetables like potato, onions, and garlic. It also encourage regulation on consuming green leafy vegetables for four months around the monsoons.

I doubt you are a Jain. You know how difficult is to get human form. In that (human form) too, you are born as Jain (the most superior)…… but you have wasted this life. Even after being a Jain you do not seem to follow the religion [2]

Do you recall Navkaar Mantr[3](नवकार मंत्र)? Recite for us.
Do you know what to say when you see a Sadhvi ji Maharaj? See, you don’t know. One says- Mathen Vandami (मथेण  वंदामी)

She was visibly perturbed knowing I do not follow most routine prescriptions given in Jainism, nor know much about rituals. For her, Jainism was little about your last name i.e. if you are Jain by birth.

Mostly she emphasised upon religion as the lifestyle prescribed by Jainism. The regulations, the restrictions and the training of body and mind which goes with it. This points to the progressive nature of Jainism which is not trapped in fabricated rituals as the chief identity of the religion. The fact that Jainism does not have a concept of god with emancipatory powers strengthens the points

Endnote:- In our everyday life, it seems that we choose a particular variety of food due to its vitality in keeping the nutritional balance of our body or simply as we like the taste of it. However these preferences and habits are deeply ingrained into particular ideologies, and conceptions about lifestyle, bodily purity and class-distinctions.

The above section highlights how food preferences normally accorded to nutrition and taste, also carry under the cloak a strong indication of an individual’s worldview.

There was a constant reference of Jains and ajains. Ajains being anyone not Jain. A certain sense of superiority of Jains, over ajains was quite apparent in whole conversation. Because ajains eat meat (which I corrected by referring many non-Jain disciples which also bar meat), or for that matter those who eat potatoes, onions and other root vegetables (her counter to my non-Jain vegetarians correction!) they were placed into lower rung, where perceptibly Jains seated at the top.

The food habits filtered down to proclaim a major shortcoming in humanity of ajain communities. That meat-eating, and other insensitive food habits makes you a worse human being. Driving on this sentiment she strongly indicated moral superiority of Jains over others. It was interesting because a synonymous notion is also at the root of many ideas that promote religious  fundamentalism. However I will not exaggerate this point beyond as fundamentalism grows upon many other quintessential characteristics like cultural integrity, purity and protectionism among many more.

She had a consistent expression of abhorrence while discussing non-vegetarians. Though at no time that transfused to a rhetoric against any caste or religion. Although ‘abhorring’ itself is a form of violence in thoughts, an aspect which has been expansively worked over and refuted in Jainism. She did not realised, which I wish she had, that unconsciously she is reiterating a form of violence during her explicit denigration of a violent group, i.e. ajains.

A Day in a Sadhvi’s life

We wake-up before sunset. After performing the morning rituals, an hour is spent doing samayik. This hour is used to remorse and repent (paschatap and prayaschit) over any bad dreams, bad deeds of the last night. We only eat after a navkarsi (which is loosely 8 A.M.). Until then not a drop of water we drink. And last time we drink water is the evening (sunset time). So from evening to next day morning 8.A.M. we neither eat or drink anything.

And many times we do not eat or drink even uptill 10 or 11 A.M.. This occurs when we have to do repenting for any bad dreams or deeds of last night. The repent sometimes even involve ekashna (eat one meal) or upvaas (no food at all).

She indicates repenting about bad dreams/deeds twice. They referred mainly to killing any organism unknowingly in the dark, but even more importantly to erotic thoughts that may have surfaced last night. This tells about the passion with which non-violence and life-long sexual sanctity is practiced by her, so much so that even unconscious faulting on these pacts are consciously disciplined.

Thereafter we spent an hour in chaitanyavandna (praying in temple).

Though we do not have a definite routine! It (mainly) depends on the time of the year, place where we stay, fact that we are fasting or not, and many other factors.

She found it hard to illustrate a general daily routine because monks do not have a permanent residence, and need to keep travelling. However in the four monsoon months  (सावन-भादो) as per the Hindu calendar they stay put to a single place. The routine given by her mainly for these months.

But yes, roughly around 10’o’ clock we leave for vihar. Day-meal is taken at around noon. Thereafter afternoons are generally spent talking to visitors, reading books, meditation (dhyaan), resting and so on.

Jain monks are required to collect their food every day. They do not cook. Monks traverse around every day which is called Vihar and collect small portions of food from multiple households. Jains feel blessed having got a chance to offer food to monks.

In evening, before the sunset we have our last meal of the day. Food gathered in the day is only saved for evening. Yes! We go for vihar only once. So we divide food such that it is left for evening. Indeed many times just small portions remain (after division).

After sunset, we do a pratikraman. By 9-10 PM, we sleep.

Fire, electricity, and electronic/battery operated equipment are best kept away by monks. She did not allow us to use voice recorder and camera around her. This fact means they spent time after sunset in dark. The idea is that a large number of insects attract towards illuminated light and die, which is unacceptable to monks.

It was really interesting to watch a lifestyle that still adheres in some ways to a manner ordinary people use to live perhaps a century or two ago. Maximum use of sunlight, earthian utensils, barefoot, basic asset holding, mutual interaction and religious activities for passing time and so on.

Physical Health

We also take medicines like other people. Yes, it is allowed (under monk tradition). Just that no organism should have been used in it.

Yes, indeed I am talking of allopathic…the English medicine. Tablet, capsule, tonics and so on. It is permissible.

Cold, cough and other common problems. Pain in some (body) part. We get them.

To think of monks as extra-ordinary beings who are unaffected by weather, pollution, nutrition or other vectors of everyday illness will be superficial. Like commonplace individual they also get sick at times pertaining to external/internal conditions.

Though it must be noted here that they largely wear a thin white cotton cloth, while a shawl (made of organic wool) is used in extreme temperatures and night time. Also they remain bare-foot for the entire life, sit on the floor for entire day and use a wooden cot (with no bedding) to sleep. Going by  their food habits and rigorous fasting, monks also make a case of fairly high potential of nutritional deficiency, bodily weakness and low immune. Yet they get affected by common sickness just like any other ordinary individual.

There is a medication system (scripted and inspired by Jain texts). We refer that too. You know Kadha…potions like that. Then most sickness can be cured by simply modifying taseer[4] (तासीर) of what you eat.

Sadhvi did mentioned traditional system of medication when specifically questioned about it. But it seemed she more or less trusted modern medicine over any other form of medication. It was surprising as we assumed a contrary situation where they take modern medicine only in grave or emergency conditions.

Otherwise many other highly red and scholarly Jain monks actually practice a prohibition of Allopathic prescriptions, knowing well a lot of plant and animal extracts form their ingredients. However interviewed Sadhvi was ignorant of the fact, believing only that some medicines do use animal parts, and that they mention the fact clearly on their package.

Of course we can go to hospital! If a monk needs a operation, or gets very ill they are admitted (in hospital). But a lot of precautions are taken. Mostly devotees assure a special ward in line to our needs. Like a female attendant. And cleanliness and other precautions we practice. Yes, male doctor can examine us, but he shouldn’t come near (to us).

There is always a chance of some untoward thing happening in hospital. Then one has to do a prayaschit. That (prayaschit) depends on level of untoward incident. It is not fixed. It can be a samayik, tela or even a maskhaman. All depends.

Otherwise a doctor visits us here. She comes for check-up, or if we have any problem. Yes, she comes whenever we want.

The challenge before a Jain monk, specially female monk to get hospital care was a biting truth. Because monks practice Brahamcharya, the other gender should never come into their contact. Very severe penalties are prescribed for breaking this vow. Besides there are dozens of other sources which in a minor or major way denigrate monk’s sanctity. So usually a sick and ailed monk once discharged from hospital takes up strict remedial measure, taxing the already weak, vulnerable body.

No we do not talk about these things. If you want to know (about brahamacharya) go to Sadhu ji Maharaj in Chikpet. He’ll explain in detail.

Sadhvi visibly got perturbed when asked about brahamcharya, and more specifically how this vow gets affected just by contact from the other gender. She surely wasn’t open to discuss this subject with a man. Rather she suggested me to visit a male monk.

Although taking cues from the overall conversation, one can fairly catch few strings in terms of sexuality. One, she cannot have any nature or form of physical contact with opposite gender. Even indirect physical contact like handing over a book to a boy is not permitted. Book will be kept on the floor to be picked up by the other person. Two, not only physical sanctity is kept protected, but erotic/arousing thoughts are to be totally barred from the physic as well. However monks can freely converse with either gender without any regulation.

We are always doing some tap (regulation over self). That is something which keeps running (along) with our life. Meditation, Pratikraman, Navkarsi, Upvaas, Bela, Tela, Athai. There are times we only eat one type of grain. Then we also do Varshitap. In it, we eat on alternative days for one whole year.

There is no reason for doing it. Tap is a part of Sadhu Jeevan (life of a monk). That is how you get mukti (she meant ultimate journey of soul, i.e. reaching moksha).

Two elements- Fasting and Brahamacharya are key to a Jain monk’s life. They are the critical factors that helps develop, over time an unimaginable resilience in these individuals. Through constant training of their mind and body they reach a stage of somewhat control over their desires, sentiments and needs.

[1] Yonis– Life form on Re-birth

[2] Here she does not imply that I must perform pujas, or visit temple but rather points out to my non-Jain food habits and lack of knowledge about my religion.

[3] Navkaar Mantr is a short prayer paying obeisance to 5 forms of most revered souls in Jainism. Every Jain is supposed to know this prayer.

[4] Taseer is a Ayurvedic term which implies that every food commodity has a potential temperature (hot, warm cool). Ex., Watermelon is cool for body, while wheat is warm and turmeric is hot. Also under this medical understanding, sickness is caused by imbalance in body temperature and energy. So one can modify her diet to bring the balance back.