Saturday 14 November is Diwali (sometimes Dipali), the festival of lights. Although Diwali is connected mostly with Hinduism, it is observed by the three ancient religions of India — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — and the more recent religion of India, Sikhism. In a conversation with a colleague, he noted that Jains observed the entrance of Mahavira (ca. 500 BC), the 24th and last of the Jain tirthankaras or foundational figures, into mokṣa (similar to nirvana) during Diwali. He said he knew nothing about Jainism and asked if I did. It happens that I have had direct and indirect contact with Jainism (pronounced: jane-ism).
I had direct contact with Jains while visiting one of their holiest places, the Bhagwan Parshwanath Digamber, in Khajuraho in India and taking a study group to meet with Jains at their temple in western New Jersey. My indirect contact with Jains was through pious Hindu friends who held the Jains in extremely high regard for their dedication and holiness.
While often very different in details and theology, the great ancient religions of India share several things in common, even if each faith might understand them in different ways. Three particularly important points of contact between the three religion are: ahiṃsa, nonviolence, non-harm, saṃsāra, the cycle of rebirth, re-incarnation, and mokṣa, release from saṃsāra, nirvana. What deeply impressed my devout Hindu friends was the depth and radical commitment of Jains to ahiṃsa, non-violence.
Anyone of any or even no faith, after encountering the Jain’s radical commitment to nonviolence, comes away reflecting on their own religion’s and their own personal commitment (or lack thereof) to non-violence. Nonviolence is one of the major beliefs/dogmas/practices of all Indian religions. As is the case with all religions, including Christianity, maintaining the highest ideals is neither easy nor common. Recently many in the West were shocked by the violence of Buddhist monks in Myanmar against the Muslim Rohingyas. Even when highly regarded, the best religious values are often the most difficult to observe and the easiest to excuse oneself of.
Nevertheless, there is something unique about Jains. Their commitment to non-violence is built on the principle of parasparopagraho jīvānām, “the function of souls is to help one another.” This results in them avoiding all forms of violence against all forms of life. This includes: being vegetarians; not eating root vegetables because pulling them from the ground might kill small organisms; and wearing face masks lest they inhale and kill small insects.
The contact with people trying to practice radical nonviolence does provoke a certain amount of self-reflection. Although non-violence, the highest value in Indic religions, is rarely kept perfectly — and they will be the first to admit that — it nonetheless remains the highest value and articulated as such.
The situation with the world’s three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — is different. Although these religions highly regard virtues such as love, mercy, charity, forgiveness, philanthropy, etc., nonviolence, strictly speaking, is rarely articulated as a virtue, much less the supreme virtue.
In the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, war and violence are taken for granted. To be sure both religions attempt to limit the destructive nature of war and to introduce humane rules of conduct in war. While peace (Hebrew šalôm; Arabic salām) is always looked up to as an ultimate good, none of this is exactly the same as nonviolence as a value to be practiced in the here and now.
When looking at the New Testament, we can find a situation similar to that of the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. While promoting the values of love, mercy and forgiveness, the presence of war and violence is taken as a given — not a good, but a given. Even the most cursory reading of the Book of Revelation will show that nonviolence does not play a major role.
Having said that, however, one notes the attitude of Jesus in the Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the sayings of Jesus there is a clear articulation of a principle of non-violence. In the Beatitudes the peace makers are blessed and declared children of God (Matt 5:9). Jesus clearly rejects violence even against the wicked: “Offer no resistance to the wicked … If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well” (Matt 5:39-40; Luke 6:29). The followers of Jesus are to love their enemies and pray for them (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27-35).
If we are honest, nonviolence has not played a major role in the history of Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant). To be sure, there have been great spirits like Francis of Assisi who opposed all forms of violence. Among what is sometimes referred to as the “radical Reformers,” or Anabaptists, there were strong voices for nonviolence. However, while these voices were strong and committed, they always were a minority position. Even today, the “historic peace churches” — the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites and others — preach and teach nonviolence as a central Christian value and characteristic.
In the Catholic Church especially, but not exclusively after Vatican II, there has been a resurgence of the importance of evangelical nonviolence. Pax Christi, the Community of Sant’ Egidio, the Catholic Worker Movement, to name only three, have been nothing short of heroic in their counter-cultural opposition to the chimera of “violent solutions” and in promoting non-violent solutions to conflicts.
Diwali is important for believers in the religions of India. It is, however, not without value for us Christians. By introducing us to the Jains, it introduces us to believers radically committed to nonviolence. That encounter can lead us to go deeper into our own Christian tradition — especially in its Synoptic articulation — to rediscover and perhaps reinvigorate our own commitment to non-violence.