Sister Jayanti Kirpalani, European Director of the Brahmakumaris World Spiritual University talked to Atul Shah about the importance of giving all Jains an opportunity to experience spirituality For younger people, faith needs to be developed and cannot be assumed.
I was eight years old when my parents migrated to London. I grew up in an environment that at that time, around 1957, wasn’t multi-cultural. It was very much a white Christian Britain. So I grew up in a climate in which I didn’t have many friends from India. However, I would travel to India; and when I went there, I was of course exposed to the faith of Hinduism.
Because of the gap between home as well as the environment outside, when going to India and being surrounded by the Hindu culture, I was detached enough to be able to look at it as an outsider. The questions I would ask would either be in terms of the rituals that they were doing, or the stories they were telling or the values they were propagating. I wasn’t getting satisfactory answers to any of these things. I am just connecting this with the young Jains in Britain today. Is there a method by which they can be educated in the Jain philosophy? Not just in a sense that 'it is said so in the scriptures' or that 'Lord Mahavira said this'. But how does it make sense? It has to appeal both to logic as well as to experience. You may say that these are left brain-right brain issues: logic vs. feeling. Left side: Yes, I have to use logic. But then equally right side: I need to be able to show a method by which I’m able to have my own experience. It’s no good you telling me that a great person did big sacrifices and received enlightenment hundreds of years ago. Well great, but so what? How does it apply to me? So I think, if there is to be a living tradition, a living faith, then it has to address these two factors – logic and personal experience.
First: how does that apply in terms of religion? Is religion still stuck in the attitudes of hundreds of years ago, when it was mystery, it was faith and nobody could challenge it? It is not going to work anymore. And the second factor – it must lead me to my own personal experience because that is my window to the truth. Even though it might appeal to logic and the intellect, it’s not going to hold me unless it has been something that has moved my heart through an experience.
I will give a very simple example. My brother and I both grew up in the same household. My father in those days wasn’t a vegetarian. My mother was a vegetarian. She had become a vegetarian; she was not a natural. As for me, from the moment I was born, I was a natural vegetarian. And in a household, to cater for both varieties, it was a problem. To me, a vegetarian diet was something that was the commitment of the heart. Even though, going to school in those days, the only thing I could eat was boiled potatoes. Literally, they didn’t have anything to offer for a vegetarian diet. Other people around me would say, 'How can you manage? How can you survive?' But it was a commitment from the heart. My own experience taught me that. Vegetarian diet was so important to me as it could be. My commitment to a vegetarian diet wasn’t imposed on me from outside, (because somebody told me this is what I should be doing), but it came from my heart. My brother grew out of vegetarianism. He is non-vegetarian, which is fine. It was his choice. But you can see, if there’s something that touches your heart, then it is a commitment that you make and you don’t want to shift from that principle. So today, when they arc asking young Jains to do X, Y, or Z, this or that, there must be a component that is experiential. Their heart should move them in the right direction, rather than anyone forcing them to follow certain rules. They should be allowed to build their own personal relationship with the Divine.
In my childhood in London, I was very sceptical about religion. I wanted answers that would make sense. I didn’t deny God, but didn’t accept it either. But later, when I came across the teachings of the Brahmakumaris, I suddenly began to feel that the concept of God is so logical. More importantly, learning the method of meditation enabled me to have an experience of God, which was very moving and uplifting for me. Once that had happened, I was a totally transformed individual – to the extent that even my mother was astonished by the change. I decided to live a life of simplicity in an ashram in India without any reservations, and it was my experience of God that led me to that transformation. Hence I do firmly believe that young people everywhere should be given the opportunity to experience the Divine.
I think it is actually time to go beyond the boundaries of faith traditions. This may sound like hearsay, but I believe it to be true. In recent years, we have gone beyond national boundaries, and even sectarian boundaries, e.g. the Young Jains Conventions are open to all Jains, not just particular sects. We have to recognise the essence of spirituality rather than to abide by the boundary of religion. Think about a wheel. You stand on one segment of the diameter and I stand on the other side of the wheel. We look at each other, and can see and hear vast difference. Difference in words, in costumes, in food, in tradition, in beliefs, and there is a great divide how to overcome that. That is what happened to religions, whether it was Hindu, Muslim or Christian. We see each other as the opposite, and it has led to conflict. There hasn’t yet been the capacity to understand the division that we have created. But, if you (from the position where you stand) go into the depth of your tradition, and I (where I stand) also decide to go into the depth of my tradition, then what will happen is that we come together at the centre. The meeting point at the centre for all traditions is the same. We share similar values and beliefs.
For example, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993, I shared the platform with someone from Islam on the theme of justice. Prior to that connection, I would never have expected that my thoughts on justice could be the same as of someone from Islam. Sharing that platform together, made us both realise that the values are no different, but also the understanding of those values is no different. In our 'Global Co-operation for a Better World' project we questioned hundreds of thousands of people all over the world about their beliefs. We discovered that at the heart of all peoples from all backgrounds were the concern, desire, and motivation for values. So coming together at the centre of the wheel, we find that values link us together; they lie at the core of humanity.
The second major point of convergence of the wheel is in our experience of the Divine. When a Sufi, or a Christian monk, or a yogi speak of their experiences with the Divine, then the theory, the belief, the rituals are all different. But the experience with the Divine -that is where they come together. Whether it is a young Jain, or a young Christian, they focus on what is the spirituality. Thus values and spirituality lie at the core of human wisdom and experience. The coming together of different faiths and building up this closeness is important. It is often said that there’s not going to be a twenty-first century, unless it is the century of spirituality. I think, the world has been teaching us lessons of this: it is either all together or nothing.
We must accept that people are going to stay within their own faith, and it is absolutely right. I am not challenging that. It is fine. But what I would like to see is this spiritual, universal experience all around the world. There’s a term called 'reflective practitioners'. For a long time, professionals have been more directed towards their own performance rather than being concerned with the world. For example, a doctor wasn’t just concerned with the wellbeing of people, but more important was his possessions and his own status. This has happened not just with one profession, but also with several. So before you perform any significant action -pause and reflect. The power of the thought, the power of the intuition creates the deed. And after you have performed the task, pause again and ask the question: 'Could I have done it better? Is there a different way I could have approached this?' Incorporating reflection would obviously make the difference: it would make the heart, the consciousness obey. Re-enter the professionalism in this reflective way. If people are more reflective, the different professional groups could correct all the professional errors together. This is the direction that the world should go.
I think art will also play a very significant role in shaping our spiritual transformation. We are very much aware of the power of the performing arts and visual arts in terms of touching the hearts. When it is lectures, articles or words, it doesn’t really penetrate deeply enough into the hearts. When it is more absurd, whether it is dramatic performances or music or dance, or whether it is poetry or visual arts – it goes straight to the heart and it moves the heart. You will always remember an expression, a phrase. We are in this very precious period in-between, which is the transition from the era of Darkness to the era of Light. You have all the paradoxes, because you have all these cross-currents coming toward you: the dark and the light. The present chaos in people is the reflection of this. If we look at what has been put forward by the modern arts, it’s often nothing of beauty or enlightenment, but rather the contrary. It bashes the senses, it numbs the senses. The music is sometimes so loud, that it is not awakening anything of spirituality within the soul, but it is deafening the senses. If you look at the cinema or visual arts, then it is often the aggression and the violence you experience. If you think back to the time of ancient temples and pyramids, they provide moving experiences even today. It will bring you to tears just to think how they could create something as beautiful as that during their life.
And who was the sculptor? Is there a credit? Is there a name? No. Even as recently as Michelangelo – he didn’t want to put his name to a piece of art, because he thought he would take the place of the Divine. As recently as 300 years ago, a piece of music or art was the property of the Divine and it was not my property. The evil of attachment was not yet created with it. The beauty and the truth of the Divine could flow through art. Today, you have got a completely different approach. Commercialism is corning through, and there is no awareness that art should be the medium of the Divine to uplift the spirit. My hope is that we are coming to an era again where artists will be aware of their responsibility, and they will be concerned not only with material acquisitions. I hope artist will have a closer working relationship with other artists to share their talents.
Jainism is a very profound philosophy of life. I am very impressed by this new initiative by Jains to modernise their tradition and make it more relevant to peopleis lives and experiences. I hope very much that Jains will get excited about their inner treasures without becoming dogmatic or sectarian. The world desperately needs such spirituality and ideals.
Sister Jayanti has been working for the Brahmakumaris for over 25 years. She travels all over the world to promote spiritual values among people from all different backgrounds