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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Many-Sidedness and Maybe-ism

May 25th, 2010

From Dr Atul Shah of ‘Diverse Ethics’

MANY-SIDED WISDOM – A New Politics of the Spirit by Aidan Rankin, 150pp, O Books 2010 Available on Amazon for £9.99.

In the huge cacophony of noise and pollution that is the modern media, it is rare to find a new work which is written with patience and perseverance, where the author has laboured over his thoughts and researched them for years (decades even)  before putting them to print. This new book flows like a timeless river, respects its readers very deeply, and unites a wide range of disciplines from politics to ecology, spirituality, philosophy and economics so flawlessly, that we feel we are truly being touched by wisdom which has stood the test of time.

We live in a time where luxury is being eroded – there is the threat of global warming and the reality of climate change, war is always around the corner, and the rich are also the most anxious and dis-satisfied, whilst the poor only fall ever-lower, and population rises. Science, the objective saviour, is not able to solve these problems for us. Neither is Capitalism. The word ‘holistic’ is increasingly being talked about as the way forward – where silos or barriers between thoughts or organisations need to be broken, and we need more co-operation and less competition. And the ancient Indian Jain tradition is one of the foremost exponents of the richness and depth of holistic thinking, action and science. Rankin draws on this in his book.

The book comprises six chapters, with titles ranging from ‘Letting Go of Dogma’, to ‘A Subtle Power’, ‘Karmic Ecology’ and ‘Growing Beyond Growth’. It is aimed at a  reader who is keen to discover wisdom, to unite the multiple worlds of mind, body and spirit, and willing to invest some time and effort in reading and understanding profound voices. He makes the task very easy for the reader by using prose which is effortlessly smooth and flowing, concise and poetic, focused yet liberating. I definitely felt very uplifted when I finished the book – a sense of personal growth and inner peace and understanding, which I hope will stay with my soul forever.

Rankin firmly places his book on the Jain wisdom of ‘Anekant’ or Many-Sidedness. This is a complex idea, which demonstrates that truth has multiple-facets, and depends on the position of the seeker and their assumptions and world-views, explicit or implicit. This is not the same as relativism, where there is no objective truth, but neither is it purely rational, or purely spiritual or purely emotional. The Jains allow all these perspectives to cohere, and in their philosophy of maybe-ism (Syadvada), show that truth can be tentative, but must be sincere, non-violent, and respectful of all living beings and their rights to co-exist…



August 25th, 2009

Today is the holiest day of the year for Jains and is called Samvatsari. As the culminating day of an eight or ten day festival, known as Paryushana, Jains devote the day to prayer, meditation and fasting. In addition they ask for forgiveness for any harm they may have caused, and send the following message to all friends and relatives.  Nowadays, with the internet, this is easily conveyed by email and I have received two messages today which show the sort of wording that is used:

Forgiveness is the jewel of the brave. It takes a big heart to forgive.

We request your forgiveness for any act of omission or commission, by thought, word or deed, that may have hurt you or your loved ones.


On this most auspicious festival of Samvatsari, we all humbly seek forgiveness for any actions, thought or speech by which we may have caused you any hurt or sadness. Please do forgive us. We all too forgive and forget, in return, sincerely.

A cynic might mock the idea of a sort of annual attempt at a bulk-clearing of bad karma, but I find this custom beautiful and touching. We sometimes hurt others inadvertently by saying or not saying something. Simply not replying to an email for ages can feel hurtful to someone, for example. So the idea of each year expressing our sincere intent that we wish no harm, and regret any that was caused, and also forgive others in turn, seems both spiritually and psychologically sensible and healthy. And so, On this most auspicious festival of Samvatsari, I humbly seek forgiveness for any actions, thought or speech by which I may have caused you any hurt or sadness. Please do forgive me. I too forgive and forget, in return, sincerely.

Jain Temple at Wardha, India

Jain Temple at Wardha, India

Pilgrimage in the Jain Tradition

May 9th, 2009

One of the spiritual practices found at the heart of every religion, is that of pilgrimage. In Sanskrit, the term for pilgrimage, a sacred or spiritual journey, is ‘yātrā’.
In a yātrā one takes a journey to a sacred place, but the whole journey, and the landscape one moves through can also be seen as sacred, and in addition sacred sites are often clustered to form a particular ‘sacred landscape’.
A yātrā can take place in the outer world or in the inner world. In the inner world it can even occur within the sacred landscape of each individual’s soul and body. A key stage in Jain Preksha meditation involves such an inner pilgrimage (Antar Yātrā) in which one journeys in consciousness from the base of the spine to the top of the head and back again a number of times.
The inner pilgrimage can also occur within the sacred geography outlined in Jain cosmology. One sentence in Natubhai Shah’s ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ Volume II (p.31) presents a thrilling picture: ‘Rare accomplished humans may travel as far as nandisvaradvipa.’ Those humans who manage this feat will be able to make the most extraordinary yātrā to the fifty-two eternal Jina temples which exist on the continent of nandisvaradvipa, which forms the last of the concentric rings of continents that surround the middle world of jambudvipa.
Heavenly beings are the normal visitors to the 52 temples in nandisvaradvipa. They go there to worship the jinas, to celebrate auspicious events in their lives, and to undertake pujas. The swastika of rice grains made by devotees in Jain temples venerates these holy places.
Even if we are unable to reach these sanctuaries on this far continent, we are blessed with an abundance of sites sacred to Jainism in the world around us. There are now Jain temples in all those countries which the Jain ‘diaspora’ has reached, but the most sacred sites must surely be those that lie in Bharata and that have a historical connection with the Jinas or the saints who have followed the path they have revealed.
Many of these places have become holy because they have been associated with key events in the lives of the Tirthankaras, such as when they were born, became renunciates, attained omniscience or achieved nirvana. The place where it is believed the very first Tirthankara, Sri Rishabdev Bhagwan, obtained moksha lies at one of the most powerful, remote and sacred spots on the planet.

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

For Jains it is known as ‘Ashtapad mountain’ (Ashtapad means literally ‘Eight Steps’) with most writers considering it to be Mount Kailas in Tibet, which is also considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and followers of the indigenous Bon religion.
Opinions differ as to the exact location of Ashtapad. The author of a book on Kailas and Lake Mansarovar, Swami Pranavanand, who has made 35 pilgrimages to Kailas believes the mountain is both Meru and Ashtapada. The sadhu Rambaba, who performed the last rites of Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, believed Ashtapad was actually located on a nearby peak to Kailas, while Shri Jaswantrai Busa believes Ashtapad lies at a location between Lake Mansarovar and Kailas.
Ashtapad is one of the five holy mountains of Shvetambara Jainism, and to make a pilgrimage to it is long and arduous, but the other four are considerably more accessible: Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Abu, and Sammeta have all become popular and highly venerated pilgrimage destinations. In addition to these five holy spots, and the pilgrimage routes to them, there are many smaller, regional pilgrimage networks, connecting temples and shrines.
Two important distinctions can be made between Jain sacred places and those of the other Dharmic religions. Unlike Buddhist sites, which often house relics, such as bones or ashes, or Hindu sites which are often associated with sacred rivers, Jainism rejects the idea that physical relics are of value in worship, or that purity can be achieved through ritual bathing. Instead its sites are most often associated with auspicious events in the lives of Tirthankaras or saints, and with associated miracles or myths (atisayksetras).
The most important guide to sacred places, at least from the Svetambara perspective, is the ‘Description of Various Holy Places’, written in the 13th or 14th century by the monk Jinaprabha Suri. Today, however, there are so many temples and sacred places related to Jainism, any author is faced with a daunting task trying to describe them. Even the magnificent three-volume work ‘Teerth Darshan’, published by the Shree Jain Prarthana Mandir Trust in 1980, is unable to include all the sacred sites of Jainism.
Nevertheless, it is possible to see the pilgrimage sites of Jainism falling into two broad categories, with the most prominent Svetambara sites being in Gujurat and Rajasthan, and the most important Digambara ones lying in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Different authors attempt to tackle the subject of describing the holy places in different ways. Paul Dundas in ‘The Jains’ chooses to focus on one example from each category: Mount Satrunjaya (Hill which conquers Enemies) also known as pundarika, (Hill of the White Lotus) as one of the most important Svetambara sites, and Sravana Belgola (White Lake of the Ascetics) with its remarkable Bahubali statue, as the most significant Digambara sanctuary. Natubhai Shah in his two volume work ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ lists 28 of the most significant sites, and the three volumes of ‘Teerth Darshan’ feature 265.
A traveller might do well to consider three areas to visit, perhaps on three separate visits, since they are far apart geographically and each is rich in opportunities for pilgrimage: Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat combined, and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu combined. For brevity, just three sites for each of these areas will be mentioned, although there are naturally many more sites worthy of attention in each.
In Bihar a visit should be made to Mount Sametshikar, where it said 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras, and many monks achieved liberation. Starting at 5 am the keen pilgrim will walk for almost 18 miles up and down the hill, visiting the many shrines, before returning to their base in the late afternoon. It is said of this complex of temples and shrines that it is ‘Tirth-raja’ – the king of holy places. Pavapuri should be visited too: it is the site of Lord Mahavir’s last sermon and where he attained moksha, for which reason a great Diwali festival is held here. Here there are temples in the city and beside a lake, with one temple, known as the ‘Jal Mandir’, lying in the middle of the lotus-filled lake, to mark the spot where the last rites were performed for Lord Mahavira. A third site well worth visiting in Bihar is Rajgriha, where it is said that both the Buddha and Mahavira spent many a rainy season. For this reason, the site, which encompasses five peaks, is sacred to both Buddhists and Jains. According to the Digambaras, Lord Mahavira’s first sermon was preached here, and there are many Jain temples and two features which are found in other holy places of the Jains: sacred caves and stone blocks with carved footprints, to mark the spots where it is believed saints or Tirthankaras stood in meditation.
In Rajasthan and Gujurat, Shatrunjyaya, Ginar, and Mount Abu should all be visited for the beauty of the idols and temple architecture to be found there, but also for the spiritual atmosphere which surrounds them and which is said to confer blessings on all pilgrims. The description in ‘Teerth Darshan’ conveys this atmosphere at Mount Girnar: ‘The natural scenery of the mountain laden with medicinal trees and plants in a deep, wild and thick forest is enchanting and beautiful. After reaching the top, one feels so much suffused with delight and happiness that one does not wish to descend. In Svetambar Jain temples, the ancient sculptural art on walls and ceilings and various other spots reveals incomparable dexterity which is worth enjoying. On every dome, and on every ceiling and pillar, the art displayed is wonderful.’ (Vol III, p.576).

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu some of the most striking ancient statues are to be found. Once a visit to the great Bahubali statue and surrounding temples has been made, the pilgrim might like to venture a visit to the Villupuram area in Tamil Nadu, which was once a flourishing centre of Jainism. At Panaipadi village a 10th century bas-relief of Mahavira, identified only in August 2008, can be seen and nearby more carvings of the Jinas are to be found. Nearby too are the ancient caves near the village of Tirunarukondai, where it is said that Jain ascetics practised their austerities from some time between the 3rd to the 5th centuries, and inscriptions dated from the 9th century can be found. It is an important place of local pilgrimage. Finally, the modern-day pilgrim might like to travel to the Sri Ponnurmalai Teerth where it is said that the great Acarya Kundakunda practised his austerities. At the base of the hill is a temple with a beautiful image of Lord Mahavir, and on the top of the hill are commemorative footprints of the Acarya.
At all these sites the pilgrim will come to ‘Tirtha’ – sacred places – a word which means literally ‘to cross the river safely’. A Tirthankara translates as ‘a ford maker’ which shows us what an intimate connection there is between the ‘holy person’ and the ‘holy place’. Both offer us the possibility to ‘cross the ocean or river of worldly existence’ to journey through the ford created by the ford-maker to the other side. In recognition of this intimate connection, for a Jain, a visit to an ascetic is equivalent to visiting a holy shrine, and this is particularly so for the Sthanakvasi and Terepanthi sects of Sevetambara Jainism, who do not have a system of holy places, but for whom the monks and nuns themselves are considered destinations of pilgrimages.
Some devotees will have the means to travel to many places of pilgrimage, others will be unable to do so for practical reasons, and in Jainism no pilgrimage is considered obligatory or essential, as it is for example in Islam. However many benefits may be obtained from undergoing a pilgrimage, ensuring that we observe the precepts of Ahimsa (harmlessness), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Anekanta (non absolutism/multiple viewpoints) are undoubtedly of more importance, and the optional vow of digvrata, which limits a householder’s movements to a prescribed area, provides an interesting contrast to the concept of making outer pilgrimages to distant places.
Perhaps those of us who do not have the means to physically travel to many places of pilgrimage can aspire to the yogic flying powers of Sri Acarya Vidyasidh Padaliptasurji who in the 1st century composition ‘Updeshsaptahika’ describes how he used to fly daily to Ashtapad, Girnar, Abu and Shatrunjay by applying a special paste or ointment to his feet.

If this post interested you, you might be interested in this book.

Nagpur Diary

February 12th, 2009
Shantinath Digamber Jain Mandir Ramtek

Shantinath Digamber Jain Mandir Ramtek

After getting back from India a few days ago, it was wonderful to read Barbara’s, Penny’s, Liz’s, and Juliet’s guest posts (all so inspiring and so well written!) and the comments they generated… thank you so much guest bloggers!

I had been invited to India by the ICCS – an organisation that is promoting the revival of ancient traditions. But the visit also became a Yatra – a pilgrimage – to a land steeped in spirituality for thousands of years. In particular I was interested in the connections between the Dharmic religions of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism and Druidism. Could they really be said to be brothers and sisters who share a common parentage?

Many of us who are interested in Druidry also feel drawn to one or more of those paths which arose in India, and I wanted to explore whether this is simply an example of Westerners’ greed for ‘more’ or whether there really is a way in which these geographically separate traditions are in reality related, and can be complementary.

I am particularly interested in Jainism, and had written an exploratory paper on the connections and resonances between Jainism and Druidism, but while I was in India I met many experts on Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Jainism, and have broadened that paper to include them too. When I’ve finished it, I’ll post it up here. In the meanwhile, some photos and notes, and a big thank you to the organisers and participants of the conference – all of whom were so warm and generous.

At The River Crossing

The day before the conference I took a ramshackle bus to Ramtek, 40km from Nagpur, to visit the Jain and Hindu temples there.

Clues are hidden in language. Jain temples are called ‘Teerth’ or ‘Tirtha’. Tirtha literally means a river-crossing or ford, but also means ‘a sacred place’. Rivers have been considered sacred in many traditions – including the Celtic and Indian – and ‘crossing the river’ is a powerful image of moving from one realm to another. So a temple or sacred place is like a river – we can bathe in it, drink from it, and cross over it to the Other Side. And in the Jain tradition the 24 great teachers of humanity are known as ‘Tirthankaras’ – which means ford-makers. So the Sacred Person and the Sacred Place are one: they are both gateways to the Divine.

Most visitors to Ramtek go straight to the Hindu temples up on the hill. The Shantinath Digamber Jain Mandir is less frequently visited and lies on the plain at the base of the hill. Inside its nine temples are exquisite figures of the Tirthankaras, seated or standing, with the pride of place given to a great statue in yellow glossy stone of one Tirthankara that is 3.04 metres tall. I was asked not to photograph the interiors, but here are some exterior pictures:

The Entrance to the Jain Temple at Ramtek

The Entrance to the Jain Temple at Ramtek

Once through the entrance this avenue offers Dharmsala - guest rooms for pilgrims

Once through the entrance this avenue offers Dharmsala - guest rooms for pilgrims

Once through the Inner Gateway you can rest from the heat on these mattresses and cushions

Once through the Inner Gateway you can rest from the heat on these mattresses and cushions

Stupas in the temple courtyard

Stupas in the temple courtyard

More stupas

More stupas

A figure on a stupa. The oldest parts of the temple are between 400-500 years old, and a large new section is being built

A figure on a stupa. The oldest parts of the temple are between 400-500 years old, and a large new section is being built

One of the Most Extraordinary Acts of Devotion in the World

March 21st, 2008

I have just found this wonderful slide show of the Jain festival of

MAHAMASTAK ABHISHEKThe Grand Anointing Ceremony
This magnificent ceremony of the Jains takes place once every12 years, in Karnataka. To pay homage to Bahubali, an18-metre high statue of the saint is anointed with milk, sugarcane juice and herbal powders.

It is by award-winning photographer Karoki Lewis, on the BBC website. Have a look here!

Earth Pilgrim

January 22nd, 2008

Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence and a Jain monk from the age of 9 to 18, has presented a TV programme called Earth Pilgrim which is beautiful and enchanting. Programmes like this and ‘Extreme Pilgrim’ restore my faith in the BBC – and in humanity! It’s up for 5 more days on BBC’s iPlayer page. If you click on the little icon bottom right of screen the image goes to full screen size. This should take you to it:

the Long Person of Wilmington

January 8th, 2008

I’ve changed the picture today and ‘look’ today – the photo now shows the Long Man of Wilmington – our local sacred site.

This figure conveys wonderfully the ideas I’ve been exploring in earlier posts (on Antinomianism and Having Your Cake and Eating It). The figure isn’t having to choose just one thing – he or she is saying ‘Yes’ to both choices – to be in this world and yet aware of its delusions, to fully experience desires and yet also be detached from them, to know and yet to allow not-knowing – to seek the security of a faith, however irrational, and at the same time to be unattached to concepts and beliefs, to drink at the well of tradition and to be totally contemporary.

And in the midst of all these apparent opposites the figure stands – powerfully and implacably – not separate from these choices, but holding them in either hand. Empowered.

The Jains have an image called a Siddhapratima Yantra which is a cut-out or silhouette of a man standing. He has attained liberation so the image is portraying him as ‘not-there’ yet there. Like the long Man.

The following example of a Siddhapratima Yantra comes from The Victoria & Albert’s websection on Jainism which is excellent, yet which doesn’t always appear on web searches. It has good video clips too here.


Having Your Cake and Eating It

January 5th, 2008

One of the greatest problems we face today is of fanaticism and extremism. Take one idea, one religious practice, one opinion and then focus on it, insist it is ‘The Only Way’ and you have the mess we’re in today.

The Buddhist idea of ‘The Middle Way’ is attractive because it suggests steering a course through life that avoids extremes and seeks balance.

But there is another way that might be worth exploring which involves embracing extreme and apparently contradictory positions at the same time. I suspect this is a dangerous path of the kind employed only by left-hand tantrics, but I am working on a method that can easily be carried out in the safety of your own home – or even in public, as I did this morning.

I sat in Nero’s with a coffee and cake and read about Jain asceticism, which I find fascinating. Behind the various ascetic practices that range from living naked (hurrah!) to eating standing up (oh!) the Jain doctrine of manypointedness stands as a powerful antidote to fanaticism, and is the religion’s main claim to fame among Indian philosophical systems. In a nutshell this doctrine calls for a consideration of a variety of approaches to an issue. This  ‘synthesises and integrates a variety of contradictory viewpoints, as opposed to a dogmatic insistence on a mode of analysis based on a single perspective only, [and] is the sole means of gaining some kind of understanding of the complexity of reality.’ (The Jains, Paul Dundas).

If only this doctrine was more widely practiced!