My personal faith

This week the faith column is devoted to the Jain religion with Ashik Shah outlining what he believe

From the earliest age, I have always been curious, and used to wake my parents at 5am when I was 5 with questions about god. Apart from a fascination with many subjects, I have always had a love for the spiritual and religious.

As a teenager and young adult I had always tried to read as much as I could about religious figures and various religions. While I knew that my family was Jain by history and that my grandmother, who lived with us, practiced this is many ways, it was all a different world to me.

Little material was available in English and very few coherent explanations. On the other hand, much insight was available into the Abrahamic faiths, given that I went to a school whose explicit confession was Church of England. Much was available on Buddhism and Hinduism too. I remember an early fascination with Mahatma Gandhi, who I viewed as an embodiment of goodness of character and conduct, who put his ethics into dynamic action. Unfortunately, very little information was accessible in English on Jainism, a situation which is now beginning to change.

My fascination for Jainism remained alive, in my admiration for the unique compassion of Jain practice, where even the smallest life form is accorded respect, its antiquity, and the example of Lord Mahavira (about whom we will discuss more in the blog on Jain history).

When I considered his person, I remembered his profound serenity and equanimity during the various ordeals he faced in his life, as told to us as children, and was inspired to understand more of the path to inner peace which he taught.

I have been fortunate in my life to have met a number of spiritual leaders who had shared with me the importance of a spiritual perspective.

They all inspired me to study the faith in more detail. I did find a number of scholarly and academic books in English and dedicated some time after University to study works in Gujarati, my mother tongue, a language of Western India, in which there is much Jain literature.

I found this very frustrating, but eventually very fruitful. I became gradually more confident at the ability to actually engage in a conversation in Gujarati with any spiritual leader I encountered, so I could have my questions answered.

It was at this time, that I became more aware of the writings of a relatively modern Jain personality. Shrimad Rajchandra (1867-1901) lived a very short and spiritually productive life.

He was Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual guide and mentor, a fact little appreciate in the West, and Gandhiji has said a lot about him in his autobiography, other writings and speeches. He hailed from Gujarat and was a householder, ostensibly engaged in business. However, from the earliest age he was engaged in spiritual enquiry.

For me, the most significant fact is that Shrimad Rajchandra gained a direct experience of his Soul through his spiritual meditative practice, a state Jains term Samyak Darshan, or Self-realisation. Of great value is the fact that during with a number of seekers with whom she shared intimate correspondence and spiritual guidance. Shrimad’s legacy is his living example and his writings. It is very rare to find the intimate correspondence and inner thoughts of one who is self-realised.

I have taken as my guru, Shri Nalinbhai Kothari, from the Raj Saubhag Ashram in Gujarat, India. This Ashram is part of a continuous living tradition of gurus from the time of Shrimad, starting with his soul-mate Shri Saubhaghbhai of Sayla.

My personal practice consists, as guided by my guru, in the daily recitation of certain prayers, reading, contemplation and meditation, in addition to the acts of worship and duties of a Jain householder. Meditation is the highlight of my day, as it brings a great sense of peace to me. While I know I know that this meditation I practice is not necessarily the direct experience of soul, I do know that it will help in calming my mind and purifying my consciousness, so I can progress further towards my goal.

Of course, I have a long way to go in my journey. I would describe myself as an aspirant at best, and one whose discipline is not as strong as it could be. However, I do have full faith in the path I have chosen. As I cultivate certain virtues, I will become calmer and more detached, and more insightful. My life will benefit from more equanimity, as well as calmness. When I consider the serenity, peace, and bliss which are all intrinsic to my very nature, as a living being, I am able to put mundane matters into perspective.

I do believe that spirituality is beyond sectarianism, and my Guru has often taught me, as has the Jain doctrine of Anekantavada (to be discussed later in the blog), or multifaceted nature reality, to take the best from all teachings and insights. I believe that spirituality is beyond ritual, or scholarship, but does take support from such practices.

Through the guidance of my Guru and through my reading and contemplation, I feel I have been able to understand better the abstract ideas presented about the path. It is difficult to imagine the bliss and contentment brought about by the ecstasy of self-realisation, until one is able to see its living embodiment. This in turn makes it much easier to grasp the majesty of the Soul and the power of total equanimous detachment which Enlightenment brings, as seen in the lives of Lord Mahavira and those who have gone before.

Ashik Shah is an active lay member of the Jain community. He was a founder of Young Jains of America, and is an active member of Young Jains in the UK. He has been in the fund management business for the last 15 years.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear