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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.