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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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