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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.