All human beings have a common goal in life, the attainment of peace and freedom from suffering. Getting to a peaceful state of mind is often confused with happiness and hence, the indulgence in desires. Desire to acquire goals, like more fame, more wealth, and a perfect family/relationship, among others.
If you carefully observe, you will see that anything that once made you happy will, at another point, be the cause of your grief too. Hence, while happiness is temporary, peace is eternal. So, in this chaotic world of endless pursuit of material goals, how does one attain peace? Can this quest for personal peace translate into world peace?
To answer this, we turn to the three tenets, or the three As, of Jain philosophy: Ahimsa (non-violence), Aparigraha (non-acquisition), and Anekantavada (non-absolutism) .
Ahimsa means treating all living beings, including animals and plants, as equal. This concept of equality is the core behind the theory of Ahimsa as all living beings have the right to live a peaceful life. Going a step further, Jainism explains that violence cannot be measured by actual harm, as the harm might be intentional. Violence is defined by the absence of compassion and unawareness of the consequences of our actions. Hence, Jainism lays down the importance of non-violence in thought, speech, and action.
Paramahansa Yogananda, a great Hindu monk, noticed that a mosquito sat on his arm . As a reflex, he was about to hit it, but he remembered the teachings of Ahimsa, questioned his intention, and stopped. Similarly, one of the co-authors, when infected with COVID-19, said sorry to the virus because she believed that it was her Karma that her body got infected with the virus and prayed for a peaceful death of the virus when it would leave her body.
Both stories reflect the great minds of people who are compassionate towards every living being on this Earth. Once we view everyone as our equal, with every living being having the same right to live a peaceful life as ours, then it will become impossible for us to hurt anyone else.
Through Ahimsa, we wish peace and less suffering to others, which then unfailingly brings peace to our life . This is the law of moral causation (or Karma).
According to Jainism, the more worldly possessions we have, the more likely we are to be unhappy in life. How? Acquisition of material (whether of things or in relationships) does not only mean a collection of things. It leads to a feeling of ownership and hence, a sense of attachment. This itself is an act of ego and a cause of future unhappiness. In psychology, this is conceptualized as a hedonic treadmill, i.e., the pursuit of one pleasure after another. We often get a surge of happiness when we acquire a thing but over time, we become used to the feeling and repeat the same activity (think more shopping) to get another dose of happiness.
But the true pleasure of eternal peace is attained through the selfless act of dispossession of one’s wealth (Aparigraha). For example, in 1894, John D. Rockefeller, despite being one of the richest people in the US, was at a loss of peace in his life. Upon his friend’s suggestion, he met with Swami Vivekananda, an Indian monk, who told him that “You are not the owner of your wealth, only a custodian of it”. He suggested Rockefeller utilize this money to eliminate the suffering of other people to finally gain peace of mind. Even though now corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the buzzword in management, at that time, such a thing was unheard of. Following Swami’s advice, Rockefeller made a series of donations, and in 1913 founded the Rockefeller Foundation . Among its several projects, one of the foremost was the development of a new variety of wheat by Norman Borlaug (father of the “green revolution”), which saved millions of people worldwide from starvation . Such a great example of an effortless transition from personal to world peace.
Likewise, one of the co-authors only has a limited set of clothes. If ever she shops, she gives away an old garment to ensure that the limit of her possessions remains the same. She also donates daily to various causes that are close to her heart. The joy that she gets from decluttering and holding minimum possessions far exceeds any momentary pleasure of shopping.
Anekantavada refers to the principle of pluralism and diversity of viewpoints. It means we cannot always objectively know the entirety of the truth in any situation. Hence, if we act stubbornly and only think what we believe is right (while not heeding other viewpoints), we violate this principle. This leads to the development of ego, false belief, and the power to judge someone, causing conflict and eventually grief to ourselves.
In our personal lives, Anekantavada helps us give others the benefit of doubt and always believe in their goodness. For example, one of the co-authors was once irked when a motorbike rider cut her off while she was driving. But now, instead of feeling disdain towards such behavior, she automatically tells herself that the person would have a genuine emergency for such rash driving and wishes him/her peace.
Our experiments with these principles have brought about this joyful peace that constantly resides in our hearts.
Implications for Going Global
We can use these three principles to provide solutions for challenges not just in our personal lives, but also with regard to social and global issues:
Ahimsa translates to overarching compassion for all living beings and hence the resolve to “leave no one behind” on this planet. Mahatma Gandhi presented the tool of Ahimsa to the world in the fight for India’s independence or simply as means for mass action for the betterment of society. Today we can see this being exhibited in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations to combat HIV/AIDS, childhood and maternal mortality, and many other health challenges.
As a society, we have to collectively re-examine and work towards developing skills and expertise to serve the most vulnerable amongst us. After all, sustainable development stems from the desire of caring for all of humanity.
Aparigraha holds the answer to the problems emanating from rampant consumerism, i.e., the depletion of natural resources, climate change, and biodiversity loss, among others. Curtailing the consumption of unnecessary goods directly addresses this issue.
Modern economics measures development through the gross domestic product (GDP) or the volume of goods and services produced within a country. This is why the pursuit of happiness is often confused with becoming wealthier and consuming more. And yet research has shown that richer people are not happier . It is in this context that Aparigraha brings forth a shift in perspective: namely, that limits to wealth accumulation, desires, and consumption are the only way to bring about lasting peace and happiness .
But how does one’s resolve to consume less and give more affect the planet?
Giving to others is said to release oxytocin (a hormone that induces a feeling of warmth) and helps us connect with others . Donations (whether of money or time) are also said to be contagious, encouraging others to follow suit . Hence, not only will dispossession of our time and material resources help us build stronger social connections and a better community, but it might also spark a domino effect of generosity throughout the community. And, finally, we, too will benefit from the process! Using our possessions or skills for unselfish service to humanity eliminates ego and attachment, which is the key to having peace.
The principles of Anekantavada promote open-mindedness by focusing on harmony and respecting and accepting all belief systems . For instance, a recent spate of controversies regarding the claim of multiple religions over certain religious places has occurred in India. Anekantavada tells us that even if one uses rigorous methods to unearth history and the right claimant over worship, the revelation of absolute truth is still difficult. The world can apply this principle to tackle challenges relating to the matter of faith, which poses a serious threat to world peace.
These three principles unleash a sense of innate, overflowing, homogenous compassion for all living beings that bring out our genuine desire for peace and the end of suffering in others’ lives. This is the only way to attain eternal personal and world peace.
- For more examples related to modern life and applying ahimsa in our actions, please read “An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide” by Dr. Sulekh Jain. Available for free here.
Palakh Jain is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at Bennett University in Uttar Pradesh, India. A Fellow of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad in the Economics Department, and alumni of the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Palakh was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship by the University Grants Commission in 2005. She has been chosen as one of the “Exclusive 20 Emerging Female Leaders” from India by the “Women in The World Foundation”, New York.
Payal Seth is a Ph.D. Scholar at Bennett University and an economics researcher with the Tata-Cornell Institute, Cornell University. Her research interests lay at the intersection of development, health, and behavioral economics. She has published extensively in leading national and international newspapers.