In the Face of Adversity

Jains recall a story of their 23rd Tirthankara Parsvanatha as follows:

About 3,000 years ago, a popular monk named Kamath practiced severe penances using sacrificial fires. Parsva, a newly devout monk came to know of these fire sacrifices and the violence they caused. When he noticed a snake burning in Kamath’s fire, he intervened to save it. Parsva’s efforts failed, and the snake was killed and reincarnated as Dharanendra, lord of an underworld kingdom. Irritated that Parsva interfered with his practice and embarrassed that Parsva discredited him in front of his followers, Kamath swore vengeance on Parsva. It wasn’t until his next life that Kamath, reborn as Meghmali, the lord of rain, was able to carry out his revenge.
One day, as Parsva was meditating in the forest, Meghmali saw him and recalled his anger against him. In retaliation, Meghmali used his supernatural powers to bring forth violent animals and heavy rainfall upon Parsva. However, Parsva remained in deep meditation, undisturbed. Upon noticing that Parsva was about to drown, Dharanendra protected Parsva from the rains. In that same life, Parsva attained enlightenment.
Lord Parsvanatha is most often depicted with the hood of a snake shading his head in reverence to this story.

Non-violence, non-attachment, and non-absolutism are the three pillars of Jainism, and almost every myth showcases all three. However, here we also see a principle not often illustrated in Jainism: resilience.

I became interested in resilience when I realized that my two fields of study, biochemistry and economics, had in common the notion of resilient systems. Equilibrium is when the actions of many small agents (molecules, cells, people) are in a dynamic but stable state of existence. What makes equilibria interesting is not that they are delicate and easily disturbed, but rather they are resilient. They are capable of taking shocks by adapting to change.

When the US economy experienced a financial shock in 2008, it was only a matter of time before it recovered, albeit slowly. A chemical reaction will proceed until the rate of the forward reaction equals the rate of the reverse reaction and the system reaches equilibrium. According to a famous principle taught in intro chemistry classes, if you add more of one chemical, the equilibrium shifts to absorb the “shock.” When Parsva’s thoughts were in a state of meditative equilibrium, he was resilient to Meghmali’s disturbances.

We can learn a lot about resiliency by looking at a particularly resilient system in the empirical world: the immune system. Three characteristics stand out: vast numbers, diversity, and adaptation. The immune system produces vast numbers of antibodies with the same general structure; however, these antibodies differ slightly from one another, giving our bodies the ability to identify a rich spectrum of foreign objects. Once antibodies identify a foreign object, the immune system adapts: memory B cells are produced so that the immune system can even more rapidly respond to reinfection. This is certainly not the story of any single particularly determined molecule, cell, or body.

Sure, resilient systems in the natural world have the benefit of vast numbers, diversity, and adaption. But how can I as an individual become more resilient?

Resilience requires self-confidence and hope. But at the same time, it requires humility and abandoning ego. Certainly, Parsva could not have survived Meghmali’s storm without the assistance of Dharanendra. Establishing a support system – a network of friends, family, and values – can help us adapt to hardships.

As an individual, Parsva’s resilience came from his deep connection to his spirit; while in a meditative, self-contemplative state, he was simply not aware of what his body was feeling or what Meghmali was doing. I define spirituality as feeling a connection to anything outside the material, mundane world. In fact, several research studies have shown that spirituality leads to resilience. Finding a sense of purpose in something larger than our individual, material, selves can make us more resilient to what life throws at us.

Restored by Parth Shah | College Class of 2018

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