Silver Linings

This past summer, I visited India as a part-spiritual retreat, part-restocking-on-khakara-trip. It’s a trip the family has been making frequently with a very similar routine each time. Land in Mumbai, meet grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins, people that are close enough to be called cousins, and the fruit stand man that’s been the same fruit stand man for the past thirty years. Then, after a day or two finding all the relatives that Ancestry.com could never find, my parents, sister, and I pack into a Toyota Innova and take a five-hour road trip that should in ideality be a two-hour road trip if there weren’t cows sitting on the highways. This began the spiritual leg of our journey, the real reason we were taking only a five-day trip to India.

We make these time-pressed trips to India almost once a year because they offer something that all the Jain resources at home, from books and the internet to the older members part of the temple community, can’t offer: a conversation with the Jain monks and an observation of their lives. These Jain monks, or sadhus, are the closest practitioners of Jainism, having abandoned their families, their wealth, their property, and even their given names at times.

As a reader, I imagine you know this. I knew this before the trip as well. In Pathshala back home, we’d learned all the intricacies of the Jain sadhus. What vows they take, the breakdown of each vow, exceptions they take, how they collect food, and how they try to live according to Jain scripture. It seemed straightforward. There was list of do’s and don’ts and sadhus should follow that list. But this trip, I stopped asking what sadhus should do and instead I was much more interested in how.

How does a person with more or less the same physical capabilities walk for miles under the Indian sun barefoot without having eaten for hours or sometimes days? How does that person sleep on the hard marble floors of the Upasharay? How does the sadhu deal with rejection when asking for food and alms collection or physical and verbal abuse from others? I couldn’t sit still for five minutes because flies kept landing on me, but these sadhus didn’t flinch when two or three unafraid bugs hovered over their faces, how?

They seemed like people with extraordinary capabilities, but were they? One sadhu I met that trip was an MBA graduate from Wharton that had worked in consulting before feeling jaded by the hedonistic life. Another, was one of the wealthiest Indians some forty, fifty years back. They weren’t rural people that had never experienced comfort or luxury. In fact, some were the opposite and yet they still did the things I mentioned above. How did these people mentally cope with so many hardships without respite?

During this trip, I asked one of the monks this question of how. I wanted to know but also, I thought it could be applied to my life whenever I deal with hardship, whether it’s someone treating me unfairly or an unfortunate event, which are inevitable. His answer surprised me.

“Whenever I feel discomfort or pain, I feel happy.” That sounded a little bit sadistic to me, so I asked more. “My suffering is a consequence of my own previous actions, karma. When these consequences play out, my karma is reduced. That’s one less form of suffering that I have to face in the future and that’s one less karma blocking my path to moksha.”

Was it this simple? Was this the universal silver lining around every cloud? It seemed like it. This mindset that unhappiness could be explained by one phenomenon and that coping with suffering and unhappiness had an ever so slightly positive tinge gave me peace. But it’s too naïve for me to think that I can reason my way out of every instance of pain or every unfortunate event. And the reason why I can’t is the thing that separates me from the sadhus. I feel like they have much more faith in the theory of karma and are thus more able to cope with suffering, which is admirable.

My goal moving forward is to more actively think about why negative things happen in my life. I think if I’m more confident in these antecedents, then I can adopt a healthier attitude towards dealing with inevitable hardship.


Illuminated by Sohum Daftary | Engineering and Wharton Class of 2019

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