Framing the Pandemic: An Examination of How WHO Guidelines Turned into Jain Religious Practices
2. Sources and Methodology
3. Framing the Pandemic
3.1. The Face Mask and the Muhpattī
3.2. Social Distancing and Lockdowns
4. An Early Jain Discourse on the COVID-19 Pandemic
4.2. Universalization and Scientization
“In recent times, Jains have been providing a lot of scientific reasoning to the non-Jain world in support of vegetarianism. This application of scientific principles is not limited to vegetarianism but is carried across several other Jain precepts. Gyanshala teachers apply a similar strategy to explain several principles, including vegetarianism, to convince the new generation of Jains how scientific the Jain religion is. Such innovative treatment in religious education is similar to my analysis in the Digambar pathshala curriculum. Some Gyanshala teachers with whom I interacted show children pictures of human anatomy and physiology, either from science books or through Power Point presentations”.(p. 141)
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
YJA Day 2020—Peace in a Pandemic: Adult Pravachan by Tejal Shah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAYGWK7mWZg&t=1133s (accessed on 17 October 2021). See (Young Jains of America 2020).
Derāvāsī is the term of self-identification Tejal Shah used during our Zoom conversation. In certain parts of India, the term Derāvāsī is used to refer to image-worshipping Śvetāmbaras. Cf. (Wiley 2004, s.v., p. 74).
The term pāṭhaśālā translates to “a hall” (śālā) of “recitation” or “learning” (pāṭha) and thus refers to a place of religious education. On Jain religious education, see (Bothra 2018; Donaldson 2019a, 2019b; Maes 2020). Shibirs are workshops organized by the lay community. The workshops can range from two hours to a few days. Possible topics of shibirs are meditation, the reading of scriptures, or value education for children.
In 2018, there were over 50 NRI children from 11 different countries participating in the Tapovan Shibir. Cf. https://www.jaina.org/page/07_28_18_ENewsletter (accessed on 8 March 2022).
The namokar mantra (Skt. namaskāra mantra) is the most sacred Jain mantra. It pays homage to the five supremely worship-worthy beings: the arihaṃtas (one who has achieved omniscience), the siddhas (liberated soul), the ācāryas (mendicant leader), the upādhyāyas (preceptor), and the sādhus and sādhvīs (male and female mendicants). The Jīvavicāra is a sūtra that treats the various types of living beings, consisting of fifty gāthās (verses). It is attributed to the eleventh-century Śvetāmbara ācārya Śāntisūri.
Tejal Shah’s father was a successful international trader in pearls. Shortly after her father passed away, both her mother and sister took dīkṣā. Semi-structured Zoom interview, February 2022.
Today, Walsingham is registered as an Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (I.C.S.E.) School. Cf. http://walsinghamschool.org/abt-profile.html (accessed on 5 March 2022).
Cf. http://www.hljain1901sch.org/ (accessed on 23 March 2022). During our Zoom conversation, Shugan Jain explained that his great-grandparents were involved in the establishment of the school in New Delhi.
Today, it is known as the Delhi Technological University (DTU). The name change reflects the fact that the DCE was given a university status in 2009. Cf. http://www.dtu.ac.in/Web/About/history.php (accessed on 6 March 2022).
The JVBI was established in 1970 under the auspices of Ācārya Tulsī of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanth community. In 1991, it was awarded the accreditation of Deemed University. For a description of the JVBI as a higher Jain educational institution, see (Maes 2020).
For what I mean with “traditional understandings”, see Note 13.
It should be noted that in a few instances Tejal Shah seems to unjustly attribute popular COVID-19 beliefs that were not supported by the WHO or other public health organizations as being sanctioned by the WHO. Whenever this is the case, I marked the so-called WHO guideline with an asterisk. This table aims to show how Tejal Shah and Shugan Jain actively tried to find parallels between Jain tenets and COVID-19 practices that they attribute to the WHO.
With “traditional understanding”, I refer to how the practice in question would have been commonly explained by Jains before the COVID-19 pandemic. By incorporating this traditional explanation, I hope to make readers aware of how the traditional understanding of the Jain practice is being modified to incorporate the COVID-19 practice.
It is unclear whether sanitizing groceries was recommended by the WHO or other public health agencies. An archived webpage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was last updated on 31 December 2020, warns against using “disinfecting products on food or food packaging”. Cf. (CDC 2019). The fact is, however, that during the early stages of the pandemic, when it was not known how long the COVID-19 virus could last on surfaces, many were disinfecting their groceries and food packages.
In his national address on 19 March 2020, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, urged his “fellow citizens to make purchases as normal, and not hoard essential items in Panic Buying”. Cf. “PM’s address to the nation on combating COVID-19”. https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/pms-address-to-the-nation-on-comabting-covid-19/ (accessed on 13 December 2021).
Tejal Shah attributes this recommendation to the WHO, but in its “Food and Nutrition Tips during Self-Quarantine”, the WHO official standpoint is “to prioritize fresh product”. Cf. WHO: https://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/publications-and-technical-guidance/food-and-nutrition-tips-during-self-quarantine (accessed on 24 October 2021).
Tejal Shah presents this as a WHO guideline. It is, however, unlikely that the WHO advised to boil water within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison, an archived website of the CDC dated from 31 December 2020 notes how “the virus that causes COVID-19 has not been found in drinking water”. (CDC 2019). During the early phases of the pandemic, many, being unsure if the virus could spread through tap water, boiled their drinking water.
Cf. Quora post: https://www.quora.com/Are-Jainism-practices-the-solution-to-Corona-virus/answer/Aadish-Surana (accessed on 15 March 2022).
In this context, it is interesting to note that Shugan Jain also gave a lecture entitled: “A Brief on COVID-19”, which was published online on 23 March 2020 by the ISJS. In this lecture, he uses the word “face mask” and not muhpattī. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsUpIS5JBUw&t=31s (accessed on 25 September 2021)
See Note 13.
Also Aadish Surana finds agreement between the vow of brahmacarya and the COVID-19 practice of social distancing. He writes: “Jain monk can’t touch other monks and nuns or any other laymen without any reason as it violates their Celibacy vow. Now same thing is followed by us as Social Distancing”. https://www.quora.com/Are-Jainism-practices-the-solution-to-Corona-virus/answer/Aadish-Surana (accessed on 11 March 2022)
The namaskāra greeting is a common greeting in India. It is interesting to note that T. Shah refers to it as the “Jain” namaskāra.
Shah does not refer to this practice with the technical term, but with “Mahāvīra’s instruction to not waste time”.
Tejal Shah “thanks corona” several times in her pravachan. When arguing, e.g., that the pandemic brought out the virtue of sevā (service) in doctors, nurses, and in those who were making and delivering food packages to the needy, she concludes by saying “thank you corona for making us realize our own true potentional”.
“The stretching of the religious language” is an expression inspired by Jonathan Z. Smith’s analysis of Columbus’ discovery of America. In “What a Difference a Difference Makes”, Smith argues that the conquest of America was “primarily a linguistic event” where difference or otherness constituted “a challenge to ‘decipherment’ [and] … an occasion for the ‘stretching’ of language” (Smith  2004, pp. 274–75).
See Note 13.
For an example where Jainism is proposed as a solution to today’s medicalization of the dying process and the poor end-of-life care, see (N. Shah 2020). For examples where Jainism is proposed as a solution to environmental problems such as global warming, see, among others, Rahul Kapoor Jain’s Say No to More. A Three Step Solution to Climate Change. https://jainavenue.org/videos/ (accessed on 20 March 2022) and Environmental Doctrines of Jainism by S.M. Jain, a retired Rajasthani Forest Officer. In his book, Jain “systematically compiled salient doctrines of Jainism which address problems of environmental degradation and practical measures to solve them”. Cf. (Jain 2012): iv. For an example where Jainism is proposed as a solution to avoid future COVID-19-like pandemics, see (R. Jain 2020).
For Shugan Jain, there are four core principles of Jainism, consisting of śraman, which he defines as work ethics, and ahiṃsā, anekāntavāda, and aparigraha (also popularly known as the “Triple A of Jainism”).
I thank the reviewer who brought to my attention the “Jainification” of modern science or, in their words, the fact that “modern science is ‘Jainified’” when Jains draw parallels between the WHO guidelines and ancient Jain principles.
In this context, it is worth noting that Shugan Jain mentioned during the Zoom interview that he had asked scientists to prove certain Jain tenets. Upon the initiative of the Jain Academy of Scholars (https://www.jainscholars.com/, accessed on 23 March 2022), Shugan Jain gave in March 2022 a lecture to “a group of highly educated scientists” on the importance of “non-violent food” and asked them to “prove” (i.e., to scientifically substantiate) his arguments.
Cf. https://medium.com/@connect_26403/eradication-n-prevention-jain-scripture-5ba02994567 (accessed on 23 March 2022). The blog was posted on 6 May 2020 on Jainuine. A few days later, on 28 May 2020, a near-identical version was posted in Hindi on https://medium.com/tirthbooks (accessed on 23 March 2022) under the title “कोरोना वायरस के संदर्भ में जैनशास्त्रो का जबरजस्त मार्गदर्शन”. Both posts are accredited to Muni Śrī Trailokyamaṇḍan Vijayjī. See also Note 37.
The Oghaniryukti (“A General Explanation”, Prakrit: Oghanijjuti) is one of the four Mūlasūtras. This niryukti or verse commentary is also known as the Piṇḍanijjuti as it gives detailed instructions on how Jain ascetics should ask, receive, and inspect alms (piṇḍa). It is attributed to Bhadrabāhu, whose exact persona and date are subject to much contestation. Cf. (Wiley 2004, pp. 50–52).
While it is difficult to trace the reach and popularity of Vijayjī’s claims, it should be noted that Jainuine, the blog where his article was posted, is especially aimed at young, anglophone Jains. Cf. https://jainuine.com/about-us/ (accessed on 24 March 2022). Further, it is clear that this claim (namely, that Jain canonical texts already knew how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases before modern science discovered “the same”) gained some currency among some Jains during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is seen from the facts that Vijayjī’s article was reposted on a different blog in Hindi on 28 May 2020 and that Tejal Shah drew identical parallels between the WHO guidelines and the verses of the Oghaniryukti in her pravachan. Cf. (Vijayjī 2020b; T. Shah 2020). See also Note 35.
The “mannerism” described by Shah exemplifies, in a way, the gender socialization in India. For a discussion of how “women and men are produced as gendered beings in patrilineal Jain society” in India, see (Vallely 2002b, especially pp. 222–57).
For an ethnographical work discussing the role of family, and especially women, in Jain education in India, see (Kelting 2001).
I thank Shivani Bothra for pointing this out. In a conversation on this topic in February 2022, she remarked how “the question of science comes when you want to prove your religion; when you want your religion to be acknowledged by other traditions”.
For instance, in the 1980s Ācārya Tulsī, the then head of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanth community, developed a song on how science and religion should go hand in hand. Shivani Bothra, personal communication. Email 7 February 2022.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsUpIS5JBUw (accessed on 2 October 2021). When Shugan Jain gave this lecture in March 2020, India was going through its first nationwide lockdown (24 March 2020–14 April 2020).
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|WHO Guidelines and Governmental Regulations||Jain Practice||Traditional Understanding of the Jain Practice13||Reference|
|Sanitizing hands||pratilekhā||To ritually inspect one’s belongings for insects before use||(T. Shah 2020)|
|Sanitizing groceries14||pratilekhā||To ritually inspect one’s belongings for insects before use||(T. Shah 2020)|
|Face mask||muhpattī||A piece of material Jain ascetics of various sects either wear permanently or hold in front of their mouth when speaking. Some lay followers wear a muhpattī when performing pūjā. The core idea of the muhpattī is to prevent harming ekendriya jīvas and small insects by inhaling or exhaling.||(T. Shah 2020; Jain 2020a)|
|To not hoard food (and other items)15||Bhogopabhoga- parimāṇa-vrata||This is the third of the three vows of restraint (guṇa-vrata) for laymen. It involves restrictions in terms of which professions a layman can carry out as well as what and when a layperson can eat.||(Jain 2020a)|
|To not hoard food (and other items)||aparigraha||This is the vow of non-possessiveness. For ascetics it means giving up all forms of possessions, whereas for lay followers it implies (1) the development of the feeling of non-attachment towards what one possesses, as well as (2) limiting one’s possessions.||(Jain 2020a)|
|* To not eat salads during the COVID-19 pandemic16||Consuming acit food and avoiding the consumption of sacit food||acit food is devoid of life forms, whereas sacit food contains life forms. Raw vegetables and fruit are viewed to be sacit but can be made acit or fit for consumption by cooking or cutting, respectively.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|* To drink only boiled water during the COVID-19 pandemic17||Consuming water that is free of lifeforms||Ascetics and stricter lay Jains only drink water that has been boiled and has thus been made free of lifeforms.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|Jain Practice or Vow That Supports the COVID-19 Practice of Social Distancing||Pandemic Specific Interpretation of the Jain Practice or Vow (When Available)||Traditional Understanding of the Jain Practice22||Reference|
|brahmacarya-vrata||To minimize the number of people one interacts with23||For ascetics, the brahmacarya-vrata refers to the vow of celibacy and of limiting one’s social contact with individuals of the opposite gender. For lay followers, it refers to refraining oneself from sexual activities outside one’s marriage as well as limiting these within one’s marriage.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|Jain namaskāra24||To greet without a handshake||A greeting by bringing the two hand palms together in front of the chest.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|dig-vrata||To restrict one’s movements within one’s home and to avoid physical contact with others||This is the first of the three vows of restraint (guṇa-vrata) for lay followers. Through this vow, lay followers strengthen their practice of ahiṃsā by limiting their movements and activities within specified spatial and temporal boundaries.||(Jain 2020a)|
|anarthadaṇḍa-vrata||To restrict one’s movements within one’s home and to avoid physical contact with others (Jain 2020a)||This is the second of the three vows of restraint (guṇa-vrata) for lay followers. It involves ceasing harmful or useless activities.||(T. Shah 2020;25 Jain 2020a)|
|deśāvakāśika-vrata||To avoid exposing oneself or others to the COVID-19 virus by staying at home or in an isolated place||One of the four learning vows (śikṣā-vratas) for lay followers. It involves a stricter application of the self-imposed travel limitations than under the dig-vrata. A lay follower can vow, e.g., to stay in only one room and to avoid all social contact for a certain period of time.||(Jain 2020a)|
|poṣadhopavāsa-vrata||To limit one’s activities to one’s place, where one fasts and focusses on self-study||One of the four learning vows (śikṣā-vratas) for lay followers. It involves fasting and an extension of the practice of sāmāyika (developing equanimity). The lay follower becomes like a mendicant for the duration of the vow.||(Jain 2020a)|
|sāmāyika-vrata||To dedicate oneself to self-study (with the implication that one stays at home or in one place and thus avoids physical contact with others)||One of the four learning vows (śikṣā-vratas) for lay followers. Under this vow, the lay follower becomes temporarily an ascetic. One engages in meditation, chants a mantra, listens to a sermon, or performs other such like religious practices.||(Jain 2020a)|
|Limitations and Adjustments of Daily Life and Routines during lockdown||Jain Practice and Traditional Understanding of the Practice28||Emic- or Pandemic-Specific29 Interpretation of the Jain Practice or Vow (When Available)||Reference|
|To not be able to eat out||Refraining from the 22 abhakṣyas (“that which should not be eaten”)||(T. Shah 2020)|
|To not be able to eat out||To not eat leftovers [from restaurants] or [takeaway] food that was prepared a few days prior||To eat leftovers is to commit hiṃsā as food overnight “gives birth to lots of bacteria, viruses, and ekendriya jīvas” (T. Shah 2020).||(T. Shah 2020)|
|To not be able to eat out||sallekhanā|
The voluntary practice of fasting to death involving the gradual reduction in solid foods and drinks.
|“I used to enjoy street food, but now I only eat at home. My wife and I have cut down our food intake. For breakfast, we only eat fruit. This is like sallekhanā” (Jain 2021).||Jain (2021, Zoom interview, January)|
|To not be able to go to the movies||Reducing the possibility of committing anarthadaṇḍa||“anarthadaṇḍa is the sin of punishing the soul by doing things that are unnecessary to lead a simple, normal life” (T. Shah 2020).||(T. Shah 2020)|
|To not be able to travel (as much)||Increasing one’s practice of ahiṃsā||By decreasing one’s moving around, one simultaneously diminishes the (unintentional) killing of living beings, whether minute or gross.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|To not be able to travel (as much)||Help restore the ecosystem||By not travelling as much, one pollutes less and is less susceptible to “free-will consumption”, which is good for the environment.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|The closing of malls, mass-meeting areas, and the reduction in factory operations||Help restore the ecosystem||The closure of malls and mass-meeting areas and the reduction in factory activities reduced the commercial air conditioning consumption and man-made waste, which in turn reduced the environmental pollution and the global warming.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|To not be able to shop for nonessential items||Increasing one’s practice of aparigraha||Because shopping was only allowed for essential items, one was forced to reduce one’s needs for nonessential items, resulting in “a compulsory move towards aparigraha”.||(T. Shah 2020)|
|Selfless service of doctors and nurses||Developing sevā|
(selfless service to others)
|(T. Shah 2020)|
|Distributing food packages to the needy||Developing sevā|
(selfless service to others)
|(T. Shah 2020)|
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Maes, C. Framing the Pandemic: An Examination of How WHO Guidelines Turned into Jain Religious Practices. Religions 2022, 13, 377. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13050377
Maes C. Framing the Pandemic: An Examination of How WHO Guidelines Turned into Jain Religious Practices. Religions. 2022; 13(5):377. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13050377Chicago/Turabian Style
Maes, Claire. 2022. "Framing the Pandemic: An Examination of How WHO Guidelines Turned into Jain Religious Practices" Religions 13, no. 5: 377. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13050377