Snakes and Ladders

From the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a great website full of information and art related to Jainism. It makes perfect sense–the Jains, noted for their scrupulous honesty, have acquired some wealth in fields like business and the law. Yet their religion emphasizes having only the things you need–and as a result they have become great patrons of religious art, giving away excess wealth in order to benefit their faith. Many of the objects and tapestries they have created are catalogued on the site.

What is probably the most useful for teaching about Jainism to high-schoolers, however, is the online version of Snakes and Ladders that the V&A has available for exploration and play. This was brand-new to me! Apparently “Chutes and Ladders” is a blatant rip-off of a game developed in ancient India. The ladders represent virtues–actions Jains can take to become more like the enlightened beings. The snakes represent vices, or those behaviors to be avoided. (I think this might be because in Jainism, there is a story about Mahavira being bitten by a poisonous snake. Or just because snakes are noted for being mean and slippery.) As my students worked through the game online, they learned about the characteristics that are valued by Jains, and a little bit about Jain interpretations of the cosmos. They also got increasingly frustrated by the snakes that took them farther and farther away from becoming liberated beings, but hey, you can’t expect to get enlightened in just one class period.

Another “fun” activity that we did during this short unit on Jainism was that I challenged my students to be vegans for a day. Coincidentally, the start of this unit coincided with the Jain worldwide day of compassion on November 1st (more info here). Not a one of my students (except for the one who already wears the vegan badge), made it through the day, but I think it helped get them to focus on just how diligent and aware one has to be to maintain such a diet. (Nevermind that Jains also avoid some vegetables grown underground. We didn’t even get into those limitations!) I think that following a restrictive diet like that leads one to be exceptionally aware and mindful of what one is eating. Based on the one month of my life where I tried to give up sugar, I can tell you that it can be exhausting to check over every single thing that you eat. I wonder if for Jains, however, this attention to detail also helps connect them to and constantly remind them of the reason they are doing it: ahimsa (non-violence), compassion, and kindness. I’m not sure my students felt that same compassion or kindness when they were thinking about what they couldn’t eat that day, but it was good to hear their reflections. It certainly got them talking about Jainism.

Sallekhana and the Decision to Die

“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.

The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:

When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.

Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.

When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.

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Colors and Sounds

One of the amazing things about Hinduism, like many faiths, is the way that its rituals and practices awaken the senses. I’ve found a couple of good video resources that help share the sights and sounds of the religion, injecting a human presence into our study of its beliefs and practices.

The New York Times produces a variety of beautiful short videos that are great for lessons. My favorite for teaching about Hinduism is this one about the sadhus, or holy men, at the Kumbh Mela festival (which is an enormous Hindu religious gathering). Not only are the sadhus visually arresting–as they shed their clothes and paint their faces out of reverence for the gods–but the video hints at their controversial position in Indian society as either revered men or crazies on the fringe.

Another great video for teaching about India is from the series Around the World in 80 Faiths. This BBC show traces the path of an Anglican vicar, Peter Owen-Jones, as he travels the world to learn about other religions. He’s a perceptive and sensitive host, and in each episode he really works to understand the people he encounters. He doesn’t shy away from stating his own biases or skepticism, which I think is part of why he is relatable. In the India episode, for example, he questions how men really walk on hot coals and is just impolite enough to ask them if he can check out the soles of their feet. He also finds some amazing rituals and experiences, from talking with an aghori who lives in a cemetary to visiting with an ascetic Jain nun, they are opportunities that many of us are unlikely to have first-hand.

The series has eight episodes, and I show clips from it throughout the year, but I take the time to show the entire one on India. It is great for the diversity it reflects while still focusing on religions that developed on the subcontinent. The shows are all available on Youtube, although I would gladly buy it if I could find it on DVD (are you listening, BBC?). It makes me want to take a similar journey!