Jain couple abandons comfortable life, daughter in pursuit of spiritual purity

Young monks in Surat studying texts with a senior monk. Credit Pradip Gohil. Single print and online use only.
Young monks in Surat studying texts with a senior monk. Credit Pradip Gohil. Single print and online use only.

New Delhi: The Jain community is still in shock over a decision by a couple in their early 30s to withdraw from the world, renouncing their families, business, home and, most poignantly of all, their three year old daughter.

The tradition of austerity in the Jain faith is strong but individuals usually renounce worldly things after growing old and having fulfilled their responsibilities to family and children. What has stunned Jains is that Sumit Rathore chose to become a monk and his wife Anamika a nun in Surat, western India last month, in their early 30s and with a little girl to raise.

"We tried our best to dissuade them. For about 10 days, we all went to their house to tell them they couldn't abandon Ibhiya (the daughter). But they were adamant," said Sandip Rathore, Sumit's cousin and the only one in the family to speak out openly against the decision.

The initiation ceremony took place in Surat in the last week of September. The couple put on seamless white robes, went barefoot and covered their mouths with a mask so as not to accidentally kill a fly or tiny insect while talking. Inside their respective buildings (men and women are segregated), they plucked each hair out of their head.

The couple came to Surat for the diksha (entering monkhood) ceremony from their home in Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh. Both graduates, Sumit and Anamika (own) a multi-million rupee business making sacks for cement. For two years, they were based in London, handling exports to the UK.

Their home was a huge house in Neemuch where they lived with Ibhiya and Sumit's parents who are prominent members of the community owing to their wealth. Their life was full of normal things - eating out, socialising, shopping, watching films, and holidays. As Sandip says, "they had everything anyone could want".

"Suddenly, two years ago, they began talking of taking diksha. Some strong desire took hold of them. It was discussed for two years but no one thought they would go this far. We told them they could follow the religion as strictly as they wanted but stay at home, be austere at home. Or do it when they were older," said Rinku, Sandip's wife.

As preparation, the couple started sleeping in separate rooms and paring down their meals. Before they left their life, they made arrangements for Ibhiya to be raised by Anamika's brother, who is childless, in Rajasthan. Neither Rinku nor Sandip have received any news of how she is coping without her parents.

"I am sure she is well looked after but who can replace a mother and father's love? I shudder at the prospect of leaving my seven-year-old daughter even for a day," said Rinku. She added that "about 90 per cent" of Jains disapproved of the decision as "horribly premature" in such a young couple but were reluctant to say so openly for fear of antagonising religious leaders.

A socialist activist in Neemuch, Kapil Shukla, filed a complaint with the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights when he heard the news, asking for the diksha to be stopped.

"The daughter cannot speak about what she wants. She needs a mother's love. It's irresponsible. Why give birth to a child if you are going to abandon it?" he asked.

Little, however, is expected to come of his complaint as the state has no grounds for intervening.

Jains number only about 4.5 million out of India's 1.3 billion population but they punch well above this number because of their education, business acumen, and wealth.

In recent years, the Jain ritual of santhara or starving to death (generally by the elderly, infirm, or terminally ill) has generated controversy. In this practice, Jains renounce food and water, gradually letting their bodies waste away to pave their journey toward the afterlife.

In 2015, a Rajasthan court banned it, saying it was akin to suicide. Later, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, allowing Jains the right to practice it as part of their faith.

Apart from anything else, it is controversial because sometimes the family of an elderly person may exert subtle moral pressure on them to shuffle off their mortal coil in order to take over property and businesses.

After the Supreme Court order, an 83 year-old-Jain woman died in Rajasthan after starving herself for 50 days.

Much more controversially, Aradhana Samdariya fasted to death last October in Secunderabad. She was only 13.

Her family, to the chagrin of many Indians, supported her decision as "voluntary". It took 68 days for Aradhana's heart to finally give way.

The Jain principle of "compassion for all living things" is well known in India.

They do not eat onion, garlic or potatoes or any root vegetable lest, in pulling them out of the ground, an insect in the soil might be killed. They eat before sunset because, in the days before electricity, they might accidentally have swallowed an insect while eating.

In their new life, Sumit and Anamika will probably never see each other again.

Apart from their robes, they will have no clothes or possessions, nor a photograph of Ibhiya or their parents. For their one meal of the day, they will go to Jain homes with a bowl, asking for food.

They will eat standing up and sleep on the ground.

To go anywhere, no matter how far, they will have to walk barefoot and look a few feet ahead carefully to avoid treading on an insect. Their days will be full of prayer and meditation. As hair regrows on their head or face, it will be plucked out by hand.

Rinku is also in her early thirties. Though a practising Jain, the life that Sumit and Anamika have embraced is unthinkable.

"I don"t worry about them because they chose that life. I feel for those they have left behind. Just think - three members of your family gone overnight! I can"t understand it," she said.

This story Jain couple abandons comfortable life, daughter in pursuit of spiritual purity first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.