When one thinks of Chennai’s Sowcarpet, one recalls the hundreds of families from Rajasthan and Gujarat who settled in the bustling locality over a hundred years ago. However, if one observes the throng of people from up close, one can spot a few Maharajsahibs (Jain nuns) weaving deftly through the crowd as they go door to door, seeking alms.
Having embraced a life of monks, Maharajsahibs find comfort and peace in the sisterhood that taking the white provides, as they undertake vihars (pilgrimages) across the country. One such Maharajsahib is Jin Prabha, who is making a pit stop at Chennai for 20 days before going to Pune.
“With money, you can get everything you want, but not peace. Through monkhood, we can discover our soul. These days, we cannot understand ourselves because we are busy running behind the world. If we cannot understand ourselves, we cannot understand others,” she tells indianexpress.com.
Traveling as a group of 24 nuns, Jin Prabha says she took the white when she was 20 years old. “I am returning to Chennai after 26 years. When we become Maharajsahibs, we cannot remain in one place for more than 20 days. So, we travel by foot across the country. We remain in one place only during the monsoon season,” she says.
While we may find a life of renouncement to be quite hard, the nuns claim renunciation grants them peace. “We renounce everything that ties us to our life before taking the white, including our name,” says Jin, whose birth name was Babitha. The nuns renounce everything that gives them a status of luxury, such as jewellery, footwear and even electricity.
They even dress in white to make sure that they do not get attached to a particular colour. “White denotes purity and is soothing to the eye. Moreover, it is simple and denotes that everyone is the same. If we pick robes of different colours, we will form an attachment to a particular colour and that will influence a change in our renunciation,” says Jin.
One of the commandments of Jainism is to not unnecessarily harm other beings. “Our goal in life is to not bring harm or sadness in the lives of others. If we can save others, we can save ourselves. There are millions of organisms living in the air, water and earth. So, we walk everywhere barefoot and do not touch money or even use the electricity or a gas stove,” says Jin.
She asserts that monkhood is a life of sacrifice, where there is no attachment or tension. “Through this, we can attain moksha (liberation)”, says the nun. With the goal of their life being attaining peace and salvation, Jin says the nuns devote their days studying Jainism and understanding the soul.
One aspect of the Maharajsahibs is the sisterhood that they embrace. Given that anyone aged between eight and 80 can take the white, the generation gap is very much prevalent among the nuns. While one may expect this to cause tempers to rise among the group, Jin asserts that is not so.
“When we decide to become nuns, we have to undergo training where we are given classes in behaviour for an hour every day. It is not easy for different people to live together as one. However, nobody blames anyone when one of us does something wrong. Instead, our matriarch discusses the behaviour that we are expected to follow during our classes and the person who is at fault corrects their mistake,” she says.
Another aspect inherent to their way of life is community-eating. Since the nuns do not cook food, five to six nuns seek alms from neighbouring houses every day for the whole group. The food is then rationed out among all 24 of them for the day.
Jin says though they had to renounce everything, the nuns do not feel like they are missing out on their old lives or giving up on their dreams. “It is true that we sacrifice everything, but we are only sacrificing materialistic things. We are not sacrificing our dream of finding peace. However, in a life outside of monkhood, we are forced to sacrifice our goals for others,” she says.
While monkhood, on the surface, may look like a journey towards attaining salvation, the journey towards the end is one that is entrenched in the path of sisterhood every day. “Through the journey, you lose a family but gain a whole family of sisters,” says the nun.
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