Ahimsa Day at the House of Commons

December, 2023 by Kishor B Shah

“Peace is at the centre of spiritual life and Ahimsa is the means to this peace.”
“Ahimsa is standing up against any forms of violence, of thought, speech and actions, be it against human beings, animal world, environment, the earth, planets, trees, and rivers and so on….”

On Tuesday 24th October 2023, the 20th Annual Ahimsa Day was celebrated at the House of Commons, Palace of Westminster, London in the presence of distinguished guests and dignitaries including from Members of Parliament and House of Lords, Jain organisations and community, other faith communities and academia.

Ahimsa Day was conceived by the British Jain diaspora and has been celebrated annually in London since 2002.  What started as a small gathering has grown into an important day of observance in the UK Jain calendar.

The Ahimsa Day was established, in 2002, by the Institute of Jainology (IOJ) – a non-sectarian International Jain organisation founded in 1986 to promote Jain philosophy and values through the disciplines of art, culture and education.  Since 2014, It represents the 32 UK Jain organisations and the Jain faith under the OneJain banner in government and inter-faith matters in UK and elsewhere.

The annual Ahimsa Day was created to: –

  • raise awareness of Jains in the U.K
  • to highlight the universality of Jainism, in particular its main tenet of Ahimsa – Non-Violence, as a means to peace, positivity and prosperity.

The Ahimsa Day is a non-sectarian event, which generally lasts for a few hours.  It is not a religious festival, as such but the proceedings begin with a melodious and a spiritually uplifting recitation of the sacred Jain prayer, Navkar Mantra.  It is not held at a religious place, but to date has taken place in the historical and famous Palace of Westminster, the House of Commons of the U.K, in London, usually in Committee Room No 10, which is steeped in history, its walls having witnessed perhaps thousands of Parliamentary Bills discussed by eminent members.  In 2020, due to Covid -19, the event was held online for the first time, attracting a global audience.

Ahimsa Day takes place in October; however, its date is not fixed precisely as with traditional Jain festivals.  The significance of October is that Ahimsa Day bridges the gap between two major Jain festivals of Paryushan and Diwali.  Secondly, to celebrate the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, who personified this quality of non-violence and compassion, even under acute stress.  In 2005, the UK Ahimsa Day celebrations took on special significance, when the United Nations declared 2nd October as Ahimsa Day in honour of Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday was 2nd October.

The speakers and invited guests include Members of Parliament, especially those with large Jain communities in their constituencies.  This underlines the desire of the Jain community to reach out to non-Jains and the recognition of Jainism as a faith by the British political establishment.  To cement this, in 2014, the Jain All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was formed and since 2016, the Ahimsa Day is celebrated under the auspices of IOJ and APPG.

Ahimsa Day is an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of Jains and also explore the role of Ahimsa in the modern world.  During the past twenty years, as part of the annual celebrations, discussions have taken place on Ahimsa as an alternative to the many significant challenges we currently face; abject poverty, lack of universal education, environment destruction, climate change and so on.  Eminent speakers, including social activists and people working in the fields of education, environment etc have talked of solutions that are both viable and non-violent on these topics.

Just to give a few examples: –

Dr Rashmikumar Zaveri speaking on the subject – “Jainism and Alleviation of Poverty” stated the following: –

“Jainism offers a direct solution to this issue and suggests following steps to alleviate the problem of global poverty: Jainism advocates a lifestyle based on the cardinal principles of spiritualism – ahimsa, stoicism, reduction and/or giving up the desire for material things. It says that one should pursue one’s needs rather than one’s wants.  This brings us to the Economics of Mahavir.

Lord Mahavir said, “Dhammo mangal mukkitham ahimsa, sanjamo tao”. That means Religion or spirituality based on non-violence i.e. ahimsa, restraint and austerity is the best auspicious for mankind. Mahavir’s economics is based on these three principles.

Mahavir prescribed a lifestyle of balancing. He advocated the principle of self-discipline, restraint, abnegation, sacrifice, and voluntary limitation of accumulation of wealth. He said that. Initially wants arise from hunger, and then the wants themselves turn into hunger – hunger for more wealth, more accumulation, more consumption, leading to loss of direction and peace.

Jainism firmly believes in the aphorism: “samyamah khalu jeeanam” which means discipline coupled with stoicism is life. Life is where discipline is. If passion increases, the entire world may find itself on the brink of annihilation.

Violence and acquisitiveness (parigraha) are inseparably welded together. Voluntary limiting the possession and consumption of material objects through curbing own cravings and pining called Iccha-parimana is the best solution for solving the problem of global poverty The vow of Ichha-parimana should be associated with modern economics and concept of development. “

Professor Mitra, a polymath and educationist spoke about his quest is to create an environment for enabling the children in depressed areas to have an opportunity to develop their latent talents and skills in their own way rather than going through a regimented education process which may not offer them the same challenge to their own creativity.

He himself finally asked the question – what has all this to do with Ahimsa?  His answer was that Hinsa – opposite to Ahimsa in Bengali (his language) means jealousy. That all Hinsa arises because of the difference between the haves and have nots leading to a variety of conflicts. Creating opportunities for the have nots to rise in the world will certainly reduce jealousy and evolve Ahimsa.

Dr Mehool Sanghrajka of the IOJ, spoke of the Jain perspective on Climate Change and the Contemporary World.  He reminded all present of the two basic premises of Bhagwan Mahavira’s 2600-year-old philosophy, perhaps the greatest environmentalist theory in our history:

  • The earth is a living entity, and we are interdependent. We should respect the right of all life to exist and learn to live in harmony with it rather than exploiting it.
  • The earth has enough resources for all. It is accumulation by the few that is the cause of the scarcity. We should learn to live within what we need.

He explained that these two principles offer us all the solutions that we need to solve the problems that the world is facing if we based our actions and thoughts on science rather than politics!

Ahimsa Award

The Ahimsa Day celebrations were expanded in 2006 to include the IOJ Ahimsa Award. This Award is presented annually to a carefully chosen and vetted, deserving personality by the IOJ Board, from across the globe, who personifies Ahimsa and is actively involved in self­less, compassionate, humanitarian work, in education, social upliftment, disaster relief and the environment.

The first two awards were declared in absentia: in 2006 to Nelson Mandela for applying Gandhian principles of non-violence in the peaceful transition to a multicultural democracy in South Africa and in 2007 to HH The Dalai Lama in recognition of his work to promote global peace and understanding.

In 2008, the Award was presented to Acarya Mahaprajna in recognition of his lifelong spiritual devotion, scholastic successes, and visionary achievements as a leader.

In 2015, HRH The Prince of Wales, now King Charles was awarded a special 25th Anniversary ‘IOJ Ahimsa Award’ to celebrate the organisation’s existence and successes for the past 25 years. The Award was for the prince’s many years of emphasis on the critical importance of taking better care of our interconnected and increasingly fragile world, his championing of the natural environment, unwavering appeal for action for a sustainable future and acceptance of religious diversity.

Other recipients of the Award, include world-renowned humanitarians – Scott Neeson for his work to eradicate poverty,   Mr Ravinder Singh as the founder of Khalsa Aid, an organisation that has provided the world selfless service and universal love in its international emergency relief missions; environmentalists – Mr Rajendra Singh, who has restored the ‘water table’ in many parts of India and who firmly upholds the principle that if you take care of the earth, it will take care of you ; scholars such as Professors Padmanabh Jaini and Nalini Balbir; social and spiritual activists such as Melanie Joy, Ann Cotton, Brother Peter Tabichi, who is a Kenyan science teacher and Franciscan friar teaching in a region impacted by famine and drought who donates 80% of his salary to supporting his pupils in the local village.

This year, 2023, the Ahimsa Award was given to Dr Jasvant Nagindas Modi of Los Angeles, California, for his exemplary contributions to the field of Jain education by endowing over 30 chairs at major colleges and universities, including the Dharmanath Endowed Chair in Jain Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK, which launched this September.  The Jain Studies programme at the University will develop teaching and research in Jain philosophy in relation to contemporary issues, such as environmental ethics, human rights, business ethics, human wellbeing, forgiveness, interfaith dialogue.

Nemubhai Chandaria OBE, IOJ Chair commented “Jasvantbhai is a deserving winner of this year’s Ahimsa Award for establishing many chairs in Jain studies in Western universities. His vision of Jain education becoming a part of the mainstream has already started to become a reality.”

Dr Jasvant Modi graciously acknowledged receipt of the Award in his heartfelt and inspirational acceptance speech.

He humbly said he believed the award to be “a recognition of the true values of altruism for Dharma Prabhavna – by which to inspire compassion, universal friendship to all living beings with amity and appreciation in the pursuit of knowledge to evolve our inner qualities to promote Peace which is a true paragon of this award.”

He explained why he gives to the Universities stating “That’s where the current leaders are nurtured. Wars don’t start with weapons right away, according to our omniscient Tirthankaras it starts with a continuous thought process caused by anger, ego, deceit, and greed due to our attachment and aversion. If we can nourish true Jain values into the roots and handover the key to the wealth of wisdom on metaphysics for which India was invaded several times, then World Peace Prevails”.

Another important announcement at this year’s Ahimsa Day was the decision by the Wellcome Trust on the restitution of the entire Wellcome collection of 2000 rare Jain Manuscripts to the Jain community.  Dr Mehool Sanghrajka, on behalf of the IOJ, accepted the collection and called the move both brave and pioneering. He announced that the IOJ would arrange for the collection to be loaned to the Jain centre at the University of Birmingham, to contribute to its status as a major global site for Jain teaching and research.

This year, marking the 20th anniversary of the Ahimsa Day celebrations in U.K is an important milestone and highlights its importance in: –

  • Increasing awareness of Jain faith and the public visibility of the Jain community in U.K
  • Spreading messages about the tenets of Jainism, especially Ahimsa
  • Facilitating for Jain presence in Parliament and Jain representation at national, international, and historic events such as the Queen’s funeral and King Charles coronation.
  • Encouraging MPs, Lords, and Ministers to discuss how current world issues can be considered from an alternative ‘compassionate’ perspective and making them alert to the benefits of following Ahimsa as well to the dangers of ignoring it.
  • Paving the way for a recognized, effective Jain voice and presence to make a difference in British society.

The Ahimsa Day is an annual celebration of the UK Jain community vision for more compassionate world, with less poverty, a healthier environment and respect for all forms of life. The messages spread during Ahimsa Day are not only universal but will continue to stay relevant for generations to come.

About Author

Kishor is resident in UK and a Banker.  He has served the Oshwal Association of UK as Trustee, Area Secretary, Editor of Oshwal News and Web Chairperson developing and successfully launching a new website. He is very passionate about Jainism and has produced Jain Exhibitions, Jain Calendars in English, Insights Magazines and written various articles on Jainism, for the Jain Community. Kishor was part of the team that worked for nearly two years on Jainpedia V2.0, which was officially launched in April 2022 and is involved in the continuing development of the site. He is the Regional Editor of UK for Jain Avenue Magazine (jainavenue.org).

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