The Earth is My Teacher

December, 2022 by An Interview with Rajiv Rathod
Please describe your spiritual journey:


Reading philosophy has always been a part of my life. Since a very early age, I was curious and had an interest in philosophy. I had an interest in frameworks guiding people in fundamental queries like who we are and where we come from. I spent many years learning about others’ spiritual journeys in a person. My journey into spirituality began seven years ago. Though I travel a lot, it was in Bangalore, where I was born and raised, that the gears started turning.

The apartment which I was living in had a lot of Svetambara Jain families. We had lived there for over 20 years. In one of the get-togethers, they decided that they would raise money together and build a temple. Within a few weeks, the money was arranged, and the construction begun.

Finally, when the temple was built, during the grand opening they conducted an auction to put the main temple flag. At that point, I started questioning what and why the auction was going on, leading to why they were building a temple, when so many already existed.

I was flooded with responses from immediate family and family friends, the money collected was for maintaining the temple in the long run; that temples bring the community together, that all this happens for keeping the religion alive that it is for the progress of the religion.

At that point, one of my uncles asked me what I would do if I was given the money. After a few minutes, I told him that if anything has changed the world in the last 20 years, it has been films and TV, so I would make films on Jainism. I soon realised that I had never come across a documentary on Jainism. Out of curiosity, I did a quick search online and there didn’t seem to be any documentary on the international platform on Jainism. All this made me think and reflect a little more deeply. Soon, I was reading up on Jainism and I realised that some of the principles, like anekantavada, made a lot of sense and really resonated with me. Being interested in philosophy, I was really surprised by the depth of my own tradition.

I realised that there is one film on the subject, made by Michael Tobias in 1987, but it hadn’t really reached people. I thought it would be interesting and meaningful, if I would be able to produce the first documentary on Jainism in 30 years! This idea was supported by Pradeep Ghisulal Rathod, and now I was on this journey of researching Jainism, meeting subject matter experts, having long conversations with monks and nuns on the meaning of life, existence, and more. Since I had taken up the project on making a film, I had to understand Jainism and see how relevant it really was to my life.

I discovered that most people around me and people who were thinking outside the mainstream traditions believed in a few things. In my view, five of these stood out: sensitivity towards the environment, sensitivity towards food, access to knowledge for all, multiplicity of truths, and questioning the presence or nature of a creator God. Most people around me and in my peer, groups believed in these principles. I started to reflect more on this and realised that Jainism was already strongly standing by these viewpoints more than 2500 years ago.

This made me think then about what Jainism is and how is it relevant today. I started thinking about the importance of spirituality in my life and in a larger context in people’s lives in general. About religion and politics, about their relevance, and their mutual relationships. And soon I started realising that my journey was in sync with the Jain motto parasparopagrahojivanam, or that “all life is bound by mutual support and interdependence”. This started to make more and more sense to me in this world of selfish individualism we are living with and striving towards sustainability. This was the one spiritual idea which really resonated: the notion, and its importance in today’s world of violence and aggression in the name of progress and development.

There were others who shared many of these thoughts and joined us from diverse backgrounds. Dhruva Ghosh, who joined the project in December 2013 was on his journey with a diverse background, questioning the nature of life, religion, politics, and so on. Sweta Daga, who joined the project in March 2014 was also on her journey of questioning society, working with people, and diminishing communities, in the domains of personal and social justice. Both had come to inferences similar to mine on their own. However, we have active and healthy debates about different domains of the subject and of our work. There have also been other friends and colleagues who have been a part of this journey. Trying to meaningfully understand and work with each other through similarities and differences, through conflicts and resolutions, has been spiritual and transformative. This is not the kind of work one leaves behind in a desk at the office it is something that is definitive for me, and perhaps for all of us.

All three of us have a relationship with stories and storytelling, and we have different kinds of interests in filmmaking. We all deeply agree with cinema as a tool of creation, preservation, as well as transformation, personal, social, political, and even spiritual. Together we realised how important it was for the Jain community to think of their dharma in the larger context of society, of the climate and environment. Perhaps not just Jains but all people should think about what they consume and how food, material products, services, and other things. It was also significant that Jainism provided a way of spiritual access without talking in terms of a creator God, but through personal efforts alone. We also realised that Jainism needs to be preserved and presented in a way that is lucid and easy for young Jains and for global audiences. Considering that it was one of the most important Indic religions at some point, it is almost invisible today when compared to Buddhism and the various kinds of Hinduism. We also thought that there may be value in interpreting Jainism through contemporary eyes. Soon, all this crystallised into

In all this, I should also specially mention our mentor, the late Madhusudan Amilal Dhaky, who gave us a lot of encouragement, learning, confidence, and love to go ahead with this work. I think that it’s fair to say that he was a polymath. Meeting him and having his grace on us has been very rewarding in countless ways.

As I began, I have always been interested in seeking answers to the questions of who we are, where we have come from, what makes us, where do we go, and what are we here for. In my small capacity, I touched on the many interpretations’ cultures had on these questions. This lead me to this question of how religion informs a person or a group of people and how important it is in today’s times.

To me, the minute you start observing your actions and their consequences on people and their surroundings, you enter this realm of inner criticism, asking questions about existence, honesty, morals, values, and so on. This struggle itself is the beginning of what Jains and Buddhists call srama, or spiritual labour. I can’t tell you about moksha, but this appears to be the marga in that general direction.

What did you study in college? How did you get interested in filmmaking?

I was pursuing a BE in Biotechnology. I walked out of it in my second year as I lost interest in the education system as a whole and dedicated my life to travel. This led me to explore many parts of India. It also brought me to the remote corners of Northeast India, where I interacted with people staying in complete harmony with the environment and self-sustained in their landscape. My interactions with them and their stories inspired me and helped me unlearn many years of information I had gathered in a factory like schooling.

Documentaries were always a part of my unlearning. I have been interested in them from a very early age. When I realised that film is a good way to change and challenge mindsets, I started getting interested in filmmaking. I got more seriously interested in it when I realised that there hasn’t been an internationally screened film on Jainism. In the process, I realised that I could use films to explore Jainism and tell lost tales of tribal India.

Can you describe your approach to the documentary on Jainism? What is the goal of the documentary?

The documentary explores the question of what Jainism is and how it is relevant today. We are coming from the premise that all religions are in crisis with modernity, and we are trying to capture of how Jainism is responding to changing times.

Through interviews, and by showing slices of life of the main characters, we hope to unpack some of the key aspects of the Jain religion, its history, and its present state. We wish that this documentary drives the Jain community and other non-Jains to start thinking about interdependence, start questioning their own place in the world, and about personal, social, and environmental justice. It should make them question fundamental notions about the nature of life and death and therefore, everything that lies in between them.

What challenges and barriers did you face in making this documentary?

It has taken a long time to win the trust of the people, to connect with scholars, to raise funds, and so on. The biggest barrier has sometimes been the community itself. At many junctions we have seen people divided between Svetambara and Digambara sects. I hope we can someday speak not as different factions, but as different facets of a shared tradition. Many we met also prize Jainism over all other traditions and belief systems. We respect this, but I hope someday we can speak as participants of one community that is a part of a bigger world and a global, diverse humanity, in the true spirit of anekantavada and ahimsa. It has taken us years to find a voice that everyone will agree to.

Since we are literally introducing Jainism for the first time to a global as well as domestic audience, we are respectful towards the tradition, the subject, and the history of Jainism. We also hope to be able to do justice to the sensitivities of identities within a greater context, and towards the responsibility that cinema has, in general.

Could you please explain what you mean by “the earth is my teacher”?

This was said by Satish Kumar, a Jain monk who eventually quit the monastery to work more directly with the world. He is quite well-known internationally; his life and work are fascinating. He was influenced by Gandhi, who used Jain principles to bring about profound political change. Though Satish Kumar quit the ascetic order, he deeply and meaningfully adhered to Jain principles throughout his life. I walked out of school, and much of my learning was really unlearning, as I have mentioned. Satish Kumar didn’t learn from the modern schooling systems; he learnt in traditional ways, of family, of monkhood, and so on. I too have learnt from my explorations, from our traditions, and from experiences that cannot be offered within the education system as we know it today.

The nature of life and our place within a greater ecosystem has been a constant source of learning for me. I agree that the unchecked application of narrow but specialized schooling can lead us into destruction, while a wider, seemingly naive traditional learning can create harmony if we let it. So, it resonated with me that learning in that sense, comes from the earth, from the world around us, from the people we meet, the experiences we have, and from our ancient traditions. That’s why on the website, I directly quoted Satish ji.

What advice would you give to young Jains? How can they stay rooted to and connected with Jainism while at college or in the workplace ?

Be yourself. Question everything and don’t believe anything just because it is told or taught. Don’t be afraid to question bigotry, traditional or modern, religious, or scientific, of the self or of other people. Criticize yourself and try to keep working on yourself and exploring reality gradually. Remember the basic Jain notions that all beings — especially all people — have something about them that is identical. That truth has many facets (anekantavada), and that we are all connected by mutual support and service (parasparopagrahojivanam). And, even if the evidence for spirituality seems very little, do go looking for it you may be surprised by what you find.

Source Acknowledgement:

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