There are about seven million followers of the Jain Dharma (religion) in India. It has been in decline since the 6th century AD. The central tenets are non-violence and respect for all creatures. To avoid stepping on ants, Jain monks and nuns sweep the street with fallen peacock feathers; to avoid inadvertently killing or eating bugs, they don’t eat root vegetables or cauliflower; to avoid inhaling flies, they wear a white mask over their nose and mouth.
Last September, the Jain community celebrated paryushana which consists of ten days of fasting and meditation. There was a loud parade on the main road, outside our apartment, so naturally, I took some photographs. Half a dozen bands from different areas of Delhi paraded in front of the vehicle carrying the idol. Jains use the swastika as an emblem of non-violence. An open hand with a wheel on the palm symbolises the relentless pursuit of truth which will end the cycle of reincarnation.
Jains sometimes carry out ritual fasting. Last October, a 13 year old girl from Hyderabad starved for 68 days during chaumasa. After successfully completing the fast, there was a parna ceremony, where the girl rode triumphantly in a chariot, dressed as a goddess. The family took out quarter page adverts in the local newspaper to publicise her achievement. Tragically, two days later, she collapsed and died of a cardiac dysrhythmia (which is a risk for anorexic patients).
Perhaps she had achieved moksha, being released from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Or maybe she was just an impressionable young girl who felt obliged to fast for some greater good.