Monday, September 17, 2007

Forgiveness Season

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Samvatsari / Yom Kippur

Just when I despair of gaining sufficient cultural competence in India, or of being able to relate to Indian religions' rituals, God gives me another chance:

Last week, I answered a cell-phone call in the evening because Indian cell service doesn't include voicemail, which is considered too impersonal. The person was hoping to become a service provider on a project I'm working on. I was to fly away to Kochi the following day and wasn't mentally prepared to have the discussion with him then.

"I'm getting ready for a trip tomorrow and so why don't we talk on Monday?" We scheduled the time and I hung up, feeling proud of setting a boundary around work.

The potential business partner began the call today, saying that he trusted that I had had a good trip. I told him the context -- about it having been in honor of the Jewish New Year. "Did you celebrate Ganesh's birthday over the weekend?" I asked.

"I'm Jain and actually, our holiest holiday is today."

"I'm sorry to be taking you away from your holiday."

"It's OK. It's the Samvatsari Festival of Forgiveness, where we ask each other to forgive us for anything we've done in the past year either intentionally or unintentionally."

No way! Finally, a religious practice I could relate to directly. "Did you know that I'm in exactly the same period right now, that at this time of year, Jews ask for forgiveness exactly the same way, for intentional or unintentional offenses? We have to ask one another for forgiveness up to three times."

"Yes, I did know."

"Why am I ignorant of key holidays here and you know my holiday?" (It was a rhetorical question.)

"I'm just back in India after living in the United States and the U.K. for 20 years, and my brother-in-law is Jewish. Did you know that Orthodox Jews and Jains work together closely in the diamond industry in New York and Antwerp? There's a direct flight from India to Brussels now."

"I had no idea."

Origins of Jewish and Jain Entrepreneurship

"There are probably three million Jains in all of the world. Like Jews, Jains are family-oriented and excel at entrepreneurship. Max Weber called Jains 'the Jews of India.'

We became good at mercantilism, since we were barred from roles open to Brahmins, which we couldn't be, since we weren't Hindu, and since we didn't want to be farmers, in case we might harm living things through tilling, and since we weren't often soldiers because of our preference for non-violence -- of course, we're soldiers for defensive purposes, but it's not a popular profession...."

"Well, probably, you know this already, but Jews became merchants because we were barred from the medieval guilds and were forbidden to own land, and so we couldn't learn trades or be farmers..." and I didn't say this or think of it at the time, but I think Jews got into the diamond industry, as diamonds were highly-portable, for when we were expelled from the countries where we were no longer welcome, which happened relatively often historically.

I'm writing this during my commute and we just passed several flower-bedecked Ganesh shrines. And the streets feature strings of colored lights; this festival, celebrating Ganesh's birth reminds me of Christmas. By contrast, though, the colored lights appear only on the streets, whereas houses simply display garlands of flowers at the tops of their front doors.

More Religious Commonalities

Earlier today, following my conversation with my new Jain colleague, a Catholic friend and colleague and I discussed how our religions treat Bibles and prayer books and we discovered that if either one drops on the ground, we must pick it up quickly and kiss it. She said that she was taught the same practice as a Catholic.

The commonality ended when I described how we treat raggedy Bibles or prayer-books, or any texts with God's name inside that are severely dog-eared; Orthodox Jews bury them. "Now, I've never worn out a Bible or a prayer book, and so I don't know --"

"That's telling!"

"Not like I've worn out my computer!"

We smiled.

I forgot to mention to her that if anyone drops a Torah, collectively, the congregation to which the Torah belongs must fast for 40 days (and so 40 congregants could each take a day, but the point is that it's a huge transgression to drop a Torah).

Note: When I looked up "Jain" in Wikipedia, I learned that the swastika is among Jainism's holiest symbols. That's why I see it on merchants' stalls and trucks and apartment buildings sometimes then...a perfect example of surrendering my frame of reference and replacing it with another in order to adapt to where I live now.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the lesson in Jainism. I had read a bit about Jains, so knew about their practice of non-violence, even to insects, but was not aware of their forgiveness ritual.
I hope to talk to you before Yom Kippur.

Sarah Siegel said...

I told the Jain colleague, "You're the first Jain-born Jain person I've ever become acquainted with. Actually, I met one other Jain person, in San Francisco a number of years ago; he had converted from Judaism to Jainism, but he was the only one so far."

"Now, you know more of us," he answered. That's what it's all about: being present to get to know others, so that there's a human connection among us.