How wearing a mask relates to the the Jain way
With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, masks were recommended as a precaution. Did you know that masks are not a novel concept in the practice of Jainism? Just like medical professionals, Jains have been using masks for quite some time. The main principle of Jainism – Ahimsa or nonviolence, plays a major role in this.
Ahimsa is an overarching theme in Jainism. It refers to causing no harm to any being, by any means – thoughts, words, or actions. Ahimsa touches every aspect of Jainism. For instance, Jains are vegetarians; they practice non-violence towards animals. In fact, ardent followers of Jain religion do not consume any vegetables growing under the ground, such as, carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, etc. (These vegetables carry more microorganisms as compared to the ones growing above the ground.) At many Jain temples, ahimsa parmo dharma is inscribed on the walls, that is, non-violence is the first and supreme duty.
Ahimsa is of paramount importance in Jainism. Apart from vegetarianism, Jains practice ahimsa by not hurting any organisms. For example, Jains do not go hunting or fishing. Many devout followers do not use products derived from animals, such as, leather. Many Jains do not burst crackers as fire from the crackers kills uncountable microorganisms in the air. Many followers do not even hurt mosquitoes or bugs. For Jains, practicing non-violence seeps through many such acts. Another one such act is of wearing a mask or muhpatti.
As humans, we are incapable of seeing the microscopic organisms living in our surroundings. The practice of ahimsa embraces all beings, even the ones not visible to the naked eye. This is why Jains adopted the usage of masks very early on. There are millions of microorganisms around us and the warm air that comes out of our mouths when we speak can kill these beings. To limit this occurrence, Jains used a face covering that consisted of multiple layers of cloth. This face covering or mask, called muhpatti, is usually white, tied with a thread along the ears, and covers the mouth.
After understanding the reason behind the usage of Jain mask or muhpatti, one can easily argue: do I need a mask every time I speak or what happens to the microorganisms when I consume food? Well, I would say, firstly, those are very valid and relevant doubts. Secondly, there is no straightforward answer. Following ahimsa in its entirety is difficult, even impossible. Giving up food or speech is not an option. However, wearing a mask as a protective layer is a viable option. As the CDC guidelines state, masks help protect you and your loved ones from getting infected or spreading the virus; the Jain scriptures indicate that wearing a mask is a way to follow ahimsa.
This age-old religious tradition of wearing muhpatti is still very relevant today. For many Jain monks, muhpatti is an essential part of their white attire. Apart from the monks, Jain practitioners wear muhpatti during Samayik (meditational praying, focusing on self and asking for forgiveness of one’s sins). It baffles me how a simple idea from centuries ago became relevant after all this time, in 2020, during a pandemic.
In a way, Jainism is one of the foremost religions on earth that has had its roots in science and futuristic living.
Bijal Shah is a Technical Writer and member of the Jain Center of Greater Phoenix
Bijal Shah Guest Columnist