Born into a Jain family I was quite familiar with the parampara followed in a traditional family. In Adoni the ‘Jain community’ is very small and closely knit. Having lived in a large joint family I grew up seeing my family, friends and community participating in different fasting rituals.
Fasting or Tap is a very important cornerstone of the Jain faith. During Paryushan, the most important festival for the Shwetambar Jains, the whole community is bound together by fasting rituals. For me Paryushan is always associated with wonderful childhood memories of family and friends coming together.
Fasting as per scriptures is a way to wash away your Karma also known as Nirjara, to free your soul from the constant cycle of birth and death. In one’s youth one is more careless about tradition just like I was, until one starts experiencing life.
In 1996, I was out of the country during Paryushan, going through an extremely challenging personal crisis. Being away from family during this auspicious festival really made me understand how important it was to me. For the first time I felt the need to fast, I understood the importance of fasting. That is when my tryst with Tap or fasting began, to get over this personal crisis.
It started with Atthai which calls for straight 8 days of Upvas or abstinence from food, sustaining only on boiled water, consumed from sunrise to sunset. In the beginning it was not easy at all, especially for someone who enjoys food. Everyday you want to give up and you realise that it was indeed a tough call. It’s only the determination which keeps you going; “No one can defeat, a mind made up”. However as the 8 days progressed, they became the best 8 days of my life, and I felt at peace with myself.
Jainism talks about the fine demarcation between body, mind and soul. Immersed in regular life one is unable to tell the fine difference between these three existing in a single body. Believe you me, by the 8th day it becomes possible to tell this difference and the experience was surreal. Everything takes on a more spiritual note. Suddenly time expands and what seemed to be pressing matter in life lose their importance. While I was able to overcame my personal challenge I continued with my tap. It’s been 24 years since I started Atthai and save for two instances I’ve done it to date.
In 2000, I was faced with another personal crisis when I started the Oli tap in addition to Atthai. The Oli tap is doing Aayambil for 9 days. Aayambil is a fasting rituals which allows only one meal per day, typically lunch, and boiled water. This meal has to be devoid of salty, spicy, sweet and sour flavours which excite the senses. Dairy, oils, fruits, dry fruits, vegetables and beverages are also not permitted. Only food which is made from primary grains and pulses like wheat, rice, green gram, chickpea and urad dal are allowed.
Oli tap is even more tougher than staying hungry because you have to eat food which is totally tasteless to complete this fast. Oli tap is performed twice a year when the seasons change from Spring to Summer and Autumn to Winter. And this is not without reason, the body prepares itself to accept this change. It’s interesting that we see this in nature all the time. Plants, trees, birds and animals all go through changes in physical features, in anticipation of the new season. Trees lose their leaves in autumn, animals shed excess hair in summer. Even the fashion industry showcases their new ensemble from season to season. It looks like only the human being has forgotten to prepare for the seasonal changes.
4 years ago I started doing the Varthaman tap to gather resolve to face yet another challenge in my life. Vardhaman means developing step by step progress. To do the Vardhaman Tap one must lay the foundation for it by performing it without a break, for twenty days. Aayambil on the first day and then Upvas for one day; Aayambil for two days and then Upvas for one day; Aayambil for three days and Upvas for one day; Aayambil for four days and Upvas for one day; Aayambil for five days and Upvas for one day. This comes to twenty days and is known as the Vardhaman tap ka paya. At this point, it may be broken but when resumed the same order must be continued, which is Aayambil for six days and fasting for one day, so on and so forth, till you reach Aayambil for 100 days and fasting for one day. To complete 100 Aayambils it takes thirteen and a half years, if done without a break. I am in my journey of the 11th Vardhaman Tap Oli.
Life is such an interesting teacher there are a kaleidoscope of lessons one learns. Some from community, some from family, some from friends, some from teachers, some from upbringing, some from travels and some from religion. Over the years it has been my personal conviction that many answers I seek about life and existence come to me from Jainism. One such lesson was that everyone comes with their own Karma but it is the choices that we make which define the course of our life. This was the primary reason behind the setting up of The Jain Foundation http://www.jainfoundation.in and bringing to the world Jainism’s ‘Values Worth Spreading’. A serious need of the hour to bring introspection to the world.
My personal experience has been that when faced with challenges its my Tapasya or fasting which has given me the strength and determination to face life. Where have you got yours from?
Opinions in this piece belong to the author: Ramesh Kumar Shah
Ramesh Kumar Shah is the founder of the RK Group, founder of RK Trust (rktrust.in) and co-founder of Harvard Business School Angels of India. Apart from being a businessman, he is keenly involved in making as much of a difference in people’s lives as he can, most recently through the Let’s Mask India initiative, that provides a free mask to all the residents of Bangalore.