Article: Ahimsa Day

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Ahimsa Day was invented by the British Jain diaspora and has been celebrated annually in London since 2002. Created to underline the universality of Jainism and to publicly identify it with the concept of non-violence, Ahiṃsā Day is marked by all Jains in the United Kingdom, though it is not officially recognised. It is added to traditional Jain religious festivals and is a new sign of the Jain presence in the UK.

Background to a new festival

British Jain citizens started coming to the UK in the 1970s, chiefly from Kenya and Uganda. The racial policies recently adopted in those countries led to the expulsion of the Indians who had settled there, many of whom had to leave with almost nothing. The first concern of many was to keep to the Indian traditional way of life – especially in the matters of food and marriage customs – they had preserved in Africa. As far as festivals were concerned, they celebrated Dīvālī like all Indians settled in the UK. Some Jains also celebrated Paryuṣaṇ, first privately then in communal gatherings (Banks 1992).

The multiculturalist policies of the British government have encouraged ethnic and religious minorities to claim their identities as communities. Jains slowly became part of this trend as well. They developed community organisations for encouraging Jain religious practice and managed to arrange places for public worship. In addition, organisations such as the Institute of Jainology were created to assert the Jain presence beyond the Jain community itself. Its existence states that Jainism has something to say to non-Jains and that its values and heritage make it a faith as important as any other.

Features of Ahimsa Day

The 2009 Ahimsa Day at the House of Commons, London. A non-sectarian annual event, Ahimsa Day asserts the presence of the British Jain community and highlights Jain values. The Ahimsa Award for promoting Jain values is also presented at this event.

Ahimsa Day 2009
Image by Ravin Mehta © Ravin Mehta

The annual Ahimsa Day spreads messages about the principles and history of Jain faith and the public visibility of the Jain community in the UK in several ways.

Firstly, its name emphasises the cardinal value for which Jainism is known all over the world – non-violence or ahiṃsā.

Secondly, it is not celebrated in a religious place but usually takes place in the House of Commons in London. The event involves Members of Parliament with large Jain communities in their constituencies. This underlines the recognition of Jainism as a faith by the British political establishment and the desire of the Jain community to reach non-Jains.

In its previous celebrations Ahimsa Day sometimes displayed a religious aspect, with Jain samaṇīs reciting the Panca-namaskāra-mantra. But this is not a routine element of the day, which is not a religious festival as such. It does not involve any ritual and is more like a meeting. During this non-sectarian event, which generally lasts for a few hours, invited speakers deliver speeches. They are generally social activists, people working in the field of education and Members of Parliament.

The speakers usually cover the concept of non-violence in general or discuss their own activities, showing how they are relevant to the development of non-violence. In 2010, for instance, an educationist showed how education and knowledge are crucial in increasing non-violence among individuals, since violence is often the result of envy and poverty.

Although the audience is mostly made up of British Jains who live in London, Members of Parliament often attend at least part of it. Reports occasionally appear in the Asian press.

Finally, Ahimsa Day takes place in October. As with traditional Jain festivals, its date is not fixed precisely. Traditionally, the dates of Indian festivals are determined by astrological considerations and the lunar calendar.

However, choosing October in which to hold this annual event has two main motivations. Ahimsa Day falls between the two most significant Jain festivals at this time of year – the Śvetāmbara festival of Paryuṣaṇ and Jain Dīvālī – and thus bridges the gap between them. Secondly, Ahimsa Day is celebrated near the 2nd October. This is the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, who embodies the concept of non-violence in modern India, and is a national holiday in India. Holding Ahimsa Day close to this day stresses both the principle of non-violence that gives the event its title and the Indian origins of the Jain religion.

Ahimsa Award

The Dalai Lama accepts his Ahimsa Award 2007 from directors of the Institute of Jainology in London.

Dalai Lama receives his Ahimsa Award
Image by Institute of Jainology © Institute of Jainology

Each year the Ahimsa Award is given to someone who has spread knowledge of Jainism or promoted Jain principles such as non-violence.

Past recipients of the award are listed in this table.

Ahimsa Award winners

Year

Recipient

2006

Nelson Mandela

2007

Dalai Lama

2008

Acharya Mahapragyaji

2009

Padmanabh Jaini

2010

Nalini Balbir

2011

Nitin Mehta

2012

Scott Neeson

2013

Melanie Joy

2014

Ingrid Newkirk

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