What should one’s ultimate goal in this universe be? What can allow one to say that he or she has led a fulfilling life? In the 21st century, when life is so fast-paced, thinking and pondering about big topics such as fulfillment has become a luxury that many of us cannot afford. I am grateful to say that throughout the thirteen years I have been on this planet, I have acquired two points of view on the subject. I have been able to form my own perspective on which is the best of two extremes. In the 21st century, the pursuit of success and ultimately wealth is something I gravitate towards. Being able to fulfill all of my whims and fancies whenever and wherever I want to doesn't sound all that bad. On the other hand, Jainism, the faith/ethnic culture I follow, is based on the single principle of non-violence towards even the most minuscule forms of life. Being able to make one's own journey on this path of non-violence leads to a fulfilling Jain life. But that can get tricky, as doing even the simplest of things, like breathing, can kill thousands of microbes. Having a real fulfilling Jain life (one of severe penance and austerity) directly contradicts modern culture. Which begs the question: Which one is my idea of a fulfilling and satisfactory life? The answer isn't that simple.
Jainism, dating back to 3000 BC, has been a part of my life and influenced my perspective on fulfillment. Jainism stems from the sanskrit word Jin, which means “the conqueror.” Jains believe that one’s soul is trapped in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth called samsara. A jain’s aim is said to be to follow the path of liberation set by the 24 tirthankaras (the 24 humans that have achieved liberation from samsara in the present time) by following the three main virtues: samyak darshan (right perception), samyak jnan (right knowledge), and samyak charitra (right actions). Once a human successfully possesses all three virtues, only then can he attain liberation and “be victorious” against worldly attachment (thus, the context of Jin’s meaning). Usually this path of attainment is steeped in deep asceticism, fasting, and renouncing of worldly attachment. One who follows this path is called a maharaj, meaning king, which again connects back to the idea of being victorious against worldly desires. Mahaveera (also known as Vardhaman), the most prominent of all 24 tirthankaras, is a role model and is considered the greatest man on this path. Some of the most important religious scriptures from Jainism, like the Agam Sutra(s), are oral records and transcriptions of his teachings. Mahaveera stood for all the virtues of Jainism, like ahimsa (non-violence), brahmacharya (celibacy/chastity/continence), satya (truth), and so on. He was the biggest role model and one of the most prominent figures that spread the word of Jainism about 500 years ago, as per the records.
But as you can imagine, leading a life like Mahaveera’s is not possible for everyone. Many cannot adhere to a life of severe penance and austerity, not just in today’s time, but in earlier times, too. Thus, small steps are taken by Jains to attain good karma (punya) and to get rid of bad karma (paap) already attained from previous actions. Getting rid of all karma is the eventual goal. To follow ahimsa, one must have a deep reverence for all living beings, no matter how small. There are various actions taken by people who are unable to follow the life of a Jain maharaj, such as being vegetarian or not eating food which contains a plethora of microscopic organisms (like potatoes, onions, and garlic). For all Jains, the ultimate goal or satisfaction is to be liberated from this cycle of life and death, which can only be done through this rigorous form of penance and austerity.
For me, the extreme side of Jainism is mostly about the unknown, and thus I can’t bring myself to submit to it. No one knows what attaining a higher consciousness means for a normal human. No one knows if you can become enlightened. No one knows what happens if you become enlightened. But things that I do understand, like the idea of ahimsa and being respectful to all creatures, I can align to. Thus I can say that following a life of ahimsa to the best of my capabilities can be part of my idea of a fulfilling life.
As I said, my perspective of a fulfilling life is a blend of different points of view. The other perception is the general idea that the 21st century world has of fulfillment. The so-called materialistic culture of this century often has a negative connotation. As an eighth grade student, heavily influenced by modern culture, I feel that material success, and inadvertently money, does play a big role in a fulfilling life. No matter how much we say that knowledge and understanding hold more value than money, in the end, we would all miss a day of school if it made us billionaires. Today, when everyone is in a race to the top, I feel that leading a fulfilling life would also entail earning money, fame, and influence in your career or passion. Putting in effort for yourself and being successful economically allows you to live a luxurious life and treat yourself to different experiences. Everyone has bucket lists and wants to do certain things that give them pleasure before they leave the world. Often, they are worldly goals, such as visiting a new place in the world, going on adventurous trips, trying various different cuisines, and so on. All of these things are only possible if one is economically successful and is not limited by adhering to rules that prohibit worldly pleasures. These “worldly” pleasures, and not just idealistic pleasures like acquiring greater knowledge, can also make a life fulfilling. In the end, you are satisfied because of something that you achieved. So in my perspective, worldly possessions and experiences, though temporary, can still make a life fulfilling.
So when making important life decisions like my eating habits, I look at both sides. On one side, eating meat would allow me to try something new and treat myself, but at the cost of another animal’s life. I feel that this certain pleasure is insignificant compared to the immense suffering of another animal. Thus, I decide not to eat meat, following ahimsa. But I do eat root vegetables despite the amount of microscopic organisms that they contain, as I know I’m striking a balance and am not making a decision that I wouldn’t be able to uphold. I truly do enjoy that worldly pleasure of eating carrots, onions, and garlic, and, for me, the pros outweigh the cons.
This debate doesn't just affect some of the biggest decisions of my life, but even smaller ones. A trivial annual topic in our household, often resulting in heated debates, revolves around how to spend our Diwali vacation. Diwali, a cultural holiday celebrated by most Indians, has a religious overtone in Jainism. It was seen as a time to connect with god by going on pilgrimages, often in remote areas with minimal lodging provisions. Now Diwali has become a mini summer break, where staying in fancy resorts and partying has become the norm. On one hand, I want to enjoy my vacation by having a comfy stay in a nice resort, but I also don't want to feel guilty of not honouring the religious holiday. So we usually strike a balance by going on a trip to some resort within India so we can devote some time on the fourth and main day of Diwali to a religious ritual, in which a nirvana ladoo (dried coconut) is offered to idols to commemorate Lord Mahaveera's attainment of nirvana (liberation from the cycle of life and death). Whenever making any decision in my life, big or small, I constantly look at it from both these perspectives to ensure that, at the end of my life, I feel satisfied and not as if I missed out on something or have any regrets.
Becoming knowledgeable and learning more is necessary for my fulfillment, but so is earning money and success in my career or passion so I can have all the experiences I dream of. For me, fulfillment is a blend of all I have learned. It does not entail a blatant disregard of either of these perspectives. I don’t feel that being extreme would be helpful. Being in the middle and taking points from both sides is what helps us build perspective. Be it politics, technology, or even the lively debate of what defines a fulfilling life.
Kushan Mehta is an eighth grader at The Riverside School in India. He enjoys technology, language, design, and music. He has published numerous articles and short stories in online magazines, newspapers, and novels. Kushan tries to fade the lines between the two countries he has been tied to — the United States and India — and hopes to write his own novel one day, too.
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