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Ahimsa in the Small Things: A Jain College Student's Approach to Nonviolent Living

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By Hetali Lodaya

I have been up all night working on an assignment, I'm late for the first class of the day, and it is freezing outside. All I can think about is finding the shortest way across campus to get to class. I could take the long, meandering sidewalks, or I could make a beeline for the building across the newly grown grass.

I walk on the grass and tell myself: If it was warmer out, I would not have walked on the grass. It's too cold to take the long way.

There, I've said it - even though I have been taught better. Jainism teaches ahimsa, or compassion toward all living beings. Ahimsa means being compassionate toward not only other humans, pets, animals raised for meat, and endangered species, but also toward plants -- even toward a single blade of grass.

Avoiding the grass is something Jain monks and nuns are required to do, though, so why do I feel guilty about walking on the grass on my way to class? Even though such strict adherence to nonviolence is limited to monks, the Jain layperson is also encouraged to avoid small acts of violence. This allows us to be cognizant of our surroundings and the minor acts of violence we may commit each day.

This brings to mind the parable of the starfish on the beach. A man walking along a beach threw stranded starfish back into the ocean one at a time. Even if millions of starfish are left stranded, the impact on the ones the man saved is real. By having the self-control to respect the fact that there is life in a blade of grass and that there are bugs living among the grasses, we bring the practice of spirituality to the forefront of our minds. Wise spiritual choices about the small things make it easier to remember the same ideology when we have bigger decisions in life.

In other words, the devil is -- somewhat literally -- in the details.

But I am not a monk with lots of self-control. As a college student with deadlines and late nights, I know all too well how easy it is to take shortcuts. Knowing this, I've developed over time a deliberate approach to ahimsa in my day-to-day life. I try to shape my environment to be more ahimsic, so that it's easier to make the right choices.

I pack my lunch the night before so I am not tempted to try the soup that may have chicken stock or the cookie that may have eggs. As for walking on the grass, I have found a solution: biking. It gets me there quickly, avoids disturbing the grass and is environmentally friendly.

My path to spirituality is to hardwire the right choices into my life -- on purpose. And the right choice is the one which causes the least violence in the world.