Throughout the coronavirus stay-at-home social distancing restrictions, technology has been a beacon for faith groups. With the UK government easing some of the lockdown rules to allow religious institutions to open up for private prayer, 'iGlobal' speaks to the Oshwal Association UK (OAUK) as part of a regular FaithTech Series.
Established in 1968, the OAUK is the largest Jain organisation in the UK. In 1974, it registered as a charity and has gone on to become known for its charitable work, raising funds for animal welfare, education, and healthcare for those in need.
The Paryushana Mahapavra, which falls in mid-August, marks one of the most important festivals in the Jain calendar over eight days as a time for self-analysis and soul searching.
Whilst the festival would have usually been celebrated by visiting the temple and participating in aartis, rituals, and listening to discourses, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant a complete overhaul of the festivities.
“This year's celebration of Paryushana will take a virtual face: darshan, puja, and aarti will be conducted physically by the temple priest, which will then be webcast live to viewers at home. Throughout the eight days, the resident priest will facilitate discourses, these are topics are decided by the priest himself,” says Kaushik Shah, OAUK Vice President.
Part of the Paryushana festival includes Pratikraman, an important and profound ritual. The meaning of Pratikraman is “going back”, and in Jainism refers to the soul going back to the path of purification. The process involves seeking repentance for one's sins and forgiveness from all livings beings for any harm caused, knowingly or unknowingly, through thoughts, speech, or action. This journey of self-discovery, and reflection on the importance of Jainism in today's changing world, will be conducted via Zoom allowing people to participate from the safety of their home.
Keeping the young both entertained and in touch with the spiritual foundations of Jainism, 'The Art of Being Thankful' is a seven-day virtual class for Paryushana, facilitated by the SCVP Jain School in the UK. The classes, designed for 5 to 7 year olds and 8 to 10 year olds, touch upon learning about why forgiveness is important, values that make one happy, and thanking the environment and nature.
In mid-June, the UK government permitted religious places of worship to re-open for individual prayer in line with social distancing guidelines.
On the decision to re-open the temple, Kaushik explains: "Only a limited amount of people are allowed to enter into the temple. We have placed a system whereby four or five members of a family can enter to pray and leave; no other ritual can be carried out unless the resident priest is doing so himself.”
As part of reducing the risk of contamination, hand sanitisers are widely provided and the temple has recently been refurbished to ensure there is space, whilst washbasins are available outside every door.
“With the Oshwal Centre, we are planning to open up slowly, as the guidance isn't very clearly based on the capacity. Typically, our capacity is 400 people but with social distancing, we are trying to figure out how we can get people to come to the centre as we are also losing money,” explains Kaushik.
With the wedding season approaching, changes will mean 10 to 15 per cent of the normal capacity the centre can normally hold, with a possible maximum of 100 people.
Throughout the lockdown period, the OAUK said it has been running a number of online activities to keep the community engaged - spiritually, mentally, and physically.
Its cooking club, which has proved a hit among its participants, involves making exciting new dishes every week - covering healthy easy Jain vegan meals and Middle Eastern and gourmet Thai feasts. Keeping the elderly and youngsters engaged, a variety of Yoga sessions have been held throughout the lockdown period. Most recently, certified Laughter Yoga practitioner Kalpana Doshi facilitated a virtual Laughter Yoga Zoom class with guided meditation and breathing exercises.
Both throughout the lockdown and as the country eases out of quarantine, the focus on mental health has been a crucial factor.
“We held a virtual discussion on mental wellbeing, which was not affiliated with Jainism but was more general so it could appeal to the masses. Other discussions given was on physio, a webinar on coronavirus and we also facilitated a session on job searching, where we had three young recruiters joining us offering tips to those who have just left university and those who have found themselves without a job, on how to navigate their search for a job during these unprecedented times,” says Kaushik.
And last week, the OAUK ran an art therapy class through Mandala Art online session with Akshita Gandhi, an international artist and philanthropist based in Mumbai. Mandala is an abstract design made of geometric compositions created on the base of a circle. The session aimed to help participants relax, de-stress, reconnect with themselves and, most importantly, to get in touch with the emotions lingering in the subconscious state.
With sewa being an important part of the Jain faith, OAUK volunteers kept busy through the lockdown period delivering thousands of meals to hospitals and the elderly and vulnerable.
“The main principle in Jainism is reverence for life and compassion and on that principle, we do not discriminate, we delivered to people of different faiths and to anyone who needed our services,” says Kaushik.
Also making use of their artistic talents are members of the Ekta Arts Club, who have been busy designing special fidget cushions and mits for dementia patients in nursing homes.
Therefore it is quite clear that while technology may have its pros as well as cons, for many faith groups it has proved a saviour through the current uncertain times.
by Preeti Bali