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25.4.14

KRYPTONITE AGAINST HOLINESS


REFLECTIONS ON AN INDIAN SAINT AND A MOBILE PHONE




A Revelation

One day my local research assistant wanted to take me for a ride in the countryside, away from my ethnographic fieldwork site, or what he saw as a too urban, too modernized and thus not ”real” India for an anthropologist. After a morning of rice paddy, keet huts and bumpy roads, we ended up in a small village where we were told a holy Jain nun was resting on her journey. According to the janitor of the village temple, the holy lady had abandoned her hectic middle-class life, and had chosen the life of an ascetic. We were told the nun was meditating but we could go watch her if we kept quiet.

Whispering and palms together in an Indian greeting we tiptoed into the Jain nun's room, and saw a middle-aged lady sitting on a small platform specially made for meditation. She was wearing a white cotton gown and a headscarf, the only clothes a Jain nun is allowed to own. Her eyes were closed peacefully and her legs crossed in a perfect lotus position. Her fingers kept working on a sacred Jain rosary as she sat otherwise like a statue emanating calmness. I felt like I was absorbing her over-flowing sacredness. I wanted to take a better look at her and shyly stepped a few meters closer. This article is inspired by what I saw next to the holy lady on the table.

A frigging cell phone! 

And not just any kind of cell phone, but a shiny new one with a large screen and all! Now I would like to reflect on my own astonishment at the Jain holy person’s cell phone. I would like to explore what holiness means and how it relates to modern machines and our modern materialism. I also want to ask what kind of social meaning the cell phone has in our minds if, at least in the western world-view, a Jain holy person should certainly not have a phone - or at least should keep it in her bag while meditating, for Christ’s sake!

Of Jainism and Asceticism

The holy lady was an ascetic, so when I got back to my semi-urban inauthentic Indian dwelling with fans, a fridge and running water, I wanted to find out more about asceticism. Where else was an anthropologist doing fieldwork in India to go other than Wikipedia? I clicked into a Wikipedia article about asceticism, and learned that the word itself comes from Greek meaning “exercise” or “training.” It sure is that. Particularly, when at the same time I noticed in my other browser window (where I had googled “Jainism”) that a Jain monk or nun has to pluck all his or her hair out, one by one, to show his or her devotion.

The article continued that asceticism is a “lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.” Then, a subchapter about Indian religions and asceticism mentioned that asceticism teaches one “salvation and liberation” from worldly matters and “involves a process of mind-body transformation affected by exercising restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind.” Yes, this was confirmed in my other browser window. But they didn’t say anything about cell phones. There had to be a rule against cell phones!

I googled further and landed on a website entitled “Jainism at a Glance”, where I was told that Jain monks and nuns, “stand aloof from worldly matters. […] and are (almost) completely without possessions". OK, almost can mean that mobile phones are allowed. The article continued that other “austerities include meditation” in difficult conditions such as “atop hills and mountains […] when the sun is at its fiercest. Such austerities are undertaken according to the physical and mental limits of the individual ascetic.”

The holy lady I saw was not one of the toughest because she was meditating inside a house. So, maybe she was flexible about gadgets too. Anyway, she seemed to be a holy person by the book, but still the fact that she had a cell phone bugged me. When I couldn’t find any more answers from Google, I turned to an organic source of information, my Indian assistant. When we were originally driving back from the nun’s village, I did not want to spoil his holy experience by asking him about the nun’s mobile phone. He didn’t talk about it either. But now I had to ask.

When I met my assistant the last time before I went back to Europe, I just asked outright: “You know, when we saw the Jain nun, did you notice she had a cell phone beside her? Did you find it at all funny?” He seemed slightly embarrassed by the question but started explaining, a bit too defensively for my taste, that it was “totally OK” if the nun used the phone. But it had to be for the “right purposes.” “You know,” he told me, “Jain holy men and women have to travel constantly, from one village to another, so a cell phone is a must. Everybody in India has a cell phone.” Then he quickly changed the subject.

As a side note I have to add that later my other research assistant from a Dalit village explained that obviously the nun had a fancy cell phone because Jains are so rich. Another local friend of mine agreed. She said “Well, Jains are rich. They can afford nice cell phones.” Neither of them saw any point in contemplating whether or not a holy person should actually have a phone in the first place.

I went back to my Internet articles and took a closer look. In the article about Jainism I came across more excuses for the nun as I found out that Jain monks and nuns have to obey only some basic rules to be considered holy. First they have to conquer their “lower nature” and practice non-violence. Then, they must never tell a lie or steal, and they must always lead a life of chastity and “renounce the pleasure in external objects.” So, in a way, she could after all use the phone if she didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t feel good about it, but after thinking about it for a moment I decided to let the nun off the hook. She remained holy in my eyes, although she could have been even holier without a phone.

But why on earth did I think like that? Why was the cell phone a profane, unholy element to me? A holy person carrying a cell phone was like superman carrying a piece of kryptonite. A cell phone takes away a holy person’s sacred superpowers, I thought. Funnily enough, I do not really even believe in holiness and I am in no way a religious person. Or am I? Perhaps I did have some faint hope that I could catch a glimpse of some holiness, some authentic element of the sacred in India, because I sure had not experienced any in my home country. So what was this holiness anyway? I had to go back to Google for answers.

What is holy and sacred?
To me, holiness was synonymous with sacred, and of sacredness there have been many analyses. One of the most influential explorations of sacredness was that of Mircea Eliade (1959). According to him, something that is sacred is the opposite of our ordinary, everyday life. The sacred also manifests itself as something “wholly different” and there is an “abyss that divides the two modalities of experience – sacred and profane […]” (ibid., 10-11). A-ha! So the nun was indeed supposed to be “wholly different” from everyday life (or was it holy different?), but the cell phone was everyday life. I knew there was a good reason for my astonishment!

I continued browsing about holiness and found an article on Jewish Magazine where rabbi Avi Lazerson explained that holiness in the case of persons means that they are set apart from worldly influences. Monks and nuns are that, often physically, as they live in isolation. In Hebrew, the rabbi tells us, “holy” translates as “kadusha” which, interestingly, is the word that “kadasha” – a prostitute – is derived from. “They both refer to something that is out of bounds of normalcy.” So a holy person is supposed to be separated from the world. A cell phone is not. It actually connects people with the world. That was my evidence number two.

Then I googled forward to the Journal of Consumer Research and an article (Belk et al. 1989) where Durkheim, Eliade and some other holy theorists were summarized. According to the analysis there are some rather universal properties of sacredness/holiness. It somehow manifests for us, it has great power, it contaminates (via blessings) and it is somehow connected to sacrifice (gifts, self-torture etc.) and commitment. Moreover, it entails ritual, requires myth and is to some extent shrouded in mystery.

I think all these things were true in the case of the Jain nun - all but the mystery. It was the unholy kryptonite-like cell phone that weakened the mystery. And that’s because the cell phone is a product of the West, it is modern, it is a gadget that everybody has. Holiness, on the other hand, is ancient and mysterious, and has been abandoned by the materialistic West. I wanted to take my mobile phone and send an SMS to the holy lady: “Dear nun, if you have a cell phone you are too western and we don’t regard you as holy anymore. Technology and holiness don’t mix, don’t you understand!”

Sure, nowadays in the West there are TV evangelists, virtual churches, downloadable Bibles, iPhone apps for finding the way to Mecca or a proverb from Jesus. However, these are a very recent phenomenon and “normal” western religions are quite Luddite, some more than others, like the Amish or Hutterites who avoid even zippers. And we want our religions to be Luddite. We in the West feel that religions belong to the past. Even if we believe in God, to us he is really dead, and any sign of holiness should at the same time be a sign of being ancient, a glimpse of old times, a faint voice from beyond the grave. But in a society like India where religion is strong, vital and closely involved in people’s everyday lives, it is allowed to be modern, to coexist with contemporary society and not be isolated in this time capsule where nothing modern can permeate. A strong and living religion is also a modern religion that allows modern technology.

Oops. How did this happen? Here I was defending the cell phone owning nun, who was probably playing Angry Birds while I typed.

Help from China and Religions and New Technologies

I had become too confused about the whole cell phone and nun issue, and to think straight I needed to extend my scholarly approach and go more deeply into the matter. Finally, I made a strategic decision. I googled “monk cell phone,” and hoped that I would be enlightened. To my surprise I landed on a China Daily article describing the modern lifestyle of Tibetan monks. The author described how the monks used cell phones and other gadgets, and they thought it was just fine. The article was written in an apparently neutral way but the political message was clear. How can these monks (and Tibet) be holy if they have all these gadgets? Moreover, to build a solid case against the false holiness of the monks, the author described how much money the monks made compared to local farmers and how,

[f]ortunately, a portable DVD player that supports cable TV functions and a mobile phone has enabled the 40-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk to keep updated with the ever-changing world.

The author quoted the deputy head of the executive committee of a monastery saying "in Tibetan, the word 'monastery' means a remote and unworldly place, but the trend of modernization is irresistible.” The article went on:

During break time from studying and debating scriptures, monks take out their cell phones from cassocks to call friends. Some wealthy monks have purchased digital cameras, computers and even cars. […] At least 70 per cent of monks in the monastery have a cell phone, and many of them are able to surf the Internet in their dorms […]. “There is nothing wrong if monks lead a well-off life. Being a monk does not mean life-long self-torture," the deputy head said in response to criticisms over the monks' modern lifestyle.

The author, most likely a proponent of socialist and atheist People’s China and Chinese Tibet, cleverly did not criticize the holy lifestyle himself but let his subjects condemn themselves. Or if not outright condemn, then profanise themselves. Fortunately, my Jain nun had only a cell phone, not a DVD-player or a laptop. But after reading the article I realized that cell phones were seen as kryptonite against holiness not only in the West but in the East too.

I realized that modern technology usually makes life easier, and as a mobile phone is almost a cybernetic part of a person, it associates the person with ease - which is something we don’t want from a holy person. An ascetic should struggle. Sure, the holy lady can borrow someone’s cell phone, but she can’t have one on her. I might have been less judgemental if she had had a very old mobile phone, a plain one with a small, fuzzy screen. I wouldn’t have objected to her using a landline for urgent messages, having a paper calendar, using a public telegraph or having an alarm clock (if it was the wind-up sort), or even a map. But when these functions converge into a single unit that is the product of the latest technology - and makes life easier - I object: I don’t want anything modern on a holy person.

Was she making just quick calls or wasting time gossiping with her relatives and friends? Did she use emoticons while texting? Even abbreviations such as “CU ltr" or “OMG almost 4got 2 meditate 2day!”? The more I imagined the holy lady texting away, the more I wanted “the Oriental mystic” to remain in those nostalgic ancient times, when modern technology, which I associate with western society, was absent (cf. Said 1995). This is what I wanted because in my country there are just a dozen or so monks and I never saw them, but I had to go see The Matrix or an Umberto Eco’s filmatisation to see one. My archetypal monk or nun was surrounded by romantic imagery.

Final Word

Time passed and I left India. I even came to terms with my nostalgic Orientalism imprisoning holy Asians in a gadgetless state of being. I had forgiven the nun for having such a nice phone, and had arrived at the conclusion that it was just my unreasonable sacred/profane dichotomic worldview that abhorred (holy) people with (material) cell phones. Then, while surfing the net, I happened to come across a website describing Jain monk life. There it was, the final blow, the unforgivable online fact: “[The Jain monks] do not use electricity as it involves violence. Furthermore, they do not use any devices or machines.” And the same must go for nuns.

Busted! 

Unless the nun belonged to some special branch of Jainism that my trusted Wikipedia did not know about or even Google couldn’t monitor, the phone to me as well as to Jains themselves was a profane object in the holy picture. The lady, after all, was a bad nun for owning one. I knew it! I felt I should take the first flight back to India, go see the lady again, get hold of her phone and wave it in front of her face saying: “You shouldn’t have this, you know! I bet you have some cash stashed in your bag too and you’re eating bacon when no-one is looking, huh?!”

But I didn’t. After going through my fantasy monologue a few times, I calmed down and started to think things over. If a Jain nun was not allowed to use a phone, what an important machine it must be. Imagine a devoted spiritual person who abandons her materially abundant lifestyle, gives everything away, starts plucking all her hair out instead of going to the hairdresser… She does all this for her religion but is ready to put the whole enterprise at risk for the sake of a cell phone. No wonder everybody has one!


Sources

Eliade, Micrea 1959: The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. Belk, Russel W., Melanie Wallendorf & John F. Sherry Jr. 1989: The Sacred and the Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey. Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (1): 1-38. Said, Edward 1995 [1978]: Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books.


This text is a modified version of a paper presented at the Digital Religion conference in Turku, Finland in 2012.

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