Wisdoms for Obama on Diwali

AFP/GETTY IMAGES An Indian Sikh devotee lights oil lamps at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on Nov. 13, 2012, on … Continued


An Indian Sikh devotee lights oil lamps at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on Nov. 13, 2012, on the ocassion of Bandi Chhor Divas or Diwali. Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas or Diwali to mark the return of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, who was freed from imprisonment and also managed to release 52 political prisoners at the same time from Gwalior fort by Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1619.

Last year, with President Obama and this year with Vice President Joe Biden, I had the privilege to celebrate the festival of Diwali at the White House. Similarly, over a billion Hindus, Jains and Sikhs all over the world, 2 million of them in America, and one, astronaut Sunita Williams, in outer space celebrated this auspicious holiday. It is a tribute to the greatness of America’s leaders that festivals of minority faiths are so well respected.

My family belongs to the Jain community, which has over 100,000 followers in North America and 6 million in India. On Diwali day in 527 B.C., Lord Mahavira, a Jain spiritual leader, achieved nirvana by adhering to three core principles: nonviolence, non-absolutism and non-materialism.

One week after reelection, I wondered what wisdom Eastern traditions would have to offer to the president and vice president as they embark on the next four years of leadership.

View Photo Gallery: The holiday marks the victory of good over evil and commemorates the Hindu god Lord Rama’s victory over the demon-king Ravana.

The founding principle of Jain religion is nonviolence or ahimsa. With civil war raging in Syria, nuclear threats from Iran and terrorist suicide attacks in Afghanistan, the president needs to have a steady hand in balancing diplomacy over military might. Also, he needs to utilize more entrepreneurs, educators and thinkers rather than troops to midwife the transition of countries from dictatorship to democracy. But there is another form of violence that is being ignored. It is violence by humans towards the environment. Our hydrocarbon use is leading to global warming and its impact is being seen in part by the destructive powers of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. The president needs to use his leadership and his role as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to more strongly address all kinds of violence. If he does, he has the opportunity to be among the greatest leaders of modern times, in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. following the principle of nonviolence.

The second wisdom from Jainism is non-absolutism, which encourages us to be open-minded to the faiths, traditions and, yes, political views of others. While President Obama did win the electoral and the popular vote, he must remember that 59 million Americans voted against him. The Jain fable of six blind men and the elephant teaches us that no single person has the complete truth—rather truth only exists in our collective thinking. Just as President Obama was magnanimous in selecting his former Democratic Party primary rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his secretary of state, he may consider a role for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney or other Republicans for top administrative positions. With the demographic shift of large number of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans coming into the electorate, the president must also tap into these new voices as he shuffles his staffers and appointees.

The third wisdom Eastern religions offer is non-materialism. It may seem ironic that more spending by consumers leads to stronger economic growth, while Eastern principles teach us to be non-materialistic. I don’t see a conflict here. The principles tell us to use our resources efficiently and to share our wealth. Waste and greed for example, as it occurs in nearly 30 percent of health-care expenditures, hinders economic growth. With many European economies collapsing, with Chinese and Indian economies faltering, and with the American economy showing an anemic rebound, it is imperative to find innovative approaches to financial growth, compassionate budget cutting and employment opportunity for the poor. These fundamentals, rather than unbridled wealth and materialism for a few, need to guide our economic and budgetary decisions.

At the White House celebration, we enjoyed music, food and fun conversations. Yet, amid the festivities, it was important to remember the deep spiritual and philosophical message of nonviolence, non-absolutism and non-materialism that Diwali and Eastern religions offer to the citizens and the leaders of our country.

Dr. Manoj Jain 
is an infectious disease physician in Memphis and a writer whose writings have appeared in The Washington Post and theCommercial Appeal and the New York Times.

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  • PhillyJimi1

    Funny how well all this feel good stuff works in time of plenty. If humans run out of clean drinking water and food it only take a few days before we’re all killing each other.

    I do think the world could be a much better place but humans do share a common problem with the locusts. At some point we’re going to have too many people that the planet can’t support. The natural law of the jungle will kick in and cull the weakest and dumbest.

    So while you can fool yourself with fluffy feel good rhetoric, if you’re really out to preach a philosophical message of nonviolence, non-absolutism and non-materialism then you actually need to propose policies that promote real world actions that get these results. Good luck, because these kind of changes are going to have to swim against a massive rising tide flowing against them.

  • Amit Kumar

    Barack Obama is the epitome of development and goodness. He should be, as the world leader, more open to minority communities and help nations liike Israel and India fulfill their destiny. Non-violence and victory of good over evil are some great virtues thought by Diwali. I hope Obama got the message of Diwali!

  • Srimal

    How about stop eating beef? In one stroke you reduce green house, save water and save grain and lead to a healthier life? It takes between 6 to 13 lbs of feed and 2400 gallons of water to raise one pound of beef, 70% of worlds farm land are used to feed animals which are being raised for food. Bovine Flatulence accounts for 18% of world’s greenhouse gases — mor than all cars, planes and ships combined.

    Similarly a move towards “spiritual Entrepreneurship’ exemplified by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet — where they acted more like the custodian of communal wealth rather than superconsuming, greedy and selfish business persons — has the potential to lead towards a more equitable and peaceful society.
    So, this is no utopia or spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Many amerians are already following the old wisdoms in a modern setting.
    We need to introduce the concepts of non-violence and non-materialism in school and college level courses, we need to expose our students to the ways of responsible living.

  • Srimal

    “..70% of worlds farm land are used to feed animals which are being raised for food. ..” — sorry, it should read “raising animals for food uses 30% of world’s land mass” and “70% of all the grains produced in US are fed to farmed animals”. (from PETA website)

  • Hemant Vora

    It is indeed heartening to listen President Obama talk about Jaina -a religion giving teaching of friendship(Maitry bhavna) with all and enmity with none. If this principle is practiced in true sense by Obama administration, world will be a joyous worth living place with no wars any where on the earth!!

  • Hemant Vora

    It is indeed heartening to listen President Obama talk about Jaina -a religion giving teaching of friendship(Maitry bhavna) with all and enmity with none. If this principle is practiced in true sense by Obama administration, world will be a joyous worth living place with no wars any where on the earth!!

  • Kartik Zaveri

    Non-Violence in Jainism is more than just global and environmental violence. It is personal violence .

  • OPUS5

    Great article with sound advice for our country and community! If we all practice these kind of principles, it will bring more peace and harmony into our lives.

  • Nalin

    Dr. Manoj has correctly identified what is lacking in this world and what Jainism teaches. I wish President Obama takes the cue from this and implements policy where some of the Jainism principles can be implemented in saving our earth and resources.

  • comment_by_dhaval

    Good article on jainism. President needs to follow up with actions that reflect principles of jaininsm like more research on clean energy, put ban on assault weapons which allow mass violence and encourage poeple to give more money to charity by doubling tax deduction.

  • Yogesh – YJ

    Great thoughts by Dr. Jain presented in simplistic way. in my personal opinion today’s worlds really needs the mentioned three principles to be followed despite of the religion it is coming from. it is important for the TOP leaders in the world to understand and drive the way forward, develop next level of leadership to make this world a better place to live.

  • Ujwal Oswal

    Bring the world at peace. Believe in Ahimsa, nonviolence, non-materialism. I am proud of being born in a Jain family and following its teachings. Every religion in some way share the same message but its sad that not many people follow that. Even if every person in this world follow the teachings of their own religion, the world will be a better place to live. Our President Obama needs to carry this message.

  • OPUS5

    As an example of this philosophy translating into policy, think about this PhillyJimi1. if you slapped someone, you will always live in fear of being slapped back. This applies to provoking violence in wars where we don’t belong and what actions the country should take. The concept of “Live and Let Live” is very powerful and will bring much more peace.

  • Dr. MM

    Excellent article. I like the idea of the US exporting it’s great talent (entrepreneurs). The reason the US has done so well over the past 60 years is its entrepreneurial spirit. Americans know how to set up and scale businesses, these businesses grow and employ people. People with jobs have food. And people who have a full belly and stable economic situations are less likely to waste their time hating others and causing violence. The thing we need to make sure to do is make sure we don’t export American greed and materialism because again that is another form of violence which begets more violence.

  • Sandeep Chougule

    Excellent article. Like many faiths Jains do believe in love, peace and prosperity. The best thing about jainism is advice by teerthankaras to leave all the meterialistic possessions and achieve permanent peace and happiness. I know its difficult but we can at least leave our righteousness and develop strong sense of detachment. It definitely opens doors to inner peace and happiness.

  • Akshay Rudraksha

    Thanks Dr Manoi…
    Gr8 Article…

  • JS

    Glad to know Jainism getting some mainstream attention. I think it has much to offer in terms of wisdom & ways of living that jive a lot with secular concerns about sustainability, equity & fairness, that are going to be the overriding global concerns in the long-term.

  • SHAH 11


  • Dr. Surendra singhvi

    Dr manoj jain’ article on jain values is very interesting and appropriate to solve the present day problems such as fiscal cliff, and the Mideast conflicts, it is even more important for the president since he is the recipient. I am proud to be an American citizen because the country’leaders care for minorities such as the Jains who believe in the principle of non violence, which was used by Mahatma Gandhi, dr king and bishop Tutu to resolve the political conflicts in the world. of the Nobel Peace Prize if we can limit our desire and share our resources with needy people than the government would not have to spend money for food stamps and welfare activities. I commend dr Jain for his contribution to the leading newspapers around the world. I hope president and his team will understand and apply these values as we go forward in the second term of his regime. With best wishes for the holiday season and prosperity for the entire mankind regardless of fith, color gender .