Mikal Austin Radford: How the Humanities Made Me Human

My mother told me that when I was a young child I used to explore the streets of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia looking for religious buildings such as churches, synagogues and the like. As she would tell me, she would often get phone calls from a reverend, rabbi or priest – I was taught at a very early age to remember my phone number – “Could you please come and get your child? He’s been here for quite a while, he’s asking too many questions about what I do, and I have to get back to work.” I was an unusual child. Yet, for some strange reason, these early adventures certainly laid the foundation for my academic pursuits later in life.

After fifteen years of covering local sports and politics in the newspaper business, I was given a chance to leave the industry, go back to university, and finish my B.A. (hey, education truly never stops). Wilfrid Laurier University had just started a new Religion and Culture program, and for some strange reason (perhaps those childhood visitations?) I thought the program was a perfect fit.

Radford photo

The author, ready for enlightenment. Photo: Mikal Radford

Interestingly, many of my friends mocked me at the time, and asked what type of future I was expecting by pursuing the study of religion. I’m not sure where they got the idea, but they all thought I was either going to be a priest, or more negatively, pumping gas or cooking fries for the rest of my life. Ironically, most of them thought the latter. It never occurred to them that I wanted to pursue an education for the sake of education alone. What can I say? For them, it was all end and no journey.

It was during a two-semester ‘Death and Dying’ course that I was exposed to Emile Durkheim’s tome, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. He included several examples of eastern religious rituals to support his study of what he defined as suicide (N.B. Most of these description appeared to be couched in a negative tone, and definitely from a westernized perspective – thanks Professor Said!). But what got my curiosity a-bubblin’ was his inclusion of the ritual of sallekhana – the Jaina ritual of fasting to death. Durkheim’s tenor about these ‘religious suicides’ and my curiosity about this little-known South Asian religious tradition spurned me to ask my undergraduate thesis supervisor, “Could I try to contradict Durkheim’s theory using a deeper exploration of his example of Sallekhana?” She gave me ‘two thumbs-up,’ and the rest is history. I graduated with distinction, my thesis was published, and I discovered that there was a large Jain community in North America.

For my Masters’ thesis, I took a different path and decided to do a textual study of the Acts of Thomas and included an historical study of the early Christian community in India (the one that predates the arrival of the first Europeans); however, I still kept a close contact with the Jain community in North America. Many had read my publication, and they often asked me to attend various functions to chat, or give a talk, or lead a discussion (particularly with the Jain youth, most of who were born here and not in India or South Africa). What I found particularly interesting was their lack of spiritual ‘professionals’ in North America. That is, unlike most other transnational/ migrant communities in the world, the Jain communities in North America and Europe are entirely lay-communities – there are no priests, nuns or monks.

Now, perhaps I should take a step back for a moment and take you back to the ritual of sallekhana. This ritual is very complex in its nature, and is very closely intertwined with the Jaina principle of karma (cause and affect) and non-violence, ahimsa. That is, according to Jaina logic (not Durkheim’s) if one fasts to death, then one is doing no harm to any living being (including the self) through the act of consumption or the acts of desire. In theory: “We don’t eat or drink, we don’t kill any living beings; we don’t kill any living beings, we don’t have the bad consequences of karma; we don’t have the bad consequences of karma, we gain cosmic liberation.” The ritual of sallekhana is the ultimate cessation of all violence.

Here’s the tricky part, and this is what led me to my Ph.D. work. The Jains have always had a very close connection to their spiritual gurus (teachers), the monks and nuns of the community. The laity provide the necessities of these living icons of the religious tradition (usually through the begging/gifting process), and the monks and nuns teach the laity the path to spiritual liberation — and what better example of ahimsa than through the ritual of sallekhana (usually, but not always, performed by nuns and monks). The principles and practice of ahimsa can follow a very strict path indeed. You can’t ride in a bullock cart or take a car, you may hurt an animal or insect on the road. You can’t take a train, you may hit something on the track. You can’t take a boat, you may hit a fish or whale. You can’t fly in an airplane, you may hit a bird in flight or many of the other air beings in the Jain animal lexicon. And, of course, the constraints on foods that can be consumed (for those who do choose to eat at all) are incredibly complex. The long and short of this: Nuns and monks of the Jaina traditions can travel no greater distance than they can walk. There are no Jain monks or nuns in North America to fulfil the role of spiritual teachers. As such, in North America, it appears that there is a breakdown of the traditional inter-dependence within the Jain community.

Twenty years ago, I first started to look at this unusual religious phenomenon/paradox within the North American Jain community and have since published the results of most of that work (no need for a spoiler alert here — you’ll just have to read the works). And despite where my curiosity leads me (currently: A study of death sites and rituals around the Mediterranean basin), my deep relationship with this community still continues — I still contribute to their local projects whenever I can (e.g., Jain retreats, Jain publications, Jain ‘talks’), and have also been asked by leading academics to contribute to a Jain encyclopedia by Brill Publishers (due September, 2017). The reality is that I’m still learning about Jainism, and more amazingly, they’re still willing to teach me about it (They’re a patient lot!).

Postscript: When I first started to teach my courses in Religion and Culture at Sheridan I was given an interesting query by one of my students: “Why does someone do research in the Humanities? What is the motivation? What is the purpose of it?”

I’m not quite sure if this inquiry was directed at the general academic field, to me personally, or whether it was a more local question concerning the necessity of taking an elective; whatever its nature, it was (and still is) a good question. After all, as most of us in ‘the field’ know too well, it produces little in the way of financial compensation, and certainly falls short of creating ‘rock-star’ fame. I’d like to think that we pursue the Humanities to study all those things that make us human: The paths of history and social activity; the marvels (and sometimes ‘dead-ends’) of the human endeavor; to bear witness to the great unfolding of the human story, its creativity and all its marvelous possibilities. So to those who ask “why?,” I respond: “The motivation: Curiosity. The purpose: To seek understanding. And I think it’s curiosity that is the more important of the two. Always be curious.”