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Diverse Ethics - Atul Shah - Wisdom Blog

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Visitors to the Jain Temple at Oshwal Centre, London, October 2016

We live in turbulent times. And the word in the media everywhere is immigration - often loaded with fear and anxiety. Also the focus is on big problems and big dangers, where the small and the local gets submerged or forgotten. But for all of us, life is about our everyday experiences and contacts with people, our relationships and our spirit. That is why we were truly touched and honoured to be invited by the Oshwal Association of the UK to experience the timeless Jain Ayambil festival on 14th October. I took a group of guests to experience this for the first time, and they cancelled and shifted their diaries to come and experience this unique event.

Building bridges between cultures is about experience and dialogue. Our guests included Dr. Hedley Swain, Director of Arts Council, Mr. Tony Fisher, Chair of Human Rights Committee in Law Society, Mr. Ajay Mehta, NHS Board member and social entrepreneur at Ki-Rin, Gloria Picton and Dr. Tom Vine from Suffolk Business School, Mr. Nelson Brunton from the Association of Natural Medicine and Dr. Prakash Shah, Reader in Law at Queen Mary College. We went to the Oshwal Centre in London on Friday 14th October 2016, and I gave a guided tour of the temple and its surroundings, explaining the history of the Oshwal community and the culture and values which they brought to these shores. We then attended the festive lunch, which was shared with the whole community, which comprised about 200 people, including nearly 50 volunteers. Home cooked fresh food was served to our guests with a big smile. They had the Ayambil food which was vegan, no spices and no oil, yet delicious in its variety and different tastes, and of course extremely healthy and invigorating. After lunch, we saw the kitchens where the food was cooked and then had a one hour dialogue about the whole experience and what it means in the work and life that we lead today.

Pictures of an earlier Ayambil lunch and the follow-up discussion held by visiting delegates about Jain culture and the importance of diversity in multi-cultural Britain

Here is the feedback we received from our visitors:

Museums were built when cultures had died. The Jains do not need a museum as their culture is alive, and the people are honest, authentic and truly generous and compassionate.

Dr. Hedley Swain, Director, Arts Council England

Thank you so much for arranging the day. I found it a very rich cultural experience which I will always remember. What we learn from such days only gradually emerges in my experience. Thanks also for the opportunity to meet many interesting people. 

Mr. Tony Fisher, Law Society

Such opportunities to discuss leadership and diversity in such a tranquil setting are truly rare. It was a great pleasure to meet such interesting and wonderful people and the hospitality of the Oshwal Community was really outstanding.

Ajay Mehta, Board Member, NHS and Director Ki-Rin

Although a member of the community and familiar with the Oshwal centre, the visit made me look at the community with fresh eyes and appreciate the perspectives of others about where we have been, where we are and where we're going. Thank you for linking us all up. 

Dr. Prakash Shah, Author of ‘Against Caste

An excellent and spell-binding experience of one of the most precious and timeless cultures of India. The community was truly warm and welcoming to all of us, and very generous with their hospitality.

Mr. Nelson Brunton, Association of Natural Medicine

What an inspiring culture and hospitable community. It was a rare treat to come to the Oshwal Centre and have this experience which we will remember forever.

Dr. Tom Vine and Gloria Picton, Suffolk Business School


On the day, I too felt very proud of the culture that I had inherited and its significant legacy for modern Britain, which needs to learn about everyday peace and compassion, charity and selflessness. Seeing the elderly people work so hard and selflessly to fast or to cook and serve the food was a rare miracle in modern London. Their spirits were pure and sublime, and their love and warmth was very touching. I cannot believe that I have inherited such a beautiful community for free.

The dialogue we had pointed to the importance of having such inter-cultural experiences, for leaders and opinion-makers to go beyond stereotypes to really experience the richness and complexity of diversity, and see the huge opportunity it brings for learning, growth and creativity. I admit that to organise and co-ordinate the visit was hard work given the demands of a busy academic job and a growing young family. All of us Jains should feel empowered to bring our friends, colleagues and neighbours in this way and have such uplifting dialogues, sharing our culture with them and learning from their comments and observations. Also it is important we attend their festivals and celebrations to enrich our lives.

In summary, all cultures are complex with different histories, beliefs and behaviours. Experience is a great educator, and allows cultures to speak for themselves especially during such festive occasions. Visitors then learn at many different levels, not just through words and explanations, but also by seeing the faces of the people they meet, the sculptures and the atmosphere, the foods and the hospitality. This experience would stay with them for a long time.

Dr. Prakash Shah’s latest book on Caste is a real wake-up call to the community as we are under threat by new legislation which has the potential to close down our temples and community centres. It is a totally unwelcome and prejudicial piece of legislation and like good quiet citizens, we are potentially sleep-walking into an abyss. Here is his LSE blog which is a real call to action.

Article added on 26th October 2016 at 10:54am