Overview:

The daughter of Jain parents, who says she's becoming a nun, had her hair ripped off to prove she's indifferent to pain.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In a truly disturbing video circulating online, an eight-year-old girl from India is seen having her hair ripped off, clump by clump, strand by strand, as a way to prove she’s indifferent to pain. It’s part of a Jain religious ritual that marks her entry into the priesthood.

I repeat: She’s eight and entering the priesthood and participating in a ritual that is painful to even watch.

This video is not for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned. If you don’t want to watch it, that’s fine. Just skip to the next bit.

The girl, Aangi Bagrech, is part of the Jain religion (which also happens to be the religion in which I was born). As the story goes, she began studying the faith during the pandemic after being inspired by her aunt. Now she’s taking it to the next level by becoming a nun. That means taking a vow known as diksha, giving up worldly possessions, including her family, and living, essentially, as a nomad, never staying in any one place for more than a couple of weeks. Different families offer to take in the nuns at their homes for short periods of time.

What does her family think about all this? They’re egging her on, speaking about her “decision” with pride:

Aangi’s father Dinesh said: “She was tested by her gurus and they found her eligible to become a monk. She spent nearly two years with monks and will now live her life in monkhood.

“She refused mobile phone, precious gifts and clothes. She sat on a nine-day fast with a demand for diksha, about five months ago.

“My aunt took diksha in the past and she is the inspiration for Aangi. My entire family feels proud that a girl from our family is renouncing the materialistic world.

It should go without saying that this is batshit crazy.

No child should be making a lifelong decision about faith, and no family should be encouraging it. And yet a lot of news coverage treats most of this as perfectly normal. The hair-ripping ritual (known as kaya klesh) might be bizarre, but there’s considerably less outrage about the nine-day fast or the fact that a child has committed to becoming a nun.

The Times of India, for example, rehashed the family’s biography, but only highlighted the support she was receiving. This is how they framed her decision:

… On Sunday, the girl from Ahmedabad will renounce the materialistic world and walk the path of monkhood at a ceremony in Surat. She is believed to be one of the youngest to take diksha.

Aangi has studied up to Class 2. She started living with Jain monks during the Covid-induced lockdown when her school remained closed. During this period, Aangi was inspired by the disciplined lifestyle of monks who lead a life within a set of strict rules and principles.

There’s no statement from anyone criticizing this move.

What’s especially disturbing about this whole charade is that Jainism is widely considered one of the least problematic religions in the world. It preaches non-violence (ahimsa), non-possessiveness, and the value of truth. As Sam Harris wrote years ago in The End of Faith, “A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely.”

He was wrong. “Extreme” Jainism can indeed be harmful, if not to the rest of the world, then at least to its most devout adherents. A few years ago, it was reported that a 13-year-old Jain girl died after fasting for 68 days. She had allegedly completed a 41-day fast prior to that. While I can’t verify those details, and while they strike me as anomalies even within the Jain world, no doubt fasting at a young age (which is widely encouraged in Jain communities) can wreak enormous damage on a child’s body.

At least in my own circles, people fast (or just eat once a day) fairly often. During the holy period, many people go more than a week without real food. These are not monks and nuns, either; these are just standard believers. The thinking is that fasting purifies your body and mind. I suppose there’s a grim truth to that; when you’re dead, there’s nothing corrupting either one.

It’s very ironic that a religion known for not killing animals would inflict such cruelty upon a child.

Also left unsaid is how this child is choosing a religious path for life… and no one seems willing to admit how utterly insane that is. She’s eight! Just because she’s willing to let go of her phone doesn’t mean she’s capable of letting go of everything else. There’s absolutely no reason she can’t explore Jainism for years to come before making a better-informed decision later in life.

If her family announced she was getting married, it would rightly be seen as outrageous. But when she announces she’s becoming a nun, everyone’s just fine with it?!

It’s not just a theoretical decision, either. Plucking out her hair as a way to prove she’s not bothered by physical pain is a form of torture. That’s all this ritual is about. It’s about creating an unnecessarily painful situation that people are just supposed to accept. It’s a Jackass stunt with holy approval. Just because it’s occurring in a faith-based context doesn’t make it any more reasonable. Religious delusions are still delusions.

It’s deeply unethical for her family, friends, and religious leaders to go along with this abuse. Yet instead of them being punished for this, they’re holding a religious ceremony in her honor. There’s nothing admirable about a child who’s convinced she’s making the right decision because no one in her life has the courage to pull her away from it.

It’s one thing to raise a child with Jain principles. But when those values lead to making irrational decisions that will affect her life, responsible adults need to step in and help her. The fact that that hasn’t happened says a lot about the power of religion—any religion—to warp people’s ethics.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.