By: Monika Kothari
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for The Good Place, the television series starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson as denizens of a utopian afterlife. (But to be clear, if you haven’t been watching the show, at this point you have no one to blame but yourself.) The basic gist is that Ted Danson is a demon masquerading as a celestial being who constructs an illusory paradise called the “Good Place” in which la crème de la crème of humanity enjoys eternal bliss in the form of infinite quantities frozen yoghurt, among other things. But the big reveal at the end of Season 1 is that the humans, including Kristen Bell, are actually in the “Bad Place” and have been, in effect, psychologically torturing each other à la No Exit for the entire season.
An NBC sitcom is perhaps an unusual source to mine for lessons about Jainism. But the show has a surprisingly deep cosmology and devotes significant screen time to examining how Enlightenment concepts of ethics play out on a cosmic scale. In subsequent seasons, the writers zero in on the process of sorting souls into the Good Place and the Bad Place. These decisions are based on a “points system” that parodies popular notions of how karma works. Cosmic accountants examine each action a human takes and assign “points” according to how good or bad the deed is. After the human dies, the points are tallied, and the total determines whether her eternal fate is in the Good Place or the Bad Place.
We eventually learn that there is a significant flaw in the system: no one has accumulated enough points to be admitted to the Good Place in hundreds of years. The reason is that the increasingly complex and interconnected nature of the modern global economy essentially prevents any individual from earning a spot in the Good Place ever again. As one of the characters explains: “Just buying a tomato at the grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.” Or, as another character states more simply: “Earth is a mess, y’all.” There is no realistic way to opt out of these tangled social and economic webs without going to extreme, and often counterproductive, lengths. Even the person in the show whose understanding of the universe comes closest to Jainism — and who goes out of his way to protect snails from being trod upon — is doomed to a miserable afterlife in the Bad Place. Every “good” choice creates a chain reaction of harmful repercussions: life on earth has become too complicated and fraught with moral peril to avoid those results.
One of the questions presented by this “points” system is whether one’s karma is ultimately linked to intentions or consequences. Indeed, Jainism suggests that the answer is both: thoughts and motivations matter, as do the emotional, financial, and environmental ramifications of our actions. But where does this leave us from a practical standpoint? Jainism is an ancient religion that arose when most of the milk a person consumed was produced by her family cow, and the most she would ever see of the world were the surrounds of her village, reachable by foot. Today, most of the milk we consume is produced on inhumane factory farms, in which cows are pumped with hormones, repeatedly impregnated and separated from their calves, and ultimately slaughtered when deemed to have outlived their purpose. Today, we cross cities, countries, and continents, in automobiles and airplanes, unleashing greenhouse gases, and depend on oil and gas pumped from underground wells that poison our air and water. The list goes on. Our clothes are no longer homespun, but sewn by Bangladeshi child laborers in horrifically dangerous conditions. Our food is no longer grown on small family plots, but on corporate mega-farms, picked and packaged by underpaid undocumented workers.
How do we, as Jains, live our values under such conditions — the conditions imposed by a modern, global economy? It is worth noting that many of these developments, and the attendant moral complexities, are product of celebrated political and technological advancements. Increased access to food, water, electricity, healthcare, housing, education, and transportation have lifted millions out of poverty, and allow us to have a quality of life (indoor plumbing! air travel! avocados!) that far exceeds that of even King Louis XVI. Perhaps the only morally correct answer is to go off the grid and become a vegan (but not the kind that drinks almond milk), a subsistence farmer (but not the kind that uses pesticides), a hermit, a monk. Or perhaps the morally correct answer is a wholesale rejection of the chains of capitalism, a recognition and a demand for a transformation in the global economy that prioritizes people over profits.
But none of these options provides a complete solution to the dilemma of contemporary life as a Jain. While The Good Place has yet to complete its run (the series finale will air later this year), the show suggests that the only possible answer is for people to try their best, to help each other learn and grow, and to make sense of what we owe each other, our fellow humans across the street and across the planet. I sometimes find myself frustrated that Jainism seems to have little to say about social justice and political movements; little to say about lifting up our neighbors, our society, and our species — especially when compared to some other religions. But I’ve personally discovered that what Jainism does demand of us is a deep awareness and understanding of the intentionality and consequences of our actions. We cannot all be monks, and we cannot all dissolve our connections to a complicated and interconnected world. But what we can do is seek to examine and question the outcomes of our choices and its impacts on our souls, and strive to mitigate and correct the problems we create and the harms we inflict. Because while global interconnectedness presents challenges for Jains, it also presents opportunities. We can learn and share the stories of people around the world, amplify their voices, and provide direct assistance to those we have never met. We can support and advocate for the rights of workers, refugees, and persecuted minorities, we can fight to protect rain forests, oceans, and farm animals. And that may be the only way forward for us on this messy, complicated planet. As T.M. Scanlon has explained, hell is not other people: hell is a relationship with other people that you create by treating them badly. So let us not treat each other badly, intentionally or unintentionally. Let us not forget the suffering in the world. And let us work to keep our eyes and hearts open, and work on growing a better tomato.
“…what we can do is seek to examine and question the outcomes of our choices and its impacts on our souls, and strive to mitigate and correct the problems we create and the harms we inflict.”
About the Author: Monika Kothari
Monika Kothari is an Associate within the Litigation Department for Jenner & Block based in Chicago. She maintains a pro bono practice, where she represents clients in both criminal and civil matters as well. Monika has a JD from Yale Law School as well as a B.S. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University.