In a photograph posted on an Instagram page with almost 15,000 followers, a little girl smiles brightly, her hands folded and pressed together in a common Indian greeting gesture. She sits on an elaborate throne decorated with roses. Dressed in a pastel pink outfit, diamond jewelry and a tiara, she looks like the daughter of any affluent Indian family — enjoying a Disney Princess-themed birthday party, perhaps.

The caption dated January 17, however, spells a different story: “Antim Vidai Samaroh” — The Final Farewell Ceremony.

The next day, the eight-year-old girl, Devanshi Sanghvi gave up her multi-hued clothes and the worldly life of an heiress to Sanghvi and Sons, a multi-million-dollar diamond business based in the Indian city of Surat in Gujarat.

In the ceremony titled “Divya Diksha Danam” or The Divine Brilliance Initiation Donation — also chronicled on the Instagram page, Devanshi was dressed in white cotton robes, still grinning for photos. It was almost as if she was not completely aware of what entailed: she would now live as a nun, eat only what she received in alms, avoid using any kind of technology, not bathe, and even give up all her familial relations.

Devanshi comes from a family following Jainism, one of the oldest religions in the world — originating in India.

With around 4.5 million followers all over the globe, renunciation of worldly life is not uncommon among Jains. The induction of a child as young as eight into nunhood, though, is mostly unheard of.

Devanshi’s guardians have come under scrutiny from several child rights activists and mental health professionals.

Valavan V.S., a child rights professional based in Chennai, told VOA he strongly believed Devanshi’s decision to become a nun was heavily influenced by her parents and other adults around her.

“This cannot be the sole decision of an eight-year-old child, as it is being claimed. Even if she has made the decision herself, it cannot be amused or encouraged as she is too young,” he said.

The Instagram page highlighting Devanshi’s journey seemed to be aware of potential criticism even before news about her becoming a nun was made public. A video dated December 25, 2022, addressed several concerns in Hindi smattered with English.

Armed with visuals and animation, it claimed that Jain children who became nuns and monks would have access to nutritious food, specialized education, healthcare and adult mentors.

The video also claimed that Devanshi’s was not an imposed decision, but one that the child had taken out of her own volition.

Opposing the claims made by Devanshi’s social media handlers, Nilima Mehta, a professor and child protection consultant in Mumbai, explained, “The consent of a child— anyone under eighteen — is not considered consent in law. A child Devanshi’s age is not cognitively or emotionally matured enough to make an informed decision.”

In a poignant video posted on January 4, Devanshi can be heard speaking in childlike Hindi mixed with English. In the video, where she talks about a letter she wrote for her mother’s birthday, she says, “I realized that this is going to be my last birthday with my mother. So, my gift to her is going to be my Diksha (initiation into nunhood).”

In another Instagram video, Devanshi reveals how people kept asking her if she was sure about the Diksha. She added that she feared the adults around her would cancel the ceremony, refusing to let her become a nun.

Anindita Chatterjee, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Kolkata, told VOA, “It is evident that Devanshi is not aware of the hardships of a Jain nun’s life. This decision can have an adverse effect on her mental health, too, once she becomes cognizant of the realities of the harsh world she is about to face.

“The human mind is complex and prone to changes. There have been cases of children who became nuns and monks, only to run away later when they were old enough to think for themselves,” she said.

Valavan V.S. blamed the child protection system of India for failing to take any action regarding Devanshi’s case.

“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) clearly states that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child should be the primary focus. If you look at this case from this perspective, the decision taken by an eight-year-old child could be considered void and adults who are supporting this must be brought into the legal circle,” he said adding, however, that “the District Child Protection Units (DCPUs), Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) have done nothing to protect Devanshi’s rights.”

The DCPUs, CWC and NCPCR are government agencies in India responsible for the protection of the rights of children at different levels.

Ironically, the caption of a video on Devanshi’s Instagram page says it all, describing her as “a girl who was happy singing, dancing, playing with her sister and having fun with her family.”

A professor of Jainism explained the theological aspect of children taking up monkhood.

“According to Jain sacred scriptures, an eight-year-old child’s mind is developed enough to make their own decisions,” said the professor who asked not to use her name due to the sensitive nature of this issue. “At that age, one attains the state of Atmanubhuti — knowing oneself through their own knowledge. Through this, the child learns to differentiate between the self and the other.”

The professor further explained the eleven stages of sacrifice.

“In the eleventh stage, the person can give up their birth family and home. If she now wishes to abandon worldly life including her parents, she has to ask her parents and Guru (spiritual teacher) for permission, who gauge if her wish for tyag (sacrifice) is strong enough,” the Jainism professor told VOA.

“This will surely bring fame to Devanshi’s family, alongside criticism. But only time can tell what the child’s final destination will be,” Kolkata-based Chatterjee said.

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