US-Born Jains Make Ascetic Faith Fit Modern Life
Monday, August 19, 2013
Posted by: Parth Savla
US-Born Jains Make Ascetic Faith Fit Modern Life
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: August 18, 2013 at 9:58 AM ET
BUENA PARK, Calif. — The ancient Indian religion of Jainism, a close
cousin of Buddhism, has often been a hard sell in the U.S. with a strict
adherence to nonviolence that forbids eating meat, encourages days of
fasting and places value on even the smallest of insects.
Now younger Jains who resist the elaborate rituals of their parents,
which include meditating 48 minutes a day and presenting statues of
idols with flowers, rice and a saffron-and-sandalwood paste, are trying
to reinterpret the traditions of their religion for 21st-century
They are expanding the definition of nonviolence to encompass
environmentalism, animal rights and corporate business ethics, flocking
to veganism, volunteering alongside other faiths and learning to lobby
through political internships and youth groups.
"Youth are a lot more interested in learning the why of things instead
of just blindly following it," said Priyal Gandhi, an 18-year-old from
northern Virginia. "I don't think we've lost the faith. I think it's
about finding new ways to adapt to it."
The evolution, which is being examined in a series of conferences at a
new center for Jain studies, comes as many Jains who immigrated to the
West are grappling with how to mesh the belief in nonviolence, which
inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., with modern life and
Jains believe, for example, that even microbes in the air and water are
sacred life and any action that impacts other living things — such as
driving or using electricity — can add to bad karma.
Yet Jains, many of them top doctors, lawyers and businesspeople, use
computers and cellphones and drive cars — and so they are increasingly
seeking a compromise between their faith and practicality, said Whitny
Braun, a bioethics and religion professor at Loma Linda University who
has studied Jainism.
The faith's most recent idol lived 2,500 years ago but Jainism is much older.
"Jains are a critical part of the Indian fabric so there's ways to be a
fully practicing Jain in India but here it's very, very difficult so a
lot of Jains adopt the attitude of, 'Well, I'm going to do the best I
can,'" she said. "I'll be vegetarian or vegan, and if I can buy a Prius,
Priyal Gandhi, for example, lives the life of a normal American
teenager: She drives, uses a cellphone and is enrolled as a freshman at
the University of Virginia this fall.
She goes to temple when she can, but for her, being Jain means the
simpler things: Taking the long way to avoid trampling the grass,
praying quietly at home before bed and avoiding onions, potatoes and
garlic in addition to meat because root vegetables are the life source
for an entire plant.
Veganism — a step beyond the vegetarianism that the faith requires — is
also on the rise among young U.S.-born Jains who find it otherwise
difficult to follow traditional rituals.
For the most part, elder Jains support the modified approach, but some
worry their children will miss a deeper understanding without completing
rituals that are so detailed that some Jains carry a small booklet with
Worshippers must shower, remove their shoes and change into
loose-fitting, clean garments before approaching statues of 24 idols and
must don a white mask to avoid breathing or spitting on the marble
"All of the rituals have a real meaning that we're supposed to bear in
mind when we're doing it. When I'm doing the cleansing with the water
for the idol, my thought process is I'm also cleansing my soul that
way," said Hamendra Doshi, vice president of the Jain Center of Southern
"The religion is much deeper than that," said Doshi, 62. "Community service is really only a very baby step."
Changes in how younger worshippers act out the faith may have a big
impact on Jainism's fate here. In India, Jains account for about 1
percent of the population and the community in the U.S. counts about
The faith's Western evolution is being talked about openly and with
greater urgency now that the tiny ex-pat community that arrived in the
1960s has established itself with a national umbrella organization,
youth groups and more than 100 temples, including an enormous one south
of Los Angeles.
This weekend, the new Center for Jain Studies at Claremont Lincoln
University in Claremont hosts a two-day conference on women and gender
issues that will include a presentation on sexism in Jain teachings.
Another session on how to apply Jain principles in corporate ethics is
planned for next year.
And in a sign that Jainism is also beginning to reach non-Indians, one
of the speakers at this weekend's conference will be Sadhvi Siddhali
Shree, who calls herself the faith's first non-Indian ordained Jain nun.
Shree, 29, grew up in a Catholic household and said she became a Jain
nun in 2008 after seeing horrible violence as a U.S. Army combat medic
in Iraq. Shree, who credits Jainism with helping her conquer
post-traumatic stress disorder, is challenging Jain tradition that she
feels place a monk's status above a nun's.
"If they want Jainism to spread, they need to raise women's status," she said. "There are things that need to evolve."
Shree would not be considered a true Jain nun by many more traditional
worshippers, but her voice — and the other new voices — can help the
faith become more relevant in today's America, said Sulekh C. Jain, of
Houston, who for nearly five decades has been a leading force among U.S.
"The Dalai Lama said tradition over time, if it does not change, needs
to be scrapped," Jain said. "It's really a part of growing up."
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On the Web:
Original NY Times article link
Claremont Lincoln University, Center for Jain Studies: http://jain.claremontlincoln.org/