The South Asian Times

18 November 2017 01:35 AM

Pathshala: The Next Generation of American Jains

By Pravin K Shah

Like any other immigrant community, we Jain Americans are trying our best to sustain our identity and working hard to ensure the next generation continues our Jain values, traditions, and rich heritage.

Growing up in India is a bit different. Jain youth by virtue of living in religious environment attain knowledge of Jain religion and values from monks, elders, by visiting temples, listening to sermons, reading Jain literature, going on pilgrimage and through several other avenues available to them. 

It’s a bit different in America. Compared to India the environment for American Jains is religiously dilute. Jains here are spread too thinly to offer our youth a conducive Jain environment necessary to sustain the Jain way of life. Also, the accessible resources are replaced by formidable barriers of distance, culture, language and surroundings. 

American Jain Youth Culture and Jain Pathshala:

How do we bridge this gap? How do we bring the community together and pass on our values to our youth? 

To answer several of these types of questions, JAINA (Federaton of Jain Associations in North America) Education Committee was instituted. The Education Committee with help from several volunteers prepared and published a structured curriculum and Pathshala programs primarily based on American culture. 

The word Pathshala literally which means “learning place,” is traditionally used to describe classes where you learn about religion from gurus and teachers.  In India, the focus is primarily towards the memorization of Sutras and rituals.

An attempt is made at American Pathshala to align and encourage youth towards understanding Jain principles and rituals. It is an exciting reincarnation of this age-old institution.

The main goal of the Pathshalas is to teach our kids based on current environment, the message of compassion and nonviolence in all aspects of life, encourage vegetarianism and vegan way of life, use environmental friendly product, and live alcohol and drug free lifestyle. 

This stems from a desire to practice compassion and nonviolence as well as instill Jain values, our rich culture and heritage. 

The main function of the Education Committee is to prepare and publish non-sectarian Jain Educational material for children, youth, and young Jain professionals raised in North American cultural environment which should meet the above goal.  

The religious material should be in simple American English which will allow them to effectively apply Jain principles and practices in their everyday lives.

The Jain children have grown up in American culture where:

  • Both men and women are treated equally. Jain religious principles are not and should not be male dominated principles.  Several of our rituals are male dominated rituals.
  • Proper explanation is needed with reasons and must appeal to our common sense.  It is for WHY generation Jains.
  • No magic, blind faith, and super power help from heavenly gods (Devs) and goddesses (Devis) by reciting Mantras are accepted and hence self-efforts and self-initiatives are valued.
  • Humanitarian services and environmental protection activities take priority over traditional temple/sthanak rituals.
  • All other religions and their cultures which are positive in nature treated properly and equally respected (recent survey shows that about 70% Jain children are marrying Americans).
  • Form compassionate point of view.Under the current environment, American Jain youths understand that strict vegetarian (Vegan) food is more compassionate over any animal based foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, ice-cream, sweets, ghee. All commercial dairy product consumption involves significant violence and killing of five sense (Panchendriya) animals. Hence all YJA conventions serve mostly vegan foods and use environmental friendly paper plates and cups.  No plastics/foam plates and cups are used.

Also, some of the Jain ritual Sutras are male dominated and indicative of the superiority of our religion over any other religions.Hence the committee has a very difficult task to implement traditional rituals without modifying these sutras and rituals. Very few Jain Acharyas and scholars of India would help us in the preparation of Jain ritual material suitable for American culture.

Since our Pathshala material is prepared for American children, the committee has compromised few rituals and traditions which are place, time, and cultural dependent.  However, under no circumstances, the basic Jain principles which reflect universal truth have been compromised.

To date the committee has published 9 Pathshala books and 6 reference books for our children, youths and professionals. 

There are more than 25 committee members performing various task of preparing, printing and distributing the material.  As per our recent survey, there are about 4000 students ranging from elementary level to college level, who attend Jain Pathshala classes in their centers and use the Jaina Education material.  These Pathshalas have about 400 teachers and supporting staff.

Pathshala Curriculum:

A comprehensive, grade wise curriculum in simple English is presented in these 9 Pathshala and 6 reference books.  These uniform books available to all the pathshalas and are sold at extremely low prices. These books are never copyrighted and the soft copies (pdf files) are all freely available on the JAINA and Jain eLibrary websites for easy downloads. 

The JAINA Educational material covers basic Jain philosophy such as fundamental principles, the path of liberation; six universal substances; Nine Tattvas, theory of Karma, Anekantvad and Fourteen Gunsthanaks.

In conduct section students learn about Panch Parmeshti; Jain Ascetics, Mahavrats and Anuvrats, Bhavnas, Leshyas, Panchachar, Jain ethics, humanitarian and Jivdaya services, environment protection, and Jain yoga. 

In literature section, the students learn about Jain Swetambar Agams and commentary literature, Digambar shastras, Jain history, life stories of various Tirthankars, important Acharyas, and virtuous shravaks/shravikas.

Students are also taught simple rituals like going to the Temples in both Swetamber and Digambar traditions, Pooja, Six Avashykas, Paryushan and Das Laxana. The sutra classes emphasize the meaning of sutra rather than blindly memorizing them.

The Educational material cover all traditions of Jainism. Swetamber, Digambar or Sthanakvasi parents, all send their kids to our unified pathshalas. Medium of instruction is always English but Gujarati and Hindi classes are offered as language studies.

Teachers from various Pathshalas keep in touch to learn from each other to improve the quality of teaching. In addition Pathshala teachers hold a Teachers’ conference during JAINA Conventions to share their experiences and exchange project ideas. 

With all the goodwill and togetherness displayed at this gathering, these teachers make no effort to hide their zeal to display accomplishments of their students at the main event for all the Pathshalas – Jain Academic Bowl (JAB) competition. Teams from different Pathshalas are designated as junior teams or senior teams and undergo 3 to 4 rounds of elimination to win the most coveted prize of “Best Team.”

 (The author is Jaina Education Committee Chairperson)

Update: 07 Aug, 2017

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