New York: Jainism is coming to the University of South Florida with an endowed professorship to raise awareness of its beliefs and history.
“We are thrilled to partner with devoted members of the Jain community on this exciting opportunity to bring the scholarly study of Jainism to USF,” said Eric Eisenberg, longtime dean of the College of Arts and Sciences who is currently serving as interim provost. “Their generosity will profoundly impact the lives of our students, faculty and community members for years to come.”
Embedded in some 45 universities across America over the past decade, Jainism took root at USF this past December and January when 11 Jain donors made gifts totaling $750,000 to establish the Bhagwan Padma Prabhu Endowed Professorship in Jain Studies at USF in the Department of Religious Studies.
“Jainism is certainly as old as Hinduism, if not older,” said Sulekh C. Jain, Ph.D., a founder and co-founder of more than a dozen Jainism organizations and institutions in North America. “It stands on a foundation of complete, unconditional nonviolence — and that means a 24/7 commitment to humans and non-humans, no matter what shape it is.”
Jain has been working closely with Jasvant Modi, MD, on many of the initiatives to create Jain professorships nationwide. The goal is to raise awareness in what he calls Jainism’s fundamental building blocks of modern society — the five guiding principles of Ahiṃsa (nonviolence), Satya (truth), Asteya (not stealing), Brahmacharya (chastity for laypersons and celibacy for monks and nuns) and Aparigraha (nonpossessiveness).
“We go out not to proselytize,” stressed Jain, “but to share the beauty of our principles and philosophy.”
USF joins such institutions to teach Jainism as Florida International University — where Jain donors established the first endowed professorship in 2010 — as well as multiple branches of the California State University System, Loyola Marymount University, Emory University, Rutgers University, University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin Madison.
“This is not just something to preach in a temple,” Jain explained. “It’s something we practice in our daily life, whether it is in food, clothing, business or our interpersonal relationships, you name it. The Jains have never walked away from nonviolence, never in history. We have not harmed anyone, not taken anyone’s territory, possessions or resources.”
That adherence to nonviolence lies at the heart of the religion’s vision and mission.
“Nonviolence means many things — if you have a business, for instance, it means doing no harm to your employees, treating them in an ethical way and paying them fair wages,” Modi explained. “Our Jain principles are rooted in the basic pillars of democracy, which is based on nonviolence. We believe everybody has a right to their own opinion and to a happy life. If you study Jainism, you are not only studying religion, you are studying basic democratic principles everyone should follow.”
Tampa happens to be home to a flourishing Jain population, and the community includes Pallavi Patel, MD, wife of Kiran Patel, MD — both longtime USF donors whose gift funded the construction of the Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions on USF’s Tampa campus. It was at the Patel Center that Jain got the idea of a program to study the religion at USF, while attending a conference on Hinduism. And that became the first step leading to the creation of the endowed professorship within the College of Arts and Sciences, a post expected to be filled in 2023.
“We as a department are incredibly grateful to the donors for the opportunity to hire a scholar to teach about Jainism,” said Michael DeJonge, professor and chair of religious studies at USF. “One of the strengths of the department is our ability to bring expertise about religion to bear on the contemporary issues that guide research and teaching at USF.
“This new position in Jainism allows us to build on that strength, because Jainism offers ancient resources to help us think about pressing issues — such as the environmental crisis, or ongoing efforts to live with each other peacefully across enduring lines of difference.”