Indian American Jains are on mission to educate the world about Jainism

By Sulekh C Jain 

Indian-American Jain community has raised, committed and donated nearly $20 million, which is matched 2:1 with additional contribution of more than $40 million by all the partnering Universities. 

Our vision – The main goal of the North American Jain community in undertaking many education and philanthropy initiatives is to promote universal brotherhood and harmonious living amongst the peoples of the world while respecting the environment. We have just started this journey; a lot more needs to be done and we are striving diligently to make Jain studies a vibrant tradition and a vital presence in global academia.

An unprecedented opportunity to learn about Jainism – Jainism, one of the oldest religions of the world, has made an immense contribution to Indian thought. Besides the ancient Jain gymnosophists influencing Greek and Persian philosophers with their austere lifestyle, over the millennia, Jains have enriched the spiritual, religious, philosophical, ethical, literary, cultural, iconographic, philanthropic and architectural aspects of Ancient, Medieval and Pre-Modern India. The Jain Religion has the sixth largest religious following in the world with an estimated 8 million Jains worldwide and about 150,000 of them now live in the US and Canada.

The wisdom traditions of the world offer pathways for humans to live with each other and with nature and the planet in a more peaceful and harmonious way. Among the world’s great religions, none has made the striving for peace, tolerance and ecology more central to all living beings and none has called its followers to higher standards of Ahimsa/ (non- violence) than Jainism. 

The foundational beliefs direct followers to strive for the highest standards of Ahimsa (Non-violence) in thought, word and action. Thus, proselytizing and conversion are rejected in Jain Religion, as Jains consider this as mental violence and hence, a cause for great conflicts to arise.

Until recently, few people knew about Jainism in the West, but this is rapidly changing… 

The Indian-American Jains are amongst the best educated professionals and successful entrepreneurs and have organized themselves across 70 Jain centers under the Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA, www.jaina.org), which is a non-profit educational, humanitarian and community service organization.

As with all first-generation immigrants, Jains prioritized donating their wealth to build community temples and places of worship. Many in the western intelligentsia view Jain principles and practices as a pathway to achieving human resilience, inner peace and conflict resolution. 

As recently as twenty years ago, learning opportunities in Jain studies were scarce in North American institutions of higher learning, beyond a passing description in a university course or chapter about comparative religions. Also, until then, only a handful of scholars were even knowledgeable or available and sufficiently trained to teach Jainism with authority and credibility.

International School for Jain Studies established to leverage India as a classroom – To fill this knowledge vacuum, the first step was the establishment of International School for Jain Studies (ISJS, www.isjs.in) in 2005; a collaboration between U.S. academic institutions and India-based Jain scholars. Its sole purpose via experiential learning was to make India a classroom to educate and expose scholars from North American and European universities. From a humble beginning of educating a less than a dozen western students in 2005, to date, nearly 800 scholars from more than 30 universities outside India have availed of this unique program, and more than 30 scholars have completed their Ph.D. degrees in Jain studies from prestigious universities in USA, Canada and Europe.

To nurture, promote, facilitate and provide full support and backing to these initiatives, in 2008, JAINA established an Academic Liaison Committee (ALC). Twenty-seven highly motivated, intellectually diverse, and successful Jain community leaders from many parts of USA, Canada, UK and India are members of the ALC, which meets regularly.

Over 40 universities in North America offer courses now in Jain Philosophy – With the availability of freshly educated and trained scholars, the Jain community has successfully funded more than 35 programs consisting of endowed Chairs, Professorships, Lectureships, Post-doctoral Fellowships, annual endowed lectures and year-long fellowships to educate scholars in Jainism, including the canonical language of Prakrit. More than 20 scholars are also currently enrolled in Ph.D. programs in USA, Canada and Europe and some of them are also being financially supported by the Jain community. 

One very important development is that to break the barriers between some Indic religions, Jain and Hindu donors have established the first of its kind joint endowed chair in Jain and Hindu Dharma Studies at California State University, Fresno, California. Similarly, a joint endowed professorship in Jain and Sikh studies was also established at Loyola Marymount University in 2015. Our sincere hope is that these exemplary models will provide the impetus for more such joint interfaith programs to be established in the US, Canada and other places in the near future.

    

JAINA ALC members attending the signing ceremony for an endowed Chair in Jain Studies at University of California, Irvine in 2015

In addition, with the increasing interest in Jain studies, to date, 18 more universities in the US have started offering classes in Jainism on their own.

2021 was a banner year for establishing Jain programs in academia – The growth of programs in Jain studies accelerated in 2020 and 2021. Last year was a banner year as the Jain Community established four endowed Professorships, three endowed Post-doctoral Fellowships, one 3-year Post-doctoral Fellowship, two endowed Jain Study Programs and two Adjunct Professorship programs. 

In addition to the progress in USA and Canada, Jain donors are also supporting similar programs in the U.K, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, Ukraine, and Pakistan.

Other new programs and initiatives in 2020-2021  

a) Symposium on Jainism and Mathematics 

An inaugural 3-day virtual symposium on Jainism and Mathematics was held in December 2020, from which a proceedings will soon be released by a US publisher. This will be a valuable addition which exemplifies the contributions of Jain monks and scholars to the history of Mathematics.

b) Dating of the birth of Tirthankar Mahavir

There is much disagreement (between Jain and Western scholars) about the dating of the birth and Nirvana (i.e., soul-liberating death) of Mahavir (the 24th and last Tirthankar of our era who lived over 2,500 years ago). The ALC has recently initiated a multi-disciplinary research program involving reputed scholars (from several countries and disciplines) – conferences will be held to reach consensus and remove this confusion if possible.

c) International Center for Jainism and Science

 Since there is a strong connection between contemporary science and Jainism, an ALC member has led the establishment and funded an international center in India to conduct comparative studies to explore the bridge between modern science (i.e., aspects of life, nature and universe) and ethereal Jain philosophy and wisdom.

d) International School for Jain Studies (ISJS) is expanding its staff

ISJS has signed MOUs for collaborations with several reputed universities in USA, Belgium and India; ISJS regularly holds thematic seminars and conferences, publishes a quarterly refereed journal, and has led demographic studies, as well as published several books.

Plans and priorities for 2022 and beyond

  1. Fill all open faculty positions

 Not all academic positions have been filled since the establishment of endowed positions. Jain ALC leaders and the partnering institutions are working together to recruit faculty and make all the vacant positions functional as soon as feasible. 

  1. Raise funds to establish more endowed chairs

 ALC will focus on Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Israel) and at University of California at Berkeley (USA), and at a few other places.

  1. Establish endowed chairs in Jainism at least at two prestigious universities in India

 Exploratory meetings are being held and requirements are being assessed.

Some significant features of endowment programs

  • Nearly all faculty are ISJS alumni.
  • Nearly 70% of the faculty are women. 
  • All the faculty are vegetarians, and many are vegans.
  • All programs are non-sectarian and cover all aspects of Jainism.
  • All programs have been very well received, busy and successful, attracting dozens of students. 
  • Most of the faculty are proficient in Prakrit, Sanskrit, Hindi and Gujarati.
  • Generally, local Jain centers are also involved as donors and supporters.
  • The base model is that universities pay the salary and all the benefits of the professor/post-doc in perpetuity from their own internal funds, and only a small percentage comes from the endowment funds provided by the Jain donors. 
  • To date, the Jain community has raised, committed and donated nearly $20 million, which is matched 2:1 with additional contributions of more than $40 million by all the partnering Universities. 
  • One significant feature of these Gyan mandirs (i.e., temples of knowledge /academic centers) is that twenty of the faculty positions have been named in honor of the Jain Tirthankaras, and not in the name of the donors (by mutual consent). Our goal is to complete the Chovisi (set of 24 Tirthankara of our era) by 2024 or sooner.

Why study Jainism?

“Jain Dharma offers a different pair of eyeglasses or a prism through which to view the world, its problems, and opportunities. This is why I teach Jainism at the University of Texas at Austin.” – Professor Donald Davis, University of Texas at Austin

“I want to hear everyone talking about Jainism. I want the religion and philosophy departments teaching it. I want ecologists and agricultural technicians exploring its sustainability models. I want animal ethicists investigating it. I want metaphysicians engaging its textual and cosmological claims. I want economics departments examining its charitable giving and solvency. I want diplomats, nonviolent practitioners and just war theorists scrutinizing it as a viable political way of life. In short, I want it on the lips of every discipline, colliding with existing wisdom, challenging epistemological strongholds, and generally throwing a wrench into any sentiment that would dismiss as impractical the possibilities of humans living in a fundamentally different manner in our current and future worlds”Professor Brianne Donaldson, University of California Irvine

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The author of this article, Las Vegas resident Dr. Sulekh C.  Jain is the Past Secretary and President of the Federation of Jain Associations in North America (JAINA). Dr. Jain also authored a book An Ahimsa Crisis: You Decide, which can be accessed as an e Book free of charge at www.isjs.in . He can be reached at  [email protected]

 

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