Norwalk’s Cerritos College – where the majority of students are Latinos and the first in their families to attend college – is a stone’s throw from Southern California’s famed “Little India”, an expanse of clothing stores and shops. jewelry, grocery stores and restaurants in Artesia.
Not far away, in Buena Park, the temple of the Jain Center of Southern California attracts legions of followers of Jainism, an unrecognized thousand-year-old Indian religious and philosophical tradition.
So when Jasvant Modi, a retired gastroenterologist and devotee of Jain, sought to spread the knowledge of the faith, Cerritos College seemed like the perfect fit. He and his wife Meera, along with donors Harshad and Raksha Shah, pledged $ 1 million last month to fund an endowed Jain studies researcher at the community college.
They are part of a small but dedicated group of American Jain donors who seek to expand American awareness of this ancient belief system and its teachings beyond an estimated 5-10 million predominantly Indian followers. And they think academia is the best place to do it, especially at a time of growing calls to move away from Euro-centric perspectives in education.
Modi hopes to reach more people with the Jain teachings of Ahimsa, or non-violence in thought, word and deed; non-possession; and acceptance of several points of view.
“These are really the building blocks of modern society and democracy, which fit well into our centuries-old teaching,” he said. “If we can get this message out … to undergraduate and graduate students, we can build a more tolerant society.”
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Over the past decade, donors have funded staffed positions in Jain Studies at a dozen universities, including UC Davis, Irvine, Riverside and Santa Barbara, the Cal State Campuses of Northridge and Long Beach, and Loyola Marymount University. They have also sponsored lectures and postdoctoral fellowships at other universities. They estimate that they have directly reached hundreds of students, but that the ripple effects extend to thousands.
Jainism, which takes its name from the Sanskrit word jina, meaning “an overcomer” – referring to one who has overcome attachments to the things and passions of the world – has been a part of religious studies in the West for decades. But its place has been marginal or within the framework of a larger research on Asian religions or philosophies, in part because there were so few specialists.
“Jainism is a very old tradition with a very rich history of non-violence, ecology, environment, respect for women, business ethics … I could go on,” said Sulekh Jain, engineer retired and leader of the American Jain community. “But a lot of those things weren’t represented.”
About two decades ago, he and a handful of others set out to expand research on Jainism. They established the International School of Jain Studies in India, offering programs for foreign scholars. Some 800 students attended, many of whom are pursuing graduate studies.
“Now we have academics who could be employed in universities – previously we didn’t have any,” Jain said. “We had to start finding the donors, promoters and … universities that were interested.”
In 2010, Jain donors established the first endowed chair of Jain studies at Florida International University. In the years that followed, they cultivated partnerships with more universities, especially in Southern California.
Their goal is not to proselytize; Jains do not practice conversion. But on the path to learning, some have come to believe too.
Christopher Miller, who became the Bhagwan Mallinath Assistant Professor of Jain Studies at Loyola Marymount University in January, was introduced to Jainism in an undergraduate class at LMU on the religions of India.
“It blew me away,” he said. “The idea of being nonviolent not only to other human beings but to all forms of life was so new and fascinating to me.”
Miller, who was studying accounting, went on to earn a doctorate in religious studies and now teaches Jainism and Yoga. To implement non-violence in his own life, he went vegan and stopped killing ants and spiders that were invading his home. He grows his own vegetables without pesticides and drives an electric car to minimize damage to the environment. And his family has reduced their consumption, forgoing furniture and sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
“By the way I live and the way I interact with the world, I consider myself to be a Jain,” he said.
Like Miller, the vast majority of people teaching in these positions – as well as their students – grew up in the West as non-Jains. While the idea of predominantly white American and European professors teaching South Asian philosophy and religion raises questions about cultural appropriation, donors say they see the exact opposite.
“The impact will be greater for non-Indian students,” said Nitin Shah, an anesthesiologist who has facilitated some of the relationships between donors and universities.
Ana Bajzelj, Shrimad Rajchandra Chair in Jain Studies at UC Riverside, teaches courses on Indian religions, Jainism and death. She said students often react strongly to the more ascetic parts of Jainism, especially as practiced by monks and nuns – for example, wearing masks and sweeping their paths to avoid killing an insect, giving up all possessions and attachments, and abstaining from sex altogether.
“Just reading a line about it somewhere is something that can alienate Jainism,” Bajzelj said. “But learning about it … in its historical complexity, in its spiritual complexity – it’s just the opposite. It brings him closer.
Melissa Wilcox, chair of the religious studies department at UC Riverside, said permanently endowed chairs with significant title and research funds help recruit and pay top scholars like Bajzelj .
They also expand the scope of what is taught. Religious studies departments tend to focus on the “big five” religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Wilcox said.
While many educators strive to “decolonize” curricula that have emphasized Euro-centric narratives, Jain Studies offers a way to amplify Asian philosophies and traditions.
“Students are very hungry for non-Western content. There is a void in the canon, ”said Brianne Donaldson, who used her position as president of President Shri Parshvanath in Jainist Studies at UC Irvine to introduce Jainism in courses on Asian philosophies, l medical ethics and animal ethics.
“I’m really interested in what these ideas can do in the world,” Donaldson said. “At UCI, especially for people who are not going to focus solely on Jain studies as academics … it allows me to make those less expected connections” – for example, with medicine, health , engineering, law and gender studies.
The Jain community is also active outside of religion. In Southern California amid the pandemic, members distributed thousands of free vegetarian meals, donated tablets and administered COVID-19 vaccines. This week, as the coronavirus crisis grows out of control in India, they are mobilizing to procure and send nearly 6,000 oxygen concentrators there in the coming days.
Makayla Rabago, a UCI alumnus who graduated in 2020 with degrees in criminology and philosophy, was a devout Christian in high school. She said learning Jainism opened her eyes to the relativity of any particular belief system.
“I realized that people can go to extremes in any religion,” she says. “[Jainism] is just a different philosophy and way of thinking about life.
Alba Rodríguez Juan, a new UC Riverside doctoral student from southern Spain, took an interest in Jainism through yoga and mindfulness studies, which she found missing in the historical context. and religious.
“Jainism is one of the most important traditions in yoga, but … many people practice yoga and have never heard of Jainism,” Rodríguez said.
She believes a presence in higher education will increase awareness.
“The Jain tradition has a lot to offer the world. It is focused on non-violence, it is focused on tolerance, pluralism, compassion – all good values that are positive for society, ”she said. “In a more general sense, we live in a world where every day … religions, traditions, languages are slowly, slowly dying. It is important that we maintain this wealth of different communities. “
For donors, that a student like Rodríguez would articulate the value of Jainism in this way is proof that their strategy is working.
“It’s more beneficial than putting money into Jain centers – they become silos,” said Mohini Jain, who has endowed a presidential chair in Jain Studies at UC Davis. “Education seems the best way to invest.”