American Jains Make Ascetic Faith Fit Modern Life

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 American life.

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 its excesses.

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, I will."

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 illustrated instructions.

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 figures.

"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 California.

"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 150,000 followers.

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. Jains.

"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."