Little known outside India, Jainism spreads at colleges amid calls to 'decolonize' studies
Los Angeles — Cerritos College in Norwalk — where the majority of students are Latino and the first in their families to attend college — is a stone's throw from Southern California's famed "Little India," a stretch of clothing and jewelry shops, groceries and restaurants in Artesia.
Not far away, in Buena Park, the temple at the Jain Center of Southern California draws legions of followers of Jainism, a little-known, millennia-old Indian religious and philosophical tradition.
So when retired gastroenterologist and Jain devotee Jasvant Modi sought to spread knowledge of the faith, Cerritos College seemed like the perfect fit. He and his wife Meera, along with donors Harshad and Raksha Shah, last month pledged $1 million to fund an endowed scholar of Jain Studies at the community college.
They are among a small but dedicated group of American Jain donors who are seeking to expand U.S. awareness of this ancient belief system and its teachings beyond an estimated 5 million to 10 million mainly Indian followers. And they think academia is the best place to do so, especially at a time of increasing calls to move away from Euro-centric perspectives in education.
Modi hopes to reach more people with the Jain teachings of ahimsa, or nonviolence in thought, word, and deed; nonpossessiveness; and acceptance of multiple viewpoints.
"Those are really the fundamental building blocks of modern society and a democracy, which kind of fits well into our centuries-old teaching," he said. "If we can spread that word out ... to students from high school to the undergraduate and graduate level, we can build a society that is more tolerant."
In the last decade, donors have funded endowed 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 lectureships and post-doctoral fellowships at other universities. They estimate they have reached hundreds of students directly but that the ripple effects will extend to thousands.
Jainism, which derives its name from the Sanskrit word jina, meaning "a victor" — referring to one who has overcome attachments to worldly things and passions — has been a part of religious studies in the West for decades. But its place has been at the margins or as part of broader scholarship 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 nonviolence, ecology, environment, respect for women, business ethics ... I could go on," said Sulekh Jain, a retired engineer and leader in the American Jain community. "But many of these things were not being represented."
About two decades ago, he and a handful of others set out to expand scholarship on Jainism. They established the International School for Jain Studies in India, offering programs for overseas scholars. Some 800 students have attended, with many going on to pursue graduate-level study.
"Now we have scholars who could be employed in universities — previously we didn't have any," Jain said. "We had to start finding the donors, the promoters, and ... universities that were interested."
In 2010 Jain donors established the first endowed professorship of Jain studies at Florida International University. In the years following they cultivated partnerships with more universities, particularly in Southern California.
Their goal is not to proselytize; Jains don't practice conversion. But along the path of learning, some have come to believe as well.
Christopher Miller, who became the Bhagwan Mallinath assistant professor of Jain studies at Loyola Marymount University in January, was first introduced to Jainism in an undergraduate class at LMU on religions of India.
"It just blew my mind," he said. "The idea of being nonviolent not just 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 Ph.D. in religious studies and now teaches about Jainism and yoga. To implement nonviolence in his own life, he became a vegan and stopped killing ants and spiders that invaded his home. He grows his own vegetables without pesticides and drives an electric car to minimize harm to the environment. And his family scaled back their consumption, forgoing furniture and sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
"In the way that I live and the way that I interact with the world, I do consider myself a Jain," he said.
Like Miller, the vast majority of individuals teaching in these positions — as well as their students — grew up in the West as non-Jains. Although the idea of predominantly white American and European professors teaching a South Asian philosophy and religion raises questions about cultural appropriation, donors say they see just the opposite.
"The impact will be greater to non-Indian students," said Nitin Shah, an anesthesiologist who has facilitated some of the relationships between donors and universities.
Ana Bajzelj, the Shrimad Rajchandra endowed 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 any insect, renouncing all possessions and attachments, and completely abstaining from sex.
"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 — that's exactly the opposite. It brings it closer."
Melissa Wilcox, chair of the religious studies department at UC Riverside, said that permanently endowed chairs, which come with an important title and research funds, help to recruit and pay for top-notch specialists like Bajzelj.
They also broaden the scope of what gets taught. Religious studies departments tend to focus on the "big five" religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Wilcox said.
As many educators strive to "decolonize" course curricula that have emphasized Euro-centric narratives, Jain studies offer a way to amplify Asian philosophies and traditions.
"Students are quite starved for non-Western content. There's a void in the canon," said Brianne Donaldson, who has leveraged her position as the Shri Parshvanath presidential chair in Jain studies at UC Irvine to bring Jainism into courses on Asian philosophies, medical ethics and animal ethics.
"I'm really interested in what can these ideas do in the world," Donaldson said. "At UCI, especially for people who are not going to be focused solely on Jain studies as scholars ... it allows me to bring these less expected connections" — for example, to medicine, health, engineering, law and gender studies.
The Jain community is also active outside the religion. In Southern California amid the pandemic, members have distributed thousands of free vegetarian meals, donated tablets and administered COVID-19 vaccines. As the coronavirus crisis surges out of control in India, they are mobilizing to procure and send nearly 6,000 oxygen concentrators there.
Makayla Rabago, a UCI alumna who graduated in 2020 with degrees in criminology and philosophy, was a devout Christian in high school. She said learning about Jainism opened her eyes to the relativity of any particular belief system.
"I realized people could go to extremes in any religion," she said. "[Jainism] is just a different philosophy and way of thinking about life."
Alba Rodríguez Juan, an incoming UC Riverside doctoral student from southern Spain, became interested in Jainism by way of yoga and mindfulness studies, which she found lacking in historical and religious context.
"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's focused on nonviolence, it's focused on tolerance, on pluralism, on compassion — so many good values that are positive for society," she said. "In a more general sense, we are living in a world where every day ... religions, traditions, languages are slowly, slowly dying. It's important that we keep this richness of different communities."
To the donors, that a student like Rodríguez would articulate the value of Jainism this way is proof their strategy is working.
"This is more beneficial than putting money into Jain centers — they become parochial," said Mohini Jain, who endowed a presidential chair of Jain Studies at UC Davis. "Education seems the best way to invest."