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The Jain Art of Spiritual Dying

JAINA   |   February 14, 2014    3:57 PM ET

By Yogendra Jain


Death can happen at any time. If you were on a plane that was about to crash and had no hope of surviving, what would your last thoughts be? Besides getting into a safer position in your seat, would you remember your family, your life, or the possibility of an afterlife?

The art of living well is prescribed by almost all religions, but Jainism goes a step further. Jainism teaches the art of dying well. The Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap once said, "I have learnt many things from Buddhism, but I have to learn the art of dying peacefully from Jainism." The same ideas were expressed by the Gandhian thinker, Vinoba Bhave, who actually chose to die the Jain way.

In Jainism, the spiritual ritual of dying is known as sallekhana. In old age or a terminal illness, a person practicing sallekhana gradually withdraws from food, medicine, and any other attachments in a manner that does not disrupt inner peace and dispassionate mindfulness. Prayers and scriptures then prepare the person for their passing.

Such a practice is controversial in the West because of discomfort with the decision to control a person's own death. In some Judeo-Christian traditions, choosing to die is considered a sin. This taboo practice is common among Jain nuns and monks, though, and some lay people have followed it, as well.

Jains believe that the soul is a living entity and the body is not. Death marks the transition of this soul from the current body to another, which is reincarnation. Because of this move from one body to the next, Jainism asks that death be embraced rather than feared. It must be considered in a manner similar to changing clothes or moving into a new house.

Dissimilar to suicide, which is often a result of a passionate reaction to something, a person undertaking sallekhana is calm, dispassionate, and aware. Such a person is not eager to meet death but is willing to face it with grace and self-control.

Among Jains, preparing for death starts early and is thought about frequently. One Jain prayer says, "I came in this world alone and will leave alone. That is the nature of human life; even kings and ministers and most powerful people will die one day." This is stated in many religions in one way or another. In the Christian Bible, for example, it says: "All go to the same place; all come from the dust, and all to the dust must return" (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

Another reflection in Jain texts reads:

"I love my family, friends, and this wonderful life. Now it is time for me to detach myself from them and my possessions. Having a human life was a great opportunity. I will strive to take birth as a human again and continue my spiritual growth. I must give up my negative passions of jealousy, anger, greed, ego, and deceit."

Every day, Jains say "Micchami dukkadam" to all living beings they come across. This phrase means: "May all living being forgive me for any harm I may have done to them, intentionally or unintentionally." These are also some of the last words a Jain will say when on their deathbed.

Before the advent of modern science, the time and cause of death were often unknown. Advances in medicine now give a terminally ill person the opportunity to predict when death is approaching, narrowing it down to months, weeks, days, or even hours.

When this "window of death" is clear, we can practice sallekhana in order to transition to the next life in a spiritual and peaceful way. The first step is to become free from attachments -- more specifically, to renounce all attachment to family, home, and possessions.

At this point, the person vows deeper practice of the three principles of Jainism: non-violence, non-absolutism, and non-possessiveness. They pray for forgiveness for any violence committed in this life.

The second and final step is, with the support of family, a doctor, and a spiritual guide, to give up food gradually and become immersed in prayers and hymns. The dying person asks family to join them in prayer and to avoid any emotional outbursts that may make it difficult to let go.

As humans, we will all face death one day. As a Jain, I know how I will take that journey when the time comes. Each tradition has its own way of preparing for death, and it's important to considering it during your life. In fact, considering how you will prepare for death before it arrives often gives you more appreciation for being alive.

Yogendra Jain is a technologist, a serial entrepreneur, and a passionate practitioner and promoter of the Jain way of life. He started his career at MIT Lincoln Labs and Texas Instruments before founding and operating several successful companies.

Why State Textbook Reviews Matter for Minority Faith Groups

Murali Balaji   |   February 3, 2014   11:40 AM ET

Last week, I attended the Texas State Board of Education's meeting on adopting textbooks for the 2015-2016 school year.

This is hardly a mundane process: Texas's curriculum and textbook adoption have been politicized and polarizing in recent years, alarming education advocates and big textbook publishers and making the state a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

While there are several board members on both sides of the political aisle determined to restore sanity to the textbook review and adoption process, that might be easier said than done given that board members are elected - not appointed like in other states - and there is a well-funded effort by right-wing groups to re-write narratives. Their targets have most often been depictions of U.S. history and Islam.

To counter this offensive, groups such as the Texas Freedom Network have mobilized Texans and raised awareness to underrepresented communities, including followers of Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, as well as minority populations such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. The stakes are high in how diverse groups are portrayed, especially since the state's changing demographics make it impossible to ignore their contributions. It's also critical because the market size of Texas makes it easier for content publishers to sell Texas edition textbooks - or some variation - to other states.

This is why traditionally marginalized voices are paramount to a successful Proclamation 2015, and their individual challenges in representations are made easier through broader coalitions. For Hindu Americans, the struggle is multifold, including efforts to articulate key philosophical principles of a 5,000+ year old religion, de-linking social ills such as caste discrimination from Hinduism (since the Vedas, the religion's oldest texts, never sanctioned a rigid and hierarchical social system), and highlighting the evolution of the faith tradition over the centuries. It's one struggle to try to rectify outdated and inaccurate portrayals, but an even greater challenge to deal with ideological warriors determined to depict the United States as a "Christian nation."

Moreover, different minority faith groups often see their interests as competing when the reality is that there is actually plenty of room (in a textbook) for their voices to be heard. Sikhs deserve to have their religion's core values highlighted and how those values have shaped a growing community in the United States, while Jainism deserves to get space as a distinct faith whose roots trace back to ancient India. Understandings about Islam also need to be improved, as the diverse traditions of sects such as the Sufis and Ahmadiyyas rarely make it into classroom instruction.

On issues of curriculum reform, minority faiths have a lot more overlapping and common interests than they have competition. It's up to members of our respective community, whether in Texas or other parts of the country, to work together to assert our voices in curriculum reform. That is the essence of pluralism and part of a winning strategy to ensure that minority faith traditions don't get overrun by ideologues with an ever-growing fear of the Other.

Sharing Dreams: Reflecting on King, Gandhi, and Jainism at Houston's Rothko Chapel

JAINA   |   January 24, 2014   12:24 PM ET

by Katy Dycus

If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you." This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.

--Martin Luther King, Jr. (1956)

As we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this week, I reflect on his dream.

From the outside, Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is windowless brick. But once inside, you are immersed in light. The light emanates from fourteen paintings adorning the chapel walls. A peaceful serenity stills your mind. The delicate refrains of Mark Rothko's (1902-1970) color palate remind you of the heavens, of all that you cannot conceive but wish to know.

You are invited to meditate on the infinite possibilities of the universe and presence of God. In this space, contemplation and action radiate outward -- from the personal level, to the community, to the world. Founded in 1971, Rothko Chapel was dedicated to people of all religions and beliefs.

The chapel's mission greets you even before you enter. On the plaza, Barnett Newman's majestic "Broken Obelisk" stands in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. My first visit to Rothko Chapel on August 28, 2013, commemorated the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Sitting inside, listening to King's words with eyes closed, I traced similarities between King and another inspiring leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who died sixty-six years ago this month.

Gandhi first struggled for social justice in South Africa, where he protested peacefully against discrimination against Asians as well as Africans. Returning to India before World War I, he developed a doctrine of satyagraha, a concept rooted in Jain tradition. Although many believed he borrowed from Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (1849), Gandhi offered a distinct meaning based on the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm. He intended satyagraha to mean an elimination of antagonism that did not harm the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance.

He contrasted satyagraha, holding on to truth, with duragraha, holding on by force, or "a-satyagraha" (anything but satyagraha). A person who subscribes to satyagraha does not seek to destroy or dissolve a relationship with the antagonist, but rather to transform it into something more pure. Translated as "truth force" and "love force," satyagraha acquired the name "soul force" in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This "soul force" eventually defined the course of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

From the Salt March in 1930 -- a nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India, famously led by Gandhi -- to hunger strikes and prison sentences, India's years of nonviolent struggle culminated in independence in 1947. King later wrote that Gandhi's teachings -- heavily influenced by Jainism -- were "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change." King carried Gandhi's commitments into the future. And Indians embraced King's social justice, human rights, and racial equality campaigns because of shared values, struggles, and strategies.

Many leaders of the nonviolent movement in India watched King with increasing interest. After visiting the United States in 1956, India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressed regret that he did not meet King. In January 1959, Harishwar Dayal of the Indian Embassy invited King to visit India on behalf of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund. King accepted the invitation, arriving in India on February 10, 1959.

He declared that he would be a tourist in other countries but in India, a pilgrim. King and his wife Coretta Scott King dined with Nehru, toured the country, and met with political leaders, scholars, and everyday citizens to discuss issues of economic policy, poverty, race, and global peace. In a broadcast on All India Radio, King urged listeners to follow the way of love and nonviolence that Gandhi embodied. This visit reignited a fierce commitment to peaceful protest that informed his later efforts, including the historic March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

On August 28, 2013, sixty people of all ages, religious, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds gathered inside Rothko Chapel to engage with the words of Reverend King, which were as resonant and dynamic as they were fifty years ago. Afterwards, diversity trainer and author Tracy Brown moderated a discussion and challenged us with questions:

What do you think of the state of Dr. King's dream for the beloved community? What can we do individually and collectively to support the dream? Do we need a new dream?

I responded: "My dream is for each of us to acknowledge that everyone else's dreams exist." As each person in attendance shared his or her dream, I saw how all of these individual wishes meant something richly important for the whole. Following the forum was a reception on the lawn, where guests sat beneath a canopy of stars and shook hands with strangers.

This evening was a picture of the best dream of all -- that we keep talking to one another in the sharing of our dreams.

Katy Dycus is a staff writer for Mammoth Trumpet. She holds a Master of Letters in British Romanticism from Glasgow University and has worked as a university instructor and freelance editor. Having lived in Scotland, India, and the United States, Katy is inspired by multicultural contexts and interdisciplinary projects. She enjoys playing soccer, cooking meals inspired by her mother's Vietnamese dishes, and playing jazz piano. In a few weeks, she will be moving from Texas to the Netherlands.

Compassion for All Viewpoints: When the Jain Principle of Anekantavada Meets Practice

JAINA   |   December 9, 2013    1:54 PM ET

by Parth Savla

I was standing in line at the local coffee shop on Monday at 5:15 a.m., fueling up to analyze spreadsheets for a meeting later that morning. Cold, stressed, and focused on what I had on my plate -- as is symptomatic of many people working in Manhattan -- I simply wanted to get my caffeine fix and bury myself in the data that lay before me.

The woman ahead of me was placing a very big order: "Can I have a dozen bagels, a dozen donuts, oh, and half a dozen brownies, too. Along with four medium coffees."

My antsy feeling turned into irritation. I immediately assumed she was gearing up for an office gathering or party for the holidays. However, I started to realize that this woman didn't quite fit the profile of an office manager, and it seemed like an odd time of day to order for a soiree. In spite of my restlessness, my curiosity was piqued.

"Thank you," she said, "The order is for the nurses at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, because they've been doing a great job taking care of my Dad." She removed her gloves and hat and shook off the melted snow.

What made her say that? I believe people share with strangers because they seek human connection, something that is not always easy to find. I stopped staring at my watch and fiddling with my book bag strap. Hearing about this woman's father made spreadsheets and deadlines insignificant. I asked how her father was doing.

"He's in a coma," she said, "He fell into a coma yesterday. And my sister and I have been taking shifts being there with him and mediating with the nurses and doctors." Her make-up ineffectually hid the lines of a sleepless night, and her shoulders were tight as she held back the tears.

Her experience hit close to home. My dad was in the emergency room only a month earlier. I understood how frightening it can be to have a loved one suddenly fall unconscious.

My watch strap caught on my book bag buckle, and I moved away from the woman to remove it. I soon realized, though, that the movement wasn't about removing the strap but about not knowing what to say. She had shared so vulnerably.

I felt compelled to connect but was holding back. Rather than feeling the pain of my father's illness, it was easier to distract myself with the caught watch strap. Her pain mirrored mine back to me, which was both uncomfortable and relieving.

Sometimes, we can see ourselves more clearly through someone else's experience. I thought to myself, "What if it had been my dad that slipped into a coma?"

The Jain principle of anekantavad is about respecting the variety of perspectives in the world, but it has its roots in the interconnectedness of all beings. Being aware of how other people approach their joy and sorrow, the same kind that we personally go through in our own way, allows us to be more empathic and mindful of the things we do and the people with whom we interact.

Could I let go of my insularity and looming deadlines for a moment to connect with another human being in pain? Would it be possible to be vulnerable enough to share how much I related to her experience?

It was now clear to me that I had an opportunity to connect empathically with this person, but I didn't know how to do it without getting too "personal." I chose to let go of my concerns. I walked up to the counter again and told the cashier I wanted to pay for her order.

The woman said, "Oh, you don't have to... It's okay."

I reassured her that I had it, that this is something she didn't need to worry about. I told her to concentrate on praying and sending out good thoughts for her dad's heath to improve. Her eyes swelled up with tears. She thanked me and finally let out her bottled-up emotions. I was grateful that I had put aside my fears and could create space for her to express herself.

Coming back to respect for all views and the interconnectedness that comes from acknowledging that openly is definitely a cultivated practice. I haven't always achieved this. I'll be the first to admit that I have my blinders on as a default. Every time that I choose otherwise, though, it enables me to experience others and myself in deeper ways.

"I haven't cried like this in a while," she said. We hugged, both filled with emotion.

We then talked about her dad's condition over our coffees. Just a few hours ago, her father started moving his fingers again. The split-second decision to reach out to this fellow human being helped me realize just how connected we all really are.


After reassuring her that things would be okay, she told me that her name. I told her mine was "Anonymous." Getting that I just wanted to connect as one human being to another, she smiled and released the last of her pent-up emotions. Soon after, we hugged and said good bye.

My heart felt full and connected. Somehow, the tension I had felt when I first walked into the coffee shop that morning had dissipated. The significance of meeting a deadline didn't seem as all-consuming anymore.

All this happened within twenty minutes. It was sparked by letting go of whatever hesitation I had about connecting with someone to share the human experience. I had to get over my pain and feelings of awkwardness to be there for another person. This was anekantavad in action. Seeing the world through another person's eyes created a moment of real community.

Parth Savla is an entrepreneur and strategist. He founded and runs TruVizon Designs, a web services company. Before that, he was a business analyst at major jewelry company in New York City. He is currently the manager of JAINA. He enjoys life coaching, spending time with friends, baking, and singing karaoke.

Planning a Cross-Cultural Thanksgiving

JAINA   |   November 22, 2013    8:48 AM ET

By Jennifer J. Craig

Thanksgiving has always fascinated me more than other holidays. I especially appreciate that people from any religion can celebrate it. This freedom to express gratitude for the year's abundance with anyone in the U.S. creates an opportunity for true community with others -- something that is especially valuable in this age of physical isolation through social media.

I witnessed this gathering of faiths firsthand while I was growing up. Every year, my dad, a Protestant pastor in a small town, would plan a local interfaith Thanksgiving service with a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. I enjoyed hearing them talk animatedly about the common values they shared and their mutual desire to bring community together on that special day.

This seems to be a theme in my life. My ancestor William Bradford participated in the first Thanksgiving in 1621, which brought Puritans and Native Americans together across faith boundaries to give thanks to a divine force for the new harvest. And now I am planning a unique interfaith Thanksgiving gathering with my fiancé Parth, who is Jain.


Similar to my dad, the priest, and the rabbi, our plans for Thanksgiving come back to celebrating our shared values and bringing people together. We are hosting a vegetarian potluck with friends from many different backgrounds and religions, sharing food and faiths to bring Thanksgiving back to its original meaning. In order to merge faith traditions, though, we find that two issues need to be discussed to make the day go smoothly.

The first issue is the Thanksgiving prayer. How is it possible for a Jain and a Christian to pray together? Jains do not believe in a creator god, and Christians do. Parth and I admitted that getting specific about how or to whom we pray is very personal -- and a never-ending conversation if we had to decide to do it one way or the other.

Furthermore, saying the other should pray the way we do seems synonymous with saying we should write "S" the same way or speak with the same accent. Instead, we decided that we would talk about, respect, and celebrate how the other one prays. This is in fact a major tenet of Jainism called anekantavad, or respect for everyone's point of view.

While talking about this, Parth and I realized that we both express gratitude in our prayers for the amazingly intricate design of the universe that brought us to where we are in life. For each of us, being grateful for what we've been given and letting people know our thankfulness is a huge part of how we live already. Our relationship had evolved by consciously finding ways to express gratitude for each other on a weekly basis. We've often found that disagreement arises when we forget to say what we're grateful for in the other person!

The second issue that could come up is, of course, the food at Thanksgiving dinner. Many of the foods in the traditional Thanksgiving dinner that I grew up with are not acceptable in Parth's Jain diet. Turkey, potatoes, onions, and garlic are all considered living beings in Jainism. In order to remain at peace with absolutely all beings, Jains do not eat them. This is ahimsa, or living a non-violent life.

This was not a long discussion, as I am vegetarian, too. I can sympathize with the compassion for all living beings, and my conscience is clear when I do not eat meat. I also feel much healthier, as my family has a history of heart disease. Moreover, while I was researching for this article I found out just how many turkeys are killed for this holiday dinner. Last year, more than 45 million turkeys were killed for U.S. Thanksgiving (3 million for Canadian Thanksgiving), according to both PETA and official websites about turkey sales. We're going to have a moment of compassionate silence to remember this during our potluck.

All in all, we're looking forward to celebrating a Thanksgiving that aligns with the true meaning of the holiday -- giving thanks for life's blessings across cultural and religious boundaries.

Anger Management Is Fear Management

Pavel Somov, Ph.D.   |   November 4, 2013    1:55 PM ET

I see anger as essentially a form of fear. And I see anger management as essentially a form of fear management. There are true tigers and there are paper tigers, true threats and symbolic/conditioned threats. Nobody needs to be taught how to fear a real tiger: that's hard-wired and taken care of. Yet many of us -- particularly those struggling with anger -- do require help with learning how not to fear paper tigers (symbolic/conditioned threats). And all of us need to learn how not to fear fear itself, in which case, anger management goes beyond fear management and becomes tantamount to mind management.

What follows is a Sutra on Anger and Fear, a collection of my thoughts on mind, anger, fear and equanimity. Sutra, in Sanskrit, means "aphoristic teaching." I don't speak this ancient language, but I like to play with it a bit, because a good bit of my clinical thinking has been influenced by Vedic, Buddhist, and Jainist ideas that were originally written in Sanskrit. Following are a few of my positions on anger. These ideas constitute my philosophy of anger.

  • Life is scary, so we are naturally afraid.
  • Fear is normal.
  • Evolution has prepared us to be afraid, to be somewhat paranoid and on guard.
  • Defensiveness is normal, even necessary (up to a point).
  • But paranoia and defensiveness divide "what is" into "self " and "other."
  • This self-other division gives rise first to fear and then to anger.
  • This self-other dualism -- for all intents and purposes -- is inevitable and thus normal.
  • As a species, we are safer than ever -- the saber-toothed tigers have all died out -- thus, mostly what we fear are symbolic threats, "paper tigers."
  • Fear of symbolic threats is normal.
  • Anger is the flipside of the fear coin: the "fight" part of the flight-or-fight self-defense system.
  • Anger is a form of self-defense. It is fear-based.
  • Anger is a response to fear -- a response to a perceived or real threat.
  • Anger is normal.
  • Anger feels like fearlessness, but it isn't.
  • The fearlessness of anger is misleading, because anger is fear based.
  • We are not just afraid of what's outside. We are also afraid of what's inside.
  • We are afraid of our own feelings.
  • We are afraid of being afraid.
  • Anger is a release of all these fears.
  • Anger is a consolidation of a feeling of fear into action, the beginning of an escape from "what is."
  • When faced with real threats, anger is a legitimate self-defense solution.
  • Anger, just like fear, is an impulse to run -- just in the opposite direction.
  • Even if you are running toward the threat (to confront it), running is running.
  • When faced with symbolic threats (threats to our ego, to how we are seen or thought about), we also have the impulse to run away from others' thoughts about us or from our thoughts about others' thoughts about us. We feel threatened by disregard, disrespect and disapproval, so our fearful egos act out by getting angry at others.
  • The solution to this kind of anger is to stay with the fear (of the symbolic, because the symbolic is safe).
  • Only by staying with the fear do we learn not to be afraid of being afraid.
  • Fear itself--the feeling of fear (be it of the real or of the symbolic) -- is safe.
  • Fear of fear is normal, but so is non-fear of fear.
  • When you are not afraid of being afraid, you don't need anger.
  • Anger isn't a tool for dealing with ego threats. It's a tool for dealing with bodily threats.
  • Fear passes, anger passes, fear of fear passes, and anger about anger passes.
  • There is never been a feeling (or mind-states) that didn't eventually go away.
  • Ultimately, because all feelings pass, there is absolutely nothing required of us but to witness "whatever is" transform into "whatever was."
  • Staying with "what is" is the true fearlessness.

Adapted from Anger Management Jumpstart: a 4-Session Path to Change and Compassion (Somov, PESI/PPM, 2013)

For more by Pavel Somov, Ph.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

Diwali: Garlanding the Light of Diversity

Deepak Sarma   |   October 25, 2013   11:51 AM ET


When my parents first came to the United States in 1968, the population of immigrant Indians was very small indeed. In my father's recollection, there were only three Indian immigrant families at the NIH and each came from different states in India and spoke very different languages. Despite these differences, which in India would have meant that they would not have likely befriended one another, the families bonded. Given the microscopic size of the fledgling community, geographical and linguistic differences were largely ignored. Instead a pan-Indian, and sometimes pan-Hindu, sensibility was welcomed with open arms. Members of this modest and budding community, and in other centers where Indians congregated or were employed, saw beyond their internal geographic, linguistic, and religious differences to embrace a pan-Indian identity.

There were no grand Diwali celebrations at that time, no community events, no trans-national celebrations. Families celebrated in the privacy of their own homes with sweets, good food, and the like. These semi-private gatherings, of course, were the forerunners, the seeds, of the enormous Diwali events publicly celebrated today.

But first, what is Diwali?

Diwali in India

Diwali, also known as Dipawali, is perhaps the most important and most widely celebrated festival in India and in the Indian diaspora. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and even some Buddhists celebrate Diwali in India and in the diaspora. In fact, it has become such a pan-Indian celebration among Diaspora Indians that some Indian Christians in the diaspora have used it as a framework within which to initiate a Christian festival.

What, you may wonder, is Diwali? And how are so many able to celebrate it?

"Diwali" means "Garland of Lights." Garlanding is an act of reverence in India. It is a way of welcoming and honoring someone publicly -- it is part of a reception ritual deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. There are as many narratives about the meaning and significance of Diwali as there are Indians. In some sense, it is a framework for celebration. Different religious traditions in India each fit their religious themes and narratives into Diwali. Some Hindus, for example, believe Diwali to be the return of Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, from 14 years of exile. His exile is believed to be an essential component in a grander narrative concerning the victory of dharma (variously understood as virtue, righteousness, duty) over adharma. Other Hindus believe it to be the celebration of the killing of the asura (demon) Narakasura by Lord Krishna, another avatar of Vishnu. Still other Hindus envision Diwali as an opportunity to celebrate and worship Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. And these retellings do not account for those Hindus who think of things more abstractly -- that Diwali is the victory of knowledge over ignorance.

In many ways the multiplicity and variation of Diwali resembles the Vedas, the body of orally revealed texts around which all Hindus orient themselves. While the texts are static, their interpretations are wide-ranging, prima facie contradictory, and accepted nonetheless. (In fact, the dialogue between Hindus about the diverse meanings and implications of these texts is itself unifying...)

But the interpretations and significance of Diwali is not limited to Hindus and Hinduism. I once received an unexpected call from my wife's relatives on Diwali. When I answered the phone I was greeted with a celebratory "Happy New Year!" After thinking about it for a minute I realized that it was, in fact, New Year's Day for Jains who celebrate the attainment of nirvana by Mahavira Jina, one of the most important figures in Jainism!

Sikhs also celebrate Diwali at the same time as they celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, "The Day of Liberation," to commemorate the release from prison of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji in 1619 CE.

Now these are just a few of the many Diwalis and they do not include the regional retellings and narratives that offer variants on these various variegated frameworks. Diwali has been an opportunity in India to celebrate pluralism, to celebrate plurality, to celebrate diversity, to celebrate unity, and, simply, to celebrate.

Diwali in the Diaspora -- and especially in America

While the Diwali celebrations are grand and are acknowledged at the national level in India and these days at the trans-national level, they were very small affairs indeed. In fact, even after my parents left the NIH in 1971 for the State University of New York at Stony Brook in Long Island, a critical mass of Indians and Hindus had not yet been reached. There were still no sizable celebrations. The population of Indians and Hindus in Long Island continued to grow and, in a decade, doubled in size from four or five families to about 10. Still, there were not enough Indians to have pan-Indian celebrations. Rather, the families in the area still invited one another for small house parties. My father has a brief entry in a November 1972 diary entry that they were invited to an intimate Diwali gathering along with four other families. But even then, it is noteworthy that the parties and informal gatherings transcended linguistic, geographical, caste, and even religious boundaries. What brought these people together was a sense of pan-Indian first generation immigrant identity. Many even used the pluralism as an opportunity to teach and share their regional customs, religious practices, and cuisines. These were the seeds for the pan-Indian gatherings that we see and enjoy today.

As the size of the individual communities grew, so did the size of their celebrations. By 1978 the population of Indians in the United States had reached sufficiently high numbers that these once small events became large, publicized, celebrations of Indian religions and ethnicity.

These events are especially important in the University settings, where second-generation Indians and Hindus converge and coalesce. Many, for the first time, come across the diversity of Indians and its critical mass. The celebration is this both a way to unify the Indian community and to showcase ethnic, racial, and religious pride. Students, often with the help of local Indian communities, offer a festival of lights, music and unity -- not unlike the ones that will be celebrated across America in colleges and universities in the next few weeks.

Diwali, Diversity, and Diffraction

These are some of the ways that the diverse Indian community in the Diaspora has sought and embraced unity and a unified identity and simultaneously celebrated diversity.

Diwali is now a tradition that is celebrated by most Indians in the diaspora, regardless of religious, ethnic regional, and other contextual differences. It is easily acculturated and re-contextualized because so many Indian religious traditions share it, yet differ on the narratives associated with it. The variation in its significance and origins makes it an ideal candidate for unifying Indians, for creating a new and more ecumenical narrative among Indians, and for framing an acceptable Indian nationalism.

While the other festivals have been celebrated throughout the Hindu diaspora, the malleability of the Diwali narrative and its pan-Indian nature has made it syncretistic. Diwali is thus especially useful as a means for Diaspora Hindus to invent and institute an imagined community, and to reimagine themselves in the Diaspora.

Hinduism is like a rainbow in a sun shower: It is sunlight that is refracted and reflected into a continuous spectrum of colors that suddenly becomes visible, and that is wonderful to see. From one perspective it seems unified yet from another it seems infinitely diverse. Diwali, as it has developed in the Hindu Diaspora, is a dispersive prism that permits one to observe the unity in the diversity and the diversity in the unity.

LOOK: Do You Know Which Religion These Symbols Belong To?

Yasmine Hafiz   |   October 20, 2013    8:09 AM ET

Religious symbols are a way to unite members of a common faith tradition, and to indicate to others the religious tradition they represent. Though most religions have a number of symbols that represent them, this roundup illustrates some of the most well-known ones.

Do you know your religious symbols? Take our quiz!

This slideshow offers a pictorial religious calendar for 2013 with photographs of celebrations of the world's numerous beautiful and sacred holidays:

Response to Feedback on 'Is There Room for God in Jainism?'

JAINA   |   September 17, 2013    4:27 PM ET

By Hunter Joslin

Thank you for all your comments -- and even your criticisms -- on my previous article "Is There Room for God in Jainism?" Let me offer a general response.

When I visited India earlier this summer, I sat down with Jain Muni Prashumrati Vijayji, known as Maharaji, at the Pārśvanātha Vidyapīth in Varanasi to discuss Jain spirituality. We were discussing the six Obligatory Actions, which are called the Āvaśyakas. The Āvaśyakas are a Jain spiritual practice quite similar to the Examen of Consciousness in Catholic Ignatian Spirituality.

The practice requires introspection and repentance. The second action of the six stages is called chauvisattho. According to Maharaji, chauvisattho is the "remembrance and praise of God." When Maharaji spoke these words, I was unable to resist and asked him what he meant by "God."

He said that God can be remembered on two levels. On one level, God is understood as the tīrthaṅkaras, or spiritual teachers who were once human beings. This requires praising the memory of the human acts they accomplished while still in the world. The "ford-makers" walked on earth and taught the people right from wrong. They are praised for this. The second level is praise of the same individuals as liberated souls, the tīrthaṅkaras who are residing in the realm of siddha-loka.

This explanation by Maharaji led to my next question: How is God praised in the practice of chauvisattho? Maharaji said that God is praised in two ways. The many names of God (the 24 tīrthaṅkaras) are recited, and God is also spoken to in what he called a "dialogue." He stated that, although God cannot be spoken to directly, God's purity and transcendence can be meditated on.

Maharaji said that the relationship between God and man is similar to that of a couple who have been separated by distance. Although the couple may not be together physically, nor able to communicate directly, they can still speak to one other through the heart. This is a simple analogy, but it is perhaps more difficult in practice. God is pure, transcendent, and somehow accessible. With respect to the question at hand, the main point is simply that God is in fact understood by Jains.

God may be non-existent in Jain philosophy, but according to Maharaji God is something. The concept of God is real in Jainism, although the identity of that God varies drastically from the understanding of the divine in Christian doctrine. But what or who is this God? The Jain idea of God as the 24 tīrthaṅkaras is certainly not a Christian idea of God. The doctrines contradict and yet they are also similar. Perhaps the transcendent God of purity is more easily comparable between the two traditions. And the relationship of divine intimacy between God and humans is closer to the question which my previous article attempts to address.

My article raises a hypothetical question, as I mentioned before. I do not attempt to put a Christian God in the midst of Jain theology. I only attempt to question who or what God is to Jains. This comes after having spent six weeks studying in India in close communion with Jain laymen and ascetics, including Maharaji. The trip involved visiting Delhi, Jaipur, Jalgaon, and Varanasi with the International School for Jain Studies (ISJS).

The group of international scholars resided at Jain mandirs, vidjapīths, and even a Jain corporation. We were steeped in lectures on Jain religion for nearly five hours every day and visited numerous sacred Jain sites in several cities. Many lectures were on Jain philosophy, such as on the theory of anekāntavāda.

With that in mind, know that I realize there are and will always be certain similarities and differences between Jainism and Christianity. As many of the readers here will be aware, according to anekāntavāda, there are always two sides to a coin, if not more. This is what allows me the opportunity to study comparative religion. There are numerous perspectives on the reality of God, and from this I draw my research.

However, I find that often the two sides vary so much that they become nearly incomparable. Jain cosmology for instance is almost incomprehensible to me. It is something I struggle with, which is fine. For, in a way, I am comparing apples to oranges. I am not drawing parallels, although I do believe that some exist. I am comparing theologies, and here it is the problem of God.

Finally, I admit in my previous article that I am writing as a "Christian from the West." The statement is in itself incredibly loaded. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be from the West? I understand that there are vast differences between the United States and India. I also understand that the history of India surpasses the West by a few millennia and the United States by even more. The environment of each is quite different.

This is what makes comparing their religions, theology, and philosophical concepts so fascinating. Problems stem from the way we identify ourselves with our surroundings, including the divine. Axel Michaels refers to this as the "Identificatory Habitus." He states in his book on Hinduism that, in India, "the whole personality dissolves in Hindu religions, both for God and for man; and abstract doctrines of identity intervene" (343). Although he is referring to Hinduism and not Jainism, his idea is still relevant to my question about God, because India is a unique place where Western religious, spiritual, and psychological constructs are hardly applicable.

However, Michaels's statement is something to which I, as a Westerner, try to surrender to while in India: How can I participate in an Indian religious ritual, whether Hindu or Jain, without sacrificing my own religious convictions? Michaels opens the door to a different understanding of both God and religious identity founded on a more indefinite notion of religious boundaries.

My time with Maharaji and with ISJS allowed me to discover that the notion of God is not bound by such strict parameters in India. Rather, God is made more infinite and more personal simultaneously.

Hunter Joslin is a graduate of Georgetown University. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Theology at Loyola Marymount University with a concentration in Comparative Theology.

Why Even the Non-Religious Should Try Religious Fasting

Nikhil Bumb   |   September 10, 2013   12:12 PM ET

As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate their High Holiday season, Jains around the world celebrated the holiday of Paryushan this past week. While many holidays commemorate a person or historical event, Paryushan is a festival honoring the soul. It is an 8-day period of introspection and purification and, similar to Ramadan or Yom Kippur, is most commonly characterized by fasting.

Fasting, as a religious practice, has been a part of human tradition for many, many centuries. It is mentioned in the Bible, in the Old and New Testament, the Qur'an, and the Bhagavad Gita, amongst other religious texts. Many religions require fasting as an act of faith or penance - often as a means of purification. In today's increasingly materialistic and gluttonous world, regardless of our individual faith or non-faith traditions, we can all benefit from fasting from time to time.

On a practical level, fasting has many health benefits. It provides the digestive system much needed rest from the normal intake of food. Caloric restriction, within limit, has been shown to detoxify the body and reduce cravings. Fasting purely for weight loss, however, is not recommended and, taken to an extreme, can lead to severe consequences (i.e., severe malnutrition, growth retardation, heart disease, neurological disorders, and death). Done correctly, and in moderation, fasting is an opportunity to flush out your system and can give you that kick start to introduce new healthy habits.

Religious fasting affords this moderation through an additional layer of guidance that not only reduces medical complications but also enables individuals to rejuvenate both body and spirit. Though specific fasting guidelines - when to fast, rigor of restrictions, and how long to fast - vary from tradition to tradition, religions add a value system and a dimension of discipline that makes the fast easier to complete. Additionally, most traditions that prescribe fasting have built-in mechanisms to reduce the medical risks of fasting. During Ramadan observers of the fast consume the Iftar meal after sundown; many Hindu fasts allow individuals to consume water, milk, and fruit; Jews abstain from both food and drink but fast for a shorter period of time (25 hours); and in Jainism, fasting allows the consumption of water between sunrise and sunset.

Physiological effects aside, fasting is more than just the physical act of refraining from food. At its core, fasting is discipline of broadening and strengthening, not withholding and waning. It is exercise for our spiritual muscle.

If you are particularly ambitious, I encourage stepping outside your own traditions and partaking in the fasting practices of another. Observe Ramadan next year (even just for a day) or give up something for Lent. Don't stop at the physical act of consumption abstinence; challenge yourself to embody the deeper emotional principles guiding the tradition - e.g. sacrifice, penance, or meditation.

Doing so enables you to better understand what it really means to be a practitioner of that faith and to participate in the larger humanity that we all share. Religions are very complex institutions and by no means easily understood through a day or month of fasting. Sharing in these rituals, however, especially those that make us uncomfortable, forces us to dive deep in order to break down barriers of communication and conquer our fear of the "other."

Across traditions fasting is a time to turn inward and reflect, with individual faiths adding further purpose to the process of introspection. For example, Jainism encourages a focus of the mind and body on the inner qualities and virtues of the soul with the goal of self-purification and cleansing.

What does that mean? Put simply, fasting is a time to think and to make space.

Make space for things you normally don't think about or have room to fit into your schedule. Literally, in the time that I would have spent consuming lunch and dinner today, I was able to make space to write this post. On a deeper level, whether I fast for one, three, or all eight days, Paryushan allows me the space to pause, rewind, and review the past year. Not always religious in nature, it provides me space to reflect on where I am compared to where I was. Have I accomplished my personal, professional, and spiritual goals? Am I still satisfied with the principles with which I guide my actions?

Jains believe that fasting is one step in the gradual race to achieve enlightenment or, more generally, happiness. By sheer nature of the added emotional component with which one takes on such a task, the act of fasting naturally entails a process of personal introspection and growth.

I would argue that regardless of custom or belief, spiritual fasting extends this prospect of purification - both corporal and mental - to everyone, believer or not. Like spring cleaning for the soul.

A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and, to that extent, sets the soul free. - M.K. Gandhi

Is There Room for God in Jainism?

JAINA   |   August 26, 2013    4:15 PM ET

And if so, where does God fit?

By Hunter Joslin

I am writing now from Benaras in Uttar Pradesh. Since the beginning of my trip with the International School for Jain Studies (ISJS), I have wondered whether or not there is room for God in Jainism. I am a Christian from the United States, and of course this is a very theocentric question. But I do believe there may be room for God in Jainism. That is, although God does not fit in Jain theory, God may in some way fit in Jain praxis. It is this that I would like to consider.

From the first lecture of ISJS, it was clear to me that Jains do not believe in a creator God. Yet, despite explicit statements about the non-belief of a God in Jain theory, there have been numerous situations in which God was evoked in Jain practice. Over two days in the Maharashtran city Jalgaon, I observed three instances where Jains specifically referred to God on a personal level.

First, the esteemed Dalichand Oswal, uncle and philanthropic adviser to Bharvalal Jain, the founder of Jain Irrigation Systems, gave a moving speech on Jainism before a lecture by Professor Priyadarshana Jain. During his speech, he stated that he would "ask God for pardon" concerning his wrongdoings. What those wrongdoings were I am not sure, but it seemed to me that Oswal was speaking generally, asking God for pardon in the way Jains seek forgiveness during the annual Day of Forgiveness (Ksamavani) for any harm caused, inadvertently or not, to others.

Second, following Mr. Oswal's speech, Dr. Sugan Jain, the director of ISJS, stated that Mr. Oswal was not a "theoretical" man, but a "practitioner." And, moreover, in his praises, he said with great affection: "May God bless you."

Third, during his talk at ISJS the following day, Bharvalal Jain stated that being born into the Jain religion was a "gift from God."

These three statements demonstrate that although God is not a theoretical reality for Jain philosophy, God is still a major consideration in Jain life. Furthermore, the invocation of God seems to indicate some individual need for God, given that each statement was personal in nature. The first was a petition to God for forgiveness; the second, for a blessing; and the third, an affirmation of God's benevolent giving.

Each vocalization was a certain avowal concerning the personal relationship between God and Jains. However, whether or not these avowals signify a deep theocentric need cannot be easily determined. What can be determined is that there is some reality of God for these three Jains. But what could it be?

Why does a Jain, whose religion professes non-belief in God, ask for God to forgive his sins? Why does another Jain ask for God to bless someone? And why does a Jain claim his theoretically non-theistic tradition was "a gift from God"? Does the religion uphold a theoretical belief contrary to that of the common believer?

One possible answer is linguistics. Each man referred to God idiomatically. This would suggest that the statements were not implications of belief in God, per se, but common expressions.

Another answer may be that these particular Jains personally believe that God is ultimately the supreme being, but, still, not a creator God who interacts with humans on a personal level. However, given the present usage of God, that could not be the case. Each invocation suggested that God was indeed an active God who is capable of forgiving, blessing, and even gifting human beings and all three of these traits are acts of personal involvement of God, the divine, with individual humans.

A third answer may be that there exists a subconscious and basic need for God.

As a Christian, I would like to believe the latter is true. And so I ask, why would a Jain speak personally of God? The answer is perhaps beyond the veil of religious philosophy. Dr. Jain claimed that his friend was a practitioner, not a "theoretical" person. What could that mean? Although many Jains profess non-belief in God, it seems there may be a tendency to profess belief through personal speech and action.

What was Dr. Jain suggesting about his friend? Let us look at the difference between theory and practice. The main difference seems to be between thought and feeling, or mind and heart. For Mr. Oswal and Dr. Jain, it appears that God is not something to be philosophized. Rather, God is something to be experienced from the heart.

I struggle with the lack of theistic principles in Jain theory for this reason. I find that much is said but very little comes from the heart. My mentor Gordon Bennett, a Catholic bishop, SJ, once told a group of participants on a silent retreat that everyone undertaking a spiritual journey must move from their head to their hearts, from logic to faith. And he said that although the distance is short, the journey is long.

Writing as someone who believes in the message of Jesus, my understanding of ethics is founded on the notion that all laws are summed up in love for God and love for neighbor -- something which is also very Jain. In Christianity, the notion of love stems from belief in God and the dignity of all. Moreover, Christianity sees every person as a child of the one God. Each individual person is therefore together as one in the way one child is part of a larger family. This system is supported in many religious traditions, including other Indic traditions, such as Vedanta, where the individual soul, ātman, is part of the much greater supreme soul, Brahman or God.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "theism" is the belief in one creator God of the universe. There is no such belief in Jain religion and thus it is quite reasonable to claim that Jainism is atheistic. However, Jainism is not like Charvaka and other Epicurean-type traditions because of a notion of morality. Jainism supports that every living being (jīva) has a soul (ātma). Additionally, Jains strive to "conquer" the power of the body or non-living matter (pudgala) with the power of the soul, thus achieving liberation, whereby the soul first becomes an omniscient human (arihanta) and then free upon death and release of the karmic body (siddha).

Similar to Vedanta, these can transform into paramātman, the highest unified soul. But in Jainism, release of the ātma from karmic bondage requires right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. Called the three "jewels," these three concepts suggest the most crucial point in understanding Jain ethics. Simply to have faith, knowledge, and conduct is not enough. These three jewels must be "right," they must not be "wrong." The notion of "right" and "wrong" is necessary in order to recognize how Jainism may be considered theistic.

Jainism believes in meritorious and demeritorious acts. Meritorious acts lead one to heavenly realms or, when perfected, to liberation (mokṣa). Demeritorious acts lead one to hell realms and rebirth. The fact that there is movement "up" or "down" between heaven and hell signifies that there is a universal truth that is somehow evaluative. According to Jain theory, the evaluation is karma.

This law, however, is impartial insofar as grace and supernatural intervention are concerned. Nevertheless, karmic law is a certain universal truth that upholds right action from wrong. The crux is liberation. Although karmic law is essentially impartial, there is growth within toward a truth or state which is essentially good. It is this state that creates a karmic ethic, which is significant for Jain theism.

Again, the key is the goal of liberation. Those who do what is right move toward liberation, and free themselves from bondage. Karmic law is thus an evaluative process. There is an ultimate that is considered idealistic. It is this ultimate that governs all activity. Bondage is bad and freedom is good; meritorious acts are good and demeritorious acts are bad. Therefore, although Jainism may not be theistic in theory, it is not necessarily atheistic because it supports a system fundamentally moral insofar as it directs one to a higher good.

So I return once more to the question: is there room for God in Jainism, and if so, where? The observations that I have put forth are only speculative at best. Concerning the karmic ethic in Jainism, perhaps there is a certain theocentric law of morality that governs daily life. Concerning God, there is still much room for debate.

Why do Jains speak of God? But perhaps that is not the right question. In the argument I put forth, I stated that God is to be believed, not rationalized. And the examples that I gave show that this level of belief and behavior may in fact be linked to a certain desire or value of God within Jain praxis. In the end, maybe the question is not whether or not there is room for God in Jainism. Rather, the question is whether or not there is room for a personal God in the heart of Jains?

Hunter Joslin is a graduate of Georgetown University. He is presently pursuing a Master's in Theology at Loyola Marymount University with a concentration in Comparative Theology.

GILLIAN FLACCUS   |   August 20, 2013    1:56 PM ET

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.

Interfaith and Jainism

JAINA   |   August 6, 2013    9:30 AM ET

By Manoj Jain

Last August, I joined my Muslim friends in Memphis as they broke their fast at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. I have been attending this event for a number of years. I am not Muslim, and neither were half of the 500 Memphians gathered at the Banquet Hall for the Eid al-Fitr dinner.

Tibetan Buddhist monks in saffron robes, Catholic priests in black shirts with white collars, Baptist ministers, and Jewish rabbis were in attendance, as well as secular community leaders, political dignitaries, Congressmen, and mayors. This was the 7th Annual Memphis Interfaith Dinner, hosted by the Muslim Society of Memphis.

One of the keynote speakers described herself as a "WASP" from rural Nebraska. She recalled a recent family gathering where she noticed that over half of her family members were now non-WASPs. She supported this with a statistic: "Nearly half of Americans will marry outside their faith."

If you carry this statistic out over several generations, it becomes apparent that, like it or not, we are becoming an interfaith society. So what does interfaith mean?

Over the years, I have learned that interfaith is not about converting others or being converted. It is not about asserting that my religion is better than yours -- which is akin to saying, "My father is better than your father." It does not mean wavering in one's own faith.

Rather, interfaith is about having a deep awareness that faith or religion is an essential part of our lives, and that we must learn, respect, and understand other people's faiths.

Sitting in the packed hall at the interfaith dinner, we listened to the rhythmic verses of the Qur'an sung by voices of believers who truly follow their faith, and not those who use it for political gain. I recalled with sadness how three years ago a pastor in Florida oversaw the burning of this holy book.

This pastor's extreme intolerance made me realize the lack of familiarity we have about each other's religions. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey on religious knowledge in the US found that only half of Americans know that the Qur'an is the holy book of Muslims or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Ironically, the survey found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about religions.

Jainism, my belief, handles the issue of interfaith in a unique way. It espouses the principle of anekantavada, the multiplicity of views, even when it comes to religious belief. Jain scriptures say that Jains do not have the monopoly on salvation, and that truth and reality are perceived differently from different points of view. They believe that no single viewpoint sees the full picture.

This principle of anekantavada states that objects are infinite in their qualities and modes of existence, so they cannot be completely grasped in all aspects and manifestations by one person's finite perception. Accordingly, no single, specific human view can claim to represent absolute truth.

Anekantavada encourages its adherents to consider even the views and beliefs of rivals and opposing parties. The principle of anekantavada influenced Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose mother was Jain and father Hindu, to adopt principles of religious tolerance in his leadership.

Undoubtedly, living with an interfaith mindset is hard work. It challenges us to leave our comfort zones and accept people of other faiths beyond the professional setting. Most importantly, it serves a basic purpose for us today: It brings us together as a society to live in peaceful coexistence.

Animal Rights and Plant Based Diets: Short-Lived Fad or Longstanding Tradition?

JAINA   |   July 29, 2013    1:01 PM ET

By Brett Evans

Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming aware of the violence that our industrial food system inflicts upon humans, nonhumans, and the environment.

Contemporary bestsellers like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Peter Singer's Animal Liberation have all become foundational texts in the growing movements that are responding critically to these pressing issues. Pollan and Schlosser are frequently noted as visionary leaders of slow food and food justice campaigns and Singer has been widely hailed as a "father" of animal rights and plant-based diets.

But did these movements really start with these individuals? I believe that it is imperative to the success of our food and ethical movements to recognize that influential traditions have preceded us. With this knowledge, we can seek historical support in the face of the many pundits who wish to relegate important concepts like plant-based diets to sentimentalist fads of the post-modern era.

As our species increasingly remembers its connection with the more-than-human world, and we seek to (re)develop ethical responses to widespread violence and suffering, Jain traditions can serve as one source of this historical support. In particular, I believe that Jainism can be looked to for proof of concept.

A small but significant religion of Indian origin, Jainism has anchored itself upon the central tenet of ahimsa (nonviolence) for at least 2500 years and Jain communities have extended this principle in ways that are largely unfamiliar to, and perhaps uncomfortable for, many outsiders.

While this religion is radically different from most western traditions, the principles found in Jainism are critical to our shared future. One essential extension of ahimsa is what may be Jains' most conspicuous practice: vegetarianism, a diet practiced by both lay and monastic (i.e., monks and nuns) Jains from the religion's inception to present.

So, while the majority of westerners believe vegetarianism to be a mostly recent phenomenon, Jains know this is not the case. For those who hear about the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism and consider them infeasible, short-lived trends, we might be reassured by knowledge of this longstanding tradition.

During the last three years, as part of undergraduate advanced research programs at Elon University in North Carolina, I spent a total of seven months living and studying with Jains in North and South India, focusing on the strands of compassion for animals present in these communities.

Over this period, I visited dozens of panjrapoles--Jain animal sanctuaries that have been found in the historical record as early as the 3rd century BCE--throughout the northwest Indian state of Gujarat. The sanctuaries I studied housed anywhere from several hundred to thousands of primarily farm animals who are cared for due to their illness, old-age, or other needs. I toured these facilities and spoke with their managers and supporters, exploring enduring institutions whose parallels in the West emerged only in the 20th century.

I also rode around for several days on the Jain-managed Animal Helpline ambulances that serve sick and injured street animals in the city of Rajkot, joined Jain activists who patrolled highways for illegal animal smugglers, and met with Jain lawyers who volunteer their time through animal law clinics.

In addition to these activists' commitments, I also witnessed many practices of compassion that had been incorporated into Jain daily life. In each temple, among other boxes set aside for charitable donations, there was always one for animal welfare. Everywhere, there were bird feeders: large ones, small ones, old ones, new ones; those that belonged to communities and those maintained by individuals and families. And, during the three months I lived with a Jain family, I watched my host mother give the first chappati (an Indian flat bread) to the family dog each day.

Importantly, these Jain charitable and ethical endeavors were undertaken alongside, not instead of, many efforts oriented towards humans, resulting in an expanded circle of accountability and responsiveness to those around them.

Jain communities, which also operate an astounding number of human hospitals and clinics, hunger relief operations, and emergency response organizations, demonstrate that empathy and service are not zero-sum games wherein we must consider only those most like us.

Instead, Jains have taken a broader approach that is founded upon one of their most core concepts: parasparopagraho jivanam (all life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence). I highlight these traditions not in order to advocate conversion or that we should strive to exactly replicate Jain practices in our own communities. Rather, I hope to show what Jainism has helped me to see: that other, more compassionate and less violent worlds are possible; in fact, they are here now if we only look for them.

Brett Evans recently graduated magna cum laude from Elon University with a major in Religious Studies. While at Elon, his research on socially engaged Jainism was published in three peer-reviewed journals. He is currently employed as the manager of Elon's Loy Farm and Community Garden and a teaching assistant for a food and nutrition course taught as part of Elon Academy, a college access program for underprivileged high school students.