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Young Jains Share Insights from Parliament of the World's Religions

Nikhil Bumb   |   January 12, 2016   10:55 AM ET

This post was jointly written by Nikhil Bumb, Neal Daftary, Parth Savla, Priti Shah, and Sonali Vakharia.

Last October, almost three months ago now, roughly 10,000 people from over 70 countries and 30 religious and spiritual traditions attended the sixth Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah - a five-day interfaith conference including 7 plenaries and over 1,000 smaller workshops and panels. The Parliament, founded in 1893 in Chicago, is an attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths. The theme for this year's conference was "Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity" and it featured a long lineup of renowned scholars including Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Karen Armstrong, and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.

The participants included 60+ members of the Jain faith, including the five of us - Nikhil Bumb, Neal Daftary, Parth Savla, Priti Shah, and Sonali Vakharia. As young adult ambassadors of Jainism, we were deeply humbled and enlightened by the experience. Coming into the Parliament, we had no expectations, but we left feeling enriched and empowered.

The stated mission of the Council of the Parliament of the World's Religions is "to cultivate harmony among the world's religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world." With so much hate and violence around the world, particularly in light of the recent events in San Bernardino, Paris, Mali, and Beirut (to name just a few), it was refreshing to attend and see the collaborative efforts to protect the interests of mankind. Collectively, we have never seen so much compassion, love, and genuine openness for one another's faith.

Here are some of our takeaways from our collective Parliament experience as Jain youth:

  1. Participation is about more than awareness. It needs action through involvement. As members of a minority faith that most people have never heard of, Jains often feel that our role at these forums should be focused on building awareness. Jain sessions are mostly technical, communicating the detailed principles, history, and scriptures of Jainism, with few references to applying those aspects in our routine lives. The Parliament wasn't just about bringing people of different faiths and backgrounds together and learning. The real power of such a platform is about doing something with that collaboration.

    The challenge for any minority faith is the ability to participate on both levels - creating awareness of one's faith and energizing members in the values of the faith to, in turn, express those values through projects which can benefit the world around them.

    The Parliament highlighted five major social themes - gender inequality and women's empowerment; income inequality and the wealth gap; climate change; war, violence, and hate crimes; and nurturing the generation of emerging young leaders. At its core, the Jain philosophy is inherently integrated with these issues and can contribute immense learnings and solutions on a broader scale.

    Broadening awareness is a first and important step at these events. In order to make meaningful impact while reinforcing Jain ideals, we would like to see Jains actively engaging and participating in the discussion on these social issues. As advocates of non-violence (ahimsa) and believers of equality and respect for all viewpoints (anekantvad), while being mindful of the impact of our personal consumption in the world around us (aparigraha), it is our social responsibility to advance these issues and to be more engaged and connected in mainstream outlets.

  2. As (future) leaders, we need to set aside our emotions and address problems objectively. In his address at the "War, Violence, and Hate" plenary, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, European Union advisor and Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, emphasized that if we really want to make headway against issues such as hate crimes, religious discrimination, violence, and war, we must remove emotions from the equation. Being emotionally connected enables an empathy for others. On the other hand, emotions cloud our judgment and stunt possibilities of getting to real, deeper solutions.

    Dr. Ramadan's philosophy applies not just to issues like hate and violence, but across problems at the individual- and community-levels as well. It is more constructive to understand the history of the systemic issues which breed violence rather than judging agents of violence or "victims" of such systems.

    Jainism is both a scientific and practical philosophy that adapts to social and cultural shifts while preserving its core values and practices. Anekantvad teaches us that everyone has a voice and something valuable to contribute. We should remember and stress that objectivity.
  3. Activism starts at the grassroots level, with you. Focus on small steps. Parliament speakers addressed critical topics like climate change, income inequality, discrimination, wasteful consumption, war and terrorism. Hearing these speakers was inspiring and electrifying, and at the same time intimidating and daunting. As young people, how can we change the world for the better and contribute positively towards these movements?

    Start with yourself. Mahatma Gandhi's motto was: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." In a panel on "What Would Gandhi Do? Moral Strategies for Sustainability, Peace, and Justice," Fresno State Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Veena Howard noted that "the champion of non-violence and self-discipline put his faith in the common human being rather than the power of an empire."

    Change begins with us, not just by talking but by doing and actively making changes in our own life. We can then be the change locally, stepping up at the community level to help lead change in a slightly broader audience, and eventually working our way up to larger scales.
  4. We (young Jains) need to show up. Let's be on the field, not on the stands. It's easy for us to to sit back and complain about issues, to find fault in others, and to feel resigned. At the Parliament, we heard fellow Jains comment that many of the sessions did not really apply to "us" or that we need "better representation" of our faith. At similar conventions within the Jain community, we often hear fellow young people express frustration that sessions are too technical and don't provide relevance of how values can be relayed to our lives and our every changing world - a challenge that many faith-based communities are experiencing.

    The responsibility is also ours. If we don't vocalize our opinions and perspectives, we can't expect for them to be known or for action to be taken. Often we assume someone else will raise the issue, that it isn't "our place," or that we won't be heard. Part of the problem may also be a misunderstanding on how to interpret Jainism and apply our principles to issues in our daily lives, or even broader social issues.

    Our challenge, as young people, is to avoid this complacency. It's likely that if you are thinking about these topics, someone else is as well. Use the resources presently available to you to express how Jainism impacts your daily life. Your actions will create a new paradigm that will engage and generate interest amongst others that can then stimulate wider action and change. Jainism has valuable scientific and practical teachings to give to society and it would be disheartening to lose these contributions.

After five days immersed in a swirl of speakers, music, art and dance from religious traditions across the world, we emerged relaxed and rejuvenated. It renewed our spirits and sparked a fire, deep within our souls, to take a stand against these very issues that promote injustice and inequality. Sharing our learnings from the Parliament was the first step.

Ultimately, the Parliament taught us that religion can be an incredibly positive force in promoting change and bringing peace to the world. We live in a global village and we should strive to stay open-minded and to live with mutual respect, harmony, and optimism. At the same time, we have a personal and social responsibility to take an active stance in applying the principles of our own faith and embracing the value and practice of interfaith education and dialogue to create meaningful spaces for activism.

Let us practice values in action.


Nikhil Bumb is a social impact strategy consultant based in Washington, DC. Neal Daftary manages a hospitality company based in Dallas, TX, and serves as Co-Chair of Young Jain Professionals. Parth Savla is a social entrepreneur based in San Francisco, CA and Mumbai, India. Priti Shah works as an engineer in the automotive industry in the greater Detroit, MI area. Sonali Vakharia is an inpatient pharmacist, also based in the greater Detroit, MI area.

3 Unique Contributions: The Worlds of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism

Pankaj Jain, Ph.D.   |   September 21, 2015    6:05 PM ET

Mahavira was born a little before the Buddha. While the Buddha was the founder of Buddhism, Mahavira did not found Jainism. He is the 24th great teacher (Tirthankar) in the Jain tradition that was founded in the present era by Rishabh or Adinath, thousands of years before Mahavira.

While most Hindus believe in a god (or goddess) that is the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe, Jainism rejects any such god (or goddess). For Jains, the universe is an eternal phenomenon, never created and never to be destroyed. It is a self-sustained, self-managed phenomenon that runs on the principle of cause and effect (karma and reincarnation).

While Hindus and Buddhists also accept Karma philosophy, Jains describe Karma as particles that pollute the soul. For each soul to attain moksha, it must rely on its own efforts (purusharth) to cleanse off these karma particles. Mahavira, like the Buddha, was born as a prince but renounced his royal life at the age of 30 and became an ascetic. For next 12 years, he practiced meditation to the extent that all hardships became negligible for him. People tortured him to the extent of piercing his ears with nails and throwing stones at him, but they could not disturb his meditation. Eventually, at 42, he became omniscient but did not achieve moksha yet because he still had the karma of his name, age, and body. Finally at the age of 72, he left his body and all the remaining karma and achieved moksha. The Jain moksha state is the last frontier of the universe where the soul remains eternally blissful and detached forever.

For Jains, Mahavira and other tirthankars are merely role models, not the provider of any materialistic or even spiritual gifts. Jains must depend only on their own individual efforts to achieve the moksha.

I love all three -- Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism -- for their three unique contributions to the world. Hinduism gave us the concept of Brahman that unites the entire universe in a single transcendental reality that is hidden behind the materialistic phenomena we see in the world.

Jainism gave us the idea of non-violence that led to the largest number of vegetarians that have always existed in India. The value of vegetarianism is only recently being recognized in the West, as we know.

Buddhism gave us the most developed techniques of meditation and pranayama. The phrases like "take a deep breadth","live in this moment", and "mindfulness" that we now take for granted were first preached and practiced by the Buddha about 2500 years ago. All the three unique messages from these three Indic traditions remain relevant and important to the world today.

The Hindu concept of oneness of the universe and the Jain concept of nonviolence are most urgently required today to save the planet from ultimate ecological destruction. The two biggest reasons for ecological destruction are over-consumption and pollution of natural resources in the form of burning fossil fuels (including in automobiles) and consuming meat. CO2 emission from raising cattle for meat consumption and from vehicles, both widely practiced in the so-called developed world has led to the climate change that has endangered the entire planet's survival today. Only the reverence and respect for other species, plants, air, water, and the Mother Earth, that Indic traditions teach, can save the planet. The current American way of economy is a sure path to ultimate destruction. Similarly, the ultimate happiness has only moved away by the American way of consumption and the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness and meditation can lead us to the ultimate bliss.

Santhara -- Jain Way of Death with Equanimity

Manoj Jain, MD MPH   |   September 2, 2015    4:51 PM ET

Last month, a deeply religious man in India ended his life in a way that has been practiced for millennia by devout members of the Jain religion. His death made headlines when a state court in Rajasthan declared the practice, known as Santhara, illegal. The Jain community responded with protests, and the Indian Supreme Court ended up reversing the order until further deliberations.

Few may know of Jainism, an ancient Eastern religion similar to Buddhism, which has six million adherents in India and some 100,000 in North America. Jainism's central theme is nonviolence. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi learned about nonviolence from a Jain monk. Additionally, Jains believe in non-absolutism, which means that one must realize that the real truth has multiple facets, and non-possessiveness, which means that one must balance needs and desires.

Among the many practices of Jains, such as vegetarianism, meditation, forgiveness, and fasting, santhara (also called Sallekhana) is the most austere and it is practiced primarily by strict adherents, Jain monks and nuns.

What is santhara and how does it differ from suicide? To answer that, we have to delve into the Jain scriptures and learn the conditions for santhara and the process of how it is performed.

Death with Equanimity: Santhara
To fully appreciate santhara, the process of dying with equanimity, we must understand Eastern religions, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, where the purpose of life is to advance one's spirituality and minimize the "karmic" baggage in order to achieve salvation.

To a Jain the last moments in life are critical in determining the situation for future incarnations. Hence the ultimate hope of a spiritual person is to experience a passionless death and ideally "death while in meditation" or samadhi-marana.

By dying in meditation the aspirants are able to die with the mind being in complete awareness, calm and undisturbed by pain or emotions. Furthermore, the aspirants practice their ultimate belief that their body and the material world are not their pure self and that they can become detached from them. Hence, for a Jain, human death is not the destination or terminal point in the soul's journey, rather it is a critical connecting point.

In order to die with equanimity the traditions have prescribed rules and rituals that assist in the act of santhara.


How is Santhara different from Suicide?
Death has many paths. In order to differentiate various types of deaths (accidental, murder, suicide, euthanasia, santhara) we need to ask four key questions.

1. Was the death premeditated?
2. Was the death consented to by the individual or family members?
3. Was the death purposeful?
4. Did the dying process follow a ritualistic tradition?

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Accidental death such as a car crash meets none of the four criteria. A murder is often premeditated, yet not consented to by the victim and from the perspective of society it is not purposeful. Suicide is often premeditated and consented to by the self but not consented to by the family nor is it purposeful from the society's perspective. Rather, suicide is an act under duress or excessive passion such as depression or rage. Euthanasia differs from suicide and murder in that it is premeditated, consented to by self or family and most important that it serves a purpose, such as relieving suffering from terminal cancer. Santhara is much like euthanasia but with an additional core element of following a well-defined ritualistic path.

Conditions for Santhara
When should one seek santhara? According to ancient Jain traditions four situations permit santhara.
1. An unavoidable calamity, such as an earthquake Upasarga
2. A great famine, durbhiksa
3. Old age with failing health, jara
4. Terminal illness in which death is imminent, Nihpratikara ruja.

Present day ethicists, doctors and politicians use similar conditions that were laid out by saints several thousand years ago.

Performing Santhara
How is Santhara performed? According to Hindu tradition the act of self-willed death called prayopavesa is done in the following manner.

1. The person makes the decision to die and declares it publicly (distinguishing it from suicide or traumatic emotional act done in anguish).
2. The person obtains forgiveness and forgives others for any harmful actions in their life.
3. The person takes a vow of death after discussion of the present condition with a saint.
4. The person meditates on the innermost self, the soul.
5. The person gradually abstains from solid food, liquids and then water.
6. The person goes into meditation as the soul releases from the body

A person seeking the vow of the holy death requests a vow from his teacher.

"Please instruct me, sir. I have come forward to seek ... sallekhana, (the vow of) which will remain in force as long as I live. I am free of all doubts and anxieties in this matter. I renounce, from now until the moment of my last breath, food and drink of all kinds."

If the teacher agrees and judges the person's desire to be genuine, the teacher offers the vow. After the vow the person engages in confession or the ritual of forgiveness or pratikraman and self-censure or alochana. Then the teacher, depending on the person's ability, gradually decreases the amount of food and water each day. Eventually, only water is given, and then the person goes on to a complete fast. There is dissociation with all and renunciation of all worldly matters. The person spends their final hours repeating the namokar mantra or listening to others chanting. Jains believe that the spiritual life is in preparation for such a sacred death, and wavering from this is similar to a warrior fleeing the battlefield at the very moment of combat.

Thus the state court got it wrong when it declared this ancient and sacred practice to be illegal, or it to be treated as suicide. Rather, santhara is a holy ritual that we can all learn from on how to die with equanimity.

References:
Jaini, Padmanabh S.,The Jaina Path of Purification, MotilalBanarsidass Publishers, reprinted Delhi 1990.
Settar S, Pursuing Death: Philosphy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life, Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, Dharwad, 1990.
Jain Philosophy and Practice- JAINA Education Series, JES 401 (Compiled by JAINA Education Committee, Pravin K. Shah)
Subramuniyaswami, Satugur S.,Dancing with Siva- Hinduism's Contemporary Catechism, Himalayan Academy Publishers, 1997.

Antonia Blumberg   |   April 21, 2015    9:33 AM ET

We all need help maintaining our personal spiritual practice. We hope that these Daily Meditations, prayers and mindful awareness exercises can be part of bringing spirituality alive in your life.

Today's meditation features a TEDx talk by psychologist Dr. Shamini Jain. "Are you your own healer?" Jain asks. There are hidden possibilities of healing -- both scientific and spiritual -- that we can tap into.

Impressions of India: Udaipur to Deogarh

Mary Anne Erickson   |   March 8, 2015    5:13 PM ET

Monday January 12, 2015 -- Our last breakfast at the Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel in Udaipur was poignant. As wonderful as the meal was, it was the view I could feast on for days to come. We left promptly at 9:00 a.m. traveling back on the narrow streets to rendezvous with our van. It was once again a heart-stopping ride in a tuk tuk, this time with a very entertaining driver who turned the music up loud and sang to us in Hindi. Back on the open roads, we observed a number of women carrying huge bundles on their heads along the roadsides. Adil explained that in the rural villages, women do most of the heavy work (like fetching large pots of water which are carried on their heads and doing the field labor) while the men sit around drinking tea and socializing. Hmmmm? This is challenging to my western sensibilities. I am pleased to have been able to witness some of the strides SWATI has made in advancing the rights for rural, village women in Gujurat.

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As we drove north toward Deogarh, we were on a two lane highway that trickled down to a 1+ lane highway with very little traffic. This was a delightful surprise! Soon, the arid landscape became more mountainous and we found ourselves on a very treacherous road with many hairpin turns. All of a sudden someone in the bus yelled, "there's a monkey!" and we all sat up at attention to look for more. As we continued on there were lots of monkeys sitting on the barricades along the side of the road. We begged the driver to stop so we could take some pictures, which he did, but we were advised to stay inside the bus. We loved observing the mothers with the babies and a tussle between two little ones playing. At one point, something scared them and boom, they all ran away at enormous speed!

We arrived just before noon at the ancient Ranakpur Jain Temple, constructed over 1,500 years ago. This impressive structure has over 1,400 richly carved pillars made of Sevali and Sonarna stones. No two pillars look alike. It is inconceivable how many people it would have taken and how many years to create this masterpiece.

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Adil gave us a brief lecture on the Jain sect of Hinduism, which was founded 500 years before Jesus was born. The word "jain" means "conquerer": Jain followers strive to conquer their desires. They believe in non-violence to even the smallest creatures in the universe, therefore a strict Jain follower will eat before sundown, as after sundown they could accidentally inhale a bug while eating. They also wear a white mask so as not to inhale a bug during the daytime and sleep with the mask on for the same reason. They eat not for pleasure but strictly to survive.

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We rode a few more hours to get to our fantastic hotel, the Deogarh Mahal, which is a converted palace with once again, a long and complex history. Each room is unique, as this was a home for royalty. Our room had a large sitting room, bedroom, changing room, and spacious bathroom with ultra-modern fixtures.

Before dinner we enjoyed strolling through the adjoining streets, taking in the wares of this very real, not tourist, town.

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At 6:30 the hotel put on a wonderful music and dance performance for us in an upstairs courtyard around a big fire. I was having such a good time grooving to the music that the dancers approached me to join them for the finale! Well THAT was a surprise I wasn't expecting. I jumped up and did my best to follow along with their dance steps, although it reminded me of how awkward I felt in my first Zumba class! Someone in my group shot a video on his phone, but he promised not to post it online - thank you!

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We then adjourned to the hotel restaurant for dinner, and the walk there took us past this dramatic view of the facade of the palace. We all agreed we felt like we were in a Broadway show - but wait - THIS is reality! We enjoyed another delicious meal in the most beautiful room and are now singing the praises of our excellent tour planner, Abbas Slatewala of IndiaSomeday for bringing us to this magical spot and for the great experiences we've had so far!

Join me tomorrow as we journey on to Jodhpur.

Mary Anne Erickson is an artist who has been documenting the demise of the American roadside culture for over 30 years in paintings and photography. Her work can be seen at www.vanishingroadside.com

Two Traditions: A Multitude of Symbols

  |   January 27, 2015    6:01 PM ET

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  |   August 29, 2014   12:18 PM ET

When Hemali Shah was a girl, sometimes it was hard to be a Jain. She wanted to run in the grass with other kids, but had to worry about accidentally stepping on an insect, and killing it.

Jainism is a tiny Indian religious sect in Chicago. Jains believe in nonviolence, to the point of not harming any sentient being, through action or even thought.

“I was an athlete, so I played softball a lot, and obviously if you're playing in the grass, there’s lot of bugs, so I ended up playing in the infield,” Shah said.

Jainism and Islam: More Similar Than You Might Think

Aamir Hussain   |   July 8, 2014    1:58 PM ET

Perhaps no two faith traditions are viewed as more divergent than Islam and Jainism. Indeed, the former is often associated with violence and extremism, while the latter is usually known for its inspiration for peaceful civil rights movements through its concept of ahimsa (nonviolence). As a Muslim of Indian background, I have wondered how to counter misinformation about my religion while striving to build greater interfaith connections among traditions common in South Asia. Fortunately, attending the Young Jains of America Convention (YJA) from July 3-6, 2014 has shown me that Islam and Jainism share some surprising similarities, and that the shared experiences of both groups in the United States can be translated into common action for the common good.

One commonality stems from the concept of nonviolence. The Jain saint Mahavira taught that all life is sacred, and that beings should always avoid harming one another. This idea is known as ahimsa. However, I learned at YJA that nonviolence does not equate to passivity or a LACK of action; rather, much like the movements of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, ahimsa involves an active pursuit for justice for all beings. In this way, ahimsa shares some similarities with Islam.

In Islam, the word jihad (meaning "struggle" in Arabic) is frequently misunderstood, and often refers to an inner moral struggle within a person, much like a decision of conscience. Even when the term is applied in the military context, violence in Islam is intended as a last resort, and must only be used in self-defense or in the pursuit of justice. Islam wholly respects the sanctity of life: the Quran (in referencing the Talmud) states that, "[Allah] decreed...that whosoever killeth a human being...it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (Quran 5:32, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a). The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) discouraged violence as much as possible, and often suffered physical harm rather than retaliating against his oppressors. These messages seem to be conveniently forgotten by terrorists who pervert the message of Islam to achieve their own agendas.

However, the example of Ghaffar "Badshah" Khan, a Pashtun Muslim and close friend of Gandhi, illustrates similarities between Jainism and Islam. Khan was inspired by Gandhi's ahimsa principles to found a nonviolent resistance organization for Muslims that attracted over 100,000 members. In a famous speech, he told his followers, "I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet [Muhammad], but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness." This group, called the "Servants of God," was integral to Gandhi's early efforts to present a united, interfaith, nonviolent front against British rule of the Indian subcontinent.

At YJA, I also learned that ahimsa extends to non-humans, and that by avoiding the consumption of animal products, Jains seek to limit their harm to nature. Upon reflection, I realized that although nearly all Muslims eat some meat, we respect animals as Allah's creations that must be treated with dignity. In fact, one purpose of slaughtering meat in the dhabiha manner is to minimize the animal's suffering as much as possible. Some stories from the Islamic tradition also highlight our religion's respect for nature. The Quran narrates that when the prophet Solomon (PBUH) was marching his army through a valley he thanked God for the ability to appreciate nature and ordered his soldiers to avoid harming any of the ants (Quran 27:18-19). Also, Muslims are told that a spider once saved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s life. When the Prophet once hid in a cave to escape his persecutors, a spider spun a web over the cave's entrance. Upon reaching the cave, the oppressors decided not to search it because they concluded that there was no way that the Prophet could have gotten inside without breaking the web.

My final major observation from YJA was that both Jain and Muslim youth consider ourselves to be proud Americans. An anecdote from a game of "Taboo" illustrates this idea: one player was trying to describe the word "cow" and said, "This animal is sacred in our country." Without hesitation, everyone guessed, "The bald eagle?" After laughing for several minutes, we all realized that we considered the United States as "our country." We might all have Indian heritage, but all of us love fireworks on the Fourth of July, supporting the U.S. soccer team, and belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Experiences like YJA remind me again and again of the potential for interfaith cooperation to bring diverse groups of people together. For instance, I was deeply moved when one YJA staff member asked whether I would need special accommodations during the conference, since he knew I was observing Ramadan. To me, interfaith understanding is a central part of American history and a key reflection of the common saying E Pluribus Unum. As I have previously written, South Asians are a relatively small community in the U.S., and we can accomplish much more by working together across lines of religious difference. Our shared immigrant experiences, our religions' emphases on social justice, and our cultural heritage can provide the common ground needed to act jointly on common issues such as combating racial stereotypes and eliminating poverty. I am grateful to YJA for the opportunity to attend this past convention, and I resolve to continue advocating for greater Jain-Muslim interfaith work. After all, dialogue is just the beginning; we need interfaith action to truly make a positive difference.

The Jain Art of Spiritual Dying

JAINA   |   February 14, 2014    3:57 PM ET

By Yogendra Jain

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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

  |   January 24, 2014   12:24 PM ET

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

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Planning a Cross-Cultural Thanksgiving

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Anger Management Is Fear Management

  |   November 4, 2013    1:55 PM ET

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