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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 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


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.

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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?'

  |   September 17, 2013    4:27 PM ET

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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?

  |   August 26, 2013    4:15 PM ET

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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.

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