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Jain or Hindu? Finding a Distinct Religious Identity in a Multi-Faith Society

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On the first day of college we were handed an optional Religious Identification Form to complete. Very simply, the form asked if we chose to identify with any of the listed religions or "Other," with a place to fill in what "Other" meant to us, and whether we wished to be contacted by campus religious organizations. Excited at finally escaping the "ignorant South" and assuming that an Ivy League education ensured Jainism's place amongst the listed religions, I eagerly scanned the list.

Nothing.

I double-checked the list. Still nothing. Now what? Hinduism was listed; should I take the easy route and check that? Proud of my Jain heritage but afraid I would not be contacted by any of the appropriate South Asian campus organizations, I quietly checked the box next to "Other" and wrote "Hindu/Jain."

When I meet people who have not heard of Jainism, or who assume it is an obscure branch of Hinduism, it frustrates me. Honestly though, until a few years ago, I barely knew the difference myself. All I knew was that we (Jains) fasted more and had stricter dietary restrictions, while they (Hindus) had cooler gods and goddesses.

Ironically, it was not until I joined the board of the Hindu students group in college that I began to explore these differences and give thought to my own distinct religious identity. As I soon realized, the notion that Jainism is a part of Hinduism was not limited to my childhood peers.

There are a large number of myths concerning the origins of Jainism, many of which I believed at some point. I became accustomed to hearing statements such as: "Jains are Hindus who worship a different set of gods," "Jainism was founded by Lord Mahavir in protest against the ritualism of Hinduism," and "Jains celebrate Hindu festivals, worship Hindu gods and goddesses, and borrow the Hindu concepts of non-violence, karma, moksha (salvation), and reincarnation."

The truth: Jainism is not a sect of Hinduism.

Jainism is an ancient religion that pre-dates Lord Mahavir, the 24th and last Jain Thirthankar, who lived in the sixth century BCE. Western history shows evidence that the 23rd Thirthankar Lord Parshvanath lived in the ninth century BCE. According to Jain records, there are 22 other Thirthankars that preceded both Lord Parshvanath and Lord Mahavir. Jains believe that our religion has no single founder, but that it has always existed and will continue to exist though it may occasionally be forgotten. In our present era, the first Thirthankar Lord Rushabhdev restored the Jain faith amongst humanity.

Within South Asia, both Jainism and Hinduism flourished alongside and independently of one another. Both religions share the theories of karma, reincarnation, and salvation. More detailed study, however, demonstrates that there are significant differences in how each religion treats these concepts, amongst other distinctions between the faiths. For example, Hindus regard karma as an invisible power explaining causality, while Jains believe karma to be a form of matter that binds to our soul as a result of our actions.

Whereas Hindus offer worship to many forms of one God, the creator and preserver of the world, Jains do not believe in the concept of an eternal God or a creator of the world. Jains regard the world itself as eternal. We offer our respect, and in some cases worship, to the Thirthankars -- great souls who have achieved enlightenment and attained salvation, freeing their souls from the cycle of birth and death and serving as role models for the faith. Additionally, Jain rituals, temples, places of pilgrimage, fasting and festivals differ significantly from those in Hinduism.

On that first day of college, while I was disappointed at not seeing Jainism on the form, my dual religious identity was not completely out of place and, as I later discovered, a common confusion for most young first generation Jain Americans. I grew up learning both the Jain faith and Hindu culture -- I attended a Hindu Sunday school for 13 years, I was (and still am) fascinated by Hindu mythology, and my family celebrates both Hindu and Jain festivals at our local joint Hindu-Jain temple. Yet it was always clear to my sisters and me that our religion was Jainism, not Hinduism or even both.

As my understanding of the differences between Jainism and Hinduism grew, I began to question my commitment to my faith. By partaking in so many Hindu customs, festivals and activities was I being unfaithful to Jainism?

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was not. It is possible to be a practicing Jain while still following Hindu customs. Jains and Hindus have been socially integrated since the large-scale migration of Buddhism out of India. As members of the faiths grew close, they shared customs, values and lifestyles that merged into a unique culture. In fact, the Jain doctrine of anekantavada, or the multiplicity of views, encourages individuals to practice non-exclusivity by exploring other perspectives, recognizing the relativity of truth and developing your own paradigm of it.

I am still forming my own distinct religious identity, but given that same Religious Identification Form I would now confidently check the box next to "Other" and proudly fill in "Jain." This is not to imply that I am any less Hindu now than I was as a college freshman. I cannot deny the Hindu influences in my upbringing or the fact that I still think they have cooler gods and goddesses. Nevertheless, with a more complete understanding of both faiths, I now know that despite an overwhelming number of cultural similarities, Jainism and Hinduism are distinct religions with individually valid philosophies. I know that the belief in one does not exclude the practice of the other. And I know that, ultimately, wherever I fall in the Jain-Hindu spectrum, somehow, it checks off.

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