Four days in the Silicon Valley
For four days in July of this year the Westin Business Hotel in the Silicon Valley of the San Francisco Bay Area hosted an unusual gathering—a convention of the Young Jains of America. A popular site for business conferences and corporate meetings, this year the luxurious high-rise was open exclusively to more than 850 young Jains, aged from 14 to 29. Attendees of the convention represented all regions of the United States with three people flying in from Canada. The convention involved its participants in a densely packed schedule of evens that included lectures, seminars, a trip to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, a film viewing, traditional Gujarati dancing, yoga classes, a “mocktail” party, and a Hawaiian Luau.
The Young Jains of America
The YJA was founded in 1991 as a youth chapter of the Federation of JAINA (Jain Associations in North America). Similarly to the establishment of JAINA in 1981, the founding of YJA was prompted by a growing need within the burgeoning American Jain community for a better-organized network of connections and a forum for the discussion of issues specific to the new generation of American-raised Jains. As Chintan Shah (the former Co-Chair of YJA) explained, the group began “as a movement driven by Jain youth. As the success of the JAINA conventions continued, young people saw the need for a youth organization. With the inspiration and support of some older leaders of our community, young people between [the ages of] 18 and 24 used their university experience to develop and implement [their] vision of an umbrella association that would address the issues of Jain youth.”
Organized by young members of the burgeoning Jain communities across the country (in cities like Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston and New York), the YJA became the vanguard in the current reworking of the meaning and practice of Jainism on the American soil. For the Jains immigrants in America, the preservation and transmission of their religion has been particularly challenging both because of the lack of religious authority and the small size of the community. Today, the community that only thirty years ago was in its incipient stages has matured and produced a new locally born abd raised generation. And it is now their children who will set up new paradigms of faith, practice and organization of the religion. This new generation has new aspirations, follows a new set of cultural rules, and simply speaks a new language; and inasmuch as their lives differ from those of their parents, their Jainism will also be different. It is the young generation of Jains that will redefine their religion in the new context of American life. As a national organization, the YJA has provided both financial support and organizational leadership for the newly emergent forms of Jain belief and practice in the US today.
Perhaps the most notable of the YJA achievements has been the establishment of an extensive network of connections among the American Jain youth, an ambitious task that was accomplished mainly through the regular organization of national conventions. Since 1994, when the first YJA Convention was held in Chicago, the group has been supporting biennial gatherings, each bringing together as many as 1000 young Jains. Since 1994 five more Conventions were organized in San Francisco (1996), Houston (1998), Los Angeles (2000), Mahwah, New Jersey (2002), and once again in the San Francisco Bay Area this year. Each convention has been attended not only by young Jains, but also by parents, volunteers from the community, scholars of Jainism, and more recently by Anglo-American non-Jains. The YJA biennial conventions have provided a forum for the discussion of ideas, concerns and visions among the American Jain youth. No less importantly, they have given many young Jains who may not have a Jain center in their hometowns a sense of a community. Finally, they have become one of the most active platforms not only for the realization of the group’s activities, but also for the larger rethinking on the Jain tradition of the American soil. The YJA also inspired the formation of more localized regional youth groups that hold their own annual conventions in the country’s Western, Southern, Southeastern, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-Western, and Northeastern regions. The group has also provided a prototype in leadership and organization for the creation of the Young Jain Professionals (YJP), a youth group founded in 1996 that sponsors social gatherings for slightly older Jains in their 20’s and 30’s.
Conveying Jainism at the convention
Jains both in India and in the US make up one of the most educated, affluent and technologically savvy communities. Through the use of their technological and managerial skills, Jains have been able to organize themselves with a remarkable efficiency. Many local Jain centers have democratically elected executive committees and well-functioning constitutions that allow for a rather efficient distribution of tasks. Most centers have well-developed and regularly updated websites. Encompassing organizational tasks such as the issue of a national Jain Directory of North America by the Jain Center of Greater Boston, were accomplished through the use of advanced computer technologies, developed and implemented by members of the community. American Jains take pride in their accomplishments. The values of professionalism, commitment to success, education, technological competence, and a strong work ethic have been the back drop for the community’s self-assertion and self-representation. The Silicon Valley, the local hub of the recent information technology boom, and the Westin Business Hotel, known as a site of professional conferences and business gatherings, provided an ideal location for this year’s convention, which aimed to represent the Jain community as a progessive, educated and professional group.
Attendees of the convention were required to wear “professional attire” (with no jeans or tank tops allowed). Notably, almost nobody wore traditional Indian clothing. Mini skirts and sport jackets, rather than saris or salwar-kamiz suits, were the uniform. Moreover, the punctiliously structured schedule not only ensured the control of hundreds of excited teenagers, it also left little time for idle “hanging out” and created a busy professional atmosphere.
The YJA made efforts to reach out to the local community. Patricia Mahan, the Mayor of Santa Clara, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, welcomed the attendees with letters that were included in the Souvenir Book of the Convention. The YJA distributed professionally made booklets in the transportation system of the Silicon Valley and contacted local universities and scholars of Jainism. By marking a shift from inwardly focused to more extraverted outward-directed activity, the convention became a milestone in the development of the larger American Jain community. The YJA has been a warm host and a well organized group that has without doubt left the impression of a professional, successful, educated, technologically competent, and a diffidently wealthy community.
The conference: structure, speakers and themes
The four days of the convention were densely packed with activities. Each day started at 6:30 in the morning with yoga, aerobics, and Bhangra dance classes, followed by lectures, seminars and performances. Each day culminated with late-night social events such as Gujarati dancing, a mela (“Cultural Fair”) and a Hawaiian Luau. The participants were separated into three age categories (high school, college and post-college) which attended presentations that were relevant to their age. The organization of the convention into three thematic tracks entitled: “Ahimsa (nonviolence) in the World,” “Being Jain in the 21st Century,” and “Music, Masala and Mandirs [temples]: Our Jain Cultural Heritage” allowed the attendees to choose workshops, lectures and discussions in accord with their individual interests. The schedule also included “social sessions” that mixed the age groups and allowed the attendees of all age groups had an opportunity to meet and mingle.
The speakers at the convention ranged from non-Jain scholars of Jainism, Jain vegetarian epicures, representative from environmentalist groups, Jain businesspeople, and YJA alumni. Five samanis, or semi-ordained nuns of the Nav Terapanth Jain order were the special guests of the convention. The variety of presenters and topics created a multifaceted experience that kept hundreds of teenagers (for the most part) glued to their seats for four days. A new experience for many participants became the lectures by Anglo-American non-Jains. Neha Shah (15) thought, “it was cool to meet white people who are interested in Jainism. You know,” she said, “sometimes I feel like a freak. There are no Jains in my hometown and I always have to explain that “Jain” is not my name, that it’s my religion. Here I saw how important Jain beliefs can be not only for Jains, but also for many other [non-Jain] Americans.” Among non-Indian presenters were Dr. Anne Vallely (a professor at the University of Ottawa), Kristi Wiley (a graduate student of South Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley), and Dr. Skoog (a professor of philosophy at the University of Guam who lectured and moderated a number of discussions at the convention).
The invitation of other non-academic “white” non-Jains who represented groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), YES! (Youth for Environmental Sanity), and ETHIC (The Essence of True Humanity in Compassion) was an important new step in the development of the YJA and the larger American Jain community. By opening the convention to non-Jains, the Young Jains of America not only reached out beyond the Jain community, but also (and perhaps no less importantly) set up new examples for the practice of Jainism. The non-Jain activists of PETA, ETHIC and YES! exemplified alternative ways of realizing Jain values—through more secular, ethically-humanitarian and social activities. For the young Jains in the US the interactions with non-Jain pacifist and social-activist organizations has been both a way to open their community to the American public as well as a way to learn about other more socially established ways of being involved in the promotion of Jain values. Although most young Jains are reluctant to join the proselytizing activist efforts of groups like PETA, members of the YJA have been involved in the less intrusive organizations and porjects such as Walk for Hunger and the Habitat for Humanity. In 2002 a group of YJA youth volunteered in Gujarat for the Veerayatan humanitarian project.
Inasmuch as the convention was a forum for the sharing of ideas between Jain youth, some of the most provocative and popular presentations were organized by the young Jains themselves, who moderated discussions, shared their experiences and presented skits and musical performances. Shrenik Shah (24), a member of the Jain Center of Greater Boston, organized a Jain musical band that performs traditional Jain songs to rock melodies composed in traditional Indian musical modes. As Shrenik explained, the goal of his band, called “Substance Seven,” was “to make Jain songs available to the modern American Jain youth and also to rediscover music in Jain religious life.” Members of “Substance Seven” performed Jain devotional songs and explained the ways in which they went about translating Indian classical raags (modes) into rock tunes. Other youth presentations included a skit by the Dallas Jain Youth Group, which outlined the basic principles, lifestyle, and goals of Jain mendicants. The pathshala students of the Jain Center of Greater Boston presented a skit based on the popular TV show “Saved by the Bell.” (The skits, developed over the years in the pathshalas across the country, have been compiled into a textbook called Jain Moral Skits by the JAINA Education Committee.) In addition, groups of active young Jains led discussions such as: “How Jain is Your Profession,” “Can’t We All Just Be Jains?” and “Peering into the Crystal Ball: The Future of Jainism,” raising issues of parochialism, moral choice, and inter-religious marriage.
Older Jains, both parents and active members of the community, provided substantial financial and organizational support. Many gave lectures and moderated discussions. Dr. Dipak Jain, whose keynote address at the opening ceremony set the tone for the convention, spoke about his experience of being the only Jain in his professional environment. Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a successful entrepreneur, Dr. Jain said: “Jainism is a key to success. It is a gift to be cherished. It teaches you to be positive and to do things without thinking: ‘what’s in it for me?’” In speaking about Jainism as the “key to success,” Dr. Jain explained Jain principles into more easily undrestood terms, translating “right perception, right knowledge, and right action,” (the three “jewels” of Jain philosophy) as “rational perception, rational knowledge, and rational action.” Dr. Jain also interpreted the ten Jain dharmas, or religious duties, as “ten qualities of a leader.” Like many other speakers at the convention, he pointed out the scientific accuracy of Jain theology and encouraged systematic inquiry into Jain belief. Setting the tone for the practice-oriented mode of the convention, Dr. Jain, pointed out that there is a Jain way of doing just about anything—a Jain way of eating, speaking and living.
Sources of religious authority
For many, the convention was also a rare opportunity for meeting Jain mendicants. Due to the restrictions of the Jain monastic law, which prohibits vehicle-facilitated travel, Jain mendicants have not been able to travel to the US. Consequently, the semi-ordained samanis of the recently established Nav Terapanth order, who mane use of vehicles to travel, have become some of the only figures of Jain religious authority in the US. While serving as a major source of the tradition, they have heavily and inadvertently affected the direction of Jainism in the US.
Traditionally, the Jain community is referred to as the chaturvidha sangha (“the four-fold community”) as it encompasses the four orders of male mendicants (sadhus), female mendicants (sadhvis), laymen (sravakas), and laywomen (sravikas). The importance of guidance, knowledge, and inspiration that the ascetic order traditionally provides to the lay community cannot be overstated. “The ascetic order,” writes Natubhai Shah, “plays a very important role part in Jainism; it observes the teachings of Mahavira rigorously…. Throughout the ages monks have been the scholars and teachers of the Jain faith. Nuns have been much less involved in scholarship but have taken a prominent part in expounding faith to laity…. The monks and nuns inspire the laity to establish temples, upashrayas [monasteries and places of meditation], libraries and other welfare institutions” (Shah 1998: 137). The Jain sangh in the US is a two-fold community. The lack of monastic religious leaders has been a serious impediment to the transition of religious knowledge and the maintenance of a ritually full and theologically deep tradition in the US, making contact with the Terapanthi samanis a much awaited opportunity.
The Nav Terapanth (New Terapanth) is the most recently organized sect of Jainism, which in 1981 separated from the Svetambar Terapanthi order. The movement was a dual attempt to both purify and modernize the tradition by “present[ing] Jainism to a wider audience and make[ing] it more relevant to the needs of India and the world” (“Nav Terapanth”). “The Nav Terapanth,” wrote Kenneth Oldfield, “speaks out for the recurrent voice in Jainism which is constantly anxious about maintaining the absolute purity of the path of the ascetic orders, crucial to the attainment of moksha” (Oldfield 1981: 96-7). Acharya Tulsi, the founder of the movement, urged Jains to “move with the times” and stressed morality, education, social action, and presentation of Jain values both to Jains and non-Jains in and outside of India. The Nav Terapanth has created a new position of the semi-ordained mendicants (samans and samanis)which made it particularly successful in Jain communities outside of India. The movement has emphasized spirituality rather than religiosity, philosophy rather than ritualism, and cohesion rather than parochialism, the views that are easily understood in the American context.
At the convention the young, active and progressive Nav Terapanthi samanis lectured on the significance of nonviolence, sectarian unity, and the virtue of transforming Jain ideals into social action. The specific views of the Terapanthi mendicants, who have been regularly traveling and teaching in the US, have shaped the views of the young generation. Themselves avid humanitarian activists, the samanis have promoted social action within the community, pioneering the recent revision of ethical action as an essentially social institution. Perhaps most notable, the influence of the Terapanthi samanis have been instrumental to the transition of Amerincan Jainism from devotional to more secularly philosophical and ritually less involved tradition.
“Y Jain?” Questions, anxieties, visions
The theme of this year’s convention: “Y Jain? To See, to Know, to Realize” announced not only the motivation of the convention, but also reflected the more pervasive questions, visions and anxieties that haunt the new generation of American Jains. Remarkably, the cryptic phrase—“Y Jain?”—a seemingly futile question for those who have been born into the tradition, became the fulcrum of this year’s convention. “Why should youth today choose to use Jainism as a way of life from numerous other religions, if religion is an answer at all?” asked the YJA leaders in the opening pages of the Souvenir Book (Sixth Biennial Young Jains of America Convention Souvenir Book). In the US questions of religion and spirituality have for many become a matter of choice; consequently, one’s traditional faith often becomes subject to skepticism, criticism or even outright rejection. Such attitude is no different for many young American Jains, for whom “American” remains a primary cultural identifier. It has been increasingly more difficult for American Jains to keep their youth within the tradition and to retain its involvement in the community. “To be a Jain, one needs a community,” said Mita Vora (24), “If there are no Jains around you, it is very difficult to follow Jainism, even if you are interested in it. It is difficult to be a true Jain. Out of one thousand Jains, only one will be a true Jain, but to do that she needs those nine hundred and ninety nine Jains.”
As the recent research of the JAINA Long Range Planning Committee has shown, as many as one fourth of American Jains drop out of the community after they finish high school. Yet, as the success of this year’s convention has shown, many of those who stay in the community are eager to take a harder look at the religion of their upbringing and to find a place for Jainism not only on Sundays in the temples, but also in their everyday lives. As one participant of the convention said, “for me Jainism became something very different from what it is for my parents, a peripheral and ritually-burdened practice. For me it is something internal, something personal. In many ways Jainism saved me from depression, teenage confusion and from the feeling of rootless-ness that many American kids face.”
While for many high school aged attendees the convention was primarily a social event—a chance to flirt and “to dress to impress”—for many of the older participants it became a weighty discussion of personal spirituality, faith and belief. This year the YJA executive board set up ambitious goals—to address the question of faith, to attract the confused and skeptical youth to Jainism, and to find ways to teach without preaching. As Dr. Skoog put it, “We are not here to force [the participants] to believe. After all, these are high school and college-aged kids, who will not listen even if you try to do that. Instead, we make them aware of Jain principles and encourage them to make choices.” “We try very hard,” said Chintan Shah (a former Co-Chair of YJA), “to balance activities that both attract and educate young people (whose attention it is so hard to hold). We often try to use cultural and social events to encourage participation and networking for educational events.”
Titles of lectures, workshops and seminars, such as “Should I Believe? Why and How?” “Beyond Jain Belief: Fact or Fiction?” or “The Practicality of Jain Tradition in America” spoke for themselves. They provided no answers, but rather provoked questions of faith, both reflecting and addressing a general anxiety about the future of Jainism in America. Will the tiny and scattered community endure the onslaught of American values? How will the young Jains deal with the lack of religious leaders in the US? Which beliefs and practices will survive? Which ones will be altered or discarded? There are no answers to these questions, but the convention urged its participants to see the challenges of being Jain in America more clearly, to know the Jain approach to these challenges and to realize these insights by incorporating them into their daily lives.
(Not) lost in translation: language and culture in constructions of Jainism and Indianness
The convention also facilitated the diffusion of cultural values. A number of activities were cultural rather than religious; and the goal was set to express an active mixture of American and Indian cultures in the lives and identities of young Jains. The mela or “Cultural Fair,” which was held on the first evening of the convention, included crafts from India and the US such as mehndi (henna tattoo) and fortune telling. This year’s theme for the mela, which has become a staple of the YJA conventions, was “East vs. West,” its activities including both traditionally American and Indian dances, music and crafts. The last two evening were devoted to an Indian dance party featuring both traditional Gujarati Garba and Ras and the more popular Punjabi Bhangra music and dance.
In the lives of many older Jains, religion and “Indianness” have been closely intertwined, primarily because Jainism has remained an exclusively Indian religion until the recent emergence of Jain diasporas into the world. In many ways for the American Jains Indian activities, the transmission of which does not require the presence of religious specialists or a thorough knowledge of Jain philosophy, became important vehicles for the transmission of religious practices. According to Bipin Shah, the President of the Jain Center of Northern California, “cultural activities have attracted the youth toward the activities of the center and have shown them that Jainism can also be fun.” The colorful and exciting festivities such as Holi and Diwali that are less particularly Jain and more generally Indian, have been some of the most popular activities among the Jain youth. While many young Jains may not be particularly skilled in the performance of ritual ablutions, virtually all are expert Garba, Ras and Bhangra dancers.
While dancing and festival celebrations have been successful in opening the doors of the community to its youth, the use of Indian languages has been a more complicated issue. Although some young Jains understand Hindi, Gujarati, or Sindhi, for many English has become a language of choice. While some families taught their children to speak their traditional language, others didn’t; and while for some Indian language has been an important marker of religious and cultural identity, for others it has been a impediment to their involvement in the community. One youth told me: “When I was little, my parents forced me to speak Gujarati and I hated it, but now it is helping me in my religion and it forces me to keep my Indian identity.” Another young woman said that she knew no Hindi or Gujarati and although she attended classes she understood very little and was constantly frustrated. Now 28, she has made the first attempt to a return to the community since her teenage years.
The variety of languages spoken in the community, from Hindi and Gujarati to Sindhi, Kuttchi and even Tamil, proved to be another obstacle for the preservation of traditional language within the community. In one discussion session the question of language provoked a divergence of opinions. While some insisted that language was crucial for a deeper appreciation of Jainism, others claimed that because much material has been made available in English, they know a bit about Jainism without having to know the Indian languages. A young man who grew up in Houston told me about his experience of the language problem. “In the town where I grew up, most Jains were Gujarati and so our pathshala was taught in Gujarati. I spoke Hindi. This completely drove me away from the Jain Center. I still have bad memories and I still have not returned to the temple.” “Jainism,” said another participant of the discussion, “is not a Gujarati religion. I am not Gujarati. We now have all the pathshala books available in English. I know a lot and my faith is based on everything I learned in English.” “I Think the essence of religion,” said another, “will not be lost if you modify [ritual] practices and conduct them in English.” “The values will be lost,” followed a response, “because almost everything is lost in translation.”
Although individual opinions about the significance of Indian language for the transmission of Jainism diverge, most agree that English will be the primary medium of American Jainism. Pravin Shah, who for the past 24 years has been the head of the JAINA Educational Committee and has made numerous Jain resources available in English, admitted that “the older traditionalists” have criticized his efforts as being conducing to “destroying or watering down the tradition. But for our new generation to grow up with Jainism,” he continued, “We have to make our tradition accessible rather than foreign and mysterious. This will only alienate our youth, which is the last thing that we want to do.”
Toward the end
On the Fourth of July, exited and exhausted young Jains were leaving the convention. Many will return to places where they will remain the only Jains in their hometowns, counties or even states. Yet having attended the convention, they have made acquaintance with Jains across the country. They have plugged into the larger network of the American community of Jains. Perhaps the lessons in leadership and continuity of the tradition, which they encountered at the convention, will stay with them, inspiring them in due time to find Jain centers, temples and organizations. Perhaps the memories of these few days will resurface when they have children of their own to provide insights into the ways for translating and transferring the tradition to the next generation.
In 1991, the year that the YJA was founded, Amar Asalgia, an active youth from Illinois, wrote: “the religious experience of the youth does not extend far beyond ritualism and dropping rice and bananas into metal plates!” (Asalgia 1991). Today, thirteen years later, the Jain experiences of Jain youth go far beyond “rice and bananas on metal plates”—toward a deeper philosophical understanding, wider communal interconnection, and social action. At this year’s convention Amar told me that although he thinks that many of the Jain tenets are still misinterpreted and misunderstood, young Jains have made substantial progress in learning and organizing their tradition. The Jainism of young American Jains, pioneered by the YJA, is emerging as an active, organized, and extraverted tradition—a tradition that however distinct from Jainism of the older generation, is determined to preserve its unique message, value and practice.
Asalgia, Amar. “Keeping Jainism Alive in North America.” 6th Biennial JAINA Convention Youth Souvenir Book. Raleigh: JAINA (Federation of Jain Associations in North America). 1991.
“Nav Terapanth.” In on-line Overview of World Religions at http://philter.ucsm.ac.uk/encyclopedia/Jainism/nav.html
Oldfield, Kenneth. Jainism Today: A Study of the Jain Community in a Rajasthan Village in 1982. University of Lancaster: Unpublished MA dissertation. 1982.
Shah, Natubhai. Jainism: The World of Conquerors. Vol. 1. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press. 1998.
Sixth Biennial Young Jains of America Convention Souvenir Book. Santa Clara, CA: Young Jains of America. 2004.