Jainism in Greater Boston and Beyond: Challenges and Emergent Organizational Paradigms (2004)

This paper is a result of three months of research with the Jain community in the Greater Boston area. It is based primarily on my observations, informal interactions, more formal interviews, and bibliographic research. Being particularly interested in the challenges of the new generation of American-raised Jain youth, I made a concerted effort to address the issues of the high school and college-aged Jains. To these ends I conducted a nation-wide survey (mostly among Jains in their early twenties), to which I received 27 answers. I also visited the Sixth Convention of the Young Jains of America in Santa Clara, which I discuss in a research report entitled “Convention of the Young Jains of America, 2004 and American Jain Youth.” Although based on a more detailed study of the Boston community, the paper addresses challenges faced by the nation-wide Jain community. The first part discusses the current challenges and the second addresses some new paradigms that are emerging in response to these challenges. In 1979 the Jain Center of Greater Boston issued the first Jain publication in the US—the quarterly Jain Study Circular. In 1981 the first Jain temple on the American continent was opened in Norwood, just a few miles south of Boston. In 2000 Boston became the first American city to house two Jain organizations and the only city to have an exclusively Svetambar Jain derasar (temple). In the history of the American Jain community Boston has played a role akin to the role it has played in the history of the United States. It has been a major hub of political change, technological innovation and educational growth. One of the oldest and most vibrant Jain communities in the US, the Jain community in Greater Boston remains the vanguard in the ongoing adaptation, rethinking and re-organization of Jainism on the American soil. Members of the Boston Jain community have headed JAINA (The Federation of Jain Associations in North America). They have put on numerous plays, skits and dance performances at national Jain conventions. In 1998 they have organized a national educational convention, where teachers from pathshalas (Sunday schools) across the country gathered to produce a new study curriculum. Most notably, the community has produced numerous publications, the most remarkable of which has been the comprehensive Jain Directory of North America. Today Boston, the location of two distinctly oriented Jain organizations—the Jain Center of Greater Boston and the Jain Sangh of New England—is once again emerging as a leader in the American Jain community in its provision of new paradigms for Jain organization and practice in the American diaspora.

Current Challenges

Scattering, Absorption and Assimilation

Today there are approximately 400 Jain families who live in the Greater Boston area and according to the research done by the JAINA Long Range Planning Committee no more than 100,000 Jain residents in the US. Rivaled perhaps only by Zoroastrians, American Jains make up the least numerous religious community in the US. This community is not only small in numbers, but is also widely scattered across the country. The nature and reasons for much of Jain immigration to the US have been different from many other religious immigrant communities. Jains, most of whom came to the US not as displaced immigrants, but as graduate students or already educated professionals, typically do not join their families in communal clusters, but rather settle in places of employment and educational opportunity. In short, most American Jains have not been driven to the US by the “push” factors of economic or political displacement, except for those who came from East Africa in the 1970s. Instead, they were drawn to the US by what John Zarwan and Marcus Banks called the “pull” factors of attractive educational, economic and career opportunities (Zarwan 1974: 221 and Banks 1992: 129). Although cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Dallas, and Boston have accrued relatively large Jain communities, the “communal clustering” within among Jains is not as common as it is among other immigrant groups. One might find one Jain family in Arkansas, one in Alaska, four in Minnesota, etc. Curiously, it is precisely the high professional levels and ubiquitous knowledge of English within the community that while easing the process of immigration has sped up their assimilation.

— Anastasia Piliavsky, Pluralism Project Student Affiliate


Author’s note: I am deeply indebted to all Jain families who have been generous with their time and effort and without whose help this study would not be possible. It is with a great deal of diffidence that I take on the responsibility of re-presenting the local Jain community and although I am not a practitioner of Jainism, I will not hesitate to say to all the Jains in Boston (and beyond): Jai Jinendra!