Jainism In America

 

 

By Mr. Yashwant K. Malaiya

 

Until a decade ago, very few people outside of India know about Jainism. It was thought to be an obscure Indian religion. Many still think that all Jains cover their mouths with a cloth and sweep the ground that they walk on, and that the practice of Jainism is so hard that extremely few people can follow it.

Today Jains have settled in several countries of the word outside of India, including U.K., USA, Canada, and Australia etc. There are Jain temples in some of the African countries and Japan. Quite a few of the Jains in America are well-known professionals, businessmen, entrepreneurs and researchers. The shikharas of new Jain temples proudly rise in several American cities.

How many Jains are there in America? What does the future hold for the Jains outside of India? Will they survive and flourish as an influential group, or will they disappear into the melting pots of the local cultures? Will the overseas Jainism have a character distinct from the Jain traditions in India? Let us examine some of the frequently asked questions.

History of Jainism in America : During the past few centuries, it was considered improper for Jains (and Hindus) to travel overseas because of the fear that they will be forced to compromise and lose the dharma. However, Jains had traveled overseas in remote antiquity. Jain traders used to travel to Zanzibar, central Asia, Turkey, and China etc. An 11th century bronze Jain image has been found in Bulgaria. In the past century, many Jains settled in Africa who later moved to UK and America.

The first known Jain to visit America was Virachand Gandhi who had lectured at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. His statue in the Jain temple in Chicago commemorates his visit. Next was Barrister Champat Rai Jain who addressed the World Fellowship of Faiths in Chicago in 1933. It is believed that these visits resulted in some individuals adopting Jainism. After independence, Indians started trickling in. By early 70, there were enough Jains to from the critical mass in a few places.

In 1971 Gurudev Chitrabhanu, a former monk, arrived in New York and he established the Jain Meditation Center of New York in 1973. The Jain Society of Toronto was founded in 1973, which was soon followed by Jain organizations in other places. Muni Sushil Kumarji arrived in USA in 1975. Two major events took place in 1973. The Jain Study Circular initiated publication in that year which has been a major force in defining Jainism in USA. Also the same year, the first edition of Jain Directory was published by the Jain Center of greater Boston, effectively connecting the Jains of USA and Canada into a single group. Some of the Jain organizations jointly hosted the first Jain convention in LA in 1981. This convention gave rise to JAINA a unique umbrella organization of all Jain in North America regardless of sectarian or regional backgrounds. Even though JAINA is a North American organization, it field of influence is now global.

A proud place among the Jinalayas of America belongs to Siddhachalam founded by Acharya Sushil Kumarji in 1983 on a wooded rolling New Jersey hilltop, making it the first tirtha on American soil. Many active volunteers are helping bring the light of Lord Mahavira's teachings to Jains and non-Jains. A prestigious award Jain Ratna is given by JAINA for service to Jain dharma in America. The first Jain Ratna was given in 1989 to Prof. Duli Chandra Jain for editing the Jain Study Circular. The Jain youth, the future of Jain community in America, actively participate in Young Jains of America, founded in 1992.

Jainism is one of the most ancient religions. The cultural traditions of the Jains in North America go back a long, long time. However the history of Jainism in North America is in the process of being written.

Jain Population in North America : Until recently, some publications like Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year gave 4000 as the number of Jains in North America. On the other hand, it is sometimes said there are one lakh (100,000) Jains here.
What is the truth?

The US government census does not record the religious affiliations. Thus there is not direct way of getting an exact count. The Jain Directory, an enormous and ambitious undertaking, provides a valuable glimpse by including the per-family information submitted, but not a complete count.

Fortunately, there is a reliable way for estimating the number of Jains. A look at the past Jain Directory suggests that a certain fraction of all Jains have the last name "Jain". Based on the most recent update of the Directory, this fraction is 7.6%. If we can count all those with last name Jain, we can get an estimate of the Jain population.

a. The 1990 USA census reports that there were 815,447 Indians and 0.6% (i.e. about 4893) had the last name Jain. This would give about 64,400 Jains in 1990.

b. Since 1990, the number of Indians and the number of Jains has gone up significantly. All individuals with a listed phone number (the information is about a year old) can be looked up on some of the web sites. I found 2039 families/individuals listed. Since there are about 3.12 members per family, that gives 85,600 Jains in USA in 1999. I believe this is a fairly accurate estimate; the margin of error should not be more than a few percent.

A population of 86,000-90,000 is quite significant. For a historical comparison, we should note that there are about 84 Jain "nyats" which wereat one time individually self-contained and capable of sustaining their social and religious values. Of these, only nine or ten (Agrawal, Chaturth, Humbad, Khandelwal, Oswal, Pancham, Parwar, Porwal, Shrimal, Shetwal) have a population exceeding the North American Jains.

The states with the largest population are given in the table below.

State; Families with last name Jain; All Families listed in Jain Directory
('97); Estimated population

 

431

979

15140

NJ

184

1009

10276

NY

189

690

8321

IL

107

504

5442

TX

128

313

4640

MI

68

418

4089

MA

81

291

3536

PA

69

295

3316

 

The Future of American Jainism : Jainism is thriving in North America. America is a very rich country that accepts cultural and religious diversity. Many Americans now believe in vegetarianism, the karma theory and rebirth. Although Jains have not attempted to attract converts, a few now call themselves Jain. In such an environment we can expect Jainism to be increasingly influential, not only among those who are born Jain, but others as well.

Still Jains parents cannot take their religion for granted, as they often do in India. The children are bombarded with messages from the media exhorting them to eat meat and drink alcohol. They are pressured by the peers to ignore parents, and life a life of fun without responsibilities. Jains are a small minority among the American Indian community. Sometimes Jain parents are finding it convenient to take the children to other Indian spiritual activities without attempting to provide the proper exposure to Jainism.

Fortunately, many capable Jain volunteers in America are providing exceptional leadership. They organize conventions, workshops, pratishthas and social events. Some are actively engaged in creation of new literature (like encyclopedias, CDs and literature for children). The future Jains of America will gratefully acknowledge their contributions.

 

-----------------------------------------------------

Mail to : Ahimsa Foundation
www.jainsamaj.org
R12111