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JainNext dives deep into shared heritage

July 30, 2009 19:34 IST

'In the 21st century, being in North America, we are bombarded by so many different types of ideas and values that sometimes as youth, we get confused on what's the right way of doing things,' said Young Jains of America Co-chair Ami Doshi at the JAINA Convention in California.

'Sometimes there's no one way of doing things. There's multiple ways of doing things. That's actually one of the most important aspects of Jainism: anekhantvad, which means multiple points of view.'

But one of the speakers at the convention, Professor Gary Francione, thought that by being pulled in two directions -- spiritual and material -- the young Jains were losing their heritage and values.

The Independence Day weekend in America was a memorable one for hundreds of Jain teenagers and young adults from North America. Some of them were inspired to change their diet. Several of them may have met their future spouses. Others learned about the history of their ancestors. Many found a way to relate to their spirituality.

Young Jains of America, JAINA's youth committee, played a key role in organising youth events at the convention. Throughout the long weekend, the younger generation learned about Jain dharma through entertaining activities such as the JAINA Academic Bowl, leadership sessions, Jain Way of Living Seminars, and entrepreneur workshops.

Young men and women at the convention had the chance to meet their life partners through the JAIN21 programs scheduled for those who were 21 and older. Some of the events included icebreakers, mixers, speed-dating activities, and Bollywood aerobics.

In addition, some more serious programs were a career panel and charity activities. The evening cruise was, by far, the most popular activity of the weekend. At least 40 per cent of the 2,500 attendees were youth, a remarkable turnout, the organisers said.

Doshi and co-chair Sonia Ghelani work throughout the year to get Jain youth to connect with some aspect of their religion, whether it is vegetarianism, meditation, charity work. They are trying to initiate more involvement at the local and regional levels. 

"If we can really get that going, it might spark interest and other youth might also realize that you don't need to be on an executive board to make a difference," Ghelani said.

"You don't have to be one of the 15 elected every year or only do the projects that YJA sponsors. We want everyone to start getting involved and doing things for the community and for themselves."

For Ghelani, YJA is an activity she always wanted to be a part of, ever since her parents signed her up for paatshala (religious Sunday school) classes, "Back when you're a little teenybopper and you hear about these awesome YJA conventions every two years."

At the age of 15, she was able to attend her first YJA convention. Since then, she rose through the ranks as Temple Liaison for the Southern Region and now, co-chair of the board.

YJA helps foster the sense of networking and friendship that you get on the YJA board or just being part of YJA at large, she says. "You find others who are like you, who think like you, who act like you, who believe in what you do," she said. She also appreciates the fact that through national YJA events, she now knows at least one person in each state. "It's always nice when you have a community that shares the same feelings and everything. It helps you learn and grow better, I feel."

Doshi, who joined YJA in 2006, takes Jain ideals to heart. "I think Jainism is not just a religion; it's a way of life, too… Going through these events not only helped me learn more about my religion, but helped me understand other religions and cultures better," she says. "You can't view other people's culture with your eyes, with your culture. You have to look at it from their perspective, put yourself in their shoes and look at why they do what they do."

In addition to participating at the JAINA conventions, YJA organizes their own Youth Convention every other year. YJA's next big event will be its 9th Biennial Youth Convention in 2010.

A keynote speaker at the convention, Kellogg's Dean Dipak Jain spoke to the youth about how his Jain values and ideals guided him through life. He said by following what he believed in, he was able to achieve whatever he wanted to.

A group of Jain nuns from Texas also lectured the youth about their religion. These seminars were a great success, judging by the numerous participants who stayed up to 45 minutes after the lectures to ask questions and further discuss topics in-depth with the speakers, the organisers said.

Jagdish Sheth, a business professor, was impressed with their interest in Jainism., "The youth program was very energising," he said. "They have the beliefs about Jainism, clearly, but can do it in a contemporary, modern way, the 'fusion concept,' as I call it. We need to fuse the east and west."

Francione noticed the youth's extensive involvement: "From what I can see as a cultural outsider, things are changing dramatically," he mused. "The younger generation of Jains is going to revolutionize the world."

He praised their deep concern for important social issues. "A lot of young Jains are socially conscious," he added.

"I spoke with a lot of them over the weekend and they were into things. They were into human rights issues. Many of them were vegan. And they saw the connections. I was meeting kids who were graduating from med school and they wanted to go to India to work with poor people. That's great. That's terrific that there are such young people like that out there."

He also offered some valuable insight into why the majority of Jain youth in the US are not involved with their religion. He said the contradictory values of success and religion pull Jain teenagers from either side.
"Jains need to take the concept of non-possessiveness seriously," he said.

"Look, you come to this country and you tell your kids pursue the American dream. 'America is wonderful, America this, America that.' The American dream is the fetishisation of materialism. It's a relentless pursuit of things. It's the notion that the individual is valuable depending on how much she has. That's what it boils down to. On one hand you're telling your kids, 'Hey, go for it, get the American dream,' and on the other hand you're telling them to be spiritual. There's some sort of schizophrenia built into that situation."

Trisha Sanghavi in California