Its foundations are older than Buddhism and its principles include nonviolence and discourage excess wealth and possessiveness.
Jainism is one of India’s oldest religions still practiced today, yet few know it exists or understand the influence it has had over contemporary society. Vikas Malhotra is determined to change that.
Malhotra is California State University, Northridge’s first Bhagvan Ajitnath Endowed Professorship in Jain Studies. As such, he has spent the past year laying the foundation for what he hopes to be an ongoing effort to educate people, in particular his students, about Jainism.
“Jainism is an ancient tradition. It is more than 2,000 years old, older than Buddhism,” Malhotra said.” It was extremely influential to what Buddhism looks like and helped to change what Hinduism would become. It has been instrumental in what the religions of Southeast Asia look like. It’s a small and very old religion, but it is one that is alive and has communities all over the world, including a very large one in California, and even the San Fernando Valley.”
The Bhagvan Ajitnath Endowed Professorship in Jain Studies in CSUN’s Department of Religious Studies in the College of Humanities was established two years ago as part of a $800,000 grant from Drs. Jasvant Modi and Meera Modi. The Modis said they made the gift, in part, because they believe that exposure to a wide range of cultures and faiths is paramount to providing students with a well-rounded higher education, and to building an enlightened and inclusive society. The principal objective of the endowment is the creation and continued offering of courses on the fundamental principles of Jainism.
The professorship is named for Bhagvan Ajitnath, who is believed to be the second of 24 Tirthankaras, or enlightened beings, who taught the teachings of Jainism in our current world cycle.
Malhotra said one of Jainism’s cornerstone principles is ahiṃsā, or nonviolence.
“This is the same term that Mahatma Gandhi used in his efforts to create a nonviolent movement during India’s struggle for Independence from the British,” Malhotra said. “So, this very, very ancient idea of nonviolent action to effect change actually started over 2,000 years ago and had a profound impact on people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, who trace their nonviolent efforts to Gandhi, who’s gurus included a Jain teacher.”
Malhotra noted that ahiṃsā also means no killing of other life forms, which means that Jains are vegetarians or vegans.
“Many only eat certain types of plants in order to minimize the killing of plants, because they believe all living things have souls,” he said.
Another key principle of Jainism, aparigraha, “which means minimizing one’s possessions and not being attached to material things in the world,” Malhotra said. “The really important concepts of nonviolence and not being possessive of material things got pushed later on into Buddhism and Hinduism.”
Another important concept in Jainism, is the idea that everything in the world is connected.
“Basically, if you harm something that you see as ‘other,’ what you are really doing is harming yourself,” he said. “So, if you are harming the Earth, you are harming yourself, which is why you find Jains very, very involved in environmental causes these days. Their belief system is very much rooted in not having a lot of possessions, not wasting anything including environmental resources, not killing animals and plants just wholesale and minimizing the harm we do to ourselves and the other living beings that share the planet with us.”
As the Bhagvan Ajitnath Endowed Professorship in Jain Studies, Malhotra has hosted conferences on Jainism and plans to hold more. He also takes his students on fields trips to the Jain Center of Southern California, located in Buena Park, where they can learn more about the religion and its community and traditions.
In addition to discovering that vegan food can be quite tasty, he said his students find that Jainism and its principles “really resonate with them.”
“They are naturally inclined to not want to kill and not get wrapped up in the materiality that seems to dominate so much of the world today,” he said. “They’ll tell me, ‘While I could never become a monk or nun, I feel like I could live up to some of these ideals—not trying to have too many possessions, not trying to harm others with my words or actions.’
“My students see Jainism as a beautiful tradition, and kind of an antidote to so much of what we are experiencing today—the division, war and hate and environmental destruction,” Malhotra said.