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Jains gather in California with the next generation on their minds

The ancient Indian faith has seen tremendous growth in the U.S. over the past two decades, largely through immigration. Now the challenge is sustaining the faith's numbers among millennials and Gen Z.

Attendees participate in a parade at the 20th biennial JAINA Convention in Ontario, Calif., on July 4, 2019. Photo courtesy of JAINA

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi with 1.6 million Instagram followers, addresses the 20th biennial JAINA Convention in Ontario, Calif. on July 5, 2019. RNS photo by Heather Adams

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — At the 20th biennial JAINA Convention in Ontario, Calif., over the Independence Day weekend, nearly 3,500 Jains, followers of an ancient Indian sect, were treated to highly sought-after speakers such as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi with 1.6 million followers on Instagram, and Gaur Gopal Das, a motivational speaker who has more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube.

But the real stars of the show, in a sense, were young Jains such as Pooja and Poonam Shah, 36 and 28 respectively.

The theme for the convention was “Jain Religion in the 21st Century,” and nearly everyone in attendance seemed to be aware that the next eight decades depend on handing the faith over to the millennial and Gen Z Jains.

In addition to breakout sessions geared specifically for their age group, the convention provided various ways for younger Jains to meet, including both Young Jains of America and Jain Connect, a new program to help young Jains “make new friends, new business connections or find a special someone.” An allied organization, Young Jain Professionals, met simultaneously at the convention center.

A newsletter specifically for young Jains, with articles about college and cooking, aims to keep the relationship going now that the convention is over.

Attendees participate in a parade at the 20th biennial JAINA Convention in Ontario, Calif., on July 4, 2019. Photo courtesy of JAINA

Jainism, which shares some common history with Hinduism and Buddhism, focuses on the principles of nonviolence (ahimsa), nonpossessiveness (aparigraha) and multiple viewpoints (anekantvad). It encourages vegetarianism or veganism, environmentalism, equal rights and meditation. The religion was first brought to the United States 125 years ago by Virchand Gandhi.

In 1979, when the Jain Center of Southern California was founded, there were 10 other Jain centers across the U.S. Two years later JAINA, an umbrella organization, was founded and had its first convention. Today there are 67 Jain centers in the United States, with an estimated 165,000 members.

Much of that growth has come from the tide of Indian immigrants coming to the United States in the past two decades. Since 2000, India has seen a 108 percent increase in its diaspora population, one of the largest increases, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. As of 2015, 2.4 million people from India were living in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

But there’s more to Jainism’s success in America than that, according to Dipak Doshi, a spokesman for this year’s convention.

JAINA has worked hard to unite American Jains by taking a nonsectarian approach, something unique to the U.S. “No such umbrella organization within Jains exists even in India,” said Doshi. “This is absolutely one of a kind.”

Young boys look at exhibits at the 20th biennial JAINA Convention in Ontario, Calif., on July 5, 2019. RNS photo by Heather Adams

While there are two main sects within Jainism and many smaller groups, the united organization has allowed many younger generations to identify simply as Jains, said Doshi, whose own kids “only know that we are Jains,” he said, rather than knowing they are one particular sect of Jain.

“That means the whole new generation growing up here takes pride in being a Jain,” he said.

While younger Jains are sticking with the faith, millennial Jains say, they are also making different connections to the faith than previous generations.

“The older generation is more about practicing in the form of going to the temple, rituals and stuff,” said Arpit Mehta, 33, a board member of YJA. “The youth have taken a step forward. They’re trying to learn more about the core values.”

They have then taken those core values into their non-Jain communities, Mehta said. “They will show up for Mahatma Gandhi Day. They will show up for nonviolence day. They will do beach cleanup. They will go save the turtles. They will be involved in recycle projects,” he said.

Dancers perform during a cultural show at the 20th biennial JAINA Convention on July 4, 2019, in Ontario, Calif. Photo courtesy of JAINA

Environmental and animal rights groups are noticing.

“I don’t think any other religion on the face of the earth has been as powerful, as strong and as ethical, as Jains,” said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who spoke at the convention.

Erika Abrams-Myers, co-founder of Animal Aid Unlimited, said that because Jains are already focused on many of the same issues as groups like hers, she and other advocates consider them “low-hanging fruit” for recruitment.

“The idea of not hurting another living being is totally woven into the culture,” said Abrams-Myers. “What a strong, beautiful starting place.”

Mehta believes some of the difference in the ways the two generations practice their religion has to do with the different challenges his parents faced on coming to this country. For his parents, continuing to be a vegetarian or vegan when they arrived was difficult. For younger Jains, he said, their diet is more mainstream.

For Jain millennials, challenges look more like tackling false information, especially about their religion. “People can say something is a Jainism practice, but it may not be one,” said Mehta. “How do you verify information?”

Despite younger Jains’ enthusiasm, some Jains worry about the time when the younger generation will have to take responsibility for keeping Jain centers running.

Motivational speaker Gaur Gopal Das, left, talks with Dipak Doshi at the 20th biennial JAINA Convention on July 6, 2019, in Ontario, Calif. RNS photo by Heather Adams

Das, the lifestyle coach and motivational speaker who was one of the convention’s biggest draws, said older Jains can’t expect the next generation to practice the religion exactly as they have done it, not if they want the religion to thrive.

Das, 45, said it’s important to hand down the values, wisdom and experience the older generations have. “Then we also give them the space to practice the way they want.”

In his experience, he said, “they come back with a much stronger conviction.”

For now, older Jains can coast somewhat on what they’ve built over the past 20 years. The Shah sisters remember how, when they were growing up in their fledgling temple in Buena Vista, Calif., their children’s class often met in member families’ homes.

“To go from that to have something like this, with almost 4,000 people,” Pooja said. “It shows it’s come very far.”

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