Tiny religious sect thrives in Chicagoland despite cultural clash | WBEZ
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Tiny religious sect thrives in Chicagoland despite cultural clash

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Members of the Jain community in greater Chicago take part in a sacred pageant to celebrate the birth of a great teacher, Lord Mahavir, 2,600 years ago. (WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)

When Hemali Shah was a girl, sometimes it was hard to be a Jain. She wanted to run in the grass with other kids, but had to worry about accidentally stepping on an insect, and killing it.

Jainism is a tiny Indian religious sect in Chicago. Jains believe in nonviolence, to the point of not harming any sentient being, through action or even thought.

“I was an athlete, so I played softball a lot, and obviously if you're playing in the grass, there’s lot of bugs, so I ended up playing in the infield,” Shah said.

Shah is 24 now, and said she’s happy to avoid the grass. But she still struggles with Jain teachings about not being possessive and accumulating stuff.

“Everywhere they’re showing mega scenes of the newest and best thing that everyone wants and I guess that’s how it works in like, Hollywood. That’s one of my impulses, getting something just because somebody else has it, which is I guess not good at all.”

Shah said she filters these desires through Jainism: “I end up not buying it because my Dad tells me not to, because my Dad is completely non possessive, he doesn’t like things. And I feel like I’m just going to be on (the TV show) ‘Hoarders’,” she said with a laugh.

These Jain beliefs seemingly clash with some of the most powerful forces in American culture. Yet Jains are finding ways to adapt and even thrive here in the U.S. They’re passing these beliefs on to the next generation during their holiest holiday this week, called Paryushan, at their temple in Bartlett.

To celebrate Paryushan, Hemali Shah’s been fasting for almost a month. She hasn’t consumed anything but boiled water since July. The time she used to spend preparing food and eating, is now spent reading religious materials.

“It does get me closer to my soul, ‘cuz I know that’s what the whole process is for. It just takes away all the other distractions like television, or music, or food,” Shah said.

Unlike previous generations, Shah grew up surrounded by Jains. She has Jain friends, and even Jain bosses. That’s because she lives in the northwest suburbs, which you could almost call Jain central. That’s where many families settled, near the temple in Bartlett.

A bell rings out at the temple. A dozen men and women in colorful Indian robes and dresses sit on the gleaming white marble floor of the Jain temple. They’re praying and reading scripture.

Several wear cloths covering their mouths to prevent insects or other organisms from getting swallowed and dying.

Members of the Jain community pray and read scripture in their Bartlett Temple. (WBEZ/Lynette Kalsnes)
“What we are celebrating is known as Paryushan, and what that really means is staying close to your own soul,” said Dr. Mukesh Doshi, a trustee of the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago. “It is a time of reflection, it is a time of observing austerities, it is a time to get engaged in religious activities and to get our soul as close to its own original-in-heaven pureness as possible.”

Along with embracing nonviolence and non-possession, Jainism also tries to respect multiple viewpoints. But the religion wasn’t necessarily an easy sell to Jain children back in the ‘60s.

There were only about 20 families here then. Dr. Doshi said they didn’t have a temple, a guru, even a place of worship. They met in a doctor’s home.

“At that time it was a challenge even to find a vegetarian food when you are going out. And many of us have spent time eating nothing but the corn chips during the day because here is no other vegetarian food…only corn chips,” he said.

Times are different. The Jain Society in Bartlett now numbers 1,700 families, and has the largest Jain temple in the U.S.

Vegetarian food is easy to come by.

Still, Dr. Doshi said, “We have to make some changes which are appropriate for the Western world. Like for example, devout Jains should not be eating anything, consuming either food or water after sunset, and it is very difficult to observe.”

Jains aren’t supposed to eat at night, because they believe preparing food can inadvertently kill insects or organisms.

Dr. Doshi said Jains aren’t supposed to eat garlic, onions and root vegetables, either. Onions and garlics are believed to increase desire, while harvesting a root vegetable kills bugs and uproots the entire plant.

But avoiding these foods has been nearly impossible in the U.S., so many don’t follow that requirement.

Paryushan is based on the lunar calendar, but so many people work Monday to Friday, Jain officials here had to shift the dates so people could come.

Dr. Doshi said the Jain Society also translates texts and prayers into English so youth can understand what they’re saying.

“Our main goal at this time is since our kids are exposed to the Western culture, where a meat-eating population is the norm, to keep them vegetarian. Another biggest challenge is to keep them free of drugs, free of liquor, no smoking and we try to insist on no premarital sex,” he said.

The Jain Society teaches these traditions with religious education at its temple and community center, and through giant gatherings like the Paryushan observance.

Nearly 3,000 people sat in the audience at the Jain community center in Bartlett Saturday, watching raptly as a man dressed in gold robes led them in religious songs.

Several Jain families paraded around the stage and the auditorium, each led by a young woman carrying a gold object on her head. They were part of a sacred pageant celebrating the birthday 2,600 years ago of a great Jain teacher called Lord Mahavir. Many modern Jain teachings flow from him.

But some young Jains like Hemang Srikishan didn’t come for the pageant. Instead of performing rituals like worshipping idols, they were downstairs at a seminar on how to apply ancient Jain teachings to the modern world.

“Rituals and practices that were very common amongst my parents’ generation and much more so among previous generations are simply not enough, I think, for people in my generation to connect to,” he said.

Instead, Srikishan said some young Jains are pushing the principles behind the religion even further. Many are concerned about the living conditions of dairy cows and becoming became vegan. Others are careful about avoiding toiletries made with animal products or testing.

Srikishan -- who’s Jain and Hindu -- practices the tenets of Jainism at work. He’s a middle school math teacher, and students are good at pushing their teachers’ buttons.

“I see it as not just as a process of failure, but a process of building up the kind of person you want to be and getting to continuously self improve,” he said.

That’s the essence of the teachings of Jainism.

Rather than succumbing to anger, Srikishan said, he tries to reflect, and to change his actions and his reactions to help his students.

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