Manda came to the United States after her marriage in India. She is the proud mother of two children: a daughter who is married and living in California, and a son who resides in Syracuse. Manda volunteers at the American Red Cross and holds a black belt in karate.
As Manda began to tell us about Jainism, she explained that it is more a philosophy than a religion. Jainism is native to the western Indian province of Gujarat. As in all of India, the dominant languages in Gujarat are Hindi, English, and the local language.
Jainism has a 2600-year history, with nonviolence as its first principle. Mahavir Swami taught that each life includes both bad and good, and that the bad must be constantly repaid with good throughout a series of reincarnations. Nonviolence must be both physical and mental; even the thought of violence must be controlled from the inner heart. Nonviolence leads members to avoid serving in the military or pursuing medical careers that require dissection.
Jainism’s second principle is multiple views, that is, being able to see the glass as both half empty and half full. Its third principle states that no material goods should be collected. The gurus, who are both monks and teachers, give up their personal lives. They shave their heads or even pluck out their hair.
Jainism has two sects: Swetamber, whose adherents wear white clothes and carry a wooden vessel for receiving food, and Digamber, whose adherents wear no clothes and are protected only by the directions of north, south, east, west, up and down. Digambers lead very simple but difficult lives, removed from the cities and receiving food alms in their hands (only as much at a time as their cupped hands can hold, trying not to let any food drop on the floor).
Jains try to achieve victory—over the mind, sight, hearing and heart—and they greet others with a phrase expressing a wish that they too will achieve this victory.
In the monsoon festival that extends from mid-June through mid-September, Jains ask for forgiveness, with parting words “Michhami Dukkadam” that mean, “In whatever way—mind, word, or body—I made you unhappy, I’m sorry.” During this monsoon season, traditional believers do not eat leafy green vegetables because to do so would destroy the homes of bugs and worms. This tradition is difficult to follow in the US because alternate foods available in India cannot always be obtained here.
Jains traditionally do not eat what grows underground—potatoes, carrots, onions, ginger, garlic—because harvesting the food would kill the plant. Nor do they eat meat, poultry, seafood or eggs, again for reasons of nonviolence toward animals. Food restrictions today are more lenient, but Jains still primarily eat legumes, bread, fruits and dairy products, which constitute a balanced diet. The spice mixture garum masala (literally, hot spices) is widely used.
Jains do not eat after sunset. Families traditionally sat on the floor, and bugs could get into the food and be accidentally eaten and thus killed. To avoid this in the days prior to electric lighting, food was eaten only when daylight allowed bugs to be noticed and removed.
Jains practice a monthly fast to cleanse the body. The fast begins at sundown and continues through the next day until after sunup of the third day. The fast is broken with a tortilla-type crispy bread (which is delicious—our speakers provided some on our refreshment table), a specially prepared soup, mung beans, and lentils.
Manda showed us a square of woolen cloth, unadorned, which is used as a prayer mat. A small stand is placed on the mat to hold the sacred book, which should never be put on the ground or beneath one’s feet. Manda showed us two mala, or strings of prayer beads: her own mala, a circle of 108 beads in a repeating pattern of five white and four colored beads; and another mala comprising only silver beads. (Manda said that sandalwood beads can also be used.) Manda wore a red yarn bracelet, given to her by a guru to protect her from bad things. She also had a paper folder containing enchanted powder that a guru will sprinkle on a petitioner’s head to impart good thinking and behavior. Jain women are given great respect and are not segregated in temple services.
Jains repeat nine mantras as they bow to their parents and teachers. While praying, they cover their mouth with a piece of cloth to avoid spreading germs.
Manda held up several illustrated holy books that we could look at after the talks. She had several statues of Mahavir Swami, who is worshipped as a great teacher. After Mahavir was conceived in his 27th and final life, his pregnant mother dreamed 14 dreams and sent for astrologers to discover what the dreams meant. The astrologers agreed that the child would become a powerful man. As an adult, Mahavir chose to become a monk, but his parents, who were a king and a queen, required him to marry. After their deaths, he again wanted to become a monk but was commanded by his brother to wait a year. Afterwards he took diksha, an initiation rite that involves giving up worldly life. During this time, as he was meditating, he was approached by a cattleman with a request to watch his herd. Not hearing the request, Mahavir ignored the cattle, which wandered off. When the cattleman returned and found Mahavir still meditating and no cattle, he destroyed Mahavir’s hearing with rods poked into his ears. Thus Mahavir repaid an offense he had committed against a musician in an earlier life, canceling some bad karma. When a person has perfected his life, he or she achieves moksha, or union with God, the highest level, relieving him or her of the cycle of rebirth.
Manda displayed photos of some of the 24 temples dedicated to Mahavir Swami. All the temples are built of pure marble and located on mountaintops, because one must work hard or struggle to achieve something good. The climb to the temple is done on foot. Jain temples are open to all people. When entering a temple, only freshly cleaned clothes may be worn; no leather or silk clothing is permitted because of the principle of nonviolence, but wool is appropriate because it regrows and because harvesting the wool does not injure the sheep.
Manda said that the tradition of arranged marriages is declining. When today’s young people bring home an intended, the families visit back and forth to determine the acceptability of the match and finally issue permission. Weddings are performed in the presence of fire, water and air. The bride is escorted to the groom by her mother’s brother (not by her father as in the US). The couple circles a fire four times, reciting their promises to each other. Wedding rings are not part of the culture, but Jain women in the US wear them to ward off unwanted attention. Women wear the bindi, or dot, between their eyebrows.
Our local Jain community consists of only 10 to 12 families that meet monthly in members’ homes. However, nationwide numbers are substantial. In the early 1990s, about 11,000 people attended a Jain convention in Chicago.
Our second speaker, Smita Rane, came to the United States from India in 1998. Smita represented the Sikhs in the absence of Indu Chadra, who was unable to attend.
Smita is an employee of Syracuse University working at the College of Arts and Sciences Visitor Center and a part-time graduate student in communication and rhetoric studies. She loves meeting people and enjoys sharing her culture and learning about other cultures. She stopped at an Indian store before today’s meeting and brought Indian snacks to add to our refreshment table.
In India, Smita, like Manda, grew up in a diverse community of Jains, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians as well as Hindus. She considers this a big advantage, in that she learned multiple languages and developed an understanding of other religions. She feels fortunate to be a WTB Council member.
Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion, was founded by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who lived from 1469 to 1539. He preached universal equality (and against the social tyranny of the caste system), and he called for devotion to the one God, the Creator. Sikhism originated in the northwest Indian state of Punjab and in the bordering areas of Pakistan. The people speak Punjabi or Hindi, sometimes both; some also speak English.
Smita showed many slides, including two symbols of Sikhism. The first symbol was an Arabic phrase: Ik Onkar, or God is One. The second was the Sikh Khanda, the official symbol of Sikhism.
The famous Golden Temple in Amritsar is surrounded by water. Most gurudwaras (Sikh places of worship) have a small pool to cleanse the feet from the filth of the streets. Both men and women are required to cover their heads. Believers worship the ten gurus of Sikhism. The Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, is a compilation of the teachings of these gurus. In all gurudwaras, a free vegetarian meal, called a langar, cooked by the local community, is provided to all visitors. All people are welcomed in the gurudwaras.
Smita showed slides of Sikh members. Men and boys wear a turban at all times, and the hair on their head and face is never cut, even from birth. Due to various circumstances, some men may cut their hair, shave their beard, or not wear a turban; this is not a sign that they fail to follow the faith. Men carry five symbols of their faith: their uncut hair, a comb for cleanliness of their hair, a steel bracelet signifying discipline and responsibility, cotton underwear signifying a commitment to modesty and procreation, and a small knife to show that they will defend their faith and their family.
The main occupation of Sikhs is farming. They grow 70 percent of India’s corn, wheat, mustard and rice. Sikh immigrants to the United States have contributed to the California farm economy or become entrepreneurs or professionals. Both Canada and the US have large Sikh communities.
Sikhs believe strongly in the equality of women. There is nothing in Sikh teachings that suggests a lower position for women. During religious services, however, men and women sit on opposite sides of the temple.
Smita wore a traditional Punjabi dress consisting of a long-sleeved tunic, with elaborate embroidery around the neckline, and matching pants; she declared this to be very simple attire compared with a Sikh woman’s dress. She also wore a beautiful and elaborate necklace from India that was crafted of gold, enamel and beads. Women are noted for their makeup: beautiful dark eyes and dark red lips. They wear elaborate jewelry and striking outfits.
Dairy products, wheat, maize, and green and leafy vegetables are major foods of the Sikh diet. Many WTB members were familiar with lassi, a drink made with buttermilk and either sugar or salt. Paneer (cottage cheese) and butter are musts in the diet. Sikhs do eat meat and chicken. Food and hospitality are important aspects of the culture. Guests are never sent out without food, whether they want it or not!
Additional slides showed a decorative man’s shoe, called a jutis; acrobatic folk dances, called bhangra; a Sikh Barbie (this got gales of laughter from the audience); and a turbaned, bearded man wearing a T-shirt that said, “Proud to be an American.” Traditionally, first-born sons are raised to be warriors and are expected to enter military service. Sikhs are expected to share, care for, and fight for their country. The military of India has a Sikh regiment. In school, girls are taught to knit, crochet and embroider, both by hand and by machine. This is a very hard-working, loving and caring community.
Smita and Manda said that, in the end, despite their differences, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and other religions are parallel. All religions teach the same thing: how to live a good life, love, and care for others.