How Do You ‘Teach’ Jainism? Jaina Studies Consultation at the AAR 2011

Posted: 08.05.2017
Updated on: 22.05.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


How do you 'teach' Jainism? The 2011 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held in San Francisco on 20 November, included a session titled 'Global Perspectives on Teaching Jaina Studies: Strategies, Pitfalls, and Changing Paradigms'. The session pertained to all levels of teaching Jainism, and included well-known authors along with both experienced and new faculty. The aim was to share a set of lessons learned and to establish worthwhile strategies. The present author presided over this session, where there emerged a fascinating series of challenges and approaches.

The session opened with Sherry Fohr's (Converse College) discussion of her book contract to introduce Jainism to undergraduates through narratives. Fohr's proposal was to utilize the method many Jains use themselves to teach and understand Jainism. These narratives are recounted by monks and nuns when they preach to the laity, told by mothers to their children, depicted in religious plays, referred to in religious singing, recited or re-enacted during various rituals, shown in videos, and included in vernacular literature and novels. While many Jains are not familiar with non-narrative religious texts, most Jains are familiar with much of the content of narrative scriptures. Jain narratives communicate (a) beliefs about the nature of the world and how it works, (b) beliefs about the nature of humans, and (c) beliefs about what humans should value as well as what they should or should not do in that world. Fohr's point was that using narratives to teach about Jainism offers a more complete picture of Jainism. These narratives include mytho-historical exemplars of the entire four-fold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen; whereas teaching that solely focuses upon non-narrative texts almost exclusively gives attention to monks and laymen. Narrative texts also thereby lend a more accurate sense of how Jainism is lived in today's world.

This attempt to provide a more holistic portrayal of Jains to students follows recent scholarly developments. For example, John Cort (2001) has written extensively about the moksha-marg and wellbeing in Jainism. What Cort asserts about Jainism and about 'the lived experience of Jains', that the moksha-marg is not always central, is also the case in Jain narratives. Finally, another aspect of Jainism that is not described as well in nonnarrative texts has to do with the consequences of violating Jain ethical principles. Sometimes narratives of this sort also help students see the similarities (not just the differences) between Jainism and their own culture. For example, there are Jain stories that include unethical behavior according to Jain standards that is also familiar to us in the West (such as lying, verbal and emotional abuse, slander, sex scandals/hypocrisy, and murder). On the other hand these stories also include distinctly Jain ideas about karma, reincarnation, and renunciation. Fohr concluded by noting that a sufficient amount of Jain narratives are available in English translations for use in today's religious studies classrooms.

Christian Haskett (Utah State University) followed by introducing the suitability of a unique pedagogical approach for introducing Jainism. This approach easily complements Fohr's, since the purpose of both is to move beyond an exclusively textualist approach. Haskett discussed the usefulness of 'expectation failure' in teaching Jaina Studies to students unfamiliar with Jainism. He takes this approach from Ken Bain's book What the Best Professors Do (2004). Haskett noted that most people learn according to predictable patterns and models; when that predictable pattern or model fails there is the possibility of creating a lasting and transformative insight. Haskett's approach, then, is to present Jaina monasticism and moksha-marg philosophy as 'real Jainism', an approach which resonates with what he sees as a natural tendency towards an overtly textualist approach and fetishized monasticism. Haskett thereby creates an instantiation of the pattern and model in the students' minds that epitomizes 'orientalist' thinking. Once this ideology emerges, he then challenges this by engaging the students with a series of anomalies that sufficiently undermines their expected models and patterns. In so doing, the students gain a contextualized, nuanced, and complex understanding of the relationship between text and practice, as well as of the Jaina aesthetic appreciation of renunciation, but they are also effectively lead to realize the limits of a textualist approach.

The session then shifted focus from undergraduate teaching towards considering the state of Jaina Studies within the academy. Peter Flügel (SOAS) emphasized that teaching Jainism is not the same as teaching the Study of Jainism, which was professionalised by nineteenth-century Indology while empirical studies were still at a stage of impressionistic field reports.  The recent shift from studying 'Jainism' to the study of 'Jains', conceptualised as quasi-ethnic groups, is predicated on an alternative essentialisation which should be avoided in teaching by focussing both on an Area Studies approach and on the Jaina sects. 'Jain' refers to a wide range of religious groups who, rather unaware of each other, continue to identify themselves by terms other than 'Jain' (Sthanakvasi, Terapanthi, etc.). Few so-called Jains identify themselves as 'Jain'. This means by focusing on 'Jainism' scholars are doing two things: mis-identifying their field of study as well as reproducing the biases of a certain perspective without rigorous analysis. This is part of a larger trend whereby disparate fields of scholarship are now lumped into 'Religious Studies' by publishers, universities and academic associations. This 'Religious Studies' approach, with its inbuilt focus on the academically (re)constructed textual 'canon', makes it difficult to sustain Jaina Studies in today's universities, as Klaus Bruhn already argued. Support used to come from the vestiges of colonialism, which built up 'oriental' and philological knowledge with works by authors such as Jacobi. Flügel remarked that apart from Area Studies programs, Jaina Studies has faded in the West and it has nearly disappeared from the Indian academy, while at the same time monastic education has improved. And so Flügel outlined the challenge of sustaining responsible and rigorous study under the all-too-general rubric of 'Jainism'.

On very short notice, Whitney Kelting (Northeastern University) was able to replace the final presenter. Kelting gave an overview of her experiential learning approach, which is not only to introduce Jainism, but also to introduce students to the practices of Jaina Studies. By using her own field research and writing, Kelting removes the isolation of teaching materials from the work of scholarship. She brings her research into the university classroom to equate the student's own experience with Jains' understandings of karma, puja, bhakti and diaspora life. Kelting brings the students into her research and shows, for example, that karma reveals how performance makes bodies, how puja is often not about deity worship, that bhakti can simply be enjoyment and that the laypeople do play key roles in institution building. By doing the actual work of Jaina Studies with them, Kelting finds that her students begin understanding the discrete complexities permeating throughout all South Asian religions.

John Cort (Denison University) was the respondent. Paraphrasing Claude Lévi-Strauss, Cort noted that the Jains are 'good to think with'; sustaining and developing Jaina Studies can be seen as a corrective to many universities' shift towards a short-sighted emphasis upon assessment, which loses sight of developing critical intellectual skills. As such, Cort remarked that Flügel's arguments mirrored those of the liberal arts teacher. There is a need for historically embedded Jaina Studies because of the deep and rich contexts among which Jaina communities have found themselves. To sustain this actuality and to address Flügel's concern, Cort proposed that the category 'Jainism' not be identified as an aggregate running roughshod over their differences. The category 'Jainism' refers to a tradition that shares a common set of questions and problems. That sharing is characterized by the production of texts, narratives and practices. For the sake of academic rigour, each is likely to be studied separately; but to avoid failure, whatever patterns and models do emerge must be checked and balanced amongst each other.

The session concluded with a moderated open discussion with roughly thirty people in attendance. The presentations clearly provided plenty of stimulation, since the conversation continued past the session's official time limit. The voices in that discussion justified the importance of the session, as others provided evidence that many teachers are thinking seriously about how they teach Jaina Studies. This is clearly a field with great vitality and potential as Jaina Studies scholars work to create new generations of scholars.

Nathan Loewen is a Professor of Humanities at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada. He chairs the 'International Development and Religion' group at the AAR. His interest is the study of the development-related activities and involvements of Jains in India and abroad.

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CoJS Newsletter • March 2012 • Issue 7