The Indianapolis Indians

Growing up as a Jain in Indianapolis, I regularly attended Geeta Mandal, a Hindu service that took place once a month at the local India Community Center. My family and I met many of our closest friends that way, some of them Hindu, some of them Jain, some Sikhs, some Christians, some Muslims, and some who did not practice any religion at all. The Jain community in Indianapolis at that time was still too small and scattered to have an established community center of their own, particularly one which offered all of the standard amenities of a Jain mandir. Yet we found sufficient space for ourselves in the India Community Center. There were occasional Jain community meetings and services, such as Pathshala, a sort of Jain Sunday school. Meanwhile, I quickly adopted many Hindu customs alongside the core Jain rituals that I practiced. Even my mother wrote and directed many plays, starring us kids, featuring classics of Hindu mythology, Bharatiya folklore, and Indian history. The food was always delicious, the building was flexible and accommodating, and the people were warm, friendly, and did not require us to offer any explanation about ourselves. The subcontinental identity bound us all to a shared understanding, the best we could expect in the brave new world of diaspora.

Jain & Forest (2004) argue that:

Jains, a distinctive religious minority in India, acquire an ethnic identity of “Indian” in the United States despite concerted efforts to maintain a religiously-based identity. Social practices developed by Jains to maintain social cohesion after domestic migration within India actually aid in the creation of ethnic identity after transnational migration to the United States. The geographic context of these immigrants in the United States, including physical settlement patterns and interactions with non-Jain Indian immigrants, also lead this group to express greater solidarity with “Indians” than with “Jains.”

Exploring my heritage

Let’s set aside for a moment the argument that Jains are “a distinctive religious minority in India”–the truth seems to be a lot more complicated and less clear cut than that, but we can explore that another day. For now, we can at least take for granted that many Jains mark themselves as distinct from other religions, and some Jains do so starkly and exclusively. Working within that assumption, there’s side of this argument that feels quite familiar. Looking back on a younger self, I did identify as Indian, first, and Jain, second. There are a number of possible reasons for this. For one, the most salient aspects of whatever it was I thought of as my “culture” were music, food, dress, history, and stories, aspects which felt to me to be very clearly Indian–and whose religious factors were too subtle for me to notice. Moreover, I knew few Jain religious or community leaders growing up, few focal points around which to model my identity. By contrast, there was an abundance of Indian role models, even some imposed upon me by others (Gandhi being the paradigmatic case). Additionally, there was no institutionalized Jain space such as a mandir where local Jains could congregate and build community. The India Community Center, on the other hand, was a space constantly filled with dances, plays, music, and conversations which produced among us a sense of shared identity. Add to that Indian restaurants, Indian groceries, Indian video stores, all without a religious identity in sight.

And finally, my friends in school and in my other activities always thought of me as Indian, and described me as such to others. No doubt, the way others interpreted my identity when I was younger had influenced my own views. Yet later in life, this final fact has led, almost counter-intuitively, to the opposite phenomenon as the one described by Jain & Forest.

As a Jain, I am a member of a faith that few people in the United States are familiar with. As such, I am asked questions and points of clarification. I am put in positions where I am asked to assert my Jain self, where I must offer reasons and justifications for my beliefs and behavior. I must define myself by marking contrasts between Jainism and Hinduism. That led me to ask questions of myself, and about my religion. Why do many Jains refrain from eating onions and garlic? What is the basis of the long fasts during paryushana? What are we really saying during pratikramana? Do any modern Jains actually commit santhara? This process led to a self-exploration, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. I find that many Jains I meet here in the United States, as they have spent less time performing rituals, attending mandir, and speaking to Jain sadhus and sadhvis, have perhaps refocused that time into inquiry into the philosophical foundations of their own faith. At least part of the goal for this summer then, for me, has to do with that quest. I want to rediscover and re-establish the Jain aspect of my identity, reconnecting with it, contextualizing it, and finding a place for it in a modern world. Thus, though the visibility of Indian-ness once cast my identity in its image, it is now the scarcity of Jainism that is most productive in my identity, for it engages my curiosity, and demand my inquisition.

An Indian identity

I speak only for myself, of course. There’s no uniform diaspora dynamics, not among Jains, and not among other religious diaspora. Some Jains grow up in communities with denser Jain populations, with Jain religious leaders, and with temples. Others do not. Income bracket varies, geography varies, linguistic diversity varies, cosmopolitanism varies. And the infinitely complex tapestry of history produces more variables still which create a wide range of experiences. Unlike, for instance, many of the early Protestants migrating to the New World, the Jains rarely migrate as part of a schism from their orthodox religious institution. Rather, Jains in the United States generally continue to maintain regular dialogue with–and strong respect for–the Jain priesthood of India. Unlike, for instance, many diaspora groups who have taken refuge from religious or ethnic persecution in the United States, Jains have rarely been persecuted, and there is little historical evidence of their doing much persecution themselves.

Crucially, these and other factors have been a serendipitous blessing for me. Networks of family and friends have led me to most of the programs and doorsteps where I will be finding myself this summer. Generosity, hospitality, and trust allow me to take full advantage of those opportunities. Jain & Forest may have found dilution and isolation in the Jain diaspora. Instead, I see something more transcendental: an incredibly organized, intricate, developed, warm, and long-standing network among Jains in India and in the other countries of the world, only bolstered by globalization, new media, and opportunity. Mutual trust, fidelity, and solidarity are as strong as ever, as Jains make themselves more and more known to the rest of the world. It seems to me that I still have a lot of exploring to do.

Tomorrow I’ll be flying Continental Airlines, and for dinner they are providing me a Jain vegetarian meal, as requested. No onions, no garlic. Continental actually knows about this stuff, now. Who would have thunk it?


3 thoughts on “The Indianapolis Indians

  1. So more film showings of pint-sized Ronak playing Ghandi or Rama are coming soon, right? In addition to being heart-meltingly cute, these are totally relevant to your point. ;)

  2. I agree…I want to see the Gandhi one with the pantyhose on your head…ask mom to e-mail you the pic!

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