Beyond the Art: The Future of Jainism

December, 2023 by Mansi Shah
I was met with mixed emotion this past summer when I came across a sculpture of Bahubali, Jain saint and son of Bhagvan Rishabhanatha, the first Tirthankara, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I was proud to see Jain art displayed so simply yet majestically among other Asian artwork. But I was also a little confused — artwork is to be observed, but idols are to be worshipped. I left the exhibit wondering whether it was acceptable to take part in an appreciation of artwork without religious worship in mind, since the mere idea of walking around a museum often leaves observers with no choice but to wear shoes, leather articles, and many other typically forbidden items.

We would never bring those things into our temples, but since we’re at a museum exhibit, it’s ok, right? I’m not sure. The experience made me take a step back and think about the timeline of Jainism from a broader perspective. Jainism is known to predate Buddhism and rivals Hinduism as the oldest surviving religion. Tracing as far back as the the third or fourth millennium BC, there is believed to be one major period of decline in medieval India until around the 19th century. But where are we now? Is the existence of a Jain diaspora contributing to another period of decline?

Many would say the religion still flourishes today, and while I can see how that is true, I have a much harder time believing that Jainism will continue to prosper in thirty years in the same way that it prospers today. This uncertainty stems from an honest evaluation of myself and my generation of young Jains, specifically young Jains in America. We are an eclectic group of individuals. Some of us go to the temple regularly, some of us do not. Some of us strictly follow a Jain diet, some of us cannot. Some of us tell ourselves we will do anything it takes to maintain our Jain values and traditions… but most do not.

Growing up in America means living with a culture that will clash Jain values in some way or another. It’s difficult to do both. So, most of us decide to sacrifice some aspect of the religion to balance American culture simultaneously. Our parents who grew up in India didn’t have to worry about this culture clash because lifestyle there generally supported religion, if not cultivated it. While it is very much possible to pursue a strict Jain lifestyle here in America, I think many of us choose to follow only certain aspects of the religion so that we can accommodate the realities of living in this country. The future of Jainism lies in our hands, but I don’t think we’re prepared for the weight we are being asked to carry.

The first and probably most likely reason for this reshaping comes from interfaith marriages. Those of us with Jain parents most likely come from a long lineage of Jain worship. Our parents learned from our great grandparents, who learned from their parents, and so on. But what if your parents represent two or more faiths? You will grow up learning one religion, both religions, or no religion at all. Your life experiences will probably determine what religion, if any, you identify with more.

Interfaith marriages are symbolic of the pure and unconditional nature of true love, of a genuine understanding between two people who may have come from very different backgrounds. Yet it’s important to note that their growing popularity has the potential to erode parts of Jain tradition. Gautam Swami and St. Peter, both disciples of prominent religious leaders, helped carry a message for major world religions. But to equate both as just “disciples” means leaving out the details that give each collection of beliefs its true meaning. This isn’t to say that interfaith marriages will always lead to a decline of Jain tradition.

They most likely will, however, alter the platform upon which Jain ideals are passed on from generation to generation. Second to interfaith marriage is the prevalence of culture over religion. From the rise of traditional Indian dance teams at universities around the country to eager participation in Holi and Diwali festivals, culture seems to prosper much more fervently than the religious history associated with it. This stems from a general lack of desire to gain more understanding about the religion combined with the added difficulty of studying religion when students are already balancing coursework with their lives.

Culture on the other hand, can be easily diffused. Indian dance, food, and heritage is much more visible in all aspects of young people’s lives simply because there is more interest in doing that which appears likable. Jain literature may be easily accessible, but cultivating a genuine desire to both study and understand that material is a major challenge for the future. We should continue to take pride in our festivals and holidays, but we should also take the time to think about its religious significance. We should not blindly observe a ritual, but instead should realize that it fills an important cultural and moral space. Culture and religion go hand in hand, and tipping the scale in either direction is ultimately a threat to both. Jain ideals remain the same, but the ways in which we express those ideals are dependent on new cultural influences that simply did not exist fifty years ago.

Rather than worry about the erosion of Jainism, we should react to those influences to ensure a bright and prosperous future. Parents must continue to play an active role in passing on Jain values to the next generation of youth. Jain centers and temples must continue to provide educational programs, such as pathshala classes, and allow for youth to apply what they have learned beyond the scope of such programs. Collectively, we must take responsibility for preserving the rich history of Jainism for future generations of young people in America. As proud as I am to see Jainism displayed in the halls of world-renowned museums, the knowledge that comes from our religion cannot be limited solely to the boundaries of those walls.


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Shruti Malde
Shruti Malde
5 months ago

Dear Mansi, I enjoyed reading your article. Your opening paragraph is very good and I think you should have continued along these lines these and have your question resolved regarding “But I was also a little confused — artwork is to be observed, but idols are to be worshipped.”

I had similar thoughts when I visited the ‘Pure Soul’ exhibition in London in April 2023 where they had a beautiful life-size Parshvanath idol exhibited. I guess as a Jain you will have feelings of reverence but as it is not situated in a temple, you will not treat it in the same way and do puja etc. Same would apply if the idol was at the sculptors waiting to be pratishthit in a temple. Until then it would be a piece of art. We do also have little idols at home on our shelves – what about these?

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