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Young Jains Share Insights from Parliament of the World’s Religions

January 22, 2016

This post was jointly written by Nikhil Bumb, Neal Daftary, Parth Savla, Priti Shah, and Sonali Vakharia. An earlier version appeared on the Huffington Post .

Last October, almost three months ago now, roughly 10,000 people from over 70 countries and 30 religious and spiritual traditions attended the sixth Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah – a five-day interfaith conference including 7 plenaries and over 1,000 smaller workshops and panels. The Parliament, founded in 1893 in Chicago, is an attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths. The theme for this year’s conference was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity” and it featured a long lineup of renowned scholars including Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Karen Armstrong, and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire.
The participants included 60+ members of the Jain faith, including the five of us – Nikhil Bumb, Neal Daftary, Parth Savla, Priti Shah, and Sonali Vakharia. As young adult ambassadors of Jainism, we were deeply humbled and enlightened by the experience. Coming into the Parliament, we had no expectations, but we left feeling enriched and empowered.
The stated mission of the Council of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” With so much hate and violence around the world, particularly in light of the recent events in San Bernardino, Paris, Mali, and Beirut (to name just a few), it was refreshing to attend and see the collaborative efforts to protect the interests of mankind. Collectively, we have never seen so much compassion, love, and genuine openness for one another’s faith.
Here are some of our takeaways from our collective Parliament experience as Jain youth:

Participation is about more than awareness. It needs action through involvement. As members of a minority faith that most people have never heard of, Jains often feel that our role at these forums should be focused on building awareness. Jain sessions are mostly technical, communicating the detailed principles, history, and scriptures of Jainism, with few references to applying those aspects in our routine lives. The Parliament wasn’t just about bringing people of different faiths and backgrounds together and learning. The real power of such a platform is about doing something with that collaboration.

The challenge for any minority faith is the ability to participate on both levels – creating awareness of one’s faith and energizing members in the values of the faith to, in turn, express those values through projects which can benefit the world around them.
The Parliament highlighted the following major social themes – gender inequality and women’s empowerment; income inequality and the wealth gap; climate change; war, violence, and hate crimes; nurturing the generation of emerging young leaders, and bringing to current relevance the wisdom of indigenous people. At its core, the Jain philosophy is inherently integrated with these issues and can contribute immense learnings and solutions on a broader scale.
Broadening awareness is a first and important step at these events. In order to make meaningful impact while reinforcing Jain ideals, we would like to see Jains actively engaging and participating in the discussion on these social issues. As advocates of non-violence (ahimsa) and believers of equality and respect for all viewpoints (anekantvad), while being mindful of the impact of our personal consumption in the world around us (aparigraha), it is our social responsibility to advance these issues and to be more engaged and connected in mainstream outlets.

As (future) leaders, we need to set aside our emotions and address problems objectively. In his address at the “War, Violence, and Hate” plenary, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, European Union advisor and Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, emphasized that if we really want to make headway against issues such as hate crimes, religious discrimination, violence, and war, we must remove emotions from the equation. Being emotionally connected enables an empathy for others. On the other hand, emotions cloud our judgment and stunt possibilities of getting to real, deeper solutions.
Dr. Ramadan’s philosophy applies not just to issues like hate and violence, but across problems at the individual- and community-levels as well. It is more constructive to understand the history of the systemic issues which breed violence rather than judging agents of violence or “victims” of such systems.
Jainism is both a scientific and practical philosophy that adapts to social and cultural shifts while preserving its core values and practices. Anekantvad teaches us that everyone has a voice and something valuable to contribute. We should remember and stress that objectivity.

Activism starts at the grassroots level, with you. Focus on small steps. Parliament speakers addressed critical topics like climate change, income inequality, discrimination, wasteful consumption, war and terrorism. Hearing these speakers was inspiring and electrifying, and at the same time intimidating and daunting. As young people, how can we change the world for the better and contribute positively towards these movements?
Start with yourself. Mahatma Gandhi’s motto was: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” In a panel on “What Would Gandhi Do? Moral Strategies for Sustainability, Peace, and Justice,” Fresno State Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Veena Howard noted that “the champion of non-violence and self-discipline put his faith in the common human being rather than the power of an empire.”
Change begins with us, not just by talking but by doing and actively making changes in our own life. We can then be the change locally, stepping up at the community level to help lead change in a slightly broader audience, and eventually working our way up to larger scales.

We (young Jains) need to show up. Let’s be on the field, not on the stands. It’s easy for us to to sit back and complain about issues, to find fault in others, and to feel resigned. At the Parliament, we heard fellow Jains comment that many of the sessions did not really apply to “us” or that we need “better representation” of our faith. At similar conventions within the Jain community, we often hear fellow young people express frustration that sessions are too technical and don’t provide relevance of how values can be relayed to our lives and our every changing world – a challenge that many faith-based communities are experiencing.
The responsibility is also ours. If we don’t vocalize our opinions and perspectives, we can’t expect for them to be known or for action to be taken. Often we assume someone else will raise the issue, that it isn’t “our place,” or that we won’t be heard. Part of the problem may also be a misunderstanding on how to interpret Jainism and apply our principles to issues in our daily lives, or even broader social issues.
Our challenge, as young people, is to avoid this complacency. It’s likely that if you are thinking about these topics, someone else is as well. Use the resources presently available to you to express how Jainism impacts your daily life. Your actions will create a new paradigm that will engage and generate interest amongst others that can then stimulate wider action and change. Jainism has valuable scientific and practical teachings to give to society and it would be disheartening to lose these contributions.

After five days immersed in a swirl of speakers, music, art and dance from religious traditions across the world, we emerged relaxed and rejuvenated. It renewed our spirits and sparked a fire, deep within our souls, to take a stand against these very issues that promote injustice and inequality. Sharing our learnings from the Parliament was the first step.
Ultimately, the Parliament taught us that religion can be an incredibly positive force in promoting change and bringing peace to the world. We live in a global village and we should strive to stay open-minded and to live with mutual respect, harmony, and optimism. At the same time, we have a personal and social responsibility to take an active stance in applying the principles of our own faith and embracing the value and practice of interfaith education and dialogue to create meaningful spaces for activism.
Let us practice values in action.

Nikhil Bumb is a social impact strategy consultant based in Washington, DC. Neal Daftary manages a hospitality company based in Dallas, TX, and serves as Co-Chair of Young Jain Professionals. Parth Savla is a social entrepreneur based in San Francisco, CA and Mumbai, India. Priti Shah works as an engineer in the automotive industry in the greater Detroit, MI area. Sonali Vakharia is an inpatient pharmacist, also based in the greater Detroit, MI area.