Rice, Jain community join forces to further global understanding of ancient Indian religion

A new fellowship in Rice’s School of Humanities will help deepen the global understanding of Jainism, one of the oldest religious traditions of India.

The Bhagwaan Mahavir/Chao Family Postdoctoral Fellowship in Jain Studies was made possible through a gift from leaders both in the local Jain community and from across the U.S.

From left, Urvashi Jain, Anudeep Jain, Nicolas Shumway, Jeffrey Kripal, Sulekh Jain, Priyanka Jain, Ravi Jain and Jeanette Zey participated in a special lunch to celebrate the Jain community’s gift to Rice. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

From left, Urvashi Jain, Anudeep Jain, Nicolas Shumway, Jeffrey Kripal, Sulekh Jain, Priyanka Jain, Ravi Jain and Jeanette Zey participated in a special lunch to celebrate the Jain community’s gift to Rice. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

A search for the fellow will begin this semester, with the goal for the fellow to start in the fall. The fellow will not only do research and teach a course in Jainism each semester, but will also share the richness and philosophy of Jainism with various disciplines, departments and centers at Rice as well as with the Houston community. The scholar will also interact with the Jain community in Houston and will facilitate the learning of Jainism’s traditions. Rice will be the only university in Houston that currently offers a course in Jainism.

Followers of Jainism are called Jains, and there are about 4 million worldwide, including approximately 125,000 in the United States.

Jainism has existed side by side with Hinduism throughout their long histories. The basic philosophy of Jainism promotes nonviolence, asceticism and “anekantvad,” a doctrine that views life as multidimensional and includes the belief that all of the world’s religious traditions are valuable and that each has its own unique contributions to make.

The gift for the fellowship in Jain studies was marked by a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signing ceremony at the Jain Society of Houston Center in January. The ceremony was attended by leaders and members of the Jain community, including Urvashi Jain, president of the Jain Society of Houston, and Sulekh Jain, who signed on behalf of the Jain Society of Houston, the International School for Jain Studies in New Delhi, the Jain Center of Southern California in Los Angeles and others. Rice representatives included Sonia Ryang, director of Rice’s Chao Center for Asian Studies and the T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian Studies at Rice, and Jeffrey Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion.

The fellowship will be administered by the Chao Center, and the fellow will contribute to the center’s Transnational Asia Research Initiative.

“We can’t thank the Jain community enough for their gift,” said Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway, who hosted a lunch for key members of the local Jain community at the School of Humanities Jan. 22. “We thank the community for helping Rice get involved in this area of study. At Rice, we have the Religion Department, we have the Chao Center and we have the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, so we really do have a configuration that this fellow will be able to tap into.”

Sulekh Jain had led the efforts of the Jain community in establishing the fellowship at Rice. His two children, Anudeep Jain and Vandana Jain, are Rice alumni, as is his daughter-in-law, Aarthi Yelundur Jain ’85; a granddaughter, Priyanka Jain, is a freshman at Will Rice College.

At the lunch, Sulekh Jain presented Shumway with a scarf representing the five “great vows” of Jainism. “Rice is a very well-known entity,” Sulekh Jain said. “I have been coming to Rice for at least 35 years, so I have personal connection. Jainism has so much to contribute to the studies at Rice.”

Urvashi Jain underscored her hopes for the awareness the fellowship will bring. “The community is very proud of it (the gift) because we are a small community and not many people know about Jainism, and through this they will be aware of Jainism … what we practice,” she said. Urvashi Jain’s daughter, Mishi Jain, is a sophomore at McMurtry College.

Ryang stressed the relevance of Jainism in understanding and addressing today’s global challenges. “Current world leaders must learn from Jainism because the core of Jainism is a solution to the problems faced by the world,” she said in her remarks at the MOU signing.

Rice’s Department of Religion studies many religions, but until recently, Jainism was not one of them. “That is now accomplished,” Kripal said.

For more information about the Jain Society of Houston and Jainism, go to www.jainsocietyhouston.org.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.