Fondren exhibit highlights richness and philosophy of Jainism

A new exhibit introducing the Rice community to Jainism, one of the oldest religious traditions of India, is now on display at Fondren Library. “Structures of Striving,” consisting of colorful 24-by-36-inch photos of Jain temples and structures, will be viewable through March 23 in the main first-floor hallway of the library.

"Structures of Striving" exhibit at Rice's Fondren Library.

“Structures of Striving” exhibit at Rice’s Fondren Library. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The exhibit is the result of a collaboration between Brianne Donaldson, the university’s first Bhagwaan Mahavir/Chao Family Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Jain Studies, and the local and national Jain community. The fellowship, established in 2016, is administered by the Chao Center for Asian Studies, and the fellow contributes to the center’s Transnational Asia Research Initiative.

The basic philosophy of Jainism promotes nonviolence (ahiṃsā) to all life forms, including insects, plants, animals, people and, when possible, microorganisms. Other key concepts include aparigraha, or the non-accumulation of material goods, and anekāntavāda, or many-sided view, which suggests that every aspect of existence can be understood from multiple perspectives simultaneously and the best views will account for as many perspectives as possible. Followers of Jainism are called Jains, and there are between 5 million to 7 million worldwide, including approximately 100,000 in the United States.

“The goal of the exhibit is part of a larger aim to build awareness and capacity for Jain studies at Rice,” said Donaldson, who had overseen Jain exhibits in the past when she was director of the Center for Jain Studies at Claremont School of Theology. “We aim to introduce library visitors and students to the term ‘Jain,’ to the fact that it is a living tradition and to introductory concepts through visual images. The Jain tradition is lesser known in the U.S. — and there are misconceptions that it is only an ancient tradition of wandering mendicants practicing extreme austerities — so an exhibit is one of several ways we begin to create greater familiarity with Jainism as a living tradition composed of both lay and mendicant adherents, and thus, to add another foundational layer to the future of Jain studies at Rice.”

Jainism emerges out of the śramaṇic (“striving”) communities of mendicants in the northwest Ganges plain that existed at the time of Mahāvīra (fifth century B.C.) considered by the tradition to be the 24th  and last liberated teacher, or Jina, for the present period of time, Donaldson said. The śramaṇic view asserted people could strive toward liberation through ethical understanding and conduct and without specialized Vedic ritual or the limitations of birth caste, she said.

“Jain architecture and images reflect the pathway of striving toward liberating perception and knowledge known as mokṣa,” said Donaldson, who also teaches undergraduate multidisciplinary courses on India at Rice. “The pathway includes progressive development of right understanding of what reality and life are constituted, acting carefully toward that life through nonharm and austerities in order to cease accumulating negative karma, and ideally the eventual achievement of mokṣa exemplified in the Jain liberated teachers (called Jinas or tīrthaṅkaras) or better rebirth. ‘Structures of Striving’ demonstrates how temple architecture reveals the Jain universe, ethical path and ultimate ideal.”

Rice undergraduate students Akhil Jonnalagadda, a Hanszen College junior, and Vishnu Kumar, a Hanszen College senior, worked with Donaldson to select the images from a DVD of extensive images taken for the annual calendar published by JAINA (the Federation of Jains in North America) for Jain community members in the U.S. and Canada. The students chose images that reflected specific themes they wanted to explore in the exhibit, such as ahiṃsā (nonviolence), aparigraha (nonpossessiveness), anekāntavāda (nonabsolutism), Mahāvīra and the mendicant context, among others. “We also composed one hybrid image of ‘Jainism Here and Now’ that included the two Houston temples, an intermediate Jain nun in Houston and an image of the board of directors of Young Jains of America to show that Jainism is not merely a tradition of historic temples, but is active and evolving in our own city and university,” Donaldson said.

“I’d like visitors to see that Jainism is a living ancient tradition characterized by strong commitments to multiple perspectives, nonattachment to material goods and nonharm to as much life as possible — ideals to be considered and acted upon creatively still today,” Donaldson said. “Students from Jain families have attended Rice for decades, up to the present, and now through the courses offered by the Bhagwaan Mahavir/Chao Family Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, any student can take courses on this tradition and its complex history and philosophy in India and abroad.”

In connection to this exhibit, the Chao Center will host a guest speaker, M. Whitney Kelting, associate professor of religious studies at Northeastern University, as part of its public Transnational Asia Speaker Series March 1. Kelting’s lecture on “Building Jain Masculinity in Maharastra Temples” will be at 4 p.m. in Fondren’s Kyle Morrow Room.

About Jeff Falk

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