Jainist Worship in D.C.: Three Jewels and Parental Hopes

Classes for adults and children are followed by the service, which concludes with a communal lunch prepared by one family, on a rotational basis. At the meal, I asked several members to talk about their religious practice. Vegetarianism was the first word out of every mouth. While the degree of practice amongst the community varies, the food served at lunch must encompass the strictest observance. That Sunday we ate tacos. There were no root vegetables, such as onions, present. We ate beans, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cheese, and sour cream. There were delicious, homemade eggless chocolate chip cupcakes. The children were served first. I asked why they used a rotating schedule, instead of the more commonly instituted potluck. Members explained that there is a Jain practice that restricts the number of ovens where one meal can be cooked—an intellectual rejection of gluttony.

In the winter months, finding a seat on the floor is difficult. The community is quickly outgrowing its space, and there are plans to build a "proper temple." When the weather is good, people eat outside. Even on a chilly February day, a few members ate outside. Meanwhile, boys are playing football in the yard, not too concerned with "gentleness," and girls are upstairs, practicing dances for the festival.

This generation of children is the first in the community to be born to American parents. I asked Darshana, the mother of a 20-something, what she imagines her daughter's place will be in the Jain community.

I wish for her to marry a Jain, but if I told her to, she wouldn't listen. I want her to marry a good person . . . of course a vegetarian. A cousin married an Italian or German; he is good person [a vegetarian]. I think she goes to church with him.

The demand for heightened animal ethics exists alongside marrying inside the faith. The tired trope of the assimilation of the youth when encountering the cultural diversity of the nation's Capital is disrupted by the voices of young children practicing for the spring festival. As Nikhal explained, they leave to study and to grow, but they come back. What will they be like upon returning is surely an open question, a silent question, hanging in the air as the students repeat the "Three Jewels" from their printed-in-India textbooks. 

3/7/2011 5:00:00 AM