For Holly Lanier, Philosophy 2 “Exploring Religion Meaning” was just another course to fulfill a general education requirement on her way to a psychology degree. But it unexpectedly had a profound impact on her. She said her study exposed her to different knowledge sources that she had never known before, but it was the Jain Dharma that changed her.
“Once you’ve endowed yourself with something that is just so beautiful, it’s hard to put it into words how it changes you,” Lanier explained. “I can sit here and say that it’s changed me in all these different ways, but it really has.”
Growing up in a Christian community and household, Lanier said that was all she knew of religion. Besides sparking her interest in Jainism, the course also inspired her to pursue a minor in religious studies. She is currently enrolled in Dr. Veena Howard’s Hinduism class.
“It got me interested in religious studies in general, which has grown to me wanting to learn more about underrepresented populations in Fresno and their belief system,” Lanier said.
Since antiquity, according to religious studies scholars, two of the world’s oldest traditions, Hinduism and Jainism, co-existed on the Indian subcontinent. They share many spiritual practices, philosophical paradigms and ethical principles while simultaneously maintaining their unique, independent identities.
“Like two rivers running parallel and at times intertwined create a rich ecosystem, Hinduism (traditionally known as Sanatana Dharma) and Jainism (Jain Dharma), originated on the Indian subcontinent, for over three millennia serve as a model to building pluralistic and peaceful relations,” explained Dr. Veena Howard, Fresno State religious studies professor. “Mahatma Gandhi was a product of both Jain and Hindu traditions and teachings. Gandhi was born in a Hindu family but was strongly influenced and molded by Jain friends, monks and Jain vows.”
With these ideals in mind, over two dozen families, individuals and foundations have come together to create the Endowed Chair in Jain and Hindu Dharma at Fresno State. The groundbreaking partnership between the Jain and Hindu communities and the University underscores a mutual commitment to educating current and future generations of students about the principles of nonviolence, dharma (virtue, duty), justice, pluralist philosophy, the interconnectedness of all beings and care for the environment through Hindu-Jain texts, philosophies and traditions.
“Because of the beautiful Peace Garden and what it represents here, we feel California State University, Fresno is the rightful place for this endowed chair. How beautiful and remarkable it is that both traditions will now be represented, taught and researched at Fresno State,” said Dr. Sulekh Jain of Las Vegas who has a prominent role in developing Jain education in the United States. “This is the first joint chair in the two traditions not only in North America but most probably in the whole world. This is historic.”
Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro agreed with the sentiment, “The California State University has never seen a partnership like this one with the Jain and Hindu communities. I’m very pleased that this has happened at Fresno State. It establishes a model for other campuses in the CSU and around the country to do the same.”
“I think this beginning will be a new era in the Valley and Fresno State where proudly we can teach our generation good values and traditions about Hinduism and Jainism,” JP Sethi, a local Hindu philanthropist, said.
The Endowed Chair in Jain and Hindu Dharma will be housed in the Department of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Humanities and will be an integral part of the University’s religious studies program. A professor who is an expert in both the Jain and Hindu Dharma traditions will be appointed as an interim in 2021.
“The chair will teach Jainism and Hinduism, furthering Fresno State’s efforts to promote understanding of religions and communities. The teaching of these ancient traditions reflects our community’s diversity and our donors’ trust in the value and impact of Fresno State’s programs,” Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, Fresno State provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said.
Additionally, the fund will also support Jain and Hindu scholarly endeavors of students and faculty. For students, these include scholarships, stipends, and research funds. For faculty, the funds may support faculty research and academic publications, conference travel, and campus-sponsored events.
“We are so grateful to the unprecedented number of generous donors who have collaborated to create this remarkable gift,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “This new chair represents an enhanced opportunity for Fresno State’s students to learn how they can change their own lives and the world through pursuing Jain and Hindu enlightenment in their studies while putting nonviolence and peace into action.”
“We hope that the younger generation when they come to the college, they’re exposed to this philosophy as we know that Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others followed a nonviolent way of solving the countries and the world’s problems,” a prominent Jain philanthropist and supporter of this chair, Dr. Jasvant Modi of Los Angeles said.
Dr. Sehgal, who was instrumental in organizing local efforts, said, “Most of us were born in India, grew up there, received our education there, learned our culture there. So we all owe it to our motherland. Then we came here to the U.S., then to the Valley. The land gave us opportunity and our livelihood. This is where we raised our families, so we owe a lot to this land too. We are so proud today to give back a little to this community, which gave us so much without demanding anything in return.”
Religious studies scholars note that Jainism, traditionally known as Jain Dharma, originated on the Indian subcontinent, focuses on the treatment of all living beings with equal regard, and it teaches that liberation and bliss are achieved by living lives of harmlessness, without the mindless pursuit of material comforts. The central principles of non-injury and unconditional nonviolence to humans and non-humans (ahiṃsā), respect for many different views and beliefs or non-one-sided perspectives (anekāntavāda) and limited possessiveness or control of desires (aparigraha), offer novel philosophical frameworks with which to engage conceptual and practical ethics from antiquity up to the present. Jainism is one of the oldest and most vibrant of India’s religious traditions. It seeks to give a gift of unconditional nonviolence to the world.
Jain and Hindu traditions have co-existed for many millennia. According to Dr. Sulekh Jain, “In Jain tradition, there are no clergies or priests. For all worldly events such as the birth of a child, marriage, death and several other ceremonies, it is the Hindu priest who performs all such ceremonies for Jains. My own marriage ceremony was performed by a Hindu Priest.” He further added, “This is a unique example of interdependence which we all will be hard-pressed to find similar traditions in many other cultures.”
Hinduism is an ancient system of philosophies, theologies, texts, rites, and rituals that inform its followers’ lives in all aspects, including religiosity, intellectual inquiry, philosophy, ethics, spiritual goals, astronomy sciences, agriculture, medicine, and care for the environment. Scholars explain that notion of dharma (literally virtue, duty, rites and law) employs methods for building peace and harmony not only in home life but with neighbors, defined globally. The famous Vedantic axiom, “truly all is Divine” (sarvam khlav idam Brahman) and the Hindu prayer, “may all beings be happy” (lokah samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu) represent the foundation for the care for the self, family, community, nation, and the world. Even though Hinduism originated in India, its teachings and practices, including yoga, the principle of karma, spiritual practices, and theories of consciousness, continue to be adopted by Western culture for over the last one hundred years.
Monika Joshi of Clovis, who collaborated with other local Hindu community members, expressed her enthusiasm, “In today’s world with conflict, fear and division, it becomes essential to explore and share the teachings of Hindu Dharma that have existed for thousands of years. Mutual respect, truth within, and working towards eternal happiness are the core values of Hinduism that can pave the way for unity as a common goal for all.”
These ideals have impacted Holly Lanier as a student, and have inspired her to expand her knowledge.
“A lot of the values of Jainism and Hinduism alike speak of human kindness, not simply as religious virtues, but it’s how you treat people. These teachings remind us that we must not forget that human kindness and the idea of karma should influence the actions we take,” Lanier said.
The parallel and intertwined evolution of Hindu and Jain thought for over three millennia serves as a model to build pluralistic and cohesive societies. Thanks to the Jain and Hindu communities’ generosity, these traditions, knowledge, and values are permanent and will inform future generations of students in the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State.
The Jain and Hindu community leaders and organizations that generously donated include J.P. Sethi, the Ravi & Naina Patel Foundation, Dr. Harsh Saigal, Anil Mehta, Dr. Vinod K. Gupta, Dina Bahl, Bankim Dalal, Dr. Girish Patel, Vardhaman Charitable Foundation, Andy Chhikara, Dr. Prem Kamboj, Dr. Madhav Suri, Dr. Krish Rajani, Monika Joshi, Ela and Bhavesh Muni, Rama Ambati, Dr. Shashi Sharma, Dr. Dinesh Sharma, Dilbagh Ghilawat, Sangita and Yogesh Shah, Rita and Narendra Parson, Komal and Prashant Desai, Kala and Surendra Jain, the Wadher Family Foundation, Dr. Sulekh Jain, Ronak and Mitul Shah, and Pinal and Hardik Modi.