What is the Field of "Engaged Jain Studies" and Its Object, "Engaged Jainism"?

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Screengrab from the documentary film series made for the exhibition, Being Jain: Art and Culture of an Indian Religion, 2022 Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland Image © Green Barbet Ltd, India
What is the Field of "Engaged Jain Studies" and Its Object, "Engaged Jainism"?
By Christopher Miller, PhD

In collaboration with our partners at Claremont School of Theology, we at Arihanta Institute have proudly established the academic discipline of Engaged Jain Studies, intended for the academic study of Engaged Jainism. Our remotely available master’s degree program focuses on teaching graduate students how to perform research in this field, and our educators and professors at Arihanta Institute publish following the discipline's interdisciplinary methodologies. But what exactly is "Engaged Jain Studies" and its object of study, "Engaged Jainism"?


A New Book About Engaged Jain Studies


Professor Cogen Bohanec and I recently signed a contract with State University of New York Press to publish an innovative, edited volume on this exact topic, titled Engaged Jainism: Critical and Constructive Approaches to the Study of Jain Social Engagement (SUNY Forthcoming). A number of our colleagues in Jain studies are contributing to this groundbreaking volume, a few points of which I will briefly mention in this article to help us better understand what we mean when we append "Engaged" to the field of Jain Studies and Jainism. In doing so, we are combining constructive and critical approaches in innovative ways, and the contents of our forthcoming volume will likely surprise many, both in academic and non-academic worlds. 


Lessons from Engaged Buddhism


Engaged Jain Studies of course builds its foundations from the long-established sub-discipline in Buddhist Studies known as "Engaged Buddhism,” about which SUNY Press published a groundbreaking volume in 1996. Engaged Buddhism as a field has made decades of progress in knowledge and scholarship, and thus rather than reinventing the wheel, we draw abundantly from its methodological frameworks and the lessons this field has taught us over the years. 


Like its Buddhist counterpart, Engaged Jain Studies emphasizes the relevance of Jain principles for fostering social and environmental justice. It encourages followers to move beyond the realm of personal spiritual growth, encouraging them to connect their spiritual path to the important task of caring for the wellbeing of society. This commitment to engagement reflects a holistic approach, aligning Jain teachings with pressing and interconnected issues of our time such as climate change, animal advocacy, social justice, and much more.


Jains and those inspired by the Jain tradition the world over frequently ask how they can best apply their Jain principles in everyday life, and that is precisely what Engaged Jain Studies helps them do. The discipline delves into the dynamic intersection of Jain philosophy, ethics, and contemporary social and environmental issues. Rooted in the ancient wisdom of Jainism, it seeks to bridge the gap between traditional Jain teachings and their practical applications in today's complex world.


At its core, Engaged Jain Studies therefore rigorously strives to connect the profound insights of Jain philosophy with the challenges and responsibilities of contemporary life. It both includes but also transcends the boundaries of academia, inviting anyone, Jain and non-Jain alike, to actively engage with the principles of non-violence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), non-attachment (aparigraha), and other fundamental tenets of Jainism such as anekāntavāda (the doctrine of many-sidedness) in order to make the world a better place.


Embracing but Moving Beyond "Applied Jainism"


As the field of Engaged Buddhism has recently shown, however, to stop here at this oft-rehearsed constructive, normative, and prescriptive methodological approach can be problematic for many reasons. The social positions of the authors writing under this "applied" methodology are rarely transparent, often lack academic rigor, and/or repeat outdated methods, for example. Merely following this “applied” method would also not add much to existing scholarship or knowledge in the field of Jain Studies. 


Thus, while we fully embrace an "Applied Jainism" approach, we have also invited a number of critical scholars of the Jain tradition who undertake research in the fields of history, the social sciences, philosophy, critical animal studies, environmental studies, art history, business ethics, museology, and philology into our volume to help us problematize and more carefully theorize what we mean when we say "Engaged Jain Studies." The field's corresponding object, "Engaged Jainism" is, after all, an etic one we are using to describe the normative "applications" currently taking place within the tradition, particularly in the diaspora, and often in direct engagement with scholars (Engaged Buddhism is an emic term coined by a prominent Buddhist practitioner, Thich Nhat Hanh, who used it in a very specific way to denote Buddhist social engagement. This term was only later picked up by scholars of Buddhism).


Therefore, we use the term "Engaged Jainism" as a meta-category to encapsulate the aforementioned normative, prescriptive activity that is repeatedly practiced within the Jain tradition, especially in the diaspora. It does not necessarily denote Jain social or political engagement, though it certainly could, but instead more broadly refers to the ways that Jains understand and make meaning of their obligations and activities (or lack thereof) - i.e., their "engagement" - within society following their own cultural logics in particular times and places. 


To undertake such critical research requires the development of innovative methodological approaches. Building on existing frameworks in the field of Jain Studies, our individual contributors have taken the opportunity to do just this. What will Jonathan Dickstein reveal, for example, when he brings the field of critical animal studies and vegan studies into conversation with Jain approaches to animal protection? What will be revealed when Johannes Beltz shares his experiences of the process of curating the exhibition Being Jain at Museum Rietberg in direct engagement with the Jain community in Switzerland? Or what might Tine Vekemans' research findings about Jain discourses surrounding the healing capacities of the Bhaktāmar Stotra highlight about the mutual obligations between scholars and Jain informants?


A few final words


These are but a few of the many important case studies and research questions that we will feature in our forthcoming volume, Engaged Jainism. There is so much more that I want to share with you about the volume, but we don't want to spoil any of the big reveals! 


Professor Cogen Bohanec and I are very excited to bring you this work with its incredible lineup of contributors soon. Stay tuned for updates from us, and if you are yourself interested in engaging in this innovative, new field of research, have a look at our remotely available Engaged Jain Studies MA program.


We look forward to "engaging" with you soon!