Jain Libraries Enter the 21st Century, with Some Road Block

By Ellen Ioanes

AHMEDABAD – With its intricately carved marble walls, a Jain library known as the Gitarthganga Institute possesses an air of timelessness. It is tucked on a leafy side-street, far from the shriek of car horns and auto-rickshaws that dominate the streets of this busy city in the western state of Gujarat.

But there is something decidedly 21st-century going on behind those walls. Gitarthganga is undertaking a massive enterprise -- to digitize all of its books and texts, some of which date back 150 years.

The library is, however, stepping gingerly into the new technological era since Jain monks and nuns, the guardians of the tradition, are not permitted to use cellphones and computers. What makes it all possible is cooperation and coordination between the ascetics and a cadre of lay Jain employees and volunteers.

“They’re the ones typing in this information.” says Dr. Peter Flugel, a scholar of Jainism at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The digitization project has been underway since 1992, according to Gitarthganga spokesman Shrenik Zaveri. But one can still visit the material texts, which are housed in glass cabinets on the upper floor of the temple. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, monks, nuns and temple staff pull and re-shelve the books, all of which still have the old hand-printed Dewey decimal system labels.



Kushalkirti Maharaj Saheb, dressed in the white robes typical of Svetambara Jain monks, oversees the library and the digitization project. He’s a young monk, in his thirties, and a disciple of the guru Aacharya Shree Yugbushansuri. Before taking his vows, or diksha, he worked as an IT professional.

“We established this institution for subject-wise analysis,” he says, explaining that all of the books and manuscripts in the library have been divided into 108 main subject matter areas (for example, meditation, or nonviolence) with 10,008 subheadings under the main topics.

“It is the first effort in India to digitize this way,” he says, explaining how the system allows users to search for terms and discover the entire Jain philosophy on that particular subject. During an interview at the institute’s monastery, Yugbushansuri reiterates this point: “On meditation, if one wants references from Jain scripture, we can get more than 7,000, 8,000 references,” demonstrating the power of this system.

At this writing, Gitarthganga has over 125,000 books, manuscripts and ebooks. Five thousand books have been added to the digital database, along with thousands of ebooks, articles and photos. The remainder will be added over the next decade or so, says Zaveri. While it may seem like a small number, it’s impressive considering the very specific prohibition against the use of technology in the Svetambara monastic tradition.

For Jain monks and nuns to use a cell phone, computer or tablet is strictly taboo. Says scholar John Cort of Denison University, “The Jain understanding is that technology requires electricity, and the means of generating electricity are inherently violent.” Christopher Key Chapple, a scholar at Loyola Marymount University, says in his book Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, using electricity causes harm to the organisms (“fire-bodied beings”) present in electrical current.

While most lay people use technology all the time, Svetambara monks are strictly prohibited from doing so. So they direct some 45 staff members and volunteers, including three coders, in the hands-on computer entry work.

Gitarthganga is by no means the only Jain library in India; many mandirs, or temples, have their own libraries, with the Koba library in Koba, Gujarat, being the largest and best-known. Because education and knowledge are highly valued among Jains (they are consistently among the best-educated minority groups in India), many temples have excellent collections of religious books and manuscripts.

Jainism is a somewhat obscure practice in much of the world. While it’s one of India’s oldest traditions, there are only about 4.5 million practitioners there (out of India’s 1.2 billion total population) and about 250,000 in the Jain diaspora, according to the World Religion Database.

As a result, many outside this small community have no knowledge of Jain principles, dietary practices, or history.

Mahavira, who was born between 599 and 540 BCE, is considered the father of Jainism as we know it. Jains believe that their religion is timeless, and thus was not created, but rather, revealed. Mahavira brought modern Jainism to the people of India and is revered by devotees.

The religion has five core practices: ahimsa, or nonviolence, being chief among them, as well as chastity, avoiding lying or harmful speech, not stealing, and refraining from materialism or having possessions. Jains are vegetarians and have an extremely strict diet that excludes root vegetables and eggs, amongst other foods. They also fast often and have particular rules about when meals can be taken during the day.

The ultimate goal of practicing Jains is attaining moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death. The monastic traditions practice extreme asceticism to achieve this release, including refraining from using all technology, traveling only by foot, wearing simple white robes (or in the Digambara tradition, no clothing at all), practicing total abstinence and fasting frequently, sometimes until death.

There is an impetus in the community to promote knowledge about the religion. Pravin Shah, who started the Jain elibrary in 2008, says he began the project as a way to bring religious texts to the next generation of Jains.

Shah, who practices Jainism and came to the United States in the 1970s, says that no one in the U.S. had access to texts that would help them teach Jain children growing up in the diaspora. So he decided to create an online resource to make such texts available, for free.

The Jain eLibrary project differs from Gitarthganga in that Shah works with a number of Jain libraries and scans their documents into his online database. The documents are not keyword searchable, so navigating the database without prior knowledge of Jain texts can be a challenge.

The Gitarthganga Institute has developed a unique in-house software to facilitate the move to digital. Now, says Satva Bushan Vijayji, another disciple of the guru, the monks can analyze the texts, and can physically direct the staff building the library or doing programming.

According to Yugbushansuri, who says he came up with the idea for this project 30 years ago, this resource is intended “for experts and scholars, not the common man.” Much of the library’s contents are in ancient languages like Sanskrit, so “experts need to put the scriptures of Jainism in perspective for others.”

However, experts abroad have yet to make much use of it; the digital files are not accessible outside of India. A visit to the Gitarthganga website reveals only information about the project and does not contain access to the database itself. As to whether the information will ever be made available outside the institute, Zaveri says that Gitarthganga will continue to work with Jain scholars throughout the world so that they can “share their research with [Gitarthganga],” while requesting information “as needed.”

And according to Shah, Gitarthganga was reluctant to digitize in the first place. He says that he requested books from several different Jain libraries to add to the Jain eLibrary, but was rebuffed by Gitarthganga because, according to him, they hoped to keep their texts from being sullied by technology.

Even now, these resources are difficult to retrieve. Flugel recalls that on a visit to the library, a student found 136 resources that would be useful for her work. Gitarthganga sent only seven via email due to what they say was a technological problem.

Flugel speculates, though, that the lack of access could be due to the politics of competing Jain sects. Different groups take on different community-oriented projects, he explains, each jockeying for recognition and supremacy, much like the kinds of intellectual competition between Ivy League universities. Says Flugel, “All of this can only be understood within the context of sectarian competition within Jainism. It’s a nice thing, they outdo each other in producing books and libraries and temples, all sorts of prestigious things.”

But Yugbushansuri is confident that the resource will be helpful, and that users will spread the good word about it. There is no other plan, other than “via word of mouth,” to share this resource with scholars or the public at large. Eventually, the texts will be translated into Hindi, and an English encyclopedia will be added. But Flugel and Shah both agree that the library will have “no choice” but to embrace the digital age and share the wealth of its knowledge so that the religion can survive. Says Shah, “They have to change. There’s no other way.”

Daily Dispatch 2: A Day for the Senses

NEW DELHI – Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations.

We did all this while navigating the narrow alleyways of Delhi where we dodged cars, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, dogs, cows and even a monkey or two.

Professor Trivedi had warned us that it would be the most demanding and in many ways the most memorable day of the trip. He assembled a great cast of characters to make it all come alive. These included Dalai Lama’s personal interpreter, Prime Minister Modi’s minister of Information, the leader of Delhi’s main mosque and a celebrity author, William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal.

We started the day at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the religious epicenter for most of the city’s Sunni Muslim population since the 17th century. The pink sandstone mosque waited solidly and silently for the thousands of Muslims who would come to for the Friday jummah, or noon prayer. Dalrymple and several of his colleagues walked us through the mosque before we headed to the old city’s religious landscape.

He took us back to the 17th century and described for us a shining city on the beautiful Yamuna River, the second holiest river after the Ganges. The Delhi of the 1600s had the largest economy in the world, based on its famed textiles. The masjid, built by emperor Shah Jahan, sits at the top of a hill and was once surrounded by lush gardens and elegant mansions.

Now, one can still feel the cool breeze that made Shah Jahan choose the location in the first place, and imagine what the mosque must have been like in its heyday. Dalrymple and his friend Bruce Warnell helped us imagine the courtyard as it once was: shaded in royal gold and scarlet covers with cooling fountains and pools, making it an ideal place for gathering with friends.

We followed Dalrymple through the side streets of Old Delhi, through the courtesan’s bazaar and the bridal bazaar, where one can purchase bright, festive decorations, saris and perfumes.

Sis Ganj Gurudwara. By Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
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Dalrymple was at home in the Old City. We stopped at a small family-owned perfume shop, where he described India’s rich ittar, or scent, tradition, which goes back to the first millennium. Of course, Indian plants like holy basil, tuberose and jasmine are some of the most sought-after scents in the world, but the perfume tradition has diminished over the centuries. Luckily, we were able to take a bit of the history home with us. The favorite? Oud rose, a deep, moody floral scent.

Next on our walk was the Jain Shwetambara temple, its splendor unassuming behind a plain lavender exterior. We removed our shoes and headed inside to the lower level, where there were devotees ringing silver bells that were hanging overhead. I walked under and clanged the bell as loudly as I could, then headed upstairs to the third floor. There, we sat among murals of the life of Mahavira, the man who revealed Jainism to the world, and other Jain saints. Jains believe in reincarnation, which the murals depict, and which Dalrymple described as “the conveyor belt of life.”

At our next stop, the Sikh Gurudwara, a lovely older gentleman brought us sweet limes as we stood in line to remove our shoes. I accepted the fruit and said, “Shukria,” or “thank you” in Hindi, to which he replied, “Good girl!” After washing our feet, we headed inside, where devotees were listening to three musicians--a singer, and a tabla and harmonium player--performed a song about a lonesome bride, perhaps an allegory for the soul. The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners.

We rushed to reach the Jama Masjid; we were late for an interview with Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam. The leadership of the masjid has been in his family for over 300 years. It’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. But, he said, “I’m Indian by choice not by chance,” affirming his commitment to his community.

Bukhari answered our questions about politics, practice, and the history of the masjid, and gave us valuable insight about how others in the world see American politics and policies under Trump. He struck most of us as rather moderate until Emily asked him about the Islamic State. “ISIS is a creation of Israel to defame Islam,” he answered.

After a brief pit stop for lunch (paneer paratha and sweet lassi at a stall six generations old), we headed to the Tibet House for the only Buddhist experience we will have on the trip. There, we met Geshe Dorji Damdul, the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe Damdul is the Dalai Lama’s official translator and granted us an interview. He spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,” he said.

Our trip took a sharp turn, from a community in exile to the seat of government power, where we met Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting. Several cameras and videographers were present to capture the moment, briefly making us the subjects instead of the observers.

A retired Army colonel and former Olympic athlete, Rathore greeted us with a curious question given that he is an official of the BJP: “I thought religion was a private affair; why write about it so much?” Despite having no background in journalism or media, Rathore has certainly developed a strong idea of what he considers newsworthy. He spoke to us about the decline in the quality of journalism, stating that journalists need better training and to keep emotions out of their reporting—”less views and more news,” he said.

Our last stop was a visit to India TV, a 600-plus-person, 24-hour newsroom situated on three acres of land. There, we got to walk onto the set of one of India’s most popular programs, Aap Ki Adalat, or The People’s Court. On each episode, a celebrity or politician is grilled by host Rajat Sharma in front of a studio audience. Narendra Modi came on before he was elected Prime Minister, and recently a Digambara Jain monk was the guest. It was a challenge for the production team to facilitate the interview of the naked monk in an appropriate manner, but they pulled it off.

After our visit to the TV station, we headed back to the hotel--or so we thought. After a brief detour going the wrong way on a one-way street, we got stuck in that infamous Delhi traffic, for which every hour seems to be rush hour. Eager to send my dispatch out into the world, I joined our fixer, Paresh-ji, and three of my classmates in a mad dash through the streets and to the peace and quiet of the Holiday Inn.


Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Living and Learning Shi'a Islam in Woodside, Queens

Forty small children, ranging in age from four to nine, file into the vestibule at the sprawling Shi’a mosque right off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Woodside, Queens. The kids hand their backpacks, covered in images of Ninja Turtles and the princesses from “Frozen,” over to their mothers before taking their seats in one of the richly carpeted assembly rooms.

This morning, they’re learning about akhlaq, or the correct manner and behavior of Muslims. Sabira Pirmohamed is leading the conversation, which is mostly her trying to persuade the shy children to answer her questions. “You should all know what akhlaq is,” she chides. Pirmohamed is strict, but it’s only because she wants the children become the best Muslims they can be.

On the other side of the room, the older children are learning a similar lesson, but with a bit more depth. A visiting cleric from Maryland, Sheikh Ahmad al-Haeri, shares a lesson on empowerment. “Look for an important position in society,” he says. “Don’t underestimate yourself. You are like a well, with so much underneath! You can be President, if you were born here; you can be a minister, you can be a Congressman,” he says.

In light of President Trump’s recently contested travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries, this lesson seems particularly timely. Not only are the children encouraged to behave in ways that will bring them closer to Allah—things like being trustworthy, kind, and devoted--but they’re also encouraged to engage in civic life to bring honor to Islam. The two assemblies kick off an entire day of Sunday school at the religious center, formally known as Ithna’asheri Jamaat and located at 48-67 58th Street.


A total of about 80 children and teenagers will come from as far away as New Jersey and Staten Island to attend classes all afternoon. Sausan Merali Salehmohamed, a volunteer at the school and the mother of two of its students, tells me that children take four classes: Akhlaq, or morals and ethics, aqaid, or beliefs, tariq, or Islamic history, and Qur’an, where children learn the holy book in Arabic as well as learning the meaning of the verses, and how they apply to daily life. The aqaid class, she noted, is especially important for Shi’a children. It helps them understand how their beliefs and practices differ from Sunni beliefs, and how they can explain their faith to others who question it.

Ummul Baneen Mohammedali teaches a Qur’an class for children ages seven and eight. She is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Queens College, and hopes to be a special education teacher. Today, her class is looking at the Al-Kawthar sura, which is translated as “The abundance.” It’s short—only three verses. Mohammedali’s 14 students were expected to practice the sura in Arabic over the past week. Some of them were successful; others, not so.

The school, known as a madressa, is structured very much like a grade school; it’s more than the casual Sunday school of my Episcopalian youth. There’s a bell between periods, weekly homework assignments, exams, and a graduation. Although they’re young, the students in Mohammedali’s class are expected to be disciplined about their schoolwork; those who don’t complete their homework will receive a zero for the missed assignment.

Mohammedali has high standards for her students. She asks each one to recite the sura in Arabic, correcting their pronunciation—“That’s a saad, not a siin!”—as they go. “I can tell who practiced and who didn’t,” she says.

Mohammedali leads her students through a conversation about the meaning of the sura, too. Kawthar, she explains, is the fountain of Rasul Allah, the messenger of God, in paradise. “We want to drink from the fountain of Kawthar,” says Mohammedali. But how? Through prayer and sacrifice. She asks the class what they can sacrifice. Money, of course, is suggested--charity, or zakat, is one of the pillars of Islam. “Through being nice?” suggests a little girl. “Sure, we can be good people,” Mohammedali responds, “we can sacrifice our lives—not physically, of course.” But she notes that another important way to sacrifice is through time. “Saying this sura is like making a sacrifice,” one that’s maybe a bit less painful than other forms. As an added benefit, says Mohammedali, “You’ll also get to meet Rasul Allah.” This strikes a chord with a student in a white hijab. She gasps and exclaims, “Cool!” Mohammedali nods and says, “I think it’s pretty cool, too.”

The final line in the sura refers to Muhammad’s lack of male heirs with his wife, Khadija. While she bore him two sons, both are to have died in infancy. Because he lacked male progeny, Muhammad was taunted by Abu Jahl and his Qurayshi tribesmen. In order to explain why this is important, though, Mohammedali must first explain the concept of bloodlines. “So when a boy and a girl get married, right, what happens to the girl’s name?” she asks. “The girl takes the boy’s name, right? The boy doesn’t take the girls’ name, right? Unless she’s really lucky. How many of you have your dad’s last name?” Every student except one raises their hand. “So Muhammad didn’t have anyone to carry on his name,” Mohammedali explains, leading to the abuse from the Qurayshi tribe. But Muhammad is promised, in this sura, that those who taunted him will be punished in the worst way possible--by being cut off from God.

As students progress, they obviously have more nuanced conversations about the Qur’an and other aspects of Shi’a life; teenagers in their final year of madressa debate the nuances of the word wali, which can mean guardian, helper or friend, depending on one’s interpretation. But the foundations of Islam start early for these students. The goal, says Salehmohamed, is to teach the children that Islam is not just something to be “boxed off and reserved for Sundays.” Rather, madressa education prepares children to engage in Islam “as a way of life.”


Small but Significant: The Use of Turbah in Shi’a Prayer


At 534 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, just west of the hulking Barclay’s Center, sits the Islamic Guidance Center. It’s an unassuming two-story building, cream-colored, with arched windows and a facade that mimics the shape of a dome at the top.

The masjid sits on a stretch of Atlantic that’s lined with Muslim businesses--Halal shops, travel agencies and convenience stores stocked with date syrup and halva. There’s even another masjid right across the street, albeit of the Sunni variety.

According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the US adult population--about 1.8 million Muslims, 63 percent of whom are immigrants. In the United States, only 11 percent of Muslims identify as Shia, compared to the 65 percent who identify as Sunni. This disparity explains the scarcity of Shia masjids; there are none in Manhattan.

On a recent Monday, the mosque is slow to fill up. By 12:08, the designated time on this day for the noon prayer, or zuhr, to begin, there is only one worshipper in the mosque.

His name is Ali, and he’s a convert from the Sunni tradition. Lit only by a few yellow ceiling fixtures and the weak winter sunshine, Ali sits in the middle of the chilly masjid, facing Mecca, in a folding chair. He walks with a cane, so is unable to prostrate himself on the floor as most Muslims do. About three feet in front of him is a round stone, on which his eyes are fixed.

Moments later, the sheikh--the preferred term for imam in this tradition--Kadhim Mohammed, sweeps into the room, his brown robe trailing behind him. There’s no formal muezzin here, although the one from the Sunni mosque across the street is audible. But Sheikh Mohammed thunders out “Allahu akbar!”—God is great!--to a similar effect and grabs two stones from a basket near the door, without breaking his stride. The stones, called turbah, are one thing that distinguishes this Shi’a mosque from the Sunni one across the street.

Explaining the stones, or turbah, after the service, Mohammed says, “When we pray, we must bear down on the earth.” There are no prayer rugs here, just the turbah. Mohammed has a permanent black mark on his forehead, from years of bearing down into the stone.

As the prayers get underway, more men trickle in, including a businessman in a black turtleneck, who hurriedly snatches a turbah on his way to join the prayers. An older gentleman takes his turbah unhurriedly and goes to join the others. Toward the end of the salah, they’re joined by a quiet young man dressed all in black.

The congregants, with the exception of Ali, move in unison; first, their hands go behind their ears as they proclaim, “Allahu akbar!” and set their intentions for the prayer. Then down go their arms, to the sides, instead of crossed over the chest as Sunnis do. They bend down at the waist, in the position known as ruku, and rise up for a breath.

That brief, tense moment is shattered by sujud, the position of prostration. Sheikh Mohammed brushes his hands back with a flourish, his robes catching the air like wind in a sail. His head, adorned with a pristine white covering, moves toward the turbah as though both are magnetized.


The turbah is important to Shi’a because they believe that Muhammad prayed outside, according to Dr. Najam Haider, a scholar of Shi’a Islam at Barnard College. Turbah comes from the Arabic word turab, which translates to “ground” or “dust.” The stone is a marker of Shi’a practice, one of the small and symbolic, but important ways that it differs from Sunni. Says Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer, the Shi’a chaplain at New York University, “The goal of religion is to get closer to God. In the Islamic tradition, the best way to do that is to practice the way Muhammad did,” hence practicing in nature—or at least with a bit of nature in your practice. Jaffer expounds on the theology, too: “Using the turbah makes you humble yourself more.”


Ideally, the turbah comes from the soil of Karbala, the site of Hussain ibn Ali’s martyrdom and one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites. However, the turbah can be anything natural—a stone, a plant, even paper. Dr. Haider says that some masjids in Africa use straw mats to incorporate the concept of turbah into their prayers.


But in the Brooklyn masjid, there are round beige discs, almost like small hockey pucks, which the assembled faithful keep humbling themselves against.


The salah continues, each congregant silently reciting his own prayer. Then suddenly, Ali lets out a wail: “Allaaaaaahh!” The other two congregants begin vocalizing their own prayers, holy mumbles commingling, weaving in and out of each other.


Like waves tumbling onto shore, the men’s prayers ebb in and out of audibility, punctuated every so often with an “Allahu akbar” or “al hamdulilah.” The men prostrate themselves over and over again, rushing toward the turbah in what seem to be moments of wild abandon in an otherwise regulated and predictable service.


Then, like an arrow comes the Imam’s clear, resonant voice, intoning, “Allahu akbar” to call the salah to a close. To say he silences the congregants wouldn’t be accurate, although their individual prayers cease. Instead, in that one moment, he’s drawing in all the other prayers, braiding them together into one.
Later, when asked about this moment in the salah, the Imam explained, “We praise God for His own characteristics. We love Him, He is one. As long as He is one, we can love Him.”





Statistics from Pew Research Center




Imam Kadhim Mohammed



Faiyaz Jaffer



Najam Haider