My Religious Identity: Impressions from an Indian American Jain

When I was seven I thought Christianity and Jainism were the same religion. My weekly visits to the Jain temple were wedged between daily Bible study classes at school. Every Sunday, I sang stotras and memorized doctrine in my Jain Gyanshala class on my path to perfect harmony. The next day, I’d recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing, “Jesus Loves Me” in my Bible class as a continuation of my religious lessons. Every now and then, I’d confuse my teachers by using Jesus and Mahavira interchangeably.

In class, I’d think about how Mahavira finally achieved moksha after dying on the cross and how Jesus practiced vegetarianism. I was switching so constantly between Gyanshala and Bible study that the two religions eventually intermingled until I couldn’t tell the difference.

As I grew older, I began to recognize the distinctions between Christianity and Jainism. Instead of a single religion, I began to see Christianity and Jainism separately. My understanding of each religion became more complex as I studied more of their teachings.

 I was rattled when chapel services of a heavenly afterlife started conflicting with Gyanshala’s lessons on moksha and reincarnation. Daily Bible classes overpowered weekly visits to the temple. My confusion threatened the stability of my seemingly sturdy religious foundation. The more I studied, the more I compared the two: Jesus vs. Mahavira, sin vs. karma, and Christmas vs. Diwali.

Eventually, the minute details, rather than the core teachings, defined the religions themselves. The Baptist school life and the Jain family life became oil and water; they just didn’t mix. For years, I struggled to reconcile the two. I teetered between one and the other: Christian at school and Jain at home.

To my family, I was the poster child for the devout Jain daughter, unwavering in her faith. To my friends, I was the convert Christian, sharing their beliefs. I was caught in a game of tug-of-war, but there was no clear winner. The more one pulled me in, the harder the other tugged me away. That rope got shorter and shorter as I began to see value in the duality of my religious life. Aside from stories dependent on blind faith, Christianity’s and Jainism’s dogmas were strikingly similar. Their mutual tenets of piety, respect, and love drove the crux of their teachings to unite, not divide, people. In my young eyes, Jesus and Mahavira were practically indistinguishable. They both made similar sacrifices, devoting their lives to higher causes. Perhaps the purest form of religion is seen through the wide eyes of a naive seven-year-old. Perhaps my initial approach to religion was not a pathetic oversimplification but rather a genuine, unadulterated outlook. Driven by fear of our minor differences, we become bogged down in the details. We consider the actions of a few to betoken the views of many. We use our religious differences to justify unwarranted hate on innocent refugees, immigrants, and even natives.

 Religions all have the same goal: to serve as the needle of humanity’s moral compass, pointing us in the right direction. Especially in a time when religion serves as a polarizing means to pit people against one another, we should view religion through the eyes of a seven-year-old wherein religion encourages morality despite our differences. I’ve grown to understand that no matter what religion I adhere to, I’ll get the same value out of either. I realize religion serves as a tool to instill morality in its followers albeit through different tales and mystical events. Religion is the medicine that keeps us righteous. Its romantic stories inspire strong characters of honor and compassion.

Through religion, my Jain temple and my Baptist school endowed me with a spirit of open-mindedness and acceptance. My religions served as channels to spread a philosophy of love while simultaneously shaping the essence of who I am today.

Name Withheld Upon Request