Gaining New Insight from an Ancient Tradition
An endowed professorship in Jain Studies prompts students to examine their impact on the worldMar 8, 2023
This academic year, a number of students at CU Denver are giving more thought to the effects of their choices and activities on the world around them as they practice a day of ahimsa, or non-violence. The exercise, which the students find both enlightening and challenging, is part of their study of the Jain religion in classes taught by Dr. Steven Vose.
Vose joined the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty last summer as the inaugural Bhagwan Suparshvanatha Endowed Professor in Jain Studies. Funded by a group of generous donors from the Jain community, this endowed professorship is part of a nationwide effort to raise the profile of Jainism in the higher education curriculum.
In establishing the professorship, the donors noted their aim was not to proselytize but rather to introduce students to the history, culture, philosophy, and art of the Jain religion. The professorship creates and offers courses that examine key tenets of Jainism, such as non-violence and non-attachment/non-possessiveness. The courses also explore the practical significance of principles such as enduring peace, social harmony, and ecological sustainability.
An Ancient Religion Still Integral TodayOriginating in India around 2,600 years ago, Jainism is a religious tradition in which adherents seek to attain eternal enlightenment by liberating their souls from a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Their success in doing so rests on defeating karma, a cosmic substance that adheres to the soul as a result of one’s actions. Avoiding new karma and shedding karma accumulated over the course of many lifetimes are essential aspects of a Jain’s very being. Their approach centers on the practice of ahimsa, a strict form of non-violence that involves doing no harm to other humans, animals, and nature. “Jains are rigorously focused on the fact that there are other souls in the universe that can be harmed through our actions; the more capacity a being has to experience pain and suffering, the more harm a person does to themselves by hurting that being,” Vose explains.
Jains, consequently, follow a vegetarian diet that excludes even root vegetables given that extracting the root kills the plant. Instead, they favor food harvested with as little harm as possible to the plant that produced it. Jains also believe in limiting their possessions to avoid becoming overly attached to the material world. Those who have acquired wealth are encouraged to share it, often in support of the Jain community.
Jains follow the teachings of the Jinas, a lineage of teachers who have attained spiritual “victory” over death and rebirth. Practicing non-violence, charity, and other means of purification such as fasting is thought to improve a Jain’s current life while creating a path to ultimate enlightenment. “Jainism really teaches you about making choices and being able to live with the consequences of your choices, as well as being reflective about those choices,” Vose explains. “It is a very practice-oriented tradition—their ethics focus much more on what you do than what you believe or even intend.”
Learning Through ExperienceVose notes that students in his classes are impressed with how mindful Jains are of their actions and how demanding this can seem. “They find everything about Jainism stunningly different from their own lives,” he remarks. As they participate in the day of ahimsa, his students track the decisions they make and try to evaluate them from a Jain perspective by considering how much violence is inherent in them. In addition to making careful choices about which foods they eat, the students reflect on ways in which they interact with the world around them. For example, they consider how their daily commutes or single-use plastics contribute to environmental degradation, which affects all life—including their own. They also view social and economic issues such as inequality, disability and ableism, gender equity, and religious and cultural pluralism through a Jain lens. As part of the assignment, the students blog about their experiences while they gain a greater sense of what living like a Jain really means. “It’s one of the ways they get a practical understanding of what Jainism asks of a person,” says Vose. “The students love the assignment.”
A number of Vose’s students are animal rights activists and environmentalists who identify with the notion that our very presence in the world can profoundly affect others. Last fall, a group of them visited the Luvin Arms Animal Sanctuary in Erie, run by a Jain couple who are committed to providing “farmed” animals a safe and dignified way to live out their lives. Dr. Vose is working to establish an internship at the sanctuary so students can deepen their experiences caring for the animals while gaining an understanding of how a successful non-profit operates.
An Expanded WorldviewOriginally from Maine, Vose became interested in the study of Indian religions—and of Jainism in particular—during his undergraduate days at St. Lawrence University. Inspired by a professor who was a specialist in Jainism and fueled by a strong commitment to human rights, Vose embarked on a path in academia that took him to Harvard Divinity School for his master’s degree and the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD. When the Jain community began endowing chairs and professorships in Jain Studies in the U.S., Vose held the first such one, established at Florida International University.
Vose enjoys teaching world religions for many reasons, including the opportunity to encourage students to see how they can learn from religious traditions beyond their own while broadening their worldview. “I like helping my students realize that what they think they already know about the rest of the world is actually partially true and partially not true,” he says. “I think most of my students at CU Denver understand that what they’ve been taught about the rest of the world is very much from an Americanized lens, a lens that hasn’t always benefited them, as we have such a large minority population.” Vose encourages students to approach learning about different religious traditions with a mindset of curiosity, to view it as an exchange that can be beneficial to all.
In addition to teaching and research, Vose prioritizes outreach to the Jain community as a responsibility of his professorship. He has met with many Jains in the area and was a guest at one of their major festivals last year. He also envisions offering events on campus that provide opportunities for the entire Front Range community to meet their Jain neighbors and learn more about their tradition.