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Jains tread gentle path to peace

Religion Editor

When Pravin Mehta mows the lawn, it's an ethical dilemma.

He mows because it's the suburban custom in this country, but he also asks for forgiveness for hurting the grass and killing creeping crawling things in the ground.

Mehta is a Jain, a practitioner of Jainism, a world religion that sprung from ancient India. As a Jain, he is a disciple of nonviolence. He means to take it seriously. That means avoiding injury to any and all living creatures, if he can.

''Nonviolence goes much deeper than people might think,'' said Mehta, a mechanical engineer who lives in Clarksville. ''It means not only physical, but mental nonviolence. Killing starts with a thought, it starts with speech. So we try to practice nonviolence in thought and speech, too.''

Middle Tennessee's small grouping of Jains gathers for a big day today, the 2,600th birthday of Lord Mahavira (''the Great Hero''), the greatest of all Jain teachers, who found the way to divine knowledge and taught the path of purification.

The Jain Society of Middle Tennessee will met at Gateway Baptist Church in Clarksville today to hear lectures, share food and celebrate. Mehta, who was born in India and came to this country three decades ago, is president of the area Jain organization.

The Jains are a tiny presence in the Bible Belt, about 25 families in Middle Tennessee, mostly immigrants from India. The Jainism they brought with them has elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, but its stress on personal responsibility, nonviolence and other doctrines make it a faith in its own right, stretching back for millennia.
Its name comes from the 24 ''jinas,'' a succession of spiritual victors or great teachers of ancient India. Tradition says the first jina lived 8.4 million years ago. The most recent was Mahavira, born in the 6th century B.C., around the time of the Buddha.

At age 30, Mahavira renounced family to become a wandering ascetic in search of purity and truth. He became a jina after 12 years of severe fasting to cleanse his body and prolonged silence to improve his speech and meditation to clear his mind, according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. He traveled for the next 30 years, teaching the insights he learned until he died at age 73 and passed into ''moksa,'' the liberation of the soul from the burdens of karma and reincarnation.

Jains believe every soul is potentially divine and can escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksa by a life of discipline and purification.

Those disciplines or vows include speaking the truth, sexual monogamy and detachment from material things.
Another discipline central of Jain religion is ''ahimsa,'' nonviolence toward people, animals, even plants. Some Jains build asylums for old or sick animals and care for them until they die a natural death. Vegetarianism is the norm. Some interpret that to mean consuming only those foods that can be harvested without killing the plant or animal. Nuts, milk and fruit are examples.

Jainism always has had a monastic tradition where individuals become monks to devote their lives to attaining moksa. One tradition of Jain monasticism wears white robes as a sign of the striving for purity. Another branch interprets the ascetic life to mean rejection of clothing altogether, even in public.

There are no enforced dictates on Jains, however, so the intensity of the spiritual search of a Jain layman is left up to the individual.

''To a Jain, karma is like barnacles on a boat that accumulate and stick to a person's soul,'' said Tom Russell, who teaches Jainism and other religions at Western Kentucky University.

''The disciplines are about scraping the barnacles off.''


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