In 1963, Jain individuals and families began to immigrate to the United States. Most were engineers or doctors who came to further their education and to gain employment. As they prospered, the state-side residents sent for their family and friends in India.
The Jain Society of Central Florida was started in 1981 by a Daytona, Florida resident, Dr. Lal Jain. Several Central Florida cities, namely Ocala, Daytona, and Orlando, had Jain families who held prayer meetings and ceremonies in their homes. Poojas and other activities were held continuously in people's homes since 1981. The Jain Society of Central Florida became registered with the IRS as a non-profit, tax exempt corporation in 1993.
In 1991, Bhavok Singh, a Sikh man living in the southwest of Orlando, agreed to let the Jains of Central Florida use his large spiritual center for their various activities. He did so at no charge to the Jains. Now all poojas and other activities are held at the spiritual center in Orlando.
In November of 1995, Bhavek Singh made a request to the samanijis from India to start a Preksha Center in Florida. The Jain community of Central Florida supported this proposition and agreed to help the samanijis in any way. The center is now called Jain Vishwa Bharati USA. Each year two samanis are sent to the center to act as religious leaders, teachers, lecturers, and advisors. They reside in Orlando, but they travel all over the USA delivering lectures to universities and colleges, acting as spiritual advisors for Jain communities, and teaching Preksha Meditation and Yoga.
The "Saman" order was started by Gurudev Shri Tulsi in 1980, which began as a progressive movement to help spread the teachings of Jainism, Preksha Meditation and Yoga, and the Science of Living. The samanis and saman that make up this order are allowed to travel on planes, trains, cars, and busses, and they are also allowed to eat food that is especially prepared for them by Jain families. Other exceptions are made for them so that they can study and teach all over the world.
The Jains of Central Florida do not tend to differentiate between ethnic groups although there are many different "sects" within the Jain faith. They are differentiated mainly by which guru is followed and whether or not they worship idols. The Svetamber sect is subdivided as follows: Deravasi (idol worshipping), Sthanakvasi (non-idol worshipping), and Terapanthi (non-idol worshipping). The Digambara sect is subdivided as follows: Bispanthi (idol worshipping), Terapanthi (idol worshipping), and Terapanti (non-idol worshipping). It was stated firmly that all Jains are equal despite their relative differences.
There are many languages spoken by Jains depending upon which state of India their families originated. Two examples of these are Gujarati and Marwari. Most Indians living in Central Florida speak Hindi, Gujarati, and English.
The Jains of Central Florida vary in age, starting, of course, from infants to elderly members. There are 25 children, 10 or so teenagers, and the average age of the rest of the community is from 4060 years old.
The Jains are a very open people, inviting all types of people from various religions and nationalities to their religious ceremonies. Non-Jains are exposed to Jainism when they take the yoga and meditation classes held by Jain Vishwa Bharati USA and when they attend the bi-monthly camps. If they become interested in leading a Jain lifestyle, or if they wish to learn more about it, they are very much welcomed to participate in any activity held at the spiritual center.
Description of the Center
The spiritual center, used by both the Jain Society of Central Florida and Jain Vishwa Bharati USA, is part of a large 5 acre compound owned by the Bhavok Singh family. The family has occupied this compound since the late 1970's. It began as a plant nursery and is now a thriving auction house.
The hall, which is approximately 3500 square feet, is large enough to hold up to 200 people. There are huge sliding glass doors encircling the entire room making it an open and airy sanctuary. It has been the spiritual center for the Jain community continuously since 1991.
The spiritual center is used by several religious organizations including Jains, Hindus, Sikhs, and other groups. Mr. Singh does not charge any rental fees for this spiritual center.
In addition to the monthly poojas, pathsalas, swadhyaya, and weekly classes on Jainism, the Jains hold a special once-a-year celebration for the birthday of Lord Mahavira.
Additionally, there are several specific customs practiced by Jains all around the world (depending upon how religious the practitioner). The first is Saamaayik, or the practice of equanimity of mind. Every day, for 48 minutes, a practitioner gives up worldly activities, chants mantras, and partakes in deep study of religious materials. During this time, they read religious books, pray, worship, recite rosary, or do meditation. White clothes are usually worn during this time, which is the symbol of purity and calmness. During Saamaayik, movement is limited so that the observance of ahimsa (non-violence) is made easy. Saamaayik helps prevent the accumulation of new karmas and the penance done helps to remove some accumulated karmas.
Next is Pratikraman, a time of introspection and forgiveness (called paryushan). Monks and nuns do this everyday. Lay Jains practice this for eight days in August or September.
Then there is penance, a practice that is usually held in connection with major festivals held throughout the year. The two types of penance are ekaashan and
uapvas. Ekaashan is practiced by eating only once during the day and not after sundown. Uapvas is fasting for at least one day or up to 30 or 40 days with only water. During times of penance, religious discourse is common.
There are two main publications produced by the Jain community and Jain Vishwa Bharati USA. A quarterly newsletter (The Inner Light) of approximately 8 pages is sent to families all over the state of Florida. Each issue focuses on special topics, such as ecology, mantras, or Lord Mahavira's birthday.
The second publication is the yearly "souvenir" booklet that is produced in conjunction with the annual 3 day camp. It is filled with best wishes from the community, articles relevant to the camp, ads for various community businesses, comments about the activities held at the center, and recognition of those who help out at the center.
There are various other small publications produced by the Jain Vishwa Bharati in Ladnun, India that are shared with the Jains of Florida and the United States.
Other Items of Interest
There are many interesting qualities that make the Jains of Central Florida engaging the least of which is how they face the challenge of recreating their religious life in America. Everything from interfaith and intercultural marriages to the challenges facing Jain parents to keep the rites and rituals of Jainism alive in their families present formidable obstacles to be faced everyday. As with any immigrant community, the Jains have had to find ways to keep their traditions and culture alive and operative in the lives of succeeding generations, have had to teach their children to be strong in the face of ridicule (for example, for being vegetarians) and oppression, and have had to organize for themselves the institutions and organizations that uphold their religious and cultural lives. They have had to have strong faith to continue to sustain their belief in non-violence, vegetarianism, and a strong moral commitment to truth.
Of course, one of the main ways to ensure that the future of Jainism in Central Florida is kept alive is the education of the children both in the home and at the spiritual center. In the home, mantras are said, and the parents who are religious continue to set good examples by performing religious activities in the home. Also, the samanis from India bring with them the cultural and religious traditions which help reinforce both Jain and Indian values and principles.
In addition to the reinforcement of Jain principles in the home and at the center, there is a group called the National Young Jain Association for Jains ages 14 - 24 where young Jains can get together to discuss the Jain way of life and how they cope with the challenges they face. Approximately 10 youths from the Central Florida area participate in the activities of this organization and attend various conferences around the country.
Another interesting group is the 20 or so ladies who support what is called gochari, that is, bringing food to the samanijis. The samanijis do not cook for themselves, so the ladies take turns bringing lunch and dinner to them.
And finally, another interesting quality that makes Jains special is their willingness to share their religious beliefs and cultural traditions with those who show interest. They do not go out of their way to convert people, but they go out of their way to share their faith with interested organizations and individuals. One of the reasons this is done is because of the broadminded generosity of the samanijis, who travel near and far lecturing on the tenets of Jainism, the Science of Living, and Preksha Meditation and Yoga. For example, in 1998 the samanijis lectured at Harvard University at the Jainism and Ecology Conference, went to Rollins College twice to speak on "Jain Ethics" and "The Concept of God in Jainism," spoke to elementary schools on the "Science of Living," went to Daytona Beach Community College and Webster University, and, finally, spoke to students at Valencia Community College on Jain viewpoints. In l999, they began the year with a class on Jainism to two classes at Stetson University in Florida. They have plans to teach yoga and meditation at Rollins College (one class has already been taught), will start a regular class on Jainism for non-Jains, and will continue a busy lecture schedule to other universities, organizations, and Jain communities around the USA. All these activities are done in addition to the regularly held Preksha Meditation and yoga classes held every week at no charge to the students.
Interaction with other Indian religious groups is an important and interesting aspect of their organization. For example, on October 2, 1998 the Jain Society of Central Florida participated in a walk-a-thon sponsored by the Hindu Society of Central Florida to commemorate the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.
It is important to note the generosity of Bhavek Singh who gives the samanijis a place to live, helps support them, and provides a free and spacious spiritual center where most of the Jain activities take place.
More information about Jainism can be had from JAINA-Jains Association in North America. See their web page at http://www.jaina.com. Also more detailed information about the Jain community of Central Florida can be had from Samani Madhur Pragya and Samani Akshay Pragya whose address and telephone number are listed at the beginning of this report.
Pluralism Project Notes
Future visitors to the Jain spiritual center are directed to call the samanijis who reside there. Their address and phone number are listed at the beginning of this report. They may also contact the researcher of this report for more information.
Researcher: Cynthia S. Fridlich Date: February 1999