Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Valley Jain community breaks ground on spiritual center

The first slab of marble has been laid in what the Valley’s Jain community believes can become America’s grandest Jain temple when it is dedicated in December 2008, with some 3,000 Jains from all over the world expected.

Through a majestic arch of pink sandstone, followers will pass into a spacious temple with floors of white marble, featuring statues of the 24 lords or tirthankars, surrounded by idols. The south Phoenix site will become the center for area Jain prayer, meditation and other activities.

Capping three days of festive celebrations on Sunday, members of the approximately 150 Jain families in the Valley dressed in their finest and most brilliant and colorful clothing from India to witness the historic “shilanyas,” or foundation stone ceremony. It included the burying of a time capsule and rites led by religious leaders from India.

“During the ceremony, people take their gold necklaces out and diamond rings out and just throw them in the pit. … It goes to the Lord,” said Dr. Kirit Gosalia, a past president of the Jain Center of Greater Phoenix. Some did so on Sunday, with about 500 people on hand.

In rhythmic rituals, energetic chanting, dancing, feasting and ancient traditions, the Jains took the sacred first step in development of their 12,000-square-foot “derasar,” or temple. The ornate $3 million temple is being built on four acres, once part of a farm, at 6202 S. 23rd Ave., just south of Southern Avenue, in Phoenix.

“The important thing is we wanted to do this for the next generation,” said Piyush Mehta, current president. “It’s what we were given from our fathers and mothers, and we want to pass our heritage on to the kids.” The temple will allow for more authentic practice of one of the world’s oldest religions. Jainism, which originated in northern India in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., is based on the teachings of the 24 Jinas (conquerors), or tirthankars, meaning “shows the way.” It’s a complex religion, sharing much in common with Hinduism and Buddhism.

The 24th and most recent Jina was Lord Mahavira, who lived in the sixth century. Jains emphasize nonviolence, vegetarianism, painstaking protection of all living creatures, reincarnation and honoring the spiritual nature of all life. It honors no supreme or universal god. Jainism calls for self-control and spiritually progressing toward “moksha,” or the full realization of the true nature of the soul. The primary goal of Jainism is to become a “perfected soul,” according to its literature. That is described as pure consciousness and possessing “perfect knowledge, power, bliss and omniscience.” It values good deeds and action (karma) and prizes living with as few possessions as possible. It calls for tolerance and respect of contrary opinions.

Jains divide themselves in two major sects, the Svetambara, or white-clad, and the Digambara, or sky-clad or naked, best represented by the Jain monks whose possessions may only be a cup for water and a broom to sweep the ground as they walk to shoo away insects that could be stepped on. Digambara monks primarily live in forests or remote areas, walk from city to city barefoot, and rely on “householders” who are “pure in spirit” to give them food they eat once a day.

Only about 200,000 of the estimated 4.8 million Jains worldwide live outside of India. Virtually all Valley Jain families are first- or second-generation Indians.They talk longingly of their rich Jain religious experiences in India, and many travel back and forth regularly.

About half of the Valley’s Jains live in the East Valley. Since arriving in significant numbers in the 1980s, they have met in a number of schools, most recently Griffith Elementary in east Phoenix. A 2,000-square-foot house on their permanent site will be their meeting place until the temple is finished. About 100 people come together each weekend for lively ritual, chanting and cultural celebration.

The International Community for Krishna Consciousness plans to build its temple next door on four acres that was divided from the original purchase parcel.

All weekend, the Jains kept busy with pujas, or ceremonial rituals. They included a mantra to destroy sins and obstacles; a purifying of the grounds with water; a procession in which participants carried brass images of deities on their heads around the ground; and a ceremony involving the raising of the Jain, Indian and American flags, each of which unfolded on cue by scattering sparkling red confetti.

“We will be conducting the preaching of the Lord Mahavira’s message of nonviolence,” Mehta said. “We will spread the message of live and let live.”

For younger Jains, the temple should give them rich, new experiences in their religion.“I was born here,” said Gosalia’s daughter, Rena, 25. “It think it was harder when we were growing up only because our community was so small and spread out. Now we will gather together here as one community, in one spot.”

“I don’t know a lot of Jains because I had never seen them growing up and because they were always like in Mesa or Chandler,” she said. “We are privileged that we are going to have the best-designed temple that is possible,” Mehta said. “It will be built as a landmark. People from out of town will want to see the temple.”

Information can be found at http://www.jcgp.org/.

Lawn Griffiths, Tribune

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