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For Jains, all life is sacred

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — They avoid eating potatoes, carrots and onions because uprooting them would harm the plant or damage the micro-organisms living in the soil around it.

Some sweep the ground in their path to avoid treading on bugs. Others don't wear leather.

For followers of Jainism, faith demands a deeply spiritual deference to all living beings and a strict adherence to nonviolence.

The ancient Indian religion has gained a toehold in this country, and adherents are now trying to pass along their beliefs to the younger generation of American Jains.

"We have established ourselves and we are trying to give back to others, particularly by teaching our youth," said Prabodh Vaidya, of Bolingbrook, who owns a travel agency and helps run two medical clinics. "It's a challenge and a blessing at the same time."

Teaching young Jains and giving them the tools to practice their religion are ongoing objectives of the Federation of Jain Associations in North America. About 6,000 Jains gathered outside Chicago for the group's recent biennial conference.

According to conference organizers, there are between 60,000 and 100,000 Jains in North America. Like other Indian religious groups, their numbers in the United States began to increase in the mid-1960s when immigration laws were made less restrictive.

But Jains' presence on this continent amounts to just a brief moment in the long history of the faith, which goes back about 2,600 years. The faith derives its name from a title that is given to 24 great teachers, or spiritual leaders.

Jainism is often considered to be a primordial offshoot of Hinduism, since both Indian faiths share some beliefs — although that view is debatable among Jains.

Both religions teach that each soul is repeatedly reincarnated and that good and evil deeds determine its status in future lives (the law of karma). However, Jains believe the soul is independent and indestructible, while Hindus believe all souls are in principle part of one universal spirit.

In practice, "all that we do is build around nonviolence," said Jain federation president Bipin Parik, of Des Plaines.

He said that while Jains may protect themselves when attacked, even an act made in self-defense is done so with nonviolence in mind. Nonviolence "is a part of our thoughts, our words and our deeds," he said.

In India, more devout followers, such as nuns and monks, sweep the ground as they walk to avoid killing insects. Some also wear masks to avoid killing insects by breathing, while others in India and in the United States wear them as a symbolic gesture during prayers.

While the Jain diet does involve harm to the plants that are eaten, it is regarded as a means of survival that involves the minimum amount of violence toward living beings.

"Of all of the (religious) traditions, Jainism has the strongest address to nonviolence," said Jim Kenney of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, a Chicago-based group that promotes cultural and religious relations.

"I think the Jains in the West have done very well against difficult odds," Kenney said. "People are not necessarily hostile against them, but they do live in a hostile world."

For Hama Pokharna, leading a life of nonviolence in American society can produce some unexpected benefits. A biochemistry researcher at the University of Chicago, Pokharna is often kept out of office disputes in a show of respect by co-workers.

"People will say, 'Hama is nonviolent. Let's not hassle her,' " Pokharna said.

While first-generation Jains are concerned with whether their children remain devoted to their faith, some second-generation members are actually more adherent that their parents, said Vivek Jain, who lives on Chicago's South Side.

"A lot of younger Jains want to connect with their parents' past," he said. "Some of them are more conservative in their value structure than their parents."

Others, like Aruna Jain, are incorporating some ideas they were raised with and following their own path in other ways.

When the 27-year-old from Chevy Chase, Md., was a child, her parents made it clear to her elementary school teachers that she wasn't supposed to eat meat. She's still a vegetarian but doesn't consider herself a devout Jain.

"I kind of celebrate it in my own way," she said. "I appreciate the religion without trying to impose it on anyone else."