FIU's Study of Rare Religion Gets a Boost

Florida International University's Religious Studies Department is receiving $600,000 from South Florida's Jain community to boost awareness of the little-practiced, but influential, religion.

BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ AND JAWEED KALEEM mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

With perhaps 10 million adherents worldwide — the vast majority of them in one country, India — Jainism might be called a bit player on the stage of world religions. Florida International University religious studies professor Nathan Katz, however, would beg to differ.

Katz's years of religious study, combined with a healthy dose of interaction with Jain faculty members at FIU, has shown him Jainism's profound impact on both Buddhism and Hinduism. So, too, did Katz learn of Jainism's role in developing the philosophical ideal of nonviolence — a torch later carried by Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr..

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`VAST INFLUENCE'

"Jainism is a very small religion numerically, but has had vast influence in the world," Katz said. "It's very important in the global history of ideas."

In addition to nonviolence, other central tenets of Jainism, according to Katz, are non-greed, respect for all forms of life, and religious pluralism.

Those values mesh perfectly with FIU, Katz said — where environmentalism, cultural diversity and a global view of issues are guiding principles.

Thanks to a $600,000 donation from South Florida's Jain community, FIU's role in educating the public on the religion is about to grow. University leaders are scheduled to formally announce the gift Friday afternoon.

The donation — which with matching funds from the state will bring more than $1 million to FIU — is to fund an endowed professorship in FIU's Religious Studies Department, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Katz, who is Jewish, will take the lead in raising the profile of Jainism in all sorts of university classes, both religious and nonreligious.

As part of the gift, Katz's formal title has grown by a few words: He is now the Bhagwan Mahavir Professor of Jain Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University.

The Jain professorship is the first of its kind in the Americas, and the endowment is part of a larger initiative by the Jain community to establish a permanent academic education center for Jain studies and research at FIU.

Jayant Shah, president of the South Florida Jain Temple in Weston, praised FIU's new program.

"It's incredibly positive. Only a handful of people know about Jainism, but now the Jain religion will have more exposure," said Shah, 66, an electronics exporter who lives in Pompano Beach. "People will be able to learn about what Jainism stands for. We always believe in `live and let live,' `forgive and forget,' and we respect all lives as equal,"' Shah said.

When he moved to South Florida 30 years ago from Philadelphia, there were about 15 Jain families in the area, Shah said.

"Now in Miami-Dade and Broward, there are about 120," he said.

After years of fundraising, he joined those families a year ago to open the 4,000-square-foot, $1.45 million temple — the only one of its kind south of Tampa — in a strip mall.

Its interior is made of white marble from India, and central to the temple is the Gabhara, a covered sanctuary that has statues of three Tirthankaras, which are enlightened Jain teachers.

The temple, which is volunteer-run, is usually closed during the week, but opens for services on Sundays.

DALAI LAMA

The $600,000 Jain donation to FIU follows a $100,000 gift from the Dalai Lama last year. In a written statement, the Dalai Lama praised FIU's new endowment, saying, "In my view, Jainism and Buddhism are like twins who have delivered the message of oneness and nonviolence to the world."

The Dalai Lama's much-publicized financial contribution came at a time that FIU's Religious Studies department faced an uncertain future.

Confronted with a budget gap of almost $35 million, FIU's board of trustees last year considered significantly downsizing the department. Bachelor degrees, for example, would no longer have been offered.

Religion students and faculty members spoke passionately on behalf of their program, and trustees ultimately backed off the downsizing plan. But the department was urged to beef up its fundraising.

"So we've tried very hard," Katz said. "We've had some success so far."

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