Jain Retreat Center Preserves Ancient Faith
BY: Joe Moszczynski
Religion News Service
BLAIRSTOWN, N.J. -- Pointing to a few wild turkeys standing around in a majestic field and later pointing to a couple of small deer in another field, Vachaspat Sharma briefly describes the principles of his ancient Eastern religion.
"Everything's relaxed. We believe that all lives are the same. No violence, everything's relaxed," said Sharma, a native of India who is a priest at the Siddhachalam Jain Tirth here.
Sharma describes how, during the fall and winter, he feeds the roaming herds of deer with 40-pound bags of corn on the quiet and peaceful property, where hunting is prohibited. Sharma lives at the mission with his wife and son. He came to the United States from India in 1996 to lead regular prayer services, or pujas, and meditation on weekends.
"I don't eat meat or egg. I'm 100 percent vegetarian -- no smoking or drinking either," said Sharma, taking off his sneakers to enter the mission's main temple, where five ornate statues of Jain gods, made of white Indian marble, are on display on carved marble altars. Incense and a candle burn at the gods' feet.
Siddhachalam Jain Tirth is used by adherents of the Jain faith, a religion with origins in India that has some 4.2 million followers around the world. The Jains recently put their faith into practice here when they hosted a Peace Pole Planting Ceremony that was followed by a United Nations World Peace Flag Ceremony.
According to the Web site for the Jain Center of America, the basic principles of Jainism are nonviolence, nonpossessiveness, multiplicity of views, refraining from stealing, speaking truth and forbearance. Jainism is considered one of the world's oldest religions, dating from at least the sixth century B.C.
Some Jain monks wear white cloth masks to avoid breathing in and harming even the smallest particles of life, or carry peacock feathers to brush away any insects from their path so they don't step on them.
The 6-foot wooden peace pole, erected between two temples at the Jain mission, displays the message "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in different languages on each of its four sides.
In the flag ceremony, 191 flags represented each country in the world. Participants held flags saying "May Peace Prevail on Earth" to "send out peaceful vibrations to all countries of the world," according to the mission. "People come here from all over, all over the U.S.A.," said Sharma. A guest book in the main temple shows visitors have also come from India,London and Canada.
While the Jain religion is largely confined to India, the daylong ceremonies in Blairstown attracted several hundred adherents. "This is a special place. This is where we come to become purified," said Narendra Kothari, a resident and manager of the mission.
The Blairstown retreat of 117 acres was formerly a Jewish children's camp. It has 11 modern, winterized cabins for overnight guests, a dining hall and a playground, as well as two temples. The property was purchased in 1983 by the Jains, who opened the retreat in 1991.
"People from all over the world make pilgrimages here," said Laxmi Shah, the representative to the United Nations of the International Mahavir Jain Mission. "It's like when people go to Rome and Vatican City."