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First Annual Mahavir Jayanti Lecture at FIU by Phyllis Graoff, Yale University

On the campus of Florida International University, students are exposed to various cultures from around the world. Last Wednesday, on April 13, those who attended the Mahavir Jayanti Lecture, aptly named for Lord Mahavir’s birthday which falls around this time of year, got to whet their appetites for Eastern culture by being exposed to Jain art in the lecture: "Visions of the Conqueror, Jain Art".
The lecture was sponsored by Target’s “After Hours” at the Frost Museum and the Bhagwan Mahavir Professorship, and is just one of the many milestones the Jain Education and Research Foundation, a non-profit organization founded under the principles of Jainism, hopes to achieve in upcoming years.

The Jain Education and Research Foundation first paved the way for Jainism back in 2010 when they were awarded the first ever professorship in Jain studies outside of India.

The night began with a prayer, led by Jain nuns, whose presence has been felt since they began teaching classes six years ago on campus. Nathan Katz, Professor of Jain Studies and Religious Studies, and who was named the first Bhagwan Mahavir professor, thanked the nuns for their hard work in making Jain studies available to all students.

“When they first came here [FIU] no one really knew them but they quickly formed a mediation club and vegetarian club and made their presence known at the campus and have allowed Jain studies to really take off,” said Katz.

The lecture depicted the beliefs and history of Jainsim briefly before jumping into the main event, a presentation featuring the Bhaktamarastotra of Manatunga, an illustrated manuscript of hymns which praised the Jina.

“There are 18 folios in this manuscript,” said Phyllis Granoff, one of the world’s leading scholars in Indian Religions and professor of World Religions at Yale University and editor of the Journal of Indian Philosophy. “The illustrations, however, have been removed from the text and sold separately, making their identification difficult.”

Granoff had been able to identify some of the hymns by comparing them to other hymns which still had their text. He found the most interesting thing about the illustrations to be that many artists tried to convey abstract subjects in the concrete world. “It’s something every Jain artist attempts to do, not just the manuscript illustrator.”

The presentation also delved into artists’ different representations of Jina’s moment of omniscience, in which all the knowledge of the world as well as the past, present and future, follow into the enlightened mind.

“Artists pondered the very same question of how can something abstract be correctly represented,” said Granoff. “The Svetambara illustrators avoided the problem by depicting the Jina in the moment that immediately followed omniscience.”

The scene which comes after is an assembly in which Jina preaches to the community of monks, nuns, laymen and women. It often features distinct architecture made of jeweled balustrades and gateways. Three-dimensional paintings which are called samavasarana, demonstrate Jina’s ability to see in all four directions at the moment of preaching.

The temples of Jainism often reproduce this very scene of the preaching assembly. One such temple is located in Ranakpur, a four-faced temple that shows the Jina on all four sides of the central shrine, and gives those who worship him the opportunity to be present, outside of time and space, at the moment where he reaches infinite knowledge.

The images of Jina are also said to be a stimulus that gives way to memories in which we are able to recall Jina in his preaching assembly. “Samayasundara, a 17th century monk: ‘wrote that on seeing any and every Jina image, we are able to recall the Jina in his preaching assembly,’” said Granoff. “In India, there is an intimate connection between art and memory. In plays and poems, seeing the artistic expression can cause many viewers to be overflowed with emotion.”

The image of their first assembly is also an emphasis on the Jina’s long journey to find a release from samsara or the cycle of rebirth, promoting compassion and non-violence, which formed the path of truth.

The night concluded with a vegetarian dinner and a bright future for the Jain Education and Research Foundation, which also unveiled its first official newsletter at the event. The organization also plans to ready their young faculty members by awarding fellowships which would allow them to spend their summer months in India studying Jainism while encouraging others to incorporate Jainist philosophy in their daily teachings and research. With its rich history and eye opening art, Jainism has a bright forthcoming full of promise.
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