Lumen Scholar travels to India to study Jainism

Brett Evans '13 has spent two years researching the practices of an oft overlooked religion with a belief system rooted in nonviolence.


By Caitlin O’Donnell ‘13

What began as a brief unit in a religious studies class has blossomed into a trek around the globe and back for Elon University senior Brett Evans.

The Purcellville, Va., native is using the university’s top prize for undergraduate research to study the non-violent religion of Jainism and the interpretations of its doctrine. His work is the most recent in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Prize scholars in the Class of 2013.

Through his research, Evans hopes to both dispel existing stereotypes and bring light to a religion that has been relatively untouched or ill-explained by researchers.

Jainism is estimated to be more than 2,500 years old, with approximately 4.2 million followers, many of whom live in the state of Gujarat in northwestern India. Jainism has similarities to Buddhism and Hinduism but is considered a separate religion that has influenced the others.

The religious studies major first learned of Jainism while taking a class with Assistant Professor Amy Allocco in the Department of Religious Studies, who is now his research mentor. Interest piqued when he learned about the non-violent religion’s adherence to vegetarianism.

“At the time, I was becoming vegan and Jainism is the only religion where everyone is a vegetarian,” he said. “Not just the monks and nuns, the laypeople as well.”

Starting his research with the Jain’s common practice of running animal homes, similar to animal sanctuaries in the United States, Evans’ research expanded to include the differing interpretations of Jain doctrines and what he characterizes as a shift by some away from traditional renunciatory practices toward socially engaged ones.

The traditional understandings of Jainism are often founded in the actions of the monks and nuns who closely follow the Jain teaching of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Even the most common of actions – such as eating and breathing – are seen as violent, which the monks and nuns minimalize to avoid bad karma. Evans described some Jains who brush with a peacock feather to avoid injuring insects.

“People, if they hear anything about Jainism, they hear those things,” he said. “They don’t really hear that most [Jains] are not monks and nuns. Most people are just typical laypeople.”

While every Jain practices ahimsa, the average follower views nonviolence as a social requirement in addition to a personal one and, in many ways, they elect to engage in worldly practices while still applying Jain doctrine.

“It’s necessary that they’re interpreting [it] in ways that are applicable to their circumstances,” Evans said. “For them, ahimsa can’t be that they’re completely pulling out of the world because they aren’t pulling out of [it].”

In some ways, this translates into their business practices. Jains who work in the pharmaceutical industry offer rehabilitation programs for animals used to test products. Those who run hotels will only offer a vegetarian restaurant to avoid associating their worldly practices with violence of any kind.

Still others, specifically in Gujarat, participate in dangerous highway patrols looking for truckers attempting to illegally smuggle out cows to be slaughtered in a neighboring state. “They’re putting themselves on the front lines,” Evans said. “It’s very social. It’s not a way of pulling yourself out. They’re willing to go to these extremes for their beliefs.”

Many scholars rely on the interpretations provided by the leaders of the religion, while Evans collected the perspectives of the average Jain, both in India and in communities within the United States. Through his Lumen grant, Evans lived in India for a few months with a Jain family, which offered him an intimate perspective of everyday Jain practices.

His research included the examination of a new movement that involves a drastic shift in the interpretation of traditional doctrines. Rather than focusing on avoiding all violence and subsequent karma, the Veerayatan movement takes nonviolence to mean compassion for others, specifically the alleviation of others’ karma.

“It speaks to the way Jainism is changing right now,” he said. “[It’s] pushing in the way that more non-traditional Jains today might be looking to their religion, who might be put off by the traditional focus on renunciation [of worldly practices].”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Evans is the coordinator of activism for Elon’s Sierra Club and is an officer of Theta Alpha Kappa, the university’s religious studies honor society.

Allocco said Evans is making make a significant contribution to the study of Jainism, considering the minimal scholarly attention it has received.

“It has been very rewarding to follow the trajectory of Brett’s project from the Lumen proposal stage, when he was formulating ideas and questions, to the research phase, when he was responding in real-time to diverse perspectives he encountered during his fieldwork in India,” Allocco said.

Along with a handful of research papers, one of which has been accepted for publication and one of which is currently under review, Evans also hopes to host a photo exhibit at Elon as a way of presenting Jainism and dispelling stereotypes about the religion.

“Either people don’t know anything about Jainism or what they know is the stereotyped, simplistic version,” he said. “Their first thought might be ‘that’s really extreme’ or ‘that’s really radical’ or ‘I don’t get how people can do that.’

“That’s not really the whole picture. I’m trying to give back to the community by helping to bridge this gap.”