Jains say their religion had no beginning and it has no end. They say it has existed since existence itself began. But temporal existence has a milestone starting today for the Jain community in Arizona.
For seven days through Friday, Jains, well-known for their nonviolence, tenacious protection of life and belief in the power of karma, will celebrate the dedication of their grand and ornate temple nearing completion on a four-acre site in south Phoenix.
Placed inside the striking building of polished white marble will be the figures of carved gods from India - 51-inch high Lord Mahavir Swami and Lord Adinath. The two seated gods of Makarana marble will peer out from niches into the spacious assembly hall for prayer. Behind them and at their sides are 24 niches into which will be placed 15-inch-high statues of tirthankars ("ford-makers," or role-model teachers who have conquered such things as pride and deceit). They will be put into place on Thursday.
Jains will descend on the site at 6202 S. 23rd Ave. in colorful and eye-catching attire for symbol-rich ceremonies and a festival to initiate a permanent home for the approximately 125 families who developed a Jain community about 25 years ago. About half of the families live in the East Valley.
The opening of the temple is cause for Jains worldwide to take note of and to celebrate. The U.S. has 58 Jain centers, with the largest concentration of followers in the Middle Atlantic states, plus Chicago and Houston. There are about 6.5 million Jains worldwide, the vast majority of them in India.
As many as 400 Jains from India were expected for the historic week of rituals and festive events at the new Jain Center of Greater Phoenix. "Our joy knows no bounds in inviting you to this truly magnificent celebration, for a unique opportunity awaits people from all walks of life to experience, in person, the process of becoming God from a mere mortal," promotional materials say.
Most guests are staying at a J.W. Marriott hotel, which has allowed Indian chefs to oversee preparation of their restrictive meals during the week. "They have worked with us to fulfill our food requirements," said Piyush Mehta of Gilbert, president of the Jain Center (www.jcgp.org). "They said, 'Just tell us, and we will do it for you.' "
Organizers had previously talked of more than 1,000 international visitors, but the flagging worldwide economy and the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, are cited as reasons for fewer travelers being able to attend the ceremonies.
Exporting snags with customs and those attacks delayed final shipment of marble, carvings, doors and other parts of the spacious temple, so this week's visitors will not see the project in final form. That will include an elaborate carved sandstone archway at the front of the temple that will stand in front of a 41-foot nonviolence monument. Construction began in May.
A dome above the vedi, or altar area, called the shikhar, looms to 61 feet. It brings natural light down upon the gods. It's said the shikhar ensures that nothing impure will ever touch or be built above the heads of the central gods inside the temple.
With the placement of the statues in their niches, the "pratishtha mahotsav" ceremony is said to imbue life, or "jina," into the images. The week's events build from one day to the next. They start with opening ceremonies today, then a "conception" event on Sunday, the "birth celebration" on Tuesday, "renunciation celebration" on Tuesday, "omniscience celebration" on Wednesday and "nirvana celebration" on Thursday. The first puja, or regular devotional practices in the new temple, will begin on Friday.
The temple will cost about $5 million, Mehta said. Costs are broken down into hundreds of "opportunities to contribute," including $51,000 for each of the primary statues. "It will come from this community and the community around the USA, from whoever," he said. "One good thing about Jainism, people do participate, and when they hear a temple is being built, they have to be part of it" and donate.
The white marble, much of it from India and some from the U.S., suggests pure light, Mehta said. "When we come in, we wear white clothes" and it helps convey a sense of equality, he said.
Jains, who choose not to pray in front of statues, may go to a large side room to pray. "Some people believe that a statue is not important," Mehta said. "So people who do not believe in statues come here and pray. ... Here the people just imagine."
No carpets or rugs will be used in the temple. "Rugs have bugs," Mehta said, and that would create unintended problems with life forms that must be protected.
Jains are not only vegetarians, but are selective about what plant life they can eat. "The Jains don't eat anything under the ground - onions, potatoes, garlic, carrots, Japanese eggplants or ginger," he said. "Any underground vegetable has a lot of lives, and when you eat that, you are killing a lot of lives." Mehta said there are ample foods like beans, cucumbers, squash, peas, apples and many fruits that plants surrender for consumption, yet the plants live on.
"Every religion talks about violence," Mehta said. "Jainism goes very far beyond in nonviolence. We believe that nonviolence is by speech, action and mind." Even thinking of doing violence is unacceptable because "thinking will come someday to action," Mehta said. The temple's nonviolence tower features carved panels that seek to convey that message.
The Valley's Jains have been meeting in a large home on the grounds awaiting the temple's completion. Gatherings are 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sundays and include seven classes by age groups.
On another four acres next to the Jain Center, a Krishna community, Shree Nathji, plans to put up a temple as well. That Hindu group currently meets in a home.
It's believed the oldest figure of Jainism was that of Parshva, dating to the 9th century B.C. Histories credit a monastic reformer, Vardhamana Mahavira, in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., as Jainism's founder. Jains regard every living thing as oneself and harm no one. Every soul is an architect of its own life in the here and the hereafter. Members acknowledge no supreme or universal god. The universe moves through continuous cycles of "progressive decline and ascent" from an ideal state to a nadir. They believe that one's action in this life and previous lives influence fate. Jain takes its name from "jina" or "conquerors of the woes of existence."
Mehta said the new temple is really for future generations. "We have the pride that we can make such a beautiful and historic temple in Phoenix, with the help of the community here," he said. "We hope the future generations will take full advantage of this magnificent building."