Monday, 13 May 2013


The Faith Awareness series of summer visits to places of worship and other faith-related sites in Leicester begins this evening at the Jain Centre, Oxford Street. As well being contracted to work 20 hours a week for Leicester Council of Faiths, I now do a day and a half a week with Faith Awareness, the inter-faith programme of Christians Aware.

I must have visited the Jain Centre more than a dozen times. I think I first came here in 1988, in the first year that the Jain Centre was open and within a year of my moving to this part of the world from Dumbarton. I was entranced by it then and still am now. On each visit I see something new and learn something new. I don't know how anyone can say, "Oh yes, I've seen the Jain temple" and just tick it off their list. This place seems to change, develop, evolve in ways - and at a rate - that set it apart from most other faith sites in Leicester. I hope it's not too fanciful to believe that my own changes, development and evolution may be keeping pace with it in some way.

Our small group is taken on a guided tour of the Centre by Dr Ramesh Mehta and Pradip Mehta. As well as giving us an overview of the history and teachings of Jainism, they describe the history of the Centre itself and discuss the community's plans for celebrating the 25th anniversary of its foundation this summer. Many of the occasions associated with this anniversary are taking place in London, because it's central for the many participants coming from overseas and because Jains in Leicester don't have access to venues here large enough to be able to hold the number of people taking part. The Centre has a flag flying above it, which is renewed annually on 14 July, the date of the founding of the Centre. The flag which will be raised there on 14 July this year (precisely at 12:39), marking the silver jubilee of the Centre, is currently being taken on a circuit of Jain community centres, homes and places of worship around the country. At each stop, it becomes a focal point for practices of devotion, meditation and purification. Dr Mehta said we could think of it as being like the Jain community's version of the Olympic Torch relay. Dr Mehta helped me write the Council of Faiths leaflet on Jains, which was one of my first tasks in this post. Now that it's time to prepare a new edition of that leaflet, I hope to call on his help again.

Carved pillars of Jaisalmer yellow sandstone in the worship area of the Jain Centre 
When I was first looking for information about Jains and Jainism for my work, nigh on six years ago, I could find little that was accessible or reliable online. That has changed recently with the appearance of professional sits created by Jain organisations such as the Institute of Jainology,, the Jainpedia Project, a comprehensive section on the BBC Religions website, thorough representation on Wikipedia and on more specialist sites such as the New World Encyclopedia. Even Kew Gardens Plant Cultures website has a section on Jainism.

The hand represents fearlessness and symbolizes the attitude of ahimsa (non-violence) to all living creatures

Dr Mehta tells us that if we want to understand the Jain way of life in a nutshell, we should remember the three "A"s:
He also gives us a mnemonic by which we can remember the principles of this ancient religion with a message for the modern world:
  • "J" is for justice
  • "A" is for amity
  • "I" is for introspection
  • "N" is for nobility

Two of my favourite Jain Centre facts: the building accommodates several sects of Jainism, each with their distinctive interpretations, identities and practices. The different sects have their own spot set aside in the Centre for their use.

My other favourite Jain Centre fact: it's the only Jain place of worship in the world with stained glass windows. Rather than brick up, cover or replace with ordinary glass the stained glass windows from of the original Congregational Church, the local Jain community decided to create a series of windows of their own, telling the story of Mahavira (599-527 BCE), 24th and latest in the line of Tirthankaras. A contemporary of Gautama the Buddha, Mahavira is credited with establishing Jainism in the form we know today.

Detail from one of the stained glass windows in the Jain Centre, illustrating episodes form the life of Mahavira
I love that word: Tirthankara. The best translation into English is "ford-maker". Think of this life as a fast-flowing river which can only be crossed by means of the ford made by the Tirthankara. To ignore the ford that the Tirthankara has made and try to cross otherwise means being caught up in the currents and risking being swept to your doom!

This is the first of six Faith Awareness visits planned for Monday evenings in May and June. The others are as follows:

I may not be ale to attend every visit personally, but I hope to arrange for a blog post on each of them. Watch this space!

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