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7:45 am
Wed July 24, 2013

Jain: Couple Teaches South Florida About One Of The Oldest Religions

South Florida’s small, tight-knit Jain community built a temple in 2009 to practice one of the world's oldest religions. In this holy space where a marble likeness of the Swami Mahavir smiles benevolently, families gather to teach their children about a faith that practices spiritual independence and non-violence towards all beings.

Gitika and Sapan Bafna, pictured with their two children, are working to expand religious understanding in South Florida.

The Weston temple gave them a place to congregate, but it did little to foster a deeper understanding among the larger South Florida community. The Jain community decided to shift their focus to education. They tapped married Florida International University alums Gitika and Sapan Bafna to help guide the vision.

Watch: Paryushana Celebration At The Jain Center of South Florida

The couple is firmly rooted in the Jain principle of non-absolutism, the belief that no human thought can represent ultimate truth. They wanted to develop an education program that encourages conversations and celebrates spiritual understanding. In the FIU Department of Religious Studies they found a welcome environment for their ideas. In 2010, Jains from around the world came together with FIU to create the only endowed professorship devoted to the study of Jainism in the Western Hemisphere. The Bhagwan Mahavir Professorship of Jain Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences is named for the 24th and last Jain tirthankara, or spiritual fathers of Jainism, who lived from 599-527 BCE.

Now, the Bafnas are guiding another initiative to establish an interdisciplinary center for religious pluralism at FIU.

Gitika points out that the goal is not to convert others to Jainism, but rather to develop a mutual understanding.

“We have many shared values and if others can learn about us, and what guides us, we hope it will have a positive impact,” she said.

Sapan grew up in India in the city of Indore. Upon graduating with a finance degree at the age of 22, he left India for the first time in his life, bound for the United States.

Gitika was already living in the U.S., her family having immigrated after she graduated from high school. The youngest of three children, Gitika always exhibited an aptitude for math and science, so in 1995, she enrolled in FIU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The pair had known each other for several years – Gitika’s sister had married Sapan’s brother in 1993. Their families had long been friends. When Sapan boarded that flight to the U.S., his plan was to marry Gitika, work on his MBA at FIU and eventually return to India. He fulfilled most of his plan. But instead of returning to India, he and his wife have brought a part of India to Miami.

Now the parents of two children, they have found a work-life balance. Gitika is an engineering auditor for AT&T. Sapan is a vice president for CoreLogic Inc., which provides consumer, financial and property services to business and government clients.

They celebrate their religion in every aspect of their life, from the pursuit of education to family values to career.

“It’s hard to explain, but our religion is very much a part of who we are,” Sapan said. “It guides our food choices. We are vegetarians because we believe in non-violence. We welcome others’ ideas because we believe in non-absolutism. We also believe in non-greed. That doesn’t mean we can’t have nice clothes or cars. It simply means that those things don’t define us. We are defined by who we are and how we treat others.”

At least 100 Jain families reside in South Florida. Many have a shared determination to create a world where their children can be understood and respected for their beliefs, respected for who they are.

The Bafnas knew their alma mater was the right place to help make that happen and by 2009, they knew it was the right time. To start, several FIU faculty members are Jains. FIU Religious Studies professor Nathan Katz specializes in the religions of India, and teaches a variety of courses in Jainism and related topics.

Most importantly, Charitra Prajna was teaching at FIU in 2009. Prajna is a samani, a member of the Jain clergy. Up until the 1990s, the samanis were not permitted to travel out of India. But as more members of the Jain community emigrated out of India, Jain leaders saw a need for samanis to provide spiritual guidance in other parts of the world. FIU computer science professor and Jain Jai Navlakha encouraged Katz to bring a samani to FIU. Katz loved the idea and eventually, Samani Charitra Prajna joined the faculty as a visiting professor.

The first time Gitika and Sapan saw a samani on U.S. soil, they admit “it was inspiring to the core,” Sapan said. South Florida’s Jain community found inspiration in Prajna’s FIU presence, as well as her passion for teaching. A decision was made among the Jain community to do more.

Sapan reached out to Dr. Dipak Jain, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management at the time. As an academic who strongly believes in the power of higher education, he required little convincing. He agreed to help, reaching out to the broader Jain community nationally and internationally to support the initiative.

“It helped that the support we received from FIU was exceptional. Your alumni are your ambassadors of a university,” Dipak Jain said. “Sapan and Gitika were not in it for themselves, but for others. Sapan was willing to carry the torch.”

The Jain Education and Research Foundation was formed to lead the initiative, and Sapan was named the founding president. The Bhagwan Mahavir Professorship of Jain Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences was established and Katz was named to the post. Since that time, the Jains have shifted their focus to funding the proposed center.

“It was really amazing how so many people rallied in such a short period of time,” said Arts & Sciences Dean Kenneth G. Furton. “This whole process has been inspiring to me as dean, and it offers great learning opportunities for our students.”

As Gitika and Sapan look back on the past few years, they are just now beginning to realize the full depth of the impact they have had on their alma mater. They have helped to foster a dialogue of broader mutual understandings throughout the FIU community. When reminded of this, they both simply offer up smiles. Humility is another principle that helps guide them.

This article was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine