The Jains of Kenya

By Mr. Mahavir Sanglikar, E-Mail : msanglikar@yahoo.com


Location : Jains originated in India. They live in many other countries of Africa and the Middles East. The first Jains came to Kenya in the 1880s as business employees, but moved into their own business enterprises.

In recent decades, many Jains have resettled from India or Africa to Europe and North America.

History : Jainism is an ascetic faith that began in India, emphasizing salvation through self-denial, rejecting materialism and personal pleasure. It preceded Buddhism in its rejection of Brahmin domination, the caste system and Hindu monism (oneness of all things).

Identity :  The primary identity of the Jains is the Jain religion. Most comprise two religious groups, Digambaras and Svetambaras. The latter make up 80% of Kenyan Jains. Jains are also distinguished by socio-religious communities. The Visa Oshwal are the largest comprising 70% of all Kenyan Jains.

10% of Visa Oshwals are Hindu, rather than Jains. The next major community are the Dasa Oshwals. Shah is the most common surname common to all sects of Jainism. Jains are prominent in education and medicine, with strong service in health, notably eye care.

Language :  Jains speak the Cutchi dialect of Gujarati. Some speak other Indian languages for interchange with other Indian communities in business and professional circles. Many are fluent in English and Swahili.

Political Situation :  In Kenya, and other countries of Africa, Jains are lumped together with all the other Indo-Pakistani peoples as "Asians." In recent years, some Asians have begun using the term "South Asian" to refer to themselves.

Each group of the peoples from the Indian subcontinent consider themselves as separate ethnic and religious group. Because of the caste system of India, each religious group makes up a separate people group, even if they speak the same language as other Asian groups with a different religion.

In Kenya there is a general resentment of the African peoples against the "Asians," who are prominent in business, and generally wealthy, at least in comparison to the general African population. Their strong group identity and tight social structures within each group accentuates this separation, not only from the Africans, but from other Asian groups. Some families still send their children to India for education.

Many Jains are Kenya citizens, but many have dual citizenship or have chosen British or Indian citizenship. They are discriminated against in various ways by the government. Increasing restrictions of ownership, citizenship, business opportunities, etc., have been imposed on Asian peoples. Citizenship of children has enabled some families to retain their family businesses in the children's names as restrictions on foreign ownership have increased. Numbers of all the Asian groups have diminished steadily since the late 1960s.

Customs :   Jains have a strong extended family and community identity. They gather for community meeting and low-ritual worship at their own temples. The Jain temple near Old Town, Mombasa, is an elaborate temple providing guided tours and an introduction to Jainism.

They also provide a ministry of hospitality, as do the Sikhs, with food for visitors, free or for a donation. Jains are involved in wholesale and retail business in a variety of goods, but notably textiles, fruits and vegetables. They are also prominent in medical and related professions.

Religion : The Jains claim theirs is the oldest religion in India, dating back to 3000 BC, and perhaps 4000 BC. The founder of the formal religious system of Jainism is considered to be Nataputta Vardhamana, known as Mahavira (Great Man), born in 599 B.C. He, however, is considered the 24th Tirthankara (ford-finder) or Savior.

The Tirthankaras were originally humans, but are considered to have attained a state of perfection or enlightenment and are now gods of the Jains.

Though he was a member of Kshatriya (noble or warrior) class, Mahavira espoused a philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa). He renounced his worldly possessions and wandered barefoot around India for 30 years. Mahavira resisted the attempts of the Brahmin priestly class to claim ruler ship status as the Aryan invasion was being consolidated in the caste system. He and his followers related to all castes and occupations of people.

Buddhism arose a few decades later as a "middle way," between Hindu caste-oriented monism and ascetic Jain deism or atheism.

Jainism affirms the objective reality of the physical world, whereas Hinduism tends to deny physical reality in emphasizing the idealism of spiritual oneness. Thus Jains strongly believe they gain positive karma (merit) by denying the pleasures of the five senses.

Most Kenyan Jains have a more moderate view, accepting a high standard of living, traveling by motor car, rather than walking, and sometimes eating meat.

Christianity : There are no known Christians among the Jain community in Kenya. Some are open for social concourse with Christians, in professional circles, but very closed to change in their social and religious identities.




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