Religion of 3 million in India researched by seminary team

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Every day Rajan bows in prayer before an idol. The future electrical engineer places flowers and rice in front of the picture. Then the native of India prays -- not to receive help but to venerate the attributes of the one pictured.

This prayer is a required part of the Jain religion. Rajan says he finds peace in his prayer. But no one has ever told him of the Prince of Peace.

More than 3 million people join Rajan in practicing the Jain religion. Most live in India. And most live without any knowledge of the gospel.

"They are an unreached people group. And no one is doing anything to reach them," said George Martin, associate professor of Christian missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

No one, that is, until now.

This July, Martin and 10 Southern Seminary students answered the call from several missionaries in India to research this religion -- compiling information about the people to facilitate the spread of the gospel to them.

"The purpose of the trip was to spend time in their homes, temples and workplaces, getting to know them and asking them questions about what they believe and how they live," said Martin, faculty supervisor of the trip.

The research, done primarily among the Jains in Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka, resulted in a people profile compiled by the entire group. The book includes information on the ancient religion’s history, doctrine and culture, as well as personal glimpses into Jain lives and a strategy for reaching the Jains. The team plans to give the profile to individuals, agencies and churches not only to inform but also to inspire.

"Our hope and our prayer is that the Lord will use that information to stir up the hearts of his people to take the gospel to the Jains," Martin said.

In researching the people group, Southern’s missionary team found a religion with inherent barriers to the gospel but also one ready for the gospel.

"I just sense that the Jains are a field ripe for the harvest," Martin said.

Part of Martin’s hope stems from the hopelessness of the Jain religion itself. No personal deity exists in the Jain religion. No salvation, in a Christian sense, may be obtained, either.

Instead, Jains believe they gain moksha, or the liberation of the soul from a cycle of rebirths, through devout adherence to the teachings of omniscient historical individuals called Tirthankaras.

Each new life should supposedly, by rigorous personal discipline and denial, bring the individual closer and closer to moksha. In this state, omniscience and bliss replace entrapping desires and senses.

"Their religion is hopeless -- living every day not knowing if they are good enough for their next life," said Missy Woodward of St. Louis, student coordinator of the trip.

Another avenue for the gospel lies in the inability of most Jains to fulfill the regulations required for moksha. These rules range from eliminating doubt and transgression to limiting personal possessions to a doctrine of non-violence.

"They carry the doctrine out to extremes," said Chris Smith of Carbondale, Ill. "It affects the food that they eat and the way they live."

Jains can consume no flesh or root vegetable. Some refuse to eat between sunset and sunrise for fear an insect might fall into their food. Some even wear masks over their mouths to avoid disturbing air bodies. Obstacles to gospel communication are present. Jains hold that no absolute truth exists. "Basically, everybody is right," Smith said. Of course, this belief does have benefits in that both Jains and other Indians are very open to new people -- so open, in fact, that six non-Jain Indians accepted Christ at a service conducted by SBTS student Eric Graf.

Seeing these conversions only whet the team’s appetite for more, especially with the unreached Jains.

"It’s really different when you’re talking to somebody and you know that this person will spend eternity in hell if somebody does not come and work with these people," Woodward said.

The students and Martin agree on the highlight of their trip. "It’s the anticipation of what God will do," the professor said. "In the Book of Revelation, [the Apostle] John reported that he saw gathered around the throne representatives from every tribe, language and nation on the face of the earth worshiping the Lamb. I have to believe that the Jains will be represented there also."

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