The Victoria and Albert Museum has a great website full of information and art related to Jainism. It makes perfect sense–the Jains, noted for their scrupulous honesty, have acquired some wealth in fields like business and the law. Yet their religion emphasizes having only the things you need–and as a result they have become great patrons of religious art, giving away excess wealth in order to benefit their faith. Many of the objects and tapestries they have created are catalogued on the site.
What is probably the most useful for teaching about Jainism to high-schoolers, however, is the online version of Snakes and Ladders that the V&A has available for exploration and play. This was brand-new to me! Apparently “Chutes and Ladders” is a blatant rip-off of a game developed in ancient India. The ladders represent virtues–actions Jains can take to become more like the enlightened beings. The snakes represent vices, or those behaviors to be avoided. (I think this might be because in Jainism, there is a story about Mahavira being bitten by a poisonous snake. Or just because snakes are noted for being mean and slippery.) As my students worked through the game online, they learned about the characteristics that are valued by Jains, and a little bit about Jain interpretations of the cosmos. They also got increasingly frustrated by the snakes that took them farther and farther away from becoming liberated beings, but hey, you can’t expect to get enlightened in just one class period.
Another “fun” activity that we did during this short unit on Jainism was that I challenged my students to be vegans for a day. Coincidentally, the start of this unit coincided with the Jain worldwide day of compassion on November 1st (more info here). Not a one of my students (except for the one who already wears the vegan badge), made it through the day, but I think it helped get them to focus on just how diligent and aware one has to be to maintain such a diet. (Nevermind that Jains also avoid some vegetables grown underground. We didn’t even get into those limitations!) I think that following a restrictive diet like that leads one to be exceptionally aware and mindful of what one is eating. Based on the one month of my life where I tried to give up sugar, I can tell you that it can be exhausting to check over every single thing that you eat. I wonder if for Jains, however, this attention to detail also helps connect them to and constantly remind them of the reason they are doing it: ahimsa (non-violence), compassion, and kindness. I’m not sure my students felt that same compassion or kindness when they were thinking about what they couldn’t eat that day, but it was good to hear their reflections. It certainly got them talking about Jainism.