Pankaj Jain’s Dharma in America: A Short History of Hindu-Jain Diaspora, is precisely what its subtitle describes: a relatively brief, but nevertheless detailed and engaging, overview of the history of Hindus and Jains in North America. Each chapter has a clear and specific focus, and indeed the chapters work well as self-contained units on specific topics related to the larger subject.
The book includes chapters on Indians and Ayurveda in the American food and healthcare industries, the reception of Indian classical and Hindi music in America, Indian Americans and civic engagement, and a chapter dedicated to the Jain community in America. These chapters are in addition to a chapter which gives a broad overview of Indians in America (which includes a detailed account of the history of Indians in the Caribbean region), as well as a personal, autobiographical preface and introduction in which Jain recounts some of his life history of growing up in India, “discovering” his religious heritage while preparing to leave India and work in the United States, and his experiences of living as an Indian in America. While it is not what might be called a comprehensive overview or history (nor does it claim to be), it does concisely convey a wealth of information.
Jain writes clearly and in an easy and approachable style that makes the book an excellent source for laypersons and undergraduate students, while containing enough important information to be of use to professional scholars—particularly as much of the material comes from Jain’s own firsthand anthropological research. I have utilized this book to good effect as a required reading for students in an undergraduate course on Hinduism in America, and the students responded very positively. Strengths of Jain’s book include his coverage of Hinduism in the Caribbean, the involvement of Indians in medicine, and his chapter on the Jain community. Hindu-Jain relations are a topic of special interest, because they provide an excellent example of the easy crossing of religious boundaries that has so often been a marked characteristic of South Asian traditions. Jain is well positioned to explore this topic, due to his having been raised with both traditions, as recounted in his preface. My students found his first-person account of this phenomenon to be particularly eye-opening, given the tendency within American culture to see religions as bounded entities.
In regard to Indian involvement in medicine, especially given the wide prevalence of the stereotype of Indians as doctors, students found Jain’s account of the racism and the other kinds of bias faced in America by medical professionals of Indian descent to be yet another eye-opener, and a disturbing one. Jain’s account of the Hindu-Jain diaspora subtly invites American readers who are not Hindu or Jain, or of Indian descent, to look at their society through new eyes, and thus to make the familiar unfamiliar—a central goal of teaching in the field of religious studies.
In short, Pankaj Jain’s Dharma in America is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Hinduism in America (as well as to the literature on Jainism in America, a genre which is barely in its embryonic stage). It includes original research, as well as clearly and concisely summing up the existing literature on some of its topics. It also supplements other recent work in a way that is illuminating and useful, particularly for instructors in courses on Asian traditions in the US, and for laypersons who simply want to have a better understanding of the beliefs, practices, and experiences of their Indian neighbors.
Jeffery D. Long is the Carl W. Zeigler Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
Jeffery D. Long
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2021
Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability which one the 2012 DANAM and 2011 Uberoi Foundation awards. His second monograph is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).
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