A tribute to Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi from his family – Forgotten Jain Legend

November, 2023 by Himatlal S. Gandhi
The second half of the Nineteenth Century was the golden era for Madhumoti Tirth – Mahuva, where pious “Aura and Urja” were showered by Jivitswami Tirthankar Mahavir-Swami. The history of Mahuva, situated on the West coast of Saurashtra,  Gujarat  goes back more than two thousand years.

During this period, three great Jain legends of Jain history were born in Mahuva:

(1)  Shasan Samrat P.P. Acharya Shrimad Vijay – Nemisuriswarji

(2) Shashtra-Visharad P. P. Acharya Shrimad Vijay – Dharmsuriji

(3) Exponent of Jainism and Indian culture – Barrister Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi.

Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi (VRG)  was born in Mahuva on 15th August 1864. He was a great soul, a great patriot, and a great exponent of Jain Religion in the West. His father was a strict follower of Jainism and a reformer of his time. It was a time when there were few facilities for education.  Virchand’s father struggled hard for VRG’s education.

Virchand was the First celebrated Jain to have graduated in 1880 with Honors from Elphinstone College.  Much ahead of his time, he explained the fundamental articles of Jain faith in the living language of science and logic.

Virchand was the youngest Honorary Secretary of the Shri Jain Association of India at the Age of 21 due to his keen interest and involvement in the administration of religious and Charitable Trusts. He gloriously solved important and critical legal cases pertaining to sacred religious places like Shatrunjaya–Palitana, Maxijee, and the holiest Tirth Sammet Shikharji.

A towering, intellectual, visionary, orator, writer, and social reformer, he was a polyglot who knew 14 languages and was conversant both with rational Western thought and traditional Indian Wisdom.

He thoroughly studied and knew as much about Jainism as he did about the fundamentals of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, which made him perfect for the presentation of the Philosophies of Jain with reference to other religions.

Those were the days of rank orthodoxy. As said earlier, the level of education in society was very low in the sense it is understood and valued nowadays. To act or speak against prevailing customs was next to impossible.  But as a great, fearless reformer, VRG authored a book in Gujarati on the harmful custom of crying and beating the chest after the death of a family. He didn’t perform old customs, as per the last wishes of his father after his death.

The short life span of Virchand (1864-1901) is full of multi-faceted achievements.

The ruler of Palitana Thakor Sursinghji levied a poll tax on all pilgrims coming to Palitana.  As secretary of the Jain Association of India, at the age of 21 Virchandji took up the assignment given to him by Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi of the abolishment of poll tax levied on the pilgrims. In accepting the challenge, Virchand Gandhi knew that protesting the dictates of the ruler was to invite severe punishment and even death. He travelled on a horse several times from Mahuva to Palitana to collect evidence. He prepared a strong brief and met the Governor of Bombay – Lord Ray, and the political agent Colonel Watson. He made a convincing representation before them and eventually received the abolition of poll tax, a great achievement against all odds.

His most important achievement was to save the Holiest sacred site, Sammet-Shikharji – the Parasnath Hills, a place of 20 Jain Tirthankar’s Nirvana-place, situated in Bihar (now in the Zarkhand). The then ruler of that area gave permission to establish a slaughterhouse and a factory to an English man for extracting pigs’ fat.  The Jain organization managing the pilgrimage place objected to the placement of a slaughterhouse in a holy place but lost the fight in the lower court. No lawyer or Barrister was ready to take the case to file an appeal in Calcutta High Court, as they felt it was a very weak case.

Virchand Gandhi took the matter into his own hands. He went all the way to Calcutta. As all the relevant papers and documents were in the local language and in Bengali, he stayed there for six months, learned Bengali, and studied the case papers. He prepared a powerful brief and represented the case strongly in the Calcutta High Court. Ultimately, he obtained a declaration in favor of the Jains. “Sammetshikhar is a place of Jain Pilgrimage, and nobody else has any right to interfere there”. He did not give up his fight until he achieved his objectives and got the factory closed. The case is famously known as “Piggi’s Case”.

He attended the International Commercial Conference as an all-Asia delegate and presented a paper on Postal Reforms. As a delegate from Bombay, he attended the Indian National Congress held at Pune in 1895. He was a strong advocate of the Rashtriya  Congress. He was in intimate contact with Shri Mahatma Gandhi.

Then came the opportunity that raised VRG to an extremely high pedestal as a great exponent of Jain Religion and the glorious Indian Culture in the Western World. He represented the Jain religion in the first Parliament of the World’s Religions Conference held in Chicago in 1893, which was a unique gathering of leaders of world religious devotees eager to express and present principles of their religion and to learn from others. Along with the great Swami Vivekanand, there were three thousand participants.

His speeches were very much appreciated and made a deep impression of the Jain religion as a rational religion. His language was direct and forceful, and his expressions were fearless. He exposed the propaganda and activities of the Christian Missionaries working in India.

Virchand Gandhi made such a significant impact that the conveners and scholars of the World Religious Conference awarded a silver medal to him. Subsequently, the citizens of Kasanova awarded a gold medal to him where he delivered a lecture on “some mistakes corrected”. After the Chicago Parliament Virchand Gandhi went on a lecture tour in different parts of America and England by invitation. He delivered 535 lectures on different subjects.

In 1896-97, there was a famine in India; at that time, he was in America. He collected Forty Thousand Rupees, and he sent the same with a steamer full of grains to famine-stricken people of India.

His mind was as much imbued with religion and social services that he did not think of his profession or any business for his material well-being. He fully devoted himself to Jainism. He started several institutes in America, England, and India for the promotion and study of the Jain religion.

He left his mortal kaya at the age of Thirty-seven on August 7, 1901, in Mumbai.

About Author

Himatbhai Gandhi is from the family of Virchand Gandhi. His Great-grandfather’s cousin’s brother was Virchand Raghvaji Gandhi.
Himatbhai is associated with several Educational, Social, and religious organizations.

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