Acharaya Shri Hemchandracharyaji

March, 2024 by Dilip V. Shah
Kali Kal Sarvagn Shri Hemchandracharya is a much-revered Acharya for the Jains. His essential bio is well known. Born in 1089 on Kartiki Purnima, in Dhandhuka (present day Khambhat), Gujarat to businessman Chach and his wife Pahini Devi, and was named Changdev. Before the birth of Changdev, the parents had an occasion to visit Acharya Shri Devchandrasuri.  In giving his blessings, Acharyashri made a profound prediction – their future son is destined to be a great proponent of Jain Dharma. When Changdev was just 5-year-old, Acharya Shri Devchandrasuriji was again visiting Dhandhuka and Pahini Devi took him to the Upashraya to pay their respect. The playful child separated himself and ran towards the sacred bench- Paat – reserved for Acharyashri and sat on it. Observing this, Acharya shri reminded Pahini Devi of his earlier statement that her son was going to be a great Jain Acharya who willbe an exponent of Jain Dharma.  He asked that she hand over the child to them so he could be trained to achieve his brilliant and manifest destiny. After some hesitation, she handed over her son to Acharyashri. Thus, a pious journey began for Changdev. He received Diksha at the age of 9 and was given a new name – Somdev. After intense studying, at age17, Devchandrasuriji bestowed upon him a new title, and a new name:  Acharya Hemchandracharya.

As a Jain Acharya, he was not just influential in reviving the Jain religion in his era but had a profound influence on the history of Gujarat. He was a discreet advisor in statecraft to two kings – Siddharaj Jaisinh and later, King Kumarpal. His indulgence in statecraft was limited to propagating Jain teachings and Jain culture. But he was respectful to the followers of other religions. King Siddharaj once asked Acharya Shri “Which religion can lead a person to Moksh?” he gave answer not by referring to Jain Dharma but by quoting from Bramhan Puran.  Because he was certain that a true seeker, who was not biased towards any one religion, will eventually find the answer in Jain Dharma. When the King Kumarpal, at the insistence of his advisors tried to test Acharyashri’s equanimity towards Hindu religion in a Shiva temple, Acharya Shri created Mahadev Stotra on the spot and stated:  Whoever has won over his passions that impel the soul into cycle of births, may he be Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or a Jina, I bow to them. This lucid response removed all doubts of the king regarding the fairness of the Hemchandrasuriji.

King Siddharaj of Patan (The historic capital of Gujarat for 400 years) requested Acharyashriji to create a Grammar for the Gujarati language because none existed at the time. Acharyashri agreed and the Gujarati language received its first grammar “Siddh Hem Shabdanushashan” (Governance of words by King Siddhraj and Acharya Hemchandra). The magnum work on the Grammar for Gujarati language consisted of 125,000 stanzas. The king was so pleased that at the inauguration ceremony of it, he organized a majestic procession where the king with his soldiers, Acharya shri, scholars, townspeople, musicians, and dancers all walked behind a ceremoniously decorated elephant that carried the Grammar book on its back. History has no parallel to the respect accredited to “Siddh Hem Shabdanushashan”

Hemchandracharya with King Kumarpal

King Siddharaj did not have a son who could succeed him, but he did not want his half-brother Kumarpal to succeed him. For that reason, he ordered his army to track him down and kill him. On one occasion, Kuamarpal’s life was saved by hiding him from King’s soldiers in his ashram by Hemchandracharyaji. When Kumarpal ascended to the throne, he installed his savior, Hemchandracharyaji as his Guru although Kumarpal, a Shaivite by birth, had not embraced Jainism yet. For saving his life, King Kumarpal offered Hemchandracharyaji anything he wished for. As a monk, Acharyashri did not need any worldly objects, but he wished for the upliftment and welfare of the society. He asked for three things from the king. First, he pleaded with king Kumarpal to prohibit killing of animals for food, hunting or sacrifices in religious rituals. Secondly, he asked for prohibition in his kingdom on gambling and consumption of alcohol and lastly, he sought king’s cooperation in propagating Jain Dharma. These three provisions are still the hallmark of Gujarat today even after the passing of Shri Hemchandracharyji 900 years ago. Soon after that King Kumarpal converted and became a Jain.

In his lifetime, Hemchandrasuriji is said to have penned 3.5 million Shlokas (stanzas)! His contribution to literature covered so many fields – Philosophy, Yog, Grammar, Justice, Biographies, rule books governing the composition of poetry and Drama, and Dictionaries, etc.

It is a sad commentary on the Jain community that much of what the Acharya Hemchandrasuriji wrote is lost. Among the scores of books that have been preserved, his Yog Shastra (12,570 Shlokas), Kavyanushashan (6,800 Shlokas), Abhidhan Chintamani Kosh (Dictionary with 10,000 Shlokas) and Trishisth Shalaka Purush (biographies of 63 Jain luminaries, 32,000 Shlokas) commands the most respect. Various western scholars have produced English translations of Acharya Shri’s important works like Trishisth Shalaka Purush by Helen Johnson and Yogshastra by Olle Qurnström. But not much has been written about this giant of Jain universe in India in the 21st century.

The religious leaders and scholars of the time honored him by giving him the honorific – Kali kal Sarvagna (Omniscient of the present age) the western scholars have described him as (the Ocean of Knowledge). Johann Georg Bühler (1837 – 1898) a German scholar of ancient Indian languages wrote and published Shri Hemchandracharya’s biography in a German magazine in the year 1889. Motichand Kapadia got it translated in to English by the help of a German lady. That typed copy remained with Shri Motichandji for a long time and later he translated it in Gujarati during his incarceration by the Britishers for participation in the freedom movement for India.

Acharya Shri Hemchandracharyaji passed away at the age of 74. His beloved disciple, King Kumarpal followed him just a few months later.

In 1939, the 14th Gujarati Sahitya Parishad had their three-day conference titled “Shri Hem Saswat Satra” in Patan under the chairmanship of Shri Kanaiyalal Munshi. The conference was attended by Muni Punyavijayji, Motichand Girdharlal Kapadia, Shri Jyotindra Dave, Kaka Kalelkar etc.

Hemchnadracharya Gyan Bhandar in Patan

The conference also featured the inauguration of “Shri Hemchandracharya Gyan Mandir” a grand library in his memory was built next to the famous Panchasara Parswanth Temple in Patan. The library has over 1,000 manuscripts of palm leaves, 20,000 manuscripts on paper and cloth, 6,500 books in loose-leaf system, and 15,000 book. A few years before his passing, Muni Jambuvijayji himself examined the whole collection and created an index of the library’s holdings.

Inside of Hemchandracharya Gyan Bhandar

In 1986, after a prolonged debate, the Gujarat Government established Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University in Patan with Judication encompassing five districts – Patan, Mehsana, Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, and Aravalli. The university was carved out of Gujarat University and has 212 Acres of land in Patan. In addition to the four colleges in Patan, it presently has about 55 colleges in the five districts.

All the efforts mentioned above to memorialize the lion of Jainism, one who glorified the kingdom of King Kumarpal, and one who formalized the Gujarati language are commendable but not sufficient. To preserve the true legacy of Kali Kal Sarvagna Acharya Shri Hemchandrasuriji, there needs to be a center affiliated with the Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University for research, preservation, and dissemination of all Jain knowledge in Patan, to remind Jains of their glorious past.

About Author

Dilip V. Shah is a past JAINA President, recipient of JAINA RATNA award.


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