Remembering Gandhi: A Forgotten Icon at the World’s Religions Parliament

Jainism is an ancient religious tradition that does not adhere to the belief of a personal God but emphasizes the law of Karma, the practice of nonviolence, and the plurality of viewpoints. Anekāntavāda is the Jain teaching that affirms that reality is multifaceted and we each approach it differently. These teachings align with today’s humanistic ideals and the Parliament’s continued commitment to ethics and pluralistic world vision.

You’ve probably heard of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, but there’s another hero we often forget: Veerchand Raghavji Gandhi. He was at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, just like Swami Vivekananda, representing Jainism, a part of the ancient Sanatan religion. Virchand Gandhi’s words at that first Parliament won the hearts of many great minds and the American people. As the Rochester Herald published on October 3, 1893, “These [Gandhi’s] lectures are instructive to both old and young, and should be seen and heard all over America.”

Virchand Raghavji Gandhi became the first Jain to travel to the United States for the World’s Parliament of Religions, which took place in Chicago in 1893.

“Upon observing historical depictions of pre-independence India, it becomes evident that the country endured severe oppression under British rule. The subjugated populace lacked autonomy and faced profound helplessness, impoverishment, exploitation, and social regression. India existed not merely as a political subject but as an economic subordinate, fostering the flourishing of ignorance, superstition, and various forms of societal enslavement. People lived with lowered spirits, constrained by prevailing norms.

While Gandhi, the Mahatma, remains a prominent figure, Veerchand Raghavji Gandhi’s pivotal contribution tends to evade our historical narratives. At a mere 21 years old, he assumed the mantle of Honorary Secretary of the ‘All India Jain Association,’ catalyzing the propagation of Indian literature and religion both within the nation and beyond its borders.

In the 1893 assembly of esteemed theologians, preachers, and scholars, Virchand Gandhi proclaimed: “God, in the sense of an extra-cosmic personal creator, has no place in the Jaina philosophy. It distinctly denies such [a] creator as illogical and irrelevant in the general scheme of the universe” (Virchand Gandhi Speech: 1863). This statement must have been shocking to the ears of those whose religion rests on both the belief in the existence of God and a conviction in a particular form of God. Virchand Gandhi goes on to focus on the law of Karma and calls to perform the correct action: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again’ and ‘Whatsoever man soweth, that shall he also reap’ are but the corollaries of that most intricate law of Karma.”

Veerchand Gandhi’s influence extended beyond the Parliament halls. His negotiation between Jain devotees and the King of Palitana led to a pivotal resolution. He advocated for the exemption of taxes imposed on Jain pilgrims visiting the sacred Shatrunjaya Tirtha, a move that greatly benefited the economically disadvantaged Jain Community.

With a legacy that spans 535 addresses on Jain principles and Indian spirituality, Veerchand Gandhi’s prodigious contributions remain a testament to his age-defying achievements. His multilingual prowess and profound understanding of various languages—Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, English, Sanskrit, Prakrit, and French—added depth and richness to his impassioned speeches, captivating the attention of 3000 scholars and earning him a special request to prolong his stay in America.

Veerchand Gandhi, an unsung hero in the tapestry of India’s historical narrative, stands as a testament to the unyielding spirit and intellectual prowess that transcended borders, leaving an indelible mark on the global stage of religious discourse. His story deserves to be resurrected from the annals of history, a beacon of inspiration and knowledge for future generations.

Jain Avenue Magazine is delighted to present this special issue dedicated to Veerchand Gandhi. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to all the contributors who shared their articles for this edition. While we acknowledge that many aspects are left to discuss and explore, this issue will encourage further study and exploration on this subject.

Dr. Sejal Shah (Ph.D.)