Karmayogi Virchand Gandhi

November, 2023 by Sejal Zaveri
The entry hall of the new Jain Center of Metropolitan Chicago contains a bronze image and plaque honouring Virchand Raghavji Gandhi. The Indian Postal Department honoured him by issuing a postal stamp with his image. A drama based on his life, Gandhi Before Gandhi, completed 200 shows throughout the world. So, who was Virchand Raghavji Gandhi and why he is so special and honoured?

To get an answer to this question we need to sail back in history over a hundred years. World Parliament of Religions is an interfaith assembly whose mission is to cultivate harmony among religious and spiritual communities of the world to achieve a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. It is considered as the world’s most inclusive interfaith gathering. The first World’s Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago in 1893 and its vision was truly highlighted by two young Indian philosophers of the same age, Swami Vivekanand and Virchand Gandhi.

Most people know Swami Vivekananda who introduced Hindu philosophy to the world, but little is known about Virchand Gandhi (1864-1901), Jain scholar and Jurist, who was the first exponent of Jaina philosophy in the West. More than 3000 delegates from different nations and religions attended the conference, but these two scholars from India left an everlasting mark through their speeches and attitude.

Both were the frontiers of peace and pluralism and their speech reflected message of inclusiveness and universalism. Both, though being honest practitioners of their own faith, always respected other religions and didn’t criticise any. Virchand Gandhi’s speech was so eloquent and coherent that Buffalo Courier, an American newspaper reported, “all Eastern scholars, it was this youth whose lectures on Jain Faith and Conduct was listened to with the greatest interest and attention”

Gandhi was the first graduate from the Jaina community with a BA Honours. He was well versed with various existing Indian philosophies like Buddhism, Vedanta Philosophy, Christianity, and Western philosophy and knew 14 languages including Prakrit and Sanskrit. He was secretary of the Jain Association of India and represented the Jain community in various contexts in India. During his term as a secretary, he always stood up for what he believed and fought for the rights of Jaina community and never let down the faith that was bestowed on him. He used his legal expertise to get an exemption on poll tax levied on individual pilgrims visiting Palitana Tirth and negotiated a fixed annual payment of Rs. 15000 instead.

When the slaughterhouse was set up on Mt. Sametshikhar by an English man, Virchand Gandhi took on the Government. He stayed for six months in Calcutta, learned Bengali, prepared for the case and won the same. The slaughterhouse had to be closed.

Originally, Vijayanandasuriji, popularly known as Atmaramji, a renowned Jaina Acarya of at that time, was invited to attend the conference as a representative of the Jaina religion.

Atmaranji himself was a scholar, thinker and philosopher and knew the importance of representation of Jaina religion at such a world platform. But the code of conduct for monks prohibited him from attending the same. Considering all his achievements as discussed above he was a natural choice for Acharya Vijayanandsuri to be the Jaina spokesperson at the conference. He recommended him to represent the Jain faith at the conference and trained him extensively for six months along with his disciple Vijayvallabhsuri.

Dressed in a long loose kurta, white shawl, golden border kathiawadi turban and country shoes, on September 11, 1893, he gave a captivating speech at the World Parliament of religions that won the hearts of many great minds. He talked about two main aspects of Jaina Dharma, Jaina Philosophy and Jaina way of life. He briefly explained various Jain principles and concepts like Nine fundamentals (Nav Tatva), Soul/Non-Soul (Shad Drvaya), the concept of Dravyarthik and Paryayarthika Naya and Syadvada. He introduced Jainism as an ancient religion that does not adhere to a belief of personal God, believes in Karma Theory, and teaches Ahimsa (nonviolence) and Anekantavada i.e., a plurality of viewpoints. Anekāntavāda is the Jain teaching that affirms that reality is multifaceted and each one of us approach it differently. He promoted “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” and urged everyone to examine the various religious systems from multiple standpoints and advocated for religious tolerance and harmony.

He received an enthusiastic and favourable response at the Parliament and was invited to deliver lectures and classes at places like New York, Boston, and Washington DC in the US and England, France and Germany in Europe. He stayed in US for more than a year to teach and spread Mahavir’s philosophy of non-violence. Later he made two more visits once to the UK and another to the US to promote Jaina Dharma and Indian culture.

His knowledge was not limited to philosophy, he also gave lectures on a variety of subjects ranging from the international trade system to ancient Indian civilization, the science of eating and the occult. In all, he gave about 535 lectures on Jainism, other religions, and social and cultural lives in India. These lectures made him win many medals and followers too. Herbert Warren, who studied Jainism under Gandhi and adopted the Jain religion, published a book on Gandhi’s lectures titled “Herbert Warren’s Jainism”.

Gandhi was not only a Jaina Scholar, but also a true Indian at heart. He had a great understanding of Indian culture. He challenged the stereotypes and misconceptions about Hindu religion that was prevalent in the West and condemned those who criticised Hindu religion believing second and third hand information. He also refuted the claims of Christian missionaries and defended the dignity and diversity of Indian culture. During the worst famine of 1896-1897, he sent Rs. 40,000 and shiploads of grain from the US to India. He was an active participant for the cause of India’s freedom movement and represented Bombay province at the Indian National Congress session held in Pune in 1895.

He was a social worker and reformer too. He wrote many articles and books in Gujarati and English on topics of social and cultural reforms. He established the Gandhi Philosophical Society, the Society for the Education of Women in India (SEWI), the School of Oriental Philosophy, and the Jain Literature Society in London. Several Indian women went to the USA for higher studies through SEWI.

His short life span is full of achievements and can provide inspiration to all. He was a multifaceted personality, a lawyer, a thinker, a reformer and teacher. He extensively wrote and lectured in various languages to propagate Jaina values to the West and himself followed it diligently. Swami Vivekanand also admired his willingness to adhere to Jaina values even in adverse situation and defended him when he was criticised at home to take up the sea voyage, which was considered unholy during that time.

His teaching of non-violence, compassion and inclusiveness, based on the Jain principles, are eternally relevant His selfless service to the Jaina community is unmatchable. He was remembered in the Second World’s Religion Parliament for his contribution to illustrating the best in the Indian Jain religion and Indian culture. Indeed, it’s an apt tribute to a visionary who played an important role to put India as well Jainism on the world map.

About Author

sepaniz72@gmail.com

Sejal Zaveri, a lifelong learner, and a teacher. To strengthen my core values and satisfy the quest for knowledge, did diploma in Jainism and later M.A. in philosophy, both from Mumbai University. I also hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering and have worked in past as a software engineer.

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