Triumph of Willpower

November, 2023 by Dilip V. Shah
Sunday morning of October 29, 2023, Gujarati Samaj Hall in Queens, New York, was filled with over five hundred smiling Jains dressed in their festive Desi outfits. The weather was unseasonably nice. A procession with drums, singing, and dancing devotees had just landed on the side doors of the hall as the eighty-year-old Lady of the Hour entered. The crowd erupted with slogans of “Jainam Jayati Shasanam” and “Tapaswi Amar Raho”.

The occasion was the Parna of Dr. Jyotiben Gandhi’s 100th Aayambil Oli accompanied by ninety other Shravaks and Shravikas who were to undertake their own Parna of Aaso month Aayambil Oli. They were seated in a specially designated, red-colored decorated section of the hall. The celebration of her Tapasya began on September 4 by her sponsoring a Rishimandala Poojan at the Jain Temple of New York (JTNY). The Parna program began on Sunday with a Verghodo for all the Tapsvees and  a Manglik delivered by Shri Nirmal Sagarji. He was followed by Shri Chandrakant Mehta of NJ, who spoke of the significance and the rarity  of the event. The celebration everyone was witnessing was the first such occasion in America – the Tapasya event that took Thirty-Six year to complete. Dr. Jyotiben had completed 5,050 Aayambils with 100 Upvas! A culmination of tapasya covering a span of 15 years if one were to undertake the series of Aayambils back-to-back without a break.

Jyotiben insisted all of them Tapsvees to have their Parna before she would begin her own Parna. For her Parna, all the Shravaks and Shravikas got the opportunity to go up on the stage to offer a small amount of food. As they were leaving the stage, they each received Prabhavna of a pouch with a package of saffron and dhoop and were offered to partake in a “Lucky Draw”- picking a chit from a ceremonial bowl that suggested a wow they may take for a duration of their choice.

What is more remarkable is the circumstances under which Jyotiben undertook the journey of Vardhman Tap Aaradhna.  A ritual in which one consumes only one meal in a day that avoids dairy, fruits, vegetables, oil or ghee, sugar, and some spices. It is a practice in which one eats to live and not live to eat by suppressing taste buds (Rastyag).   In this Aaradhana, one undertakes an ascending number of Aayambils, starting from a single Aayambil and go up to 100 consecutive Aayambils. She must be considered a supreme example of “Spirituality, Work, and Life Balance”.  Her perseverance must inform everyone that if you have a passion and faith in Dharma, and are willing to make the effort, nothing is impossible.

In 1987, Jyotiben became an executive committee member of the Jain Center of America (JCA), one of the earliest Jain Sanghs in America. She continued her full-time medical practice, in addition to her religious involvement and managing the home and social life. When she completed her Nav Pad Oli Aaradhna in 1987, Jyotiben started Vardhman Tap Oli. She always cooked her own simple meals along with regular meals for the family including a son, Neel, and a daughter, Nisha. Her spiritual journey was supported all along by her husband, Rajnibhai Gandhi who was the President of the New York Jain Center earlier in 1984. During his presidency, the building was renovated to convert it from a residence to an open-hall temple. JAINA was formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, and a 2nd Biennial Convention was organized at JCA under Rajnibhai’s leadership. The First JAINA Pathshala Conference was hosted at their home, receiving guests from many centers in America. During this time, Jyotiben started religious classes along with others at the Temple and organized Mahavir Jayanti Cultural Programs to involve kids in familiarizing themselves with Jain Dharma and culture.

Jyotiben’s spirituality and knowledge increased under the guidance of Pandit Shree Dhirajbhai Mehta, Shree Kiranbhai Parekh, Dr. Kumarpal Desai, and various other scholars. She started learning the deeper meaning of Sutras. Her active participation in the Jain Center continued for thirteen years: three years as a committee member, six years as Vice President, and four years as President from 1996 to 1999. Temple activities increased much during this time, as a lot of new Sadharmiks arrived to settle in America. Temple was active with visiting scholars’ lectures, observance of Paryushan and Chaitya Paripati Yatras, and Pathshala. Under her leadership, the Temple started sponsoring Navpad Oli Aaradhna – the first in any USA temple – in 1996. For their years of leadership and dedication to the Jain Center of America, both Rajnibhai and Jyotiben were honored with the JAIN RATNA Award in 2019.

Jyotiben has retired from her medical practice and from the working of the Sangh. She spends all her time on personal spirituality and voluntary work at a Senior Center. The couple has been a strong financial supporter of both, the JCA and the JTNY temple. They have set up a family foundation with a $550,000 endowment to continue their charitable and social activities. After the completion of the Vardhaman Tap, Jyotiben is presently considering embarking on Vees Sthanak Oli soon. What a strong-willed Shravika!

About Author

dilipvshah@gmail.com

Dilip V Shah of Philadelphia is the past president of JAINA. He is currently serving as chairman of JAINA’S Overseas Relations Committee and a member of the Academics Liaison Committee in addition to being an advisor for Jain Digest, he is also the publisher and General Editor of Jain Avenue magazine – a publication of JAINA India Foundation.

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