Virchand Raghavji Gandhi – Exponent of Jainism (with extracts from his lectures)

November, 2023 by Kishor B Shah
The first World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, was almost a tailpiece, an afterthought of the great Columbian Exhibition of 1892 and has been acclaimed as equal to if not greater than Ashok’s Council of Pataliputra, Constantine’s at Nicaea or Akbar’s meetings at Fatehpur Sikri. Today, the 1893 Parliament is recognized as the birthplace of the worldwide interfaith movement. It lasted for seventeen days in September of 1893 and brought together some four hundred men and women representing forty-one denominations and religious traditions.

Invited to the gathering was a delegation from India, which included Swami Vivekananda and Virchand Raghavji Gandhi as a Jain representative. V.R. Gandhi came to the Parliament at the request of His Holiness Acharya Shri Vijay Anandsuri, better known as Muni Shri Atmaramji – a Jain monk and leading reformer. Shri Atmaramji had initially received the invitation to attend the Parliament, however,Jain ascetics are not permitted to travel across the oceans. Shri Atmaramji Muni was a visionary and realised that the Parliament would provide a great platform to create an awareness of Jain philosophy worldwide and therefore he selected Virchand R. Gandhi, a lawyer, born in 1864 in Mahuva on the Saurashtra peninsula in western Gujarat, to attend instead.

V R Gandhi was a towering intellectual, visionary, orator, philosopher, and social reformer. He was a polyglot, able to speak fourteen languages and knowledgeable both with rational western thought as well as traditional Indian wisdom. Above all, he was a great exponent of the Indian culture and philosophy and a great Jain scholar who is said to have “unfurled and glorified the Jain religion beyond the motherland”.

V R Gandhi, gifted with a fine, unflamboyant and charming personality impressed the delegates not only by his eloquence but also by the sheer weight of his scholarship, soberly presenting a faith -Jainism – based on reason and self-conquest.

At the Parliament, V R Gandhi talked about the Jain religion in its main aspects namely: Jain philosophy, Jain Way of life, and Jain code of conduct. He presented Jainism as an ethico-metaphysical system which states that moral power is superior to physical power; renunciation is not escapism but the path to infinite bliss and purity; self-sacrifice is better than self-aggrandizement.

Whilst talking about the Jain religion, V R Gandhi did not criticise or condemn other religions.

Free from sectarian preferences and prejudices, his impartial principles were  a pertinent expression of a Jain who practices Ahimsa in life and Anekantvada in his thoughts.

His lectures on Jainism were so eloquent and coherent, even today they remain unsurpassed and serve as an independent source of enlightenment on the subject. As we can see from the various extracts from his lectures, his thoughts and explanation on Jainism are worthy of study by anyone interested in Jainism  today.

On the antiquity of Jainism, V R Gandhi said: –
“How old is Jainism? Many scholars believe that it’s older than the Vedic religion. The religion existed before Gautam Buddha. Gautam Buddha used to call the Jains ‘Nigganth’, meaning ‘without any bondage’ because the Jains were thinkers who left their homes and properties and wandered for the welfare of the society, like Jesus Christ. “If Jesus had been born in India, I’m sure he would have been called a Jain.”

“Jainism thus predates Buddhism and isn’t a branch or offshoot of Buddhism. It’s now well proven that Jainism is an entirely independent religion. The western scholars who have maintained that Jainism is an independent religion include world class researchers like Buhler, Jacobi and Leumann.”

“In our country the religion is not separated from philosophy. Likewise, the religion and philosophy are not separated from science. Religion, in the western world is a concept that binds people together. It is a concept of finding individual bliss by relying on the infinite. In Jainism on the other hand, the individual bliss is not dependent on anything outside self but is in being free”.

“It’s all right to be dependent of some support when living a material life but that support is not religion. The essence and the objective of our religion is to become free from the things that bind a being and make it dependent. “Jainism views material things in two ways:

‘Dravyarthikanaya’ and ‘Paryayarthikanaya’. The first means bringing into existence something that is non-existent and the second means to alter or improve what already exists”.

“And the composite view is that as per the ‘Dravyarthikanaya’ point of view the universe has no beginning and no end because a thing that basically does not exist, cannot be produced but the ‘Paryayarthikanaya’ viewpoint says that matter changes from moment to moment. Its earlier form is destroyed, and a new thing is created.”

Explaining the Concepts of Jain and Jin, he said: –

“In simple words, the followers of a Jin or a person who has conquered his undesirable feelings are called Jains. To put forward an even simple definition, those men and women who have conquered anger, envy, hatred etc emotions and thereby have already achieved spiritual progress or are striving to do that, are called Jains.”

“The Jain philosophy is entirely based on how to conquer the mental afflictions to see the Truth and how to progress from being incomplete to being complete. He, who has conquered all his mental afflictions and has attained oneness with his soul (kaivalya state), is known as ‘Jin’. In short, Jainism is a unique journey towards the state of being Jin.”

“There have been countless Jins in the history and there is no doubt there would be many more in the future. Therefore, Jainism isn’t based on any particular book, scripture or miracles. It’s based on the concept of spiritual development. We believe that every being is capable of attaining the position of Jin, irrespective of his geography and religion.”

“The Jains accord less importance to written word because they believe that the indescribable light that brightens the soul and the sight of Truth are subjective to the individual experience.”

“Anyone can become a Jin. He or she could be born anywhere and in any community. The only precondition of becoming a Jin is to conquer the human afflictions of mind. In this sense, Jainism is a universal religion.”

He explained the Jaina literature is divided into two parts: Shruta Dharma meaning philosophy, detailing the nine principles (Nav Tattvas), six substances, six kinds of beings and four states of existence ; Charitra Dharma meaning ethics which elevate character.

“These nine principles are: Atma, karma, virtue, sin, the flow of karma that enters Atma (Aashrav), bondage of karma, stopping the flow of karma that enters Atma (Sanvar), destruction of the karma that has already penetrated Atma (Nirjara) and the moksha state that’s free from karma.”

Gandhi said Jain ethic is: –

“The highest, pious ethical principle of Jainism is to see every life with equanimity. In fact, this is the original or the fundamental principle of the Saman tradition. Every Jain feels fulfilled in living the principle of equality in its original form.”

In his lectures, he described the Atma (Soul) as the divine element in all beings – the element which knows, thinks and feels. He said: “Where do the living beings get sensation? What helps it to perceive the world? Why do these sensations cease after the death of the being? The answer to this is that beings can perceive the world because of the element called Atma or soul.”

As long as the Atma is subject to transmigration, it undergoes the process of evolution and involution. The state of final liberation – Moksha – is achieved when the Atma returns to its purest form by eradicating all its Karma and severing all connection with matter.

He explained the Jain Theory of Karma, which was not only understood by the American listeners born and brought up in a Christian philosophy, but proved to be so important that V. Glasenapp, a well-known German scholar on Jainism, cited Gandhi’s lectures as his sole influence when writing his doctoral dissertation on the Jaina doctrine of Karma.

On the Theory of Karma, he said:-

“The theory of recurrent birth in Jainism is linked with the karma or action of a being. Whatever the deed a being does in its life, it gives a good or bad fruit of it depending on the nature of that deed or action. When a being is reborn, its new life is seen to be influenced by the stock of its actions in the previous life. Answers to  questions like why there’s inequality in the world, why there is injustice etc are found in this theory.”

“And this is the reason why, the Jain philosophy can also provide a solution to the issue of how to get rid of inequality, injustice, and sorrow. The Jain sadhus have developed this theory through relentless thinking and contemplation. No other Indian philosophy deals with karma so minutely.

“Appropriate faith, knowledge and conduct help the being in destroying its karma completely and thereby in the complete development of the Atman. The being can attain the perfect state of existence because of this.

He explained the Eight types of Karma in Jainism in simple terms:

“1. Karma that impedes knowledge, 2. Karma that impedes senses, 3. Karma that impedes aparigraha (rejection of every material thing), 4. Karma that impedes strength, 5. Karma that nourishes body, 6. Karma that earns prestige, 7. Karma that compels rebirth and 8. Karma that impedes spiritual bliss.

On Anekantvada (truth is multifaced), he said,

“Whereas all the philosophies of the world talk of the ultimate truth as something immutable Jainism’s uniqueness is that it accepts that there can be more than one way to reach the truth and that truth can be of multiple forms. This is a great viewpoint provided by the Jains to look at the universal truth.

“Just as many rivers flow towards and merge into the ocean, the streams of all the philosophies of the world merge into Anekantvada of Jainism.

“In the Syadvada of Jainism it is further believed that a language or words can never express the complete truth. It is the senses that perceive the truth and it’s never possible to express in words what one perceives.”

“Jain philosophy isn’t based on illusions. It’s neither about the origin of the universe or about the creation of the universe. This philosophy says that a thing visible to a person is true only up to himself. For someone else it may not be true. This way there’s no room for any argument. Through Nayavada or the doctrine of relative pluralism, Jainism, tells us this loudly and clearly.”

Finally, on Forgiveness in Jainism, he said:-

“There’s no dearth of people who want peace, end to wars and cutthroat competition and welfare of all the humans in the world.”

“Many a time the cruelty of us humans has stooped to inhuman level. Jainism inspires us to overcome these flaws and get closer to humaneness.”

“Michchami dukkadam”

If I have hurt anyone in mind, body and words knowingly or unknowingly kindly forgive me.

On my part, I forgive everyone for the offences committed by them knowingly or unknowingly.”

“That’s how expansive our sentiment is with respect to forgiveness in Jainism. We chant the following verse loudly and try to live according to it –

“Khamemi save jiva
Savve jiva khamantu me
Mitti me savve bhuesu
Vern a majza keni … “

“It’s not a mere formality but a way of living. There’s a cure for the enmity, envy and hatred etc vices in the world. Jainism teaches us that everyone needs to forgive and seek forgiveness.” The above was relevant when he first said it, it is relevant today and will be relevant in the future.

V R Gandhi unfortunately lived for only 37 years, yet in that short life achieved so much to be rightly regarded as one of India’s great sons. He was the first great exponent of Jainism, who spread its aroma through his perceptive and insightful lectures and explained to the world in eloquent language how the Jain philosophy and Jain way of life can help the people to live peacefully and attain ultimate bliss.

V R Gandhi’s life and lectures on Jainism and Indian culture are worthy of study by today’s generation, especially Jains.

About Author

Kishor is resident in UK and a Banker.  He has served the Oshwal Association of UK as Trustee, Area Secretary, Editor of Oshwal News and Web Chairperson developing and successfully launching a new website. He is very passionate about Jainism and has produced Jain Exhibitions, Jain Calendars in English, Insights Magazines and written various articles on Jainism, for the Jain Community. Kishor was part of the team that worked for nearly two years on Jainpedia V2.0, which was officially launched in April 2022 and is involved in the continuing development of the site. He is the Regional Editor of UK for Jain Avenue Magazine (jainavenue.org).

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