Acharya Shrimad Vijaya Anand Suri ►Biography

Published: 16.06.2011
Updated: 02.07.2015

The Life of Jain Acharya Shrimad Vijaya Anand Suri

(Shri Atmaramji Maharaj)

This article is compiled of two papers: The biographical paper Swami Atmaramji Maharaj was published in The Jaina Gazette Vol. XXXII, No. 12 (December 1935), pp. 454-459. It is not only the describing of the life and achievements of a scholarly Acharya and social reformer but also an illustration of the situation of Jainism at the end of 19th century. The second paper titled Shri Atma Ramji and his Many Sides Activities mentiones the work of the great Jain saint and was taken from Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Janma Shatabdi Smarak Grantha (Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Centenary Commemoration Volume, edited by Mohanlal Dalichand Desai, Bombay 1936, pp. 97-100).

1. Life

India, in the nineteenth century, produced a galaxy of eminent reformers who devoted their lives to the amelioration of the society and propagation of ancient religions. The great Jain Acharya Shrimad Vijaya Anand Suri, popularly known as Swami Atma Ram ji Maharaj, occupied a prominent place in the galaxy and will even shine as a unique figure of the age for the meritorious services rendered by him.

At the time of his birth, the country was passing through a political upheaval and the consequential social, religious and economic revolution. What Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayananda Saraswati did for the Vedic religion in those epoch making days, Swami Atma Ram ji accomplished for the decaying Jain community with his consummate ability, strength of character and matchless sacrifice. His endeavours led to the resuscitation of Jain religion, art and literature about which very little was known to the world at that time.

The great Jain Acharya appeared at an opportune time when Jainism was being vigorously assailed at home and abroad. Religious bigots actuated by missionary zeal malignantly attacked the Jain faith and belittled its philosophy. They distorted certain passages from the scriptures and by divorcing them from the context misinterpreted them according to their own flimsy notions. Some of the ill-informed western scholars adversely criticised Jainism which they would have never done if adequate materials had been placed in their hands. In the name of oriental research, they gave currency to untenable theories which misled the people by clouding truth. In spite of wealth and influence, the Jain community was most illiterate and least progressive. The people had fallen prey to numerous social evils forgetting the fundamental principles of Jainism. The vast literary treasures of illustrious Acharyas were locked in underground Bhandars, where even the light of the sun could not penetrate. The powerful order of monks had degenerated and corruption crept in all spheres of life. The condition in the Punjab was the worst The Jains were despised as a community on account of prejudices against them. Many an Oswal and Aggarwal had renounced the ancestral faith and embraced Sikhism, Arya Samaj and other religions. The Jains were deemed to be a sect having no literature, no philosophy of their own and were dubbed as heretics, dissenters, rebels of Brahmanism or a mere offshoot of Buddhism.

The foremost service rendered by Swami Atma Ram ji was to awaken the slumbering Jains to their sense of duty and to infuse in them a spirit to study Jainism, to become true Shravaks and dispel false ideas set afloat by the opponents. To achieve this object, he wrote a score of useful books. His Jain Tattva-darsha, Ajnana Timira Bhaskara, and Tattva Nirnaya Prāsād are voluminous works evidencing his vast range of knowledge of Jain and non-Jain scriptures. The austere majesty of his style and the forceful presentation of facts created a stir. As an erudite scholar, he was a fluent and impressive lecturer. His suffering in the cause of truth, his patience and perseverance, his straightforwardness, his nobility of character and indomitable will induced the people to follow him. He was a prophetic seer and fully realised the needs of the community under changed times. Like an expert physician, he carefully diagnosed the diseased community. He not only prescribed medicine but also administered it to the ailing patient. Utter illiteracy was the root cause of their downfall in the scale of nations. He insisted for the establishment of schools for the education of males and females. He advocated free and compulsory education along right lines under qualified teachers and declared it as essential for self realisation. Throughout his life, he endeavoured day and night to eradicate vices and inculcate virtues in the Jain community. To fulfil the mission of his life, he travelled on foot the whole of the Punjab, Marwar, Mewar, Kathiawar and Gujarat provinces. He was burning with enthusiasm to diffuse the knowledge of Jainism to mankind and restore its pristine glory in the world. He repelled all attacks against Jainism and by refuting the arguments of opponents established the independent existence and antiquity of the religion. He censured the loose discipline of the monks which caused their fall from the high pedestal and deprecated their passivity. He spurred them to action for the service of the Shasan and not to waste their precious lives by idling away the time in upāsarās. A new life was created in the community by his example and precept.

Frontispiece of the op. cit. volume of The Jaina Gazette. The photo pictures Swami Atma Ramji Maharaj sitting in front of a sthapana, representing the spiritual presence of his teacher.

Another important service rendered by Swami Atma Ram Ji to the literary world is the throwing open of the doom of precious Bhandars of the Swetambar Jains of Gujrat and Rajputana. The custodians were reluctant to display the Bhandars which were hidden under ground for fear of the fanatic Muhammadan rulers who had in the past burnt to ashes countless Jain libraries. Although the times had changed, the ignorant Jains were apprehensive of the westerners engaged in valuable research work. It was through the influence and magnetic personality of the Acharya that the sacred literature was rescued from damp and dingcellars where it was being destroyed by worms. Under his instructions, lists were prepared, bindings repaired and rare manuscripts preserved for posterity. Associations were formed for the protection, publication and propagation of the sacred literature. His love for scholars was as deep and true as it was transparent. He invited them to study ancient literature and dive deep in the ocean of Jain learning to find out rare pearls of thought. He called upon orientalists to carefully edit Jain scriptures, to understand and interpret them correctly. He offered them his ready hand of assistance and threw light on several obscure points relating to the scriptures and antiquity of Jainism. Dr Rudolf Hoernle, an eminent orientalist, was in constant correspondence with him for the elucidation of certain difficult texts and expressed his hearty thanks for the full and prompt replies. He was enamoured of the Acharya so much that he composed verses in Sanskrit eulogising the scholarship and personality of Swami Atma Ram ji.

What Islam could not attain by sword, Christianity seemed to achieve by pen. The iconoclastic Muhammadan kings demolished temples and used ruthless force to exterminate idol worship. But the people stuck to their time honoured method of worship in spite of rigorous persecutions. The Christian missionaries proved more powerful in influencing the minds of educated persons. They attacked the heathen and ridiculed idol worship through press and platform. They succeeded in winning over to their side some of the Indian reformers who joined them in preaching against the ideal Murti Puja. The first glow of Western civilisation dazzled the eyes of young educated Indians and created in their mind hatred for their own institutions. Swami Atma Ram ji strongly repelled the tile of Christianity by his forceful criticism and emphasised the importance and necessity of idol worship as a help for concentration of mind and self realisation. The human frame of mind cannot dispense with images. He maintained that idol worship in one form or the other shall exist in all ages and among all peoples from the savage to the most civilised. If it is discarded temporarily it appears in a different form. He urged the removal of superstitions which had grown up in connection with Murti Puja, but regarded the abolition of the institution as suicidal. The Jains in the Punjab had left Murti Puja altogether. Through his incessant preaching several magnificent temples were erected in the province and some of the finest temples of India repaired. Swami Atma Ram ji will be remembered as a staunch protagonist of Murti Puja who saved the institution from the peril of Christianity and misled Indian antagonists.

Swami Atma Ram ji worked hard to purge the Jain society of several conceptions. He introduced important changes in the order of monks to ensure disciplinary conduct as laid down by Lord Mahavira. He rebuked them for indolence and urged them to acquire knowledge and be active like soldiers for the dissemination of Truth and Ahimsa. He purified and strengthened the Order considerably. Under Brahmanic influence, the Jain community had taken to several non-Jain practices. He denounced the performance of shradh ceremony as against the tenets of Jainism and exhorted the Jains to renounce Brahmanic ritualism. He raised his voice against social abuses and arranged representative conferences for effecting reforms. He was a breaker of traditions and smashed conservative ideas. He was an advocate of reason and urged the people not to follow anyone blindly. As social rules and conventions are man made, they must change according to the requirement of times. The social organism is a dynamic force undergoing constant changes. A progressive society must adjust itself to the advancing spirit of time for the good of its members. A storm of opposition was raised against his innovations, but it gradually subsided in the face of his unflinching determination. Virchand Raghva Gandhi would not have represented Jainism in the world congress of Religions held at Chicago (USA) and carried the message of Jainism to America and Europe, but for the liberal views and full support of Swami Atma Ram ji. He not only permitted Virchand Raghva Gandhi to proceed to America, he authorised him to represent the Acharya in the great Congress and gave him instructions for preaching in the West. He broke the fetters of conventional rules.

A priest of amiable disposition, it was a sincere desire of Swami Atma Ram ji to cultivate the true spirit of fraternity between the East and the West. He strongly pleaded for peace, goodwill and fellowship of various religions and communities. He exhorted the warring subsects of Jains to sink their petty differences and unite for the common good of society. He was pained to notice the exclusiveness of Oswals, Aggarwals, Khandelwals and so many other subsections constituting the Jain community. Although they were united by the ties of brotherhood, they were averse to intermarrying. The relations had become very strained. Swami Atma Ram ji was the connecting link between them and taking full advantage of his position he emphasised the desirability of their interdining and intermarriage. At several places, he succeeded in restoring cordial relations. In fact, the services rendered by the Acharya are great and glorious.

2. Activities

Atmaramji was a born leader. His life is replete with multifarious activities. Some of them are mentioned here:

I. In the field of religion

Restoration of ancient ideals of worship

Before the advent of Atmaramji there was a strong tide against "murti puja", i.e. idol worship. The iconoclastic Muslim rulers, despite their best efforts, could not root out murti puja from the country. At best they succeeded in demolishing some of the richest shrines and the finest temples of the land. The spirit of murti puja grew stronger with every onslaught levelled against it. The attacks of Christian missionaries proved more baneful. Murti puja as a means of self-realisation had been almost lost sight of by majority of Jains in the Punjab. Besides the Christian missionaries the Brahma Samaj and the Arya Samaj were working against the time-honoured idol worship.

Atmaramji realised the danger and fully appreciating the worth of murti puja rebelled against the then current tide.

To achieve his end he had to carry on vigorous preaching to educate public opinion on the point of idol worship in the teeth of fierce opposition. All this was a tremendous task but he never faltered in his resolve. With this purpose he toured through the Punjab, Marwar, Merwar, Gujarat and Kathiawar and carried on a vigorous propaganda in its favour.

Puj Amarsingh of Amritsar, the then head of the Sthanakvasi sect in the Punjab, heard of these pro-murti puja activities of Atmaramji and asked him to refrain from this attitude under threat of expulsion from his order of monks. Atmaramji paid no heed to this threat and redoubled his activities. This led to his expulsion from the order being circulated, which meant that he was deprived of his food and shelter wherever he went in the Sthanakvasi community. But he had an unflinching spirit and never swerved an inch from what he believed to be the truth. He gladly faced all the privacies and hardships. He succeeded in attaining his goal through patience and perseverance.

The next step for Atmaramji was to secure the necessary idols and to raise funds for erection of temples. Through his unexamplary character, hard discipline and sacrifice Atmaramji captivated the heart of Jains. The initial difficulty lay in bringing home to the community that murti puja was in exact accordance with the Jain shastras and when this had been overcome there remained little to achieve. There was plenty of money with the community and in the course of a few years several magnificent temples were erected in various towns of the Punjab. He succeeded in securing plenty choice images from Palitana and Ahmedabad for installation in the newly built temples in the Punjab. Thus it was through his efforts that murti puja remained intact as a means for self-realisation.

Attention to old temples that stood in need of repairs

During his tours Atmaramji came across several temples which stood badly in need of repairs. Through his efforts "Temple Repair Fund" was created in several places to meet the expenditure of carrying out these repairs.

Collection, preservation and distribution of sacred literature

Perhaps the greatest service that Atmaramji did in the domain of religion was the preservation of Jain sacred literature. During the time of Muslim invasion, sacred books were stored underground for fear of destruction at the hand of the invaders. Although those days of religious fanaticism and terror had long gone, the community altogether lost sight of this spiritual wealth with the result that most of the literature was on the verge of being eaten up by vermin. Atmaramji prevailed upon the people to take the books out of the cellars and to let him inspect their condition. Due to lack of attention several valuable manuscripts on palm-leaves had been destroyed by white ants, while some had become almost indecipherable. Every effort was made by him to have them copied out where possible. In some cases the books were repaired or rebounded and regular libraries were started for their proper care and upkeep. He not only gave his personal time to this most important branch of his work, but he deputed some of his disciples to prepare lists of this literature for further reference. He secured a supply of the spiritual wealth for the Punjab, which province was below the mark in this respect at that time.

Reinforcing the spirit of celebrating Jain religious festivals in the Punjab

Every religion pays special attention to celebration of festivals for infusing the religious spirit. This is so because the act of celebration generates a kind of dynamic force which augments one's faith in particular religion. He, therefore, laid great stress upon the celebration of religious festivals.

II. In the field of Social Reforms

Atmaramji appeared at a time when people were steeped in ignorance. True religious spirit was on the verge of extinction and evils had crept in the society. He tried his best to purge the society of these evils. It was a sorry spectacle for him to see that in certain parts of India especially in the Marwar, child-marriage was in vogue. He did his best to root out the evils of early marriage as well as polygamy. He had a firm conviction that unless social distinctions were removed, no community could prosper as a unit. It was his vision to weld all Jain India into one social and religious unit, to attain which end he consecrated his life. He strongly wished that the different sects of Jains should encourage inter-dining and inter-marriage so as to foster a deeper and more extensive brotherly feeling in the community. He strongly urged his followers to reform social customs and make them simple and less expensive. He did much valuable temperance work and saved many a victim from embracing Christianity.

III. In the field of Education

Atmaramji deeply felt the necessity for education both for males and females. He believed that it was only through right education that the community could learn how to sink their personal differences and act as one unit. Wherever he went, he laid stress on the necessity of starting educational centres. Through his influence several pathshalas were started in different parts of India.

IV. As an Author

He was a deep thinker and a philosopher. He wrote quite a number of books, in easy Hindi on Jainism and its philosophy. Most important of these are Jain Tattwadarsh, Agnan Timeer Bhaskar, Tattwa Nirnayprasad, and Chicago Prashnottar. Some of his books have been very much appreciated by European scholars and Indian writers.

V. As a Poet

He was a natural poet. His poems, instead of being a result of conscious effort, flowed out of his heart spontaneously. Whenever he was in a devotional mood he composed verses. An English rendering of one of them is given as a specimen.

"As a faithful wife sacrifices her heart and soul over her dear husband; as the poor longs for riches, as a bee is enamoured of sweet scent of flowers; as a lover craves to see his beloved, as a farmer in summer season looks up to the sky waiting for clouds to water his lands; as a cow is full of affection for her calf; in like manner, O, worshipful Lord! May my heart be filled with your devotion. O Lord! I have from endless ages been attached to matter, on account of which I have been a victim of the rounds of births and deaths and which have kept me coming on to the stage of this physical world to play different roles. Whosoever I relied upon as my own, betrayed me. Love for anyone else barring you proved illusory in the long run. O Lord of the world! There is none except you to help me. Whom should I love but you? You are my best guardian. You are the delight of my heart. O merciful Lord! Take pity on me and help me across this ocean of life" (From Atmanand Jain Stavanawali P. 33-34).


The Jaina Gazette


Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Janma Shatabdi Smarak Grantha

Compiled by PK

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