Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi ►Biography

Posted: 13.12.2011
Updated on: 28.12.2011

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A Brief Summary of Life and Mission of Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi

A pioneer in the introduction of Jainism to the West

 

It was the memorable day of September 11, 1893. The Columbus Hall of Art Institute of Chicago was overflowing with more than 3000 delegates of different nations and religions. It was the opening day of the Parliament of World Religions Conference, the first such conference ever organized in the history of mankind. The aim of the conference was to impart to the world, the knowledge of different religions, and to promote a feeling of fraternity between followers of diverse religious persuasion, and also to pave the way for world peace. The conference lasted for 17 days.

Two young men among them with their Indian costume and turban drew special attention of the public - one was the world famous Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism and Shri Virchand Raghavji Gandhi who represented Jainism. They made such an impact at the Parliament of Religions with their impressive speeches and personality that both of them were requested to prolong their stay in the USA and continued to give speeches at different cities after the conference was over.

Shri Virchand Gandhi, a young man of twenty-nine, impressed the delegates not only by his eloquence, but also by the sheer weight of his scholarship. The impartiality of outlook and the oratorical skill of this man fascinated the delegates at the conference. An American newspaper wrote, "of all Eastern scholars, it was this youth whose lecture on Jain faith and conduct was listened to with the interest engaging the greatest attention."

Shri Virchand R. Gandhi was born on the August 25, 1864 in Mahuva, near Bhavnagar, Gujarat, India. After primary and secondary education at Bhavnagar, he joined Elphinstone College in Bombay. He graduated and took a B.A. degree with honors from the university of Bombay in 1884. He was probably the first graduate amongst the Jainas at that time. He was also a student of Buddhism and Vedanta Philosophy and also had knowledge of Yoga and Occultism. He had acquired knowledge of Christianity and Western philosophy. He also had made a comparative study of various philosophies which equipped him for talks on various subjects with confidence. He had the command of fourteen languages including Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali, English, Prakrit, Sanskrit, and French.

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Left to right: Narasimha Charya, Lakshmi Narain, Swami Vivekananda, H. Dharmapala, Virchand R. Gandhi.

Shri Gandhi became the first honorary secretary of the Jain Association of India in 1885 at the age of 21. As a secretary he worked very hard for the abolition of poll-tax levied on pilgrims to Mt. Satrunjay, the most sacred place of Jain religion at Palitana, Gujarat, India. In those days to protest against the ruler was to invite severe punishment and even death. He prepared a case to compromise. He met Lord Ray, the governor of Bombay, and Colonel Watson, the political agent and made a strong representation eventually abolishing the poll-tax in place of a fixed payment of Rs 15,000 per year to the ruler for looking after the safety of the pilgrims and the holy place.

In 1891 Mr. Boddam, an English man set up a factory for slaughtering pigs and making tallow out of them at Mt. Sametshikhar, another holy place of Jain pilgrimage near Calcutta, in Bihar, India. Shri Virchand Gandhi went all the way to Calcutta to stop the killing of pigs at the holy place. He stayed there for six months, learned Bengali, prepared his case against the factory, and ultimately got this verdict issued: "Sametshikhar is a place of Jain pilgrimage and nobody else has any right to interfere there." He got the factory to close.

Shri Virchand Gandhi was a great social reformist at a very young age. He had fought against social evils and had succeeded in eradicating some. When his father died in 1890, he did not allow the primitive practices of wailing and breast-beating during mourning.

Shri Virchand Gandhi sailed to the USA along with Swami Vivekanand to attend the Parliament of World Religion Conference in 1883. He stayed in the USA for about two years after the conference and lectured in cities such as Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington. He also visited England, France, Germany and other places in Europe. In foreign countries he wore a long and loose kurta, a white shawl on his shoulder, a golden bordered Kathiwadi turban on his head, and country shoes. This external appearance bore the imprint of India. He delivered more than 535 lectures on Jainism, Yoga, Indian systems of philosophy, Indian culture, occultism, and spiritualism. He qualified as a Barrister in London at one of the Inns of the Court but did not use this qualification for monetary gain.

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Virchand R. Gandhi teaches lessons in philosophy to an American disciple (Picture from Jainacharya Shri Atmanand Janma Shatabdi Smarak Grantha, p. 69).

Virchand Gandhi talked about the doctrines of Jainism in such a coherent manner that some newspapers published the text of his lecture in full. He had a most effective way of handling the otherwise difficult terminology of Jainism. He had an extraordinary ability to clarify his statements in a consistent and logical manner. At the conference, he made a brief but striking presentation on the fundamentals of the Jain religion. He expounded the Jain religion in its main aspects namely: Jain philosophy, Jain way of life, and Jain code of conduct.

Another special characteristic of Shri Virchand Gandhi's lectures on the Jain religion was that they did not deal in criticism of other religions. Free from sectarian preferences and prejudices, his impartial ideology is an apt expression of the Jain who practices non-violence (Ahimsa) in life and multiplicity views (Anekanta) in thoughts. His discourses convinced the elite of America of the fact that the Jain religion has an authentic and rational religious tradition. His speeches received extensive publications in several leading newspapers.

An American gentlemen gave his opinion about Virchand Gandhi in these words: "In this religious gathering a number of philosophers, preachers, and scholars came from India and delivered lectures and each one of them presented a new element so as to convince that their religion ranks high with great religions of the world. Moreover their oratory and devotion presented distinct types and were full of wisdom and contemplation. Among them was an outstanding young man of Jain religion who gave new ideas about morality and philosophy. Though he is only a house-holder and not a monk or religious preacher, he can expound so well. Who must then be his Guru? His simple but striking philosophy of life is worth knowing, worth understanding."

His lectures demonstrated the fact that the study of Sanskrit and Prakrit languages alone is not enough for a proper understanding and exposition of Indian philosophy. It is absolutely necessary to assimilate and to understand India's past culture in its proper context.

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Advertising poster announcing a lecture given by Virchand R. Gandhi

 

Shri Virchand Gandhi was a great exponent of Indian culture and religion, besides being a brilliant scholar of Jainism. His speeches at the parliament echoed the true spirit and culture of India. There prevailed in America the belief that India was a country of tigers, serpents, magicians, and kings. Christian missionaries also presented a distorted picture of the people of India. Virchand Gandhi made a great effort as Swami Vivekananda did to give to the people abroad the true perspective on India. Explaining the importance of Indian culture to foreigners, he said, "It is an astonishing fact that foreigners have been constantly attacking India and in the face of all those aggressions the soul of India has stood vital and watchful. Her conduct and religion are safe and the whole world looks at India with a steady gaze." He also added that "cultural distinctions, agriculture, art, artistic skill, literature, good conduct, means of knowledge, science, hospitality, feminism, love, and respect - all these are found in India in quite a different form. If that culture was purchasable, England could have purchased it, adopted it. But it has not happened, it cannot happen."

Shri Virchand Gandhi was not a dogmatic person. He spoke as a Jain but he forcefully defended Hinduism from the attack of Westerners at the Parliament. Above all, he was first Indian then Jain. He was accorded a warm reception and shown highest appreciation from clubs, literary and church societies, philosophical branches, and spiritual associations in the USA and other countries. His lectures also served to educate the Western society regarding the salient features of Indian culture.

Five decades before the independence of India, Virchand Gandhi had a prophetic vision. He said in one of his lectures, "You know my brothers and sisters, that we are not an independent nation, we are subjects of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria the 'defender of the faith', but if we are a nation in all that name implies with our own government and our own rulers, with our laws and institutions controlled by us free and independent, I affirm that we should seek to establish and for ever maintain peaceful relations with all the nations of the world."

Virchand Gandhi was not only a philosophical thinker but he also had the welfare of the nation at heart. He collected a ship load of grain and about Rs. 40,000 cash for famine relief in India in 1896 while he was in the USA.

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Advertising poster announcing a lecture given by Virchand R. Gandhi on the occasion of World's Parliament of Religions of 1893

 

In America Virchand Gandhi founded various societies, such as, The Gandhi Philosophical Society, The School of Oriental Philosophy, and The Society for the Education of Women of India. The secretary of the later institution was Mrs. Howard who had adopted pure vegetarianism, practiced Samayik daily, and other codes of conduct of Jainism. In England he founded the Jain Literature Society and taught Jainism there. Mr. Herbert Warren, a religious enthusiast, abandoned non-vegetarianism and adopted the Jain religion. He summarized Virchand Gandhi's lectures and published a book known as 'Herbert Warren's Jainism.'

The following literature was published by Shri Virchand R. Gandhi or compiled from his speeches and writings by various authors:

Title

Year

Language

Pages

Essay - Radva Kutvani Hanikarak Chal

1886

Gujarati

37

The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ

1894

English

128

Savirya Dhyan

1902/1989

Gujarati

158

Jaina Philosophy

1907

English

375

Karma Philosophy

1913

English

221

Yoga Philosophy

1912/1993

English

309

Herbert Warren's Jainism

1961/1983

English

164

Selected speeches of V. R. Gandhi

1963

English

85

The Systems of Indian Philosophy

1970/1993

English

188

Religion and Philosophy of Jainas

1993

English

264

Shri Virchand Gandhi received a Silver medal as a 'Token of Esteem and Unity - The Occident to the Orient' by the spiritualist of Cassadaga Camp, USA on August 25, 1894. He also received a Gold medal as a 'Starter of Jainism' by Kutchhi Dasha Oswal Jain Community, Bombay, on August 19, 1896.

While he was in England, his health suddenly took a turn for the worse. He returned to India, but a few weeks later Shri Virchand Gandhi passed away at the very young age of 37 in Bombay on August 7, 1901. He rendered an excellent service to India and Jainism by interpreting Indian culture and religion in its true spirit to the western world. He was a brilliant promising young man, full of hopes and aspirations of service to his religion and community. His name will continue to be remembered as a great champion of Jain religion and of Indian culture.

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Jain BBS Email Bulletin (1994) ►ibiblio.org

Compiled by PK