The Forgotten Gandhi: Unsung Saga of Virchand R. Gandhi

Published: 03.09.2012
Updated: 02.07.2015

IANS Live
The South Asian Times


Virchand  R. Gandhi (1864-1901) was a friend to Mahatma Gandhi and a contemporary of Swami Vivekananda; he represented Jainism at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. August 25th was his 148th birth anniversary. The community recognises this scholar, humanitarian, reformer and exponent of Indian culture.

While great Swami Vivekananda received his recognition primarily for his speech in the first ever World Parliament of Religions in 1893, where he represented Hinduism, hardly much is known about one more Indian legend who at the same forum boldly expressed his patriotism, defended Indian culture and Hinduism and represented Jainism. He was the charismatic and captivating Virchand Raghavji Gandhi (VRG).

VRG’s forceful speeches and his fearless yet courteous expressions created such a deep and brilliant image that the American people were magnetically drawn towards him. At their request VRG prolonged his stay in the US for two years and was invited there twice later in 1897 and 1899. Virchand Gandhi received equal attention in the country as did Swami Vivekananda.

VRG delivered 535 lectures mainly in Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington as well as traveled to England, France, Germany and other European countries. He was felicitated  and honored nationally and internationally many times over. A polyglot, he knew 14 languages. His captivating speeches were on the fundamentals of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Indian culture. He also spoke on a plethora of subjects like Indian international trade system, Indian economic and industrial outlook, real estate, ancient history of Indian civilization, science of eating, yoga, concentration, hypnotism, astral vision and astral body, occultism and vegetarianism. He spoke as a non-sectarian Jain but as an Indian first. He had studied Vedanta Philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity and Western philosophy which enabled him to talk on various subjects and present his views with confidence. He had clear vision, unbiased approach and clarity in his explanation.

Before birth of Virchand Gandhi, Shree Padmavati Devi had appeared in dream of his father Sheth Raghavji Tejpalji Gandhi (a business tycoon) and had conveyed that his wife Smt. Manbai would give birth to a Narkesari whose fame would spread across the world and as auspicious token Lord Parswanathji's ancient idol would be discovered from his house. The dream came true, when the area was excavated and Lord Parswanathji's idol was discovered and his wife had given birth to a son in Mahuva in Gujarat.

Originally Muni Atmaramji alias Acharya Vijayanandsuriji, the learned high priest of the Jains in India, was invited to represent Jainism at the 1983 Parliament of Religions. But he couldn’t attend and deputed his disciple Virchand Gandhi for the same.

The same year Virchand Gandhi was also acknowledged as an interesting participant in World’s Real Estate Congress (NY Times, 26th Oct, 1893). His one more international participation came as an all-India sole delegate in the historic International Congress of Commerce by Philadelphia Commercial Museum  on 19th October, 1899. Talk of  versatility.

When Virchand visited USA, he was just 29 years old. He died at early age of 37 due to lung hemorrhage. But in a short life span, VRG’s immense success was covered by leading newspapers and periodicals of the USA such as: a) New York Times, b) St. Joseph Gazette, c) The Jamestown, New York, d) Editors Bureau, e) Chicago Daily Sun, f) Chicago Herald, g) Chicago Suburban Star, h) Light of Truth, Cincinnati, i) Buffalo Times, j) The Illustrated Buffalo Express, k) Morning Star, l) Buffalo Evening Times, m) Buffalo Express, n) Buffalo Courier, o) The Evangelist, p) Evening Post, q) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, r) The Rochester Herald, s) Rev. R. A. White, Chicago and  t) Addison Parker Pastor of leading Baptist Church.

The Evangelist from New York commented on Aug. 23, 1894, “Mr. Gandhi is an exponent of all the religions of India.”

Buffalo Evening Times on Aug. 13, 1894 said,  “Mr.Virchand R. Gandhi, the east Indian, who represented 5,000,000 of his co-religionists at the congress of Religions, preaches the universal brotherhood of man. He is much farther advanced in the Esoteric philosophy than the western Theosophists, and gives far more lucid explanations of the Oriental teachings. The Hindu is decidedly the Lion of the season.”

He is credited for translating a rare book ‘Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ from French to English. Chicago Herald wrote on August 4, 1894, “Virchand R. Gandhi, who was a prominent member at the Parliament of Religions, has just published a correct translation of the “Unknown Life Of Jesus Christ” and being a native of India and having traveled much in that country, has been able to add to his book a fine picture of the Himis Monastery where Notovitch discovered the manuscript. Also, he has added many other illustrations and a most scholarly and exhaustive introduction, altogether giving to his work a dignity that no other translation possesses. Everyone should possess a copy of this most scholarly translation.”

Key modern researches about Virchand reveal that at several instances Mahatma Gandhi was misunderstood as VRG.

1. In a June 13, 1931 letter, Mahatma Gandhi clarifies to Miss Emelia Mac Bean of Chicago when she mistook him as VRG, “Madam, I have your letter for which I thank you. You are giving me credit of which I am wholly undeserving. You are thinking of another Mr. Gandhi my name-sake but in no way related to me. He and I were, however, friends and lived together for some time. You will be sorry to hear that he died many years ago, leaving an only son. It was he who visited America and made many friends. I have never had the privilege of visiting your continent.”

2. Mark Twain, father of American literature, too was impressed by Virchand Gandhi and his philosophy. His newspaper Buffalo Express had widely covered VRG. In his ‘Mark Twain on Biblical and Hindu Miracles’, GB Singh states that Virchand Gandhi had met Mark Twain on the latter’s visit to India, but somehow ‘Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ by Andrew Hoffman mistook Virchand  as Mahatma Gandhi, who at that stage of Mark Twain’s travel was living in South Africa.

As a reformer for promoting Indian philosophy and culture, VRG had founded four institutions in the West in his three long journeys from 1893 to 1901: Gandhi Philosophical Society in Washington; Society for the Education of Women in India (SEWI) in Chicago (which brought several Indian women to USA for studies since the 1890s); School of the Oriental Philosophy in London; and Jain Literature Society, also in London (which inspired Herbert Warren to adopt Jain religion and write a book ‘Herbert Warren's Jainism'.)

VRG was admired by personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, Mark Twain, British Governor Lord Reay, British Col. Watson, Mrs. Charles Howard, Dr. Paul Carus, Alexander Fullerton, Miss Lilian Whiting, Annie H.S. Olcott, Swami Vivekananda, Chief Justice Govind Ranade, High Court Justice Sir Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar, William Pipe, George Francis Train, and Helmut von Glasenapp.

VRG, Ranade and Chandavarkar were key members of the Indian National Congress founded in 1885 in Bombay.

It is a real tragedy that VRG, a great Jain scholar, humanitarian (he sent ship-load of grains from America to India in the worst famine of 1896-97), a reformer (who founded "Society for the Education of Women in India") and a patriot (who talked about freedom of India at the 1893 Parliament of Religions five decades before India's independence) has been totally forgotten by the larger community.

Gurudev Chitrabhanuji tried to revive Virchand Gandhi in 1964. In 1990 a major initiative was taken by Nemu Chandaria (UK), Tansukh Salgia (USA) and Padmashri Kumarpal Desai (Ahmedabad) by installing his statue in Chicago and Mahuva.

Chandresh Gandhi, great grandson of VRG, has started conducting small lectures on him. Recently due to major efforts of Mahesh Gandhi (Mumbai), Prakash Mody (Canada), Pradip Jain (Patna), Pratap Bhogilal (Batliboi), Pravin C Shah (NY), the Indian Government issued commemorative postal stamps to honor this legend.

From the last 20 years New York based Pravin C Shah (founder JAINA VRG Chair 1997-2010) has been working tirelessly to get Virchand Gandhi his due. He has suggested several programs to celebrate VRG's 150th centenary which includes: pursue a VRG Chair either in India or USA; persuade governments to introduce VRG in school curriculum; and to erect VRG statues and name roads after VRG; to get VRG's contribution recognized at Palitana (who got Pilgrimage Tax axed) and Sammet Shikhar (where he got slaughter houses removed) by installing his statues/busts at both places.

These efforts are being made by the Jain community to perpetuate the name and contributions of VRG, but today when the Indian government  has plans to celebrate 150th Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in 2013, the question is, whether Virchand Gandhi will also be duly recognized by Indians and Indian government on his 150th anniversary.

The author, Pankaz Chandmal Hingarh, is credited with the world’s maximum modern researches on Virchand Gandhi.
Hiral Dholakia - Dave is co-author.

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