Virchand Raghavji Gandhi - Assessment of a Jaina Scholar and Spokesman of India Abroad



Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi (1864-1901) had  many firsts to his credit. He was the first celebrated Jaina to have graduated with honours from Elphinstone College, Bombay (Mumbai) in 1880,  the first authorized  Jaina  plenipotentiary to  a global religious conclave  in 1893 , the first to win admirers and adherents to his faith outside India, and the first non-Hindu to defend Hinduism  in America and Europe.  He was much ahead of his times  and explained the fundamental articles of  the Jaina faith  in the living language of science and logic. His interpretation of  Anekantavada –the philosophy which says that each ssertion  though seemingly contradictory, belongs to the domain of  possibility - brought  the quintessential element  of Jaina metaphysics  to the global  fora. 


He could juxtapose, assimilate, and harmonise different religious standpoints on the praxis of  deeper spirituality. His explanation of the gospel of  Ahimsa - non-violence -in scientific idiom, appealed alike to the intellect, the heart and the soul,  and in that respect, he was a precursor to Mahatma Gandhi(1869-1948).


He was among the first few 19th century Indians to delineate the exploitative aspects of the British Raj marked by racial discrimination, destruction of Indian agriculture and handicraft industries, impoverishment of the subaltern classes, misuse and drainage  of India’s wealth to Britain, and the  abolition of import duties  to help the traders of Liverpool and Manchester. He spoke against the imposition of 200% tax on the manufacture of salt ‘to maintain a costly government’, a somber presage of the Salt Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi in 1930.  He had the courage to point out that the British Raj had legitimized the vice of drinking and raised revenue from the liquor trade, which the native rulers never did.  


He resented that the government spent lavishly to assert its political hegemony by declaring Queen Victoria  as the Empress of India in 1877, but it did little  to save  more than five million people from starvation and epidemics  during  the  famine  of 1896-97. He described Englishmen as conquerors  who laid claim to ‘extra-territorial right throughout  India.’  


Yet his patriotism was not insular as he stood for amity and cooperation among different nations at cultural and economic levels. Despite  his reservations about the ethical  dimensions of  the British export, he praised the British manufacturers for understanding the Indian economic milieu and the requirements of people.  He was the first Jaina to speak on trade relations between India  and America and to guide the latter on what to export at an international meet organized by W.P.Wilson, Director of Philadelphia Commercial Museum.1


Born on August 25, 1864  in  an affluent Jaina family  of Mahuva, a small town on  the Arabian sea coast, and educated at Bhavnagar (Gujarat) and  in Bombay (Mumbai), Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi became the  youngest Honorary Secretary of  Shri  Jaina Association of India at the age of  twenty one, due to his keen interest and involvement in the  administration of  charitable and religious trusts.  A towering intellectual, visionary, orator , writer, and social reformer, he was a polyglot who knew fourteen languages and was conversant both  with rational western thought  and traditional Indian wisdom. He knew as much about Jainism in which he had been trained in a Jaina monastery by Shrimad Vijayanandsurishwar  (Muni Atmarama ji) whom he represented at the Chicago Parliament, as with the fundamentals of  Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. He was well versed in history, philosophy, psychology, science and mysticism, and quoted profusely from scholarly works. He could address large audiences with rare confidence and speak sometime for hours elaborating  on a subject.


Just as Swami Vivekananda founded the Vedanta Society  of  New York  and Anagarika  Dharmapala, the Maha Bodhi Society of  America, Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi  founded  three institutions in America  -  Gandhi  Philosophical Society, School of  Oriental Philosophy, and Society for the Education of  women of India.


Virchand Raghavji Gandhi synergized in him, the erudition  of   Protap Chunder  Mozoomdar ( 1840-1905), the sobriety of  Hewavitarne  Dharmapala (1864-1933), the philosophic outlook of  G.N. Chakravarti, the sensitivity of  Balwant  Bhau  Nagarkar (1858-1926) and the  patriotic zeal  and prophetic vision of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)  - all of whom represented their respective faiths at the World’s first Parliament of  Religions  held at Chicago in 1893.


Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi  created a great impression on the  Chicago Parliament  by his refined manners, vast learning, and command of the English language. Although, in physical appearance, he was not as handsome as Swami Vivekananda, his  tranquil and austere figure in an immaculate  Kurta – upper garment -  white shawl -over the shoulders and  traditional turban with golden border, his friendly disposition and gentle smile attracted one and all.  His opening  and closing  addresses (September 11 and 27) presentation on Jainism (September 25)  as well as his off-the-cuff observations during discussions, were greatly appreciated.2 He delineated the intricate philosophical points  through metaphors, narratives, fables and quotes.


In interactive and representational argument he was no less eloquent in the Parliament than Swami Vivekananda, Hewavitarne  Dharmapala, Balwant Bhau Nagarkar  or Narsimhachari, but he never used raw rhetoric to overawe his opponent. While presenting counterview or censuring the illiberal, he  did not cross the limits of decency, and thereby won the  respect of  all. The American Press lauded his simplicity, scholarship, non-sectarian outlook  and breadth of vision.  The Boston Evening Transcript dated September 30, 1893, wrote : ‘He has a refined and intellectual countenance, a bright eye and something in his  manner that suggests cosmopolitan influences.’


When evangelist George T. Pentecost of London  concluded his address on September 24,1893 by saying that ‘there were two or three oriental bubbles which have been floating over Chicago for the last two or three weeks’3  alluding to Swami Vivekananda, H. Dharmapala, Narsimhachari and other delegates from India, it was Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi who gave a befitting reply. ‘The oriental bubbles might yet be found heavier than certain bloated balloons of self conceit which were temporarily obscuring a large portion of the horizon.’ 4 The Chicago Daily Tribune dated September 26, 1893  reported that the audience was sympathetic, and  ‘applauded loudly almost every point he scored.’



Jainism is an outlook of life, a mode of understanding the world, a way to the efflorescence of the soul, as well as a living faith. In its classical mould, the word ‘Jaina’ is more of an adjective than a noun, as it derives from the word jina which means he who  has conquered himself.


The history of Jainism goes back to the beginning of time. Its historical evolution, like  that  of other faiths,  has been the  result of interaction between a number of   factors, forces, ideas and puissant souls, sometime  between parallel or even rival  schools of thought. Jainism is neither the heir or the rebel child of Hinduism as Christianity is of Judaism, nor  a reactionary religious movement. 


The Supreme Truths in the Jaina  faith were revealed to the twenty-four tirthankaras  - ‘ford-finders’ -  those who help one to cross the ocean of worldly existence’ - at  different stages of  man’s evolution. Deriving from the Shramana ('self reliant') tradition which is many millennia old,  Jainism  focuses on the  purification, elevation and flowering of the human being  - an idea which is close to the Mundaka Upanishad(I.1.5), which says  that  true knowledge comes  not through pedagogy but through experience.  


While Hermann Jacobi (788-820 CE)  introduced Jainism to the West through his translation of  a few Jaina classical texts both into German and English, Virchand Raghavji Gandhi may be  called the first able exponent of Jainism in  America  and Europe, who  spread its aroma through his insightful talks,  discourses and writings. He presented Jainism as an ethico-metaphysical system which lays down that moral power is superior to physical power; renunciation is not escapism but the way to infinite purity and infinite bliss; self-sacrifice is better than self aggrandizement. He believed that Jainism is fit to be a world religion because it stands for spirituality and culture not dogma.  Jaina ethics aim at the cultivation of the mind, the heart and the soul along the lines of truth, non-violence  and  righteousness, so as to turn hatred into love, love into compassion and compassion into social service. 


The three jewels of Jainism, Tri-ratna, namely, Right faith (samyaka shraddha), Right knowledge (Samyaka Jnana) and Right conduct (Samyaka Acharna), underline the need for the establishment of the moral law in society.  Jainism rejects the atheistic and materialistic perceptions of  the Charvaka school of  Indian philosophy  since it believes that  the goal of human life is not to attain pleasure but to be perfect in every respect.                 


At the Chicago Parliament ( September 11) he described Jainism as a faith ‘older than Buddhism, similar to it in ethics but different from it in psychology.’ 5 His paper on Jaina philosophy and ethics (September 25)  delineated  the cosmology, canon, science, logic, epistemology and  moral codes of Jainism in a masterly way. 6 He put forth  two parallel but distinct views in the  Jaina  tradition  namely, Dravyarthik  naya which  holds that the universe is without beginning  and end, and Paryarthika naya  which holds that creation and destruction take place every moment.


He divided the Jaina canon  into two parts - Shruti dharma, revealed laws, and Charitra dharma, moral laws, which elevate character. He referred to the nature of nine principles, six  substances, six kinds of living beings and four states of existence in the Jaina philosophy, explaining some of them in detail. He  described  the soul as the divine element in all beings – the element which knows, thinks and feels, but is different from matter which is also eternal. As long as the soul is subject to transmigration, it undergoes the process of evolution and involution. Moksha, the state of  final liberation,  is achieved when the soul  regains its purest form  by relieving itself  of the burden of karma and  severing   all connection with matter. The realized ones look upon all living beings as upon themselves.


He explained  the Jaina belief in eight types of  karma – law of cause and effect - and in the theory of  reincarnation,  widely supported by philosophers, theologians, and prophets the world over, as it provides the raison d’etre  of injustice and misery in the world.  He asserted  that  the Jaina  prophets could  reveal the minutest divisions of   living beings with   their inner eye and  envision ‘how many organs of sense minutest animalcule  has’,  much before the discovery of microscope. He informed the audience that there were works on biology, zoology, botany, anatomy and physiology in the Jaina tradition, written centuries before the birth of modern sciences. 7


He rejected the  common view upheld  about the Jainas as atheists or agnostics. Although the existence of a First cause or that of a creator-deity is absent in the Jaina  cosmological scheme, the  Tirthankaras recognize  the subtle essence underlying all substances, ‘conscious as well as unconscious, which becomes an eternal cause of all modifications and is termed God.’ While the Brahmins recommend devotion (bhakti) and action (karma), and the Vedantists emphasise the path  of knowledge (jnana) to reach  the Ultimate Reality, Jainism teaches that ‘ knowledge and religious observances’  are the means to obtain the highest happiness.


In conclusion, he spoke of the panchamahavrata or five great vows of ascetics, namely, ‘not to kill; not to lie; not to take that which is not given; to abstain from sexual intercourse; to renounce all interest in worldly things or to call nothing one’s own.’8 These vows which bear verisimilitude to the five Yamas- restraints- in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are regarded by the Jainas as  means to  attain the  Supreme spiritual state of  a Siddha Parameshthin.


In his final address( September 27), Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi thanked the organizers of the Parliament  for their  hospitality, kindness, ‘liberal spirit and patience’  with which they heard  the views of delegates from the orient. However, in view of occasional notes of disharmony, Christian claims to superiority over other religions, and some direct attacks on Hinduism and Buddhism, he  observed: ‘ If you will only permit a heathen to deliver his message of  peace and love  I shall only ask you to look at the multifarious ideas presented to you in a liberal spirit and not with  superstition and  bigotry, as the seven blind men did in the elephant story.’ 9


As per the said story the blind men had touched the different parts of an elephant’s body  and quarreled  among themselves  about its  shape, size and features.  He thus tried to establish that truth has various dimensions; religions are divided by ignorance and bigotry, and  the good in all faiths need to be recognized.



After the Chicago Parliament , Virchand Raghavji Gandhi went on lecture tour in different parts of America  and England on invitation, visiting India in between.  In his various discourses and writings, he  explained  how Jainism has  enriched various disciplines like philosophy, religion, literature and arts.


The Jaina contribution to the domain of  metaphysics includes its concept of  the  self existent and timeless Reality; its bheda-abheda doctrine which recognizes both different (bheda) and identical (abheda) perspectives, its nine categories namely, jiva, living being or soul; ajiva, non-living being; punya, good deeds, papa, evil deeds; ashrava, influx of karma, bandha,  bondage of karma, samvara, stoppage of inflow of karma; nirjara, eradication of karmic matter, and moksha, salvation; its six-fold division of dravyas, substances, namely jiva, soul, pudgala, matter, dharma, principle of motion, adharma, principle of rest,  akasha, space ( together called panchastikaya) and kala, time; its four-fold division of souls– deva, gods, jivas, living beings, tiryaks, lower animals and the vegetable kingdom and narakas, lower regions – all subject to the law of karma, and so on.


The atomic theory of Jainism which propounds that an atom (paramanu) is indivisible and indestructible and  has colour, flavor and taste; that the aggregate of atoms (skandha) in various modes and combinations changes the quality and taxonomy of objects, comes closer to the scientific view.


The Jaina theory of  five kinds of knowledge namely, mati, ordinary cognition, shruti, testimony, avadhi, inner perception, manahparyaya,  capability to read the mind of others, and kevala or pratyaksha jnana, perfect or direct knowledge, adds a new dimension to Epistemology.


The seven modes of predication (saptabhangi), called also seven nayas or standpoints – syad asti (perhaps is), syad nasti (perhaps is not), syad asti-nasti (perhaps is and is not), syad avaktavya ( perhaps inexpressible), syad asti avaktavya (perhaps is and is inexpressible), syad nasty avaktavya (perhaps is not and is inexpressible), syad asti-nasti avaktavya (perhaps, is not and is inexpressible),  have contributed to the study of  Logic.


The Jaina view of nonviolence as the highest ideal of life is a great contribution to Ethics. Its concept of Moksha as a state of freedom which renders infinite joy, infinite freedom, and  infinite  bliss adds to the  theology of salvation. The rejection of dogma  in Jainism  and  the acceptance of  different  points of view  are the salient features of  Jaina ethos.


Jaina art as seen through its iconography, sculptures, paintings, stupas – hemispherical structures - decorated manuscripts, mystic diagrams, and  temples is aesthetic, meaningful, majestic and magnificent. Jainas have produced vast literature on philosophy, logic, history, comparative religion, grammar, prosody, mathematics, lexicography,  astronomy, art and other subjects in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and  Prakrit.

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