Swami Shraddhanand - The Unknown Mahatma

When the word ‘Mahatma’ is used the name that comes to mind instantly, by Indians and foreigners alike, is that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. However there is another person, rarely referred to in India’s history books, who is hailed with the title Mahatma. The man is Mahatma Munshi Ram, a freedom fighter, educationalist, follower of the Arya Samaj and a committed sanyasi.


Munshiram was born in village Talwan of Punjab’s Jalandhar district in 1856 in a well to do Punjabi Khatri family. His father Lala Nanak Chand worked for the East India Company.


Munshiram started his school education at Varanasi. Since his father had a transferable job Munshiram was bereft of formal education in the formative years of life. He started pursuing Law which was interrupted because of his father's transfers to places like Mirzapur and Bareilly where relevant education facilities were not available.


A little lack of attention from a busy father and excessive indulgence in affection of a doting mother resulted in the young Munshiram leading a wayward life. If there was a fall guy around, it was indeed he. What a miracle that such a man reformed himself to his finger tips and rose in stature in the public esteem to become a Mahatma.” 2


Because of his wayward ways be began to get involved in activities that were not really accepted by society. Munshiram came across a few instances of injustice in Hindu society which made him renunciate Hinduism.  This made him an atheist and do things which took a toll on his family and wife.
A Meeting that Changed his Life

One day Munshiram met Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, by chance. His father was making arrangements for an event in Bareilly, and there were some important personalities and officers attending. Munshiram went to spoil the arrangements of the event but ended up being impressed by the influencing speech and courageous personality of Dayanand Saraswati. What followed was a long intellectual discourse with Swamiji on socio-religious matters.


So inspite of having practiced as a lawyer at Phillaur and Jalandhar he gave up this lucrative profession also when a call came from Swami Dayanand Saraswati to serve the Arya Samaj.


“The seed sown in the United Provinces germinated and flowered in the Punjab. Munshiram, the fall guy, was transformed into a man with a mission who ascended the pedestal of a Mahatma. It was also a turning point in the religious and political history of India which was struggling for freedom from the British Empire.” 2


His life with Arya Samaj


Munshiram carried out various social activities at Arya Samaj that also included women’s education. In fact, he released a series of articles on women's education in a newspaper where he explained the need for their education. 


When he saw his own daughter, Ved Kumari, coming under the influence of Christianity because of studying in a Missionary run school he decided to provide children, devoid of missionary influence, schools runs by the Arya Samaj. This made him start the first Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Jalandhar. Note that the author’s mother studied here.

After Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, passed away in 1883 his followers the Aryas of Punjab decided to commemorate his contribution by opening a chain of schools and colleges that would make students proud of their Vedic Dharma.


It was with that intent that the Dayanand Anglo Vedic School was founded in 1886 at Lahore. That was a big project where all Arya Samajis worked hard, put their heart and soul into this project.


Later on, Munshiram and Pundit Gurudatt felt that the Anglo element in DAV school was dominating the Vedic element. So they started the Gurukul system of education. Munshiram spearheaded this movement. It however, resulted in a split between DAV and Gurukul systems.

The first Gurukul started at Gujaranwala in modern day Pakistan in the year 1900. “Twenty young boys formed the first batch of Brahmacharis (that is how students of the Gurukul are addressed). Among the pioneers were the two sons of Munshiram Ji – Harishchandra and Indra.2


Later it moved to Kangri near Haridwar. Its intent was to produce disciplined citizens who imbibed Vedic ideals and had a national outlook.


His Role in India’s Freedom struggle

Munshiram played a very prominent role in the freedom struggle. He joined public agitations that were started by Gandhiji in 1919. By virtue of his personality he connected with the masses across various sections of society. He organized ‘hartals’ against the Rowlatt Act. When Gandhiji was arrested he led a protest march. When a soldier threatened to fire upon the crowd, Swamiji bared his chest and challenged the soldier to shoot.


“When Punjab was writhing under the pains of atrocities by the British Government under martial law, it was Swami Shraddhanand who came forward to make arrangements for the Congress session at Amritsar. In this historic session, he introduced the program for eradication of untouchability that was adopted”. 1


“Mahatma Munshiram made a debut in the world of journalism with his writings in Urdu and Hindi on both religious and social subjects. Propagation of the Vedic Dharm was his mission and he never deviated from this path. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the Mahatma gave precedence to Hindi in Devnagari script in his writings. His paper, Sadharm Pracharak, was initially published in the Urdu language and became very popular. Later on, notwithstanding a financial loss, he chose to change over to Hindi in the Devnagari script which in the then Punjab was considered to be a language of women folk alone. The Mahatma’s editorial comments on burning topics of the day carried weight and influenced the public opinion.2


Becoming a Sannyasi 

In 1917 Munshiram became a Sanyasi, came to be known as Swami Shraddhanand and shifted his base to Delhi. Here he started a number of institutions for social, moral and cultural upliftment of people esp. the untouchables. He also started two newspapers, the TEJ in Urdu and ARJUN in Hindi.


“The cause of upliftment of the downtrodden and the Shuddhi movement i.e. bringing back to the Vedic Dharm those men and women who had strayed into other religious folds, was very dear to his heart. He worked for both relentlessly and laid down his life at the altar of the Shuddhi”. 2


He always stood in the front line of the Arya Samaj movement and made the Arya Samaj a power and contributed to its popularity by his disinterested work and exemplary practical life. His towering and inspiring personality was a source of eternal inspiration. He believed in Hindu-Muslim unity from the very beginning.” 1 


It was in 1919 that a huge crowd of Muslims had gathered at Delhi’s Jama Masjid in order to protest against oppressive British policies. Swamiji was invited to address the Muslims. His speech ended with Aum Shanti Shanti Shanti to which the crowds said Aamen.  


Conflict between the Two Mahatmas

Swamiji and Gandhiji together worked for the freedom of the country. But as time passed, there started a conflict between two of them.


The first conflict was regarding untouchables. Swamiji proposed a program to help the untouchables and remove the untouchability in one of his speeches at the Congress. But that being led by Gandhiji was decided that it was not the appropriate time to start the program. Swamiji was disappointed with Gandhi's negligence in this matter. Swamiji resigned from the Congress because of disagreements with Gandhi.

Another conflict between them was about Hindu-Muslim unity. Swamiji supported Hindu-Muslim unity. Whereas Gandhiji’s approach was different, some call it appeasement as was witnessed during the Khilafat Movement and Moplah Rebellion.


Death of the Forgotten Mahatma


So notwithstanding Swamiji addressing Muslims from the Jama Masjid in 1919 the situation changed because of Shuddhi Movement.


The dramatis personae are the Malkana Rajputs in the Mathura-Agra belt of the United Provinces. Long ago they had been forced by the Moghuls to convert to Islam. Yet they had retained their cultural distinctiveness. Swami Shraddhanand Saraswati saw a golden opportunity to encourage them to return to the religious fold of their forefathers.” 2


The mission of Shuddhi of the Malkana Rajputs was a roaring success, notwithstanding strong opposition of no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi himself. Maharana of Mewar and Pundit Madan Mohan Malviya rallied to the support of Swami Shraddhanand Saraswati. The movement gained momentum. Muslims could not bear it.2

Though Swamiji worked all his life for the betterment of the people and the country, his death was most unfortunate.


On 23rd December Abdul Rashid visited Swamijis home in Naya Bazaar Delhi. He conveyed that purpose of the visit was to have a brief discussion on Islam with Swamiji. During the visit, he was covered with a blanket, none suspected that he might have hidden a gun inside. He waited for the opportunity and asked one of Swamiji’s followers for a glass of water. During that very moment when no one was around, Rashid shot Swamiji. Hearing the gunshots people assembled there immediately. But Swamiji was no more. Rashid was hanged but that would not get Swamiji back.


It would be interesting to know what Gandhi said after the murder of the great proponent of the Shuddhi movement Swami Shraddhananda.

Pattabhi Sitaramayya wrote, “At the Gauhati Congress Session of 1926, Gandhi expounded what true religion was and explained the causes that led to the murder. Now you will perhaps recall why I have called Abdul Rashid (the murderer) my brother and I repeat it. I do not hold him guilty but Guilty are those who excited feelings of hatred against one another”.

There was a statue of Swamiji in front of Delhi Town Hall after independence. Inspite of his numerous contributions Swamiji did not get the fame or credit that he deserved. No one even knows him as Mahatma.


Thus, he became an unknown Mahatma.


Also read

1 Stalwarts of Arya Samaj – Swami Shraddhanand

2 Swami Shraddhanand – A Martyr Mahatma

3 Khilafat Movement

Author – This article is compiled from various articles. 

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