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


Although  many Christians  attended the  Chicago Parliament in a spirit of love and fellowship showing utmost courtesy and goodwill to delegates from the East, some of them spoke in derogatory terms about oriental religions. Christianity was presented as the only true and universal religion, ‘the only complete and  god-given revelation’.10  The  Code of Righteousness revealed by God to Moses, called  the Ten Commandments, was  described as superior to the ethical precepts of Orientals. 11  It was  argued that the idea of  the unity of God and the brotherhood of man as suggested in Paul’s great speech on Mars Hill was  not found in ‘the Hindu Buddhistic Bible’. 12 Rev. Joseph Cook of Boston stated (September 14) that he regarded all faiths except Christianity as ‘a torso’. Except Christianity ‘there is no religion known under heaven, or among men, that effectively provides for the soul this joyful deliverance from the love of sin and the guilt of it’, he said. 13 As regards the antiquity of  Christianity  Pentecost   pointed out that it does not date from the birth of  Christ. ‘ Christ crucified 2000 years ago was only the culmination in time, and to our sense, of a revelation already ages old.’ 14  Besides, no ideal character ‘ever satisfied  the demands of the mortal consciousness  of the ancient world’ as  did Jesus Christ.15


Like many oriental delegates  to  the Chicago Parliament, like Kinza Riuge M. Hirai (Japan), Swami Vivekananda, Hewavitarne  Dharmapala, and others, Virchand  Raghavji  Gandhi was  convinced  that the Christian attitude towards  other religions  based on  the interpretation of  Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 CE), Saint Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 CE), Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE), Tatian (c.120-180 CE) and others, was  that of hostility, condemnation and intolerance. Justin Martyr, for example, interpreted non-Christian religions as the work of demons and evil spirits, and dubbed them all as ‘crude superstitions, demonic counterfeits  and caricatures of the true religion.’ 16


Both in America and Europe, Virchand  Raghavji  Gandhi  pointed out the  Christian  bias  against other faiths, based as it was on raw, tainted information from dubious quarters.  He disapproved of  proselytism rooted in such  theological assumptions as, all-non-Christians were going to hell; there was no way to salvation except through Jesus Christ who is the central and culminating point of  God’s salvific plan for mankind; and  that Christianity is the fulfillment of  all religions.  He rejected the view that some people are the chosen of god (Deutronomy 7:6) while others are pagan; that if Jesus Christ is true, all other prophets must be false. Without denying the purity of character of  Jesus Christ and the  nobility of his  ethical  teachings he observed that  he had been preceded by many spiritual masters like him.17


‘I have to say that no Christian minister can point to a single moral truth or ethical statement in his new testament of Jesus the Christ that I  cannot duplicate a thousand times with even greater emphases from the sacred books and teachings of our religion antedating as they do the Christian era by thousands upon thousands of years.’ 18


In one of his historic lectures, ‘Have Christian Missions to India been successful?’ delivered at  the Nineteenth Century Club in America, Virchand Raghavji Gandhi presented a critique of Christianity and missionary methods.19 He argued that Christianity does not have fixed doctrines as it has grown through the ages - from the times of Christ to that of the Fathers of the Church to that of the Middle ages, to the Age of Reformation down  to the present times. Christianity has not come ‘direct through Christ’ but through ‘the layers of superstition and bigotry, of intolerance and persecution, of damnation and eternal hell-fire.’ It has thus lost ‘the standard of apostolic days. 20 The fact that  Christianity has  borrowed  its cosmogony, festivals, liturgies  and sacred paraphernalia, from previous  or older religious traditions, shows that it does not have a ‘divine origin’. 21  Its  doctrines  of Original Sin and of  vicarious atonement  are  not  convincing.22  The gullible are made to believe theological half-truths and miracles, like the immaculate conception of Mary and the resurrection of Jesus after crucifixion. The Church has been offering inducements to convert the poor with  foreign money. It has used education and social work as  means of proselytisation, something ‘repulsive to our conscience.’ 23 Instead of  improving moral standards, or raising the position of women and the masses, Christianity  has introduced social evils with its western  lifestyle and values, which overemphasize  the gratification  of  the senses, its ideas of marriage and of  social relations . 24 He noted that Christians being non-vegetarians and wine-takers seem to the Hindus to represent a religion bereft of humanitarian or spiritual ideals. 25


He wondered how the ‘dogmatic aggressiveness’26 of Christian preachers elevate the spiritual state of a nation. He argued that the missionaries were so trained as to detest other religions. They preached an  insular creed, and  spread ‘a false theology’ , ‘not only false but positively injurious to the best interests of mankind.’27 They were ignorant about Indian history, culture and philosophy, and saw nothing positive in non-Christian traditions.28 They were systematically spreading false information about other faiths to  erode their credibility.


Like Swami Vivekananda, he goaded the Christian missionaries to put their theology into action – to live a virtuous life like that of  Jesus Christ, and not indulge in calumny, hypocrisy,  drinking and other vices. He felt that dogmatic Christianity cannot take root in India.



Virchand Raghavji Gandhi saw historical and cultural affinity between Hinduism and Jainism since both have emerged from the  same soil.  At the Chicago Parliament  he had the honour to read  Manilal N Dwivedi’s  detailed essay on Hinduism, in his absence. He  defended the Hindu tradition against missionary attacks as can be seen from his response to  George  T. Pentecost’s vitriolic observations (September 24).29


Pentecost had spoken derisively about  the Hindu deities by  observing that to compare ‘the peerless Christ’  ‘to any of the gods worshipped by the Hindus  ‘is to mock both them and him.’30 He had lampooned the traditional Hindu History by saying that orientals were destitute of the historical sense and could easily manage millions of years as decades.31 He had dubbed  the claim about the eternity of the Vedas and the antiquity of Puranic heroes antedating ‘all other faiths’  as  irrational.32 Above all, he had cast aspersions on the chastity of women who served in the temples of India.33


Virchand Raghavji Gandhi explained why Christian missionaries painted a negative image of India: ‘They go to India to convert the heathen in a mass but when they find their dreams melting away, as dreams always do, they return back to pass a whole life in abusing the Hindu.’ 34  He argued that the ‘present abuses’ in Hinduism, were not from religion, but in spite of it, as in every other country. Hindu society had been so virtuous in the past that a Greek historian remarked : ‘ No Hindu was ever known to tell an untruth, no Hindu women ever known to be unchaste.’ He gave the example of  emperor Akbar (1542-1605) who showed  utmost respect to the Bible when a  ship of Christian traders was captured with the copies of their  holy book, unlike the  Portugese Christians who had defiled the Koran in a similar situation.35 In  another lecture, Virchand Raghavji Gandhi  referred to ancient and medieval travelers and scholars like  Hieun Tsang (602-664 CE) Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE) and Mohammad al-Idrisi (1099-1161), who showered rich encomiums on the Hindus for their high character, truthfulness and  honesty.36 As regards the superstitious nature of Hindus, he had this to say in a lampooning way :


'These holy men talk of the Hindu superstitions. They had better examined their own religion. A religion whose beginning is in blood, whose salvation is in blood, whose purity is in innocent blood, whose hope of saintship is in a dream of a sea of blood, whose revivals are brought about by preaching and a vision of the sea of blood afresh, would do better by talking less of the superstitions of other nations.’ 37


It appears that  the  caustic observations of  Rev. T. E. Slater of  the London Missionary Society, Bangalore, made in his Paper, read at the Chicago Parliament by Frank M Bristol,  were lurking in the mind of  Virchand  Raghavji  Gandhi when he  uttered  these words. The Paper stated inter alia  that ‘no literature, not even the jewish, contains so many words relating to sacrifice as Sanskrit. The land has been saturated with blood.’ 38


The concept of India as a unique, hoary civilization and vibrant culture, with multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, and multilingual traits, finds articulation in the discourses and writings of  Virchand  Raghavji Gandhi. To him India was not just a geographical entity but the land of gods and holy men. He regarded the quintessential Indian values as timeless and eternal. He saw the different schools of Indian philosophy as flowers of various hues, all emitting fragrance. He regretted that while India was ‘the mother of religions and ‘the cradle of civilization’ it was dubbed as the land of heathens, ‘both materially and spiritually’ in Christendom due to ignorance.39  On the testimony of Greek writers like Strabo, Pliny, Arrian and Megasthenese he argued that India  had  become a familiar topic with the western people  long before the  birth of Jesus. He quoted from the writings of  scholars like Max Mueller (1823-1900), Sir Thomas  Munro (1761-1827), H.H. Wilson( 1786-1860) and others to show that India had a glorious past.


Hinduism to him was not a religion in the western sense of the term but a way to achieve all-round perfection. He spoke of Hinduism’s antiquity and its superiority to European knowledge in many spheres of activity. He rejected the view that Hindus have no history ‘worth considering’ prior to the Muslim invasion of India. The fact is that historical events were transmitted ‘with particularity and exactness from generation to generation, from century to century.’40  


Like  Swami Vivekananda, he provided the raison d’être of caste,  image worship,  rites of marriage, and of religious symbols like AUM, swastika, forehead-marks , chakras – wheels or lotuses – in the subtle body, etc. He described Sanskrit - deva-vani - ‘language of the gods’, ‘the oldest language in the sisterhood of languages’,41 as essential for an understanding of Indian history, religion and culture, a fact vouchsafed by western philologists.  


Yet he was not a revivalist in the narrow sense of the term.  He disagreed with Abbe Dubois’s description of Hinduism as a pagan religion and argued that modern science has come to accept the value of some ancient rites and ceremonies. Contrary to the western belief that Hindu women were ‘abject slaves’ of  their husbands, and enjoyed a lower status in society, he observed that the wife in India is regarded as the queen of the household and never kept in seclusion or subjection, denied education or excluded from holding a  high position in society.42 He quoted  Sir Thomas Munro (1761-1827) who said that ‘the Hindus are not inferior to the nations of Europe, and if civilization is to become an  object of trade between England and India, I am convinced that England will gain  by the import cargo.’43



Virchand Raghavji Gandhi had a short but eventful life marked by prominent social, religious and  legal activities, for which he was honoured  by Jainas as well as non-Jainas, both in India and abroad.  The triumph of his mission in the west raised the image of India and restored the confidence of the Jaina community in its ethos. He brought about an inner resurgence in Jainism by upholding its precepts against all odds, thereby saving its soul from the growing impact of the West.


He was successful in stimulating interest in Jainism both as faith and as a way of life, which is evident from the fact that Herbert Warren and Mrs  Howard  adopted the culture of the Jaina community. While the former  took notes of his lectures and expatiated on the Jaina faith, the latter served as Secretary of  the Society for the Education of  Women of  India, founded by  him. 


He showed that Jainism can provide answers to the ultimate existential questions, and help one to take a quantum jump from ignorance to supreme knowledge, from conflict to peace. His understanding of  Buddhism, Indian mysticism which he regarded as synonymous with  the Yoga School, the six systems of Indian philosophy, and comparative religion, was  superb , and for this reason, he was invited  to  a number of  religious, spiritual and philosophical  societies  in important American cities like Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington DC. He also made a mark in England by his insightful talks and his success in winning an appeal.


His lectures on concentration, meditation, hypnotism, dietetics, the art and science of  breathing , and the occult, generated much interest, and  continue to be meaningful. 44  He taught how one can strengthen will, nullify negative propensities, expand consciousness, and awaken inner powers.  His views on spirituality are well suited to this age of scientific enquiry and rationalistic criticism. 


As a crusader for  the  Jaina causes he  succeeded  in obtaining tax exemption for pilgrims (1886 ) to the sacred Mount Shatrunjaya  (Gujarat), through  a compromise with the ruler  of  Palitana, by using the  good offices of Lord Reay, Governor of  Bombay (Mumbai). He filed a case for the closure of tallow factory of  Mr Boddam on Sammed-Shikhar (Shikharji ), the venerable peak  of  Jainas  in Jharkhand,  and won it after great effort. He was a great patriot, and his concern for the masses grew out of his sense of identity with humanity. While in the USA he could raise forty thousand rupees for the famine stricken people of India and arrange to send a steamer  full of grains (1896). He remained a pure vegetarian throughout his life, sometime surviving on raw or boiled vegetables in the cold climate of America and Europe,45 thus becoming a living legend for the supporters of vegetarianism, in his time.


Like Swami Vivekananda, he wanted a synthesis of tradition and modernity, of science and spirituality, so that mankind could have peace as well as prosperity.  He left his mortal coil on August 7,1901, in  Mumbai.


About Author: Ex-British Council Scholar. Registrar, DAV University, Jalandhar.


This article was first published in the January 2010 issue of the Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe online


1. See The Jaina Philosophy. Speeches and Writings of  Virchand R.       Gandhi. Edited by  Kumarpal Desai. Mumbai: World Jaina Confederation,2009, pp. 105-7, 271-76.(Hereafter cited as The Jaina Philosophy).
2. Walter  R. Houghton(ed.) , Neely’s History of the Parliament of religions and Religious Congresses at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Chicago and New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1894, pp.61-62,853-54,732-36. (Hereafter cited as  Houghton).
3. The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1893.
4. Ibid.
5. Houghton, pp.61-62.
6. Ibid., pp, 732-36.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Houghton, pp.853-54.
10. Houghton, p.683.
11.  Ibid.,pp.686-87.
12.  Ibid.,p.689
13. Ibid.,pp.,220-21.
14. Ibid.,pp.,p.684.
15. Ibid. p. 686.
16. M.V.Cyriac, Meeting of  Religions. A Reappraisal of the Christian Vision(with a foreword by Prof. P. Fransen), Dialogue Series,Madras-Madurai, 1982, pp.138-39.
17. The Jaina philosophy,p.111.
18. Ibid.,pp.,111-12.
19. Ibid.,pp.88-113.
20. Ibid.,pp.90-91,101.
21. Ibid.,p.92.
22. Ibid.,pp.,101,110.
23. Ibid.,p.109.
24. Ibid.,p.101.
25. Ibid.,p.105.
26. Ibid.,p.110.
27. Ibid.,p.90.
28. Ibid.,p.95.
29. Houghton,pp.,682-90.
30. Ibid.,p.685.
31. Ibid.,p.683.
32. Ibid.,pp.683-84.
33. Ibid.,pp.,701-2.
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid.
36. The Jaina Philosophy,pp.94-95.
37. Ibid.,p.108.
38. Houghton,p.166.
39. The Jaina Philosophy,pp.88-89.  See also,The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. From an ancient manuscript recently discovered in a Buddhist monastery in Thibet by Nicholos Notovitch. Translated  from the French and  edited with an introduction and illustrations by Virchand  R. Gandhi. Revised by Prof G. L. Christe of the University of Paris. Edited by Kumarpal Desai. Mumbai: World Jain Confederation,2009. P. 50.
40. Ibid.,p.254-55.
41. Ibid.,p.255.
42. Ibid.,pp.261-63.
43. Ibid.,p.96.
44. See for these lectures,  Virchand Gandhi, The Yoga Philosophy, Edited by Kumarpal  Desai. Mumbai: World  Jaina Confederation, 2009.
45. In a communication to Diwanji (November 1894), Swami Vivekananda wrote thus: ‘ Now here is Virchand Gandhi, the Jaina whom you well know in Bombay. This man never takes anything but pure vegetables even in this terribly cold climate and, tooth and nail, tries to defend his countrymen and religion. The people of this country like him very well, but what  are they doing who sent him over? They are trying to outcast him.’ The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. VIII, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1964, pp.328-329.    

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