Mahatma Gandhi, a world revered spiritual-political leader, is known to have positively influenced countless men and women around the globe. Yet, not many people know the key figure who influenced Gandhi in the most profound ways before he became known as ‘’Mahatma,” or Great soul (Maha: great, and atma: soul). If Mohandas Gandhi metamorphosed into Mahatma, who was the Mahatma-maker?
I found the subject so intriguing, that I submerged myself in an intensive-extensive research. The first, most dependable source for my research is, of course, Gandhi’s Autobiography,1 in which he says:
“I have…met the heads of various faiths, and I must say that no one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandbhai (also known as as Rajchandra) did. His words went straight home to me… His intellect compelled as great a regard from me as his moral earnestness, and deep down in me was the conviction that he would never lead me astray and would always confide to me his innermost thoughts. In my moments of spiritual crisis, therefore, he was my refuge.”
This powerful statement of Gandhi further piqued my interest. Now I was even more eager to know about this person who had won Gandhi’s heart, soul, his trust and respect; and why he placed Rajchandra above even Tolstoy and Ruskin as his foremost spiritual mentor!
What I uncovered, throws a new light on the Gandhi-Rajchandra relationship, and on the unique qualities of Raychandbhai that captivated Gandhi’s heart and soul. Here are my findings about the deep and subtle, all-pervasive influence of Rajchandra on Gandhi.
Their First Meeting
Gandhi return from London, England, via ship in 1891. On the very first day he landed in Bombay (now Mumbai), the twenty-two year-old Barrister-at-law—Mohandas Gandhi, was introduced to Shrimad (Honorable) Rajchandra or Raychandbhai — as a ‘kavi’ (poet). There was not much difference in age between the two; the kavi, born in 1867, was barely two years older than Gandhi, born in 1869. Yet at this point the poet was spiritually far more advanced thanGandhi, who was like a freshman in the school of religion — knowing little, but eager to learn. Before Gandhi would come to know the deeper, spiritual side of the poet, he was first exposed to the “glamorous” side of this multi-talented, multi-tasking man with phenomenal gifts of memory, clairvoyance, and the knowledge of his previous lives as well.
Rajchandra — The Many-faceted Diamond
Not yet twenty-five, Rajchandra, or the “diamond connoisseur,” as Gandhi called him, was a successful Jain ‘zaveri’ (diamond-jeweller), highly respected for his integrity. He had also earned name and fame as a “maha-jnani”(maha: great; jnani: the knower) with encyclopedic knowledge of all world-scriptures. Not only that, but Rajchandra was also a “shatavadhani,” meaning, one who can remember a hundred things at a time and reproduce them precisely in the same order as presented to him; the poet could also engage in many different activities simultaneously (e.g. counting money, playing cards, composing poems instantaneously) without ever failing. Because of performing such amazing feats of memory together with multitasking demonstrations, the poet had won many accolades, prizes and titles2 including even a gold medal!
Most awe-inspiring of all, however, was the sudden revelation to him at the tender age of only seven, of what is called in Jainism, the “jati-smarana- jnana” or “remembrance of his past lives!3 All these extraordinary events occurred during his early and mid-teen years, before Gandhi entered the picture, with one exception: Though Rajchandra had stopped giving public demonstrations of his retentive memory, out of courtesy to his newly arrived guest from London, he allowed the young barrister to test the power of his retentive memory.
The Memory Test
It is interesting to note that, while offering a word-memory test to Rajchandra, the western-educated, puffed up young barrister wanted to show off his own newly acquired knowledge of a few European words! As Gandhi narrated,4 “I exhausted my vocabulary of all the European tongues I knew, and asked the poet to repeat the words. He did so in the precise order in which I had given him. ”What Gandhi added next is even more revealing: “I envied his gift, without, however, coming under his spell,” and he continued, “I was impressed, but not inspired!”5 What will it take to cast its spell on Gandhi, will be discussed after this.
Rajchandra in a State of Divine Discontent
Somehow, the teenage prodigy was not satisfied by all these worldly gains of name, fame, money or power; that is why, at the zenith of his this-worldly achievements, Rajchandra decided to make a complete U-turn! Though still functioning in the world as a ‘samsari” or a householder, the poet was becoming more and more detached; he was fast advancing onto the path of deep self search, self perfection, self-denials and Self-realization. His ultimate goal was to renounce it all (like Buddha), to focus solely upon his spiritual sadhana for moksha (liberation). This was the state of divine discontent in which Gandhi found Rajchandra when he first met him.
What Cast A Spell on Gandhi
Though fascinated by these external, outstanding achievements of Rajchandra, Gandhi did not feel inspired until he came closer to know the realRajchandra—the ‘mumukshu’— a serious spiritual seeker yearning to see God face to face; he now sought moksha or freedom from all worldly passions, possessions, attractions and aversions. Gandhi felt deeply connected to the God-hungry Rajchandra whose life was nothing but God-centered! In his Autobiography, Gandhis spells out his utter admiration for the poet :
“The thing that cast its spell over me … was his wide knowledge of the scriptures, his spotless character, and his burning passion for self-realization.”
Upon Closer Contact with Rajchandra
In the following months, Gandhi had ample opportunity to spend more quality time with the kavi. Gandhi observed Rajchandra closely in each one of his roles, watched his every move, and studied every detail of his life minutely. As Gandhi listened to the poet’s discourses, questioned him, and engaged in deep philosophical-spiritual conversations with him, he said that his attraction to him grew a thousandfold. Gandhi felt such a deep, heart to heart and soul-to-soul connection with Rajchandra that he came to respect and trust him completely. He even aspired to be like this spiritual gem, who in the midst of ‘samsara’ (world), remained “jala-kamala-vat” (jala: water; kamala: lotus, and vat: like) or as “unattached as a lotus floating on the surface of water!” Rajchandra, a ‘spiritual role-model’ for Gandhi, was a living example of a man who combined in him unadulterated spirituality and practical wisdom as well!
The life of Rajchandra was like an open book, his heart was so soft, it melted with love and compassion for all including friend or foe. Day and night, his mind remained absorbed in God — whether he was sitting or walking, eating or teaching, working in his shop or resting. There was only one goal in his life: to realize his true Self and to acquire moksha or liberation from the rounds of life and death, and to be free from all kinds of worldly passions, distractions, attractions and aversions! What inspired Gandhi most about the kavi was that despite his “burning passion for Self-realization,” he never neglected his ‘samsaric dharma’ — his day-to-day worldly duties related to business, family, and community. He performed them all perfectly yet dispassionately, with patience, precision, proficiency and equanimity!6 “With his mind always wrapt in JOY,” Rajchandra saw no difference at all between mundane and spiritual, between secular or sacred. Under all vicissitudes of life, his mind remained calm, unperturbed, in a serene state of unbroken inward bliss. He practiced what he preached.
A Pen-picture of Rajchandra by Gandhi
First, the physical description of Rajchandra in Gandhi’s own words:
“He accepted whatever he was served at meals. His dress was simple, a dhoti and shirt, an angarkhun (over-garment) and a turban of mixed silk and cotton yarn….. He used to walk slowly, and… was absorbed in thought even while walking. There was a strange power in his eyes; they were extremely bright and free from any sign of impatience or anxiety. They bespoke single-minded attention. The face was round, the lips thin, the nose neither pointed nor flat and the body of light build and medium height. The skin was dark. He looked an embodiment of peace. There was such a sweetness in his voice that one simply wanted to go on listening to him. His face was smiling and cheerful; it shone with the light of inner joy. He had such command of language that I do not remember his ever pausing for a word to express his thoughts.”7
Gandhi further comments here on some of the rare qualities of Rajchandra:
“These qualities can exist only in a man of self-control. A man cannot become free from attachments by making a show of being so. That state is a state of grace for the atman,… and it may be won only after a ceaseless effort through many lives... the Poet made me feel that that this state of freedom from attachment was spontaneous to him”8
Although Gandhi first said that “this state of freedom from attachment was spontaneous to him,” he added right after, that it could not have been possible without “ceaseless effort” and the “grace of the atman.” Gandhi further observes, that in order to have such freedom from attachment, one must have a “yearning for moksha.” The converse is also true, as he says further that, “without genuine vairagyain the mind (mental renunciation), one cannot be possessed with a yearning for moksha. The poet was possessed by such yearning. “Therefore,” according to Gandhi, “the first step towards moksha is freedom from attachment.”9
The Gandhi-Rajchandra Relationship
What Shri Krishna was to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Rajchandra was to Gandhi — a trusted friend, a ‘soulmate,’ and a spiritual mentor-adviser-teacher as well! In his book of the same title, Thomas Moore10 defines a ‘soulmate’ as “a relationship between ‘two temperamentally well-suited individuals who have a strong affinity with each other, often at a deep spiritual and intellectual level.’”
“Spiritual yearning” bound them together, as if by some inscrutable divine plan! If Gandhi was drawn to Rajchandra as naturally as iron to magnet, Rajchandra too, was equally happy and grateful to find someone his own age, who was genuinely interested in “the nature of the soul” and “subjects of the spirit.” In one of his early letters to Gandhi, Rajchandra writes:
“It is very gratifying for me indeed to find that that you feel inclined to let your thoughts dwell on the nature of the soul to whatever extent you can,… that you are inclined to turn your steps to the path of enlightenment…and it is this prospect that pleases me so much, that’s all.”11
In yet another letter, Rajchandra addresses Gandhi as a “gunagrahi” (guna: virtue, and grahi: one who grasps or appreciates). Not only were Rajchandra and Gandhi ‘soulmates,’ the former was also the first teacher/mentor to detect Gandhi’s innate, but yet untapped spiritual potentiality to become a ‘Mahatma’! As Erik Erikson astutely observes,12 Rajchandra was the “first spiritual anchor of young Gandhi’s religious imagination during the very period of his life when he felt most lost” (during his South-African years, to be discussed later). If Rajchandra was the first mentor to detect the hidden spring of spirituality within Gandhi’s soul, Gandhi too felt rejuvenated by a new sense of self-awakening! Erikson continues,13
“No doubt young Gandhi recognized in the twenty-five-year-old friend something of his own essence… He found in this friendship the first affirmation of his yet deeply articulate ethical direction…”
It was through Rajchandra that Gandhi was unearthing his true self — his inherent divinity! The seasoned spiritual sadhak or seeker — was opening up to Gandhi a whole new world of the inner possibilities of ‘atman’ or the soul; he was showing to Gandhi what infinite powers lay within the human soul, especially when touched by the divine! Perhaps the most powerful practical lesson that Shrimad taught Gandhi by his own life example was that spirituality cannot be divorced from the demands and responsibilities of everyday life, that the proof of the spiritual pudding is in whether it holds life together as a whole or crumbles under its daily pressures!
Rajchandra: A Businessman of Rare Integrity
Not only was Rajchandra a successful diamond-jeweller, he also earned respect and reputation for his rare business integrity. As per Gandhi’s Autobiography,14 Rajchandra was a “connoisseur of diamonds and pearls,” whose “commercial transactions covered hundreds of thousands.” The young barrister used to visit his shop quite often, where he saw the kavi treating his co-workers with utmost respect, and his customers with total honesty, compassion and kindness. Gandhi narrated one incident in which a customer, who had previously sold his jewellery to Rajchandra at the then currency rate, brought it back, saying, that his older brother was very upset with him for selling it so cheap, because the current market price of the same had doubled! Without any hesitation or argument, Rajchandra not only returned the money, but in full sympathy, he cancelled the whole deal, saying, “I drink milk, not suck the blood of my customers.”15 To him, business was for making a living only, it was not his whole life.
Here was a happy union of business acumen and ethical-spiritual integrity. More than impressed, Gandhi was inspired by the kavi’s calm and unperturbed nature attuned to God; to him, Rajchandra exemplified the Bhagavad Gita-ideal of a “sthitaprajna”16 (sthita: poised, and prajna: wisdom) — or a wise man of equipoise. Gandhi noticed that the moment Rajchandra finished his business, he turned to read some religious book or jot down some ideas in his diary which he kept on his desk. In his Autobiography,17 Gandhi explains why he felt so awe-inspired by this “man, who, immediately on finishing his talk about weighty business transactions, began to write about the hidden things of the spirit!” Now Gandhi was convinced, “he could evidently not be a businessman at all, but a real seeker after Truth.” Seeing Rajchandra so seriously absorbed in Godly pursuits in the midst of business, Gandhi learned his first important lesson that business and spiritual sadhana are not incompatible, that truthfulness, honesty, and compassion are integral parts of any business. Later, in South Africa, Gandhi himself would put this principle into practice twice: first, while dealing with his legal clients,18 he said, “I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder …I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul;” and second, when he exhorted Indian businessmen in Pretoria, about the importance of truth and honesty in business.
Rajchandra on Marriage and Worldly Happiness
Married to Zabakbai at the age of twenty, Rajchandra writes in “Mokshamala,”19
“Though I am happy as a householder compared with others, the worldly happiness is to be suffered and not to be enjoyed.”
In “My Thoughts on Woman,” Rajchandra writes to a friend after one year of his marriage,
“Unqualified and unrestricted happiness lies in the pure knowledge of the Self and never in worldly enjoyments of married life. Bodily happiness is only a shadow of the real happiness. Besides, enjoyments of the body are short-lived … One should pray for the complete freedom from all desires concerning the bodily and sense-pleasures.”
Regarding his personal marital happiness, Rajchandra frankly confides to a friend,
“Within these two years I have come to know my wife’s mind and I can say that none of us is dissatisfied with the other. Nor can I say that it is absolutely satisfactory.Our relations are common and normal.And this is due to my indifference. While thinking of high metaphysical thoughts I get strong suggestions for renouncing the householder’s order…”20
If, as Rajchandra says, he was “indifferent” in his marriage and thought more and more of “renouncing the householder’s order,” then why did he opt for marriage in the first place? As he explains, his act of “getting married was not an act of volition, it was rather, the “fruit of his previous actions.” He also clarifies that though he leads a married life, he maintains “equanimity — neither attachment nor non-attachment.” To another question as to why he had deliberately chosen to remain a householder, here is his answer in his own words:
“I have renounced much of my burden of worldly life… At present I have deliberately chosen to remain as a householder in order that I can guide the householders in the path of religious practice better than Sanyasis or Yatis can do... A householder can easily advise another householder and guide his behavior by his example and practice. I want to be a forest recluse after entrusting the care.”21
As a principle, however, Rajchandra says, “complete renunciation from the householder’s order is necessary for lasting happiness.” He was moving faster and faster in the direction of complete renunciation and moksha, but unfortunately, his life was cut short too early, at the age of 33 only!
Rajchandra on Women’s Education
Rajchandra was strongly in favor of giving women not just formal school education, but also the kind of moral, ethical and spiritual knowledge that helps them become well-informed as well as virtuous and contributing members of the human society. In addition to several articles, Rajchandra wrote two books in Gujarati: one titled, “Stri Niti Bodhaka” (written before age 16) meaning “Book of Moral-Ethical-spiritual Education for Women” in which, he instructed them about how to live a virtuous life by cultivating higher spiritual goals, by not wasting time in gossiping or in running after material/physical pleasures. He suggested they should always be happy seeking satsanga: company of the good and the virtuous. His other book “Subodh Sangraha,” was a collection of didactic poems that promoted women’s moral education, and their living a pure, virtuous, devotional life. He also advised them to actively participate in the national freedom movement, which gives a preview of the later Gandhian satyagraha movement in which women took a leadership role; this shows the reformist side of Rajchandra!
Rajchandra became a role model for Gandhi in regarding women neither as sex-objects, nor as an impediment to a higher spiritual sadhana. Both opposed child- marriages, ill-fitted marriages, and other social discriminations against women. Both emphasized women’s enormous “shakti” or “power”— their intrinsic moral and spiritual potential for forbearance and forgiveness, their ability to suffer but not yield to any injustice.
Rajchandra on Religion
Rajchandra vehemently opposed ‘what passes under the name of religion’:
“I am against religious narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, sectarianism, and…‘senseless squabbles’ both inter-religious and intra-religious, regarding which sect has the only or complete version of truth and which does not, or which form of worship is right or wrong.”22
He passionately speaks here about what religion does not mean to him:
Religion does not mean dogma or belief-systems; it’s not an external mark a person wears on his or her body, the books one reads, or how many times one frequents this or that temple, observes religious vratas (vows), fasts and other austerities.”23
Gandhi said, “he repeatedly told me that “the various religions are prisons in which men are prisoners. Whoever wants liberation should jump out of them and should not bear any religious mark on the body.”24 From Rajchandra, Gandhi learned how to be respectful to different religious perspectives without hating the people who differ from your views.
Gandhi felt truly inspired by Rajchandra, who said,
“Religion is not an ‘ism.’25 It is not merely intellectual knowledge or belief in any set of doctrines. It is an innate attribute of the soul. It is that which enables us to define our duties in life as a human being, and establish correct relationship with our fellows… It is the common heritage of mankind.”
Since Rajchandra condemned hypocrisy, religious intolerance and outward show, he focused solely on internal spiritual sadhana, and liberation of the soul from all worldly attachments and passions. Gandhi absorbed his mentor’s open-minded attitude to religion and would later demonstrate the same inclusive, reconciliatory approach to all warring religions. His “sarva-dharma-samabhava” stance of “equal respect for all religions” and his acceptance of different religious/political perspectives were a direct influence of his spiritual mentor’s ideas. Acknowledging his indebtedness to the kavi, Gandhis said, “I have drunk to my heart’s content the nectar of religion that was offered to me by Shri Raychandbhai.”26
— To be concluded in our next issue (American Vedantist #72)
Uma Majmudar, a member of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, is the author of Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. She has taught courses in religion and philosophy at Emory University and is currently leading classes on the Bhagavad Gita at Spellman College. Uma can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Public Affairs Press; 1948,113)
2. Rajchandra was awarded the highest title of “Hindno Heero” (in his native Gujarati language) or “The Diamond of India.” He was invited by a London professor to present his memory shows over there, but he declined.
3. As the story goes, once, when the little boy Rajchandra witnessed a cremation ceremony of someone very dear to him who had died suddenly, so he was acutely grief-stricken. But then he fell into a deep samadhi-like contemplation in which, he could vividly see all the past lives of the deceased as well as his own; now that he understood the spiritual continuity of life, he felt the futility of mourning the death.
4. Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Public Affairs Press; 1948,112).
6. In the second chapter, verse 48, of the Bhagawad Gita, Shri Krishna advises Arjuna to perform all actions with “samatva” because “samatvam yoga ucchyate,” meaning, “performing action with equilibrium and without attachment is called yoga.” Also, in the same chapter, verse 50, Krishna says, “yogaha karmasu kaushalam,” or “yoga is “skill in action.”
7. Excerpts from Gandhi’s article on “vairagya”, Shrimad Rajchandra, p. 146.
10. Thomas Moore, Soulmates: Honoring Mysteries of Love and Relationship (Harper Perennial, 1994, p. 8)
11. Quoted in Digish Mehta, Shrimad Rajchandra—A Life, p. 80 (Shrimad Rajchandra Ashram, Agas, India).
12. Erik Erikson (1969, p. 158).
13. Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth, p. 162.
14. Gandhi’s Autobiography, p. 112.
15. From Rajchandra’s masterpiece book Atma-siddhi, translated from Gujarati into English as In Search of the Soul, by Chandrikaben.
16. The Bhagawad Gita, Chapter 2, verses 54 to 72.
17. Gandhi’s Autobiography, p. 113
19. “Mokshamala,” written in Gujarati by Shrimad Rajchandra at the age of 16, is a string of poems that explicates Bhagwan Mahavir’s lessons on religion. “Compassion,” he says, is the core of all religions and therefore, there is no religion higher or greater than compassion towards all—living or nonliving beings.
22. From “Shrimad Rajchandra and Mahatma Gandhi” – www.jainbelief.com/shrimad/gandhi.htm, p. 6.
24. From “Mahatma Gandhi and Shrimad Rajchandra”—translation from the original Gujarati (samvat, 2005), by Gujarati Indian calendar.
25. Ibid, p. 65.
26. Ibid, reference 27.