Swami Atma Ramji Maharaj

Posted: 24.11.2010

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The following biographical essay was published in The Jaina Gazette Vol. XXXII, No. 12 (December 1935), pp. 454-459. It is not only the describing of the life and achievements of a scholarly Acharya and social reformer but also an illustration of the situation of Jainism at the end of 19th century.


Jain Acharya Shrimad Vijaya Anand Suri

Swami Atma Ramji Maharaj

India, in the nineteenth century, produced a galaxy of eminent reformers who devoted their lives to the amelioration of the society and propagation of ancient religions. The great Jain Acharya Shrimad Vijaya Anand Suri, popularly known as Swami Atma Ram ji Maharaj, occupied a prominent place in the galaxy and will even shine as a unique figure of the age for the meritorious services rendered by him.

At the time of his birth, the country was passing through a political upheaval and the consequential social, religious and economic revolution. What Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Dayananda Saraswati did for the Vedic religion in those epoch making days, Swami Atma Ram ji accomplished for the decaying Jain community with his consummate ability, strength of character and matchless sacrifice. His endeavours led to the resuscitation of Jain religion, art and literature about which very little was known to the world at that time.

The great Jain Acharya appeared at an opportune time when Jainism was being vigorously assailed at home and abroad. Religious bigots actuated by missionary zeal malignantly attacked the Jain faith and belittled its philosophy. They distorted certain passages from the scriptures and by divorcing them from the context misinterpreted them according to their own flimsy notions. Some of the ill-informed western scholars adversely criticised Jainism which they would have never done if adequate materials had been placed in their hands. In the name of oriental research, they gave currency to untenable theories which misled the people by clouding truth. In spite of wealth and influence, the Jain community was most illiterate and least progressive. The people had fallen prey to numerous social evils forgetting the fundamental principles of Jainism. The vast literary treasures of illustrious Acharyas were locked in underground Bhandars, where even the light of the sun could not penetrate. The powerful order of monks had degenerated and corruption crept in all spheres of life. The condition in the Punjab was the worst The Jains were despised as a community on account of prejudices against them. Many an Oswal and Aggarwal had renounced the ancestral faith and embraced Sikhism, Arya Samaj and other religions. The Jains were deemed to be a sect having no literature, no philosophy of their own and were dubbed as heretics, dissenters, rebels of Brahmanism or a mere offshoot of Buddhism.

The foremost service rendered by Swami Atma Ram ji was to awaken the slumbering Jains to their sense of duty and to infuse in them a spirit to study Jainism, to become true Shravaks and dispel false ideas set afloat by the opponents. To achieve this object, he wrote a score of useful books. His Jain Tattva-darsha, Ajnana Timira Bhaskara, and Tattva Nirnaya Prāsād are voluminous works evidencing his vast range of knowledge of Jain and non-Jain scriptures. The austere majesty of his style and the forceful presentation of facts created a stir. As an erudite scholar, he was a fluent and impressive lecturer. His suffering in the cause of truth, his patience and perseverance, his straightforwardness, his nobility of character and indomitable will induced the people to follow him. He was a prophetic seer and fully realised the needs of the community under changed times. Like an expert physician, he carefully diagnosed the diseased community. He not only prescribed medicine but also administered it to the ailing patient. Utter illiteracy was the root cause of their downfall in the scale of nations. He insisted for the establishment of schools for the education of males and females. He advocated free and compulsory education along right lines under qualified teachers and declared it as essential for self realisation. Throughout his life, he endeavoured day and night to eradicate vices and inculcate virtues in the Jain community. To fulfil the mission of his life, he travelled on foot the whole of the Punjab, Marwar, Mewar, Kathiawar and Gujarat provinces. He was burning with enthusiasm to diffuse the knowledge of Jainism to mankind and restore its pristine glory in the world. He repelled all attacks against Jainism and by refuting the arguments of opponents established the independent existence and antiquity of the religion. He censured the loose discipline of the monks which caused their fall from the high pedestal and deprecated their passivity. He spurred them to action for the service of the Shasan and not to waste their precious lives by idling away the time in upāsarās. A new life was created in the community by his example and precept.

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Frontispiece of the op. cit. volume of The Jaina Gazette. The photo pictures Swami Atma Ramji Maharaj sitting in front of a sthapana, representing the spiritual presence of his teacher.

Another important service rendered by Swami Atma Ram Ji to the literary world is the throwing open of the doom of precious Bhandars of the Swetambar Jains of Gujrat and Rajputana. The custodians were reluctant to display the Bhandars which were hidden under ground for fear of the fanatic Muhammadan rulers who had in the past burnt to ashes countless Jain libraries. Although the times had changed, the ignorant Jains were apprehensive of the westerners engaged in valuable research work. It was through the influence and magnetic personality of the Acharya that the sacred literature was rescued from damp and dingcellars where it was being destroyed by worms. Under his instructions, lists were prepared, bindings repaired and rare manuscripts preserved for posterity. Associations were formed for the protection, publication and propagation of the sacred literature. His love for scholars was as deep and true as it was transparent. He invited them to study ancient literature and dive deep in the ocean of Jain learning to find out rare pearls of thought. He called upon orientalists to carefully edit Jain scriptures, to understand and interpret them correctly. He offered them his ready hand of assistance and threw light on several obscure points relating to the scriptures and antiquity of Jainism. Dr Rudolf Hoernle, an eminent orientalist, was in constant correspondence with him for the elucidation of certain difficult texts and expressed his hearty thanks for the full and prompt replies. He was enamoured of the Acharya so much that he composed verses in Sanskrit eulogising the scholarship and personality of Swami Atma Ram ji.

What Islam could not attain by sword, Christianity seemed to achieve by pen. The iconoclastic Muhammadan kings demolished temples and used ruthless force to exterminate idol worship. But the people stuck to their time honoured method of worship in spite of rigorous persecutions. The Christian missionaries proved more powerful in influencing the minds of educated persons. They attacked the heathen and ridiculed idol worship through press and platform. They succeeded in winning over to their side some of the Indian reformers who joined them in preaching against the ideal Murti Puja. The first glow of Western civilisation dazzled the eyes of young educated Indians and created in their mind hatred for their own institutions. Swami Atma Ram ji strongly repelled the tile of Christianity by his forceful criticism and emphasised the importance and necessity of idol worship as a help for concentration of mind and self realisation. The human frame of mind cannot dispense with images. He maintained that idol worship in one form or the other shall exist in all ages and among all peoples from the savage to the most civilised. If it is discarded temporarily it appears in a different form. He urged the removal of superstitions which had grown up in connection with Murti Puja, but regarded the abolition of the institution as suicidal. The Jains in the Punjab had left Murti Puja altogether. Through his incessant preaching several magnificent temples were erected in the province and some of the finest temples of India repaired. Swami Atma Ram ji will be remembered as a staunch protagonist of Murti Puja who saved the institution from the peril of Christianity and misled Indian antagonists.

Swami Atma Ram ji worked hard to purge the Jain society of several conceptions. He introduced important changes in the order of monks to ensure disciplinary conduct as laid down by Lord Mahavira. He rebuked them for indolence and urged them to acquire knowledge and be active like soldiers for the dissemination of Truth and Ahimsa. He purified and strengthened the Order considerably. Under Brahmanic influence, the Jain community had taken to several non-Jain practices. He denounced the performance of shradh ceremony as against the tenets of Jainism and exhorted the Jains to renounce Brahmanic ritualism. He raised his voice against social abuses and arranged representative conferences for effecting reforms. He was a breaker of traditions and smashed conservative ideas. He was an advocate of reason and urged the people not to follow anyone blindly. As social rules and conventions are man made, they must change according to the requirement of times. The social organism is a dynamic force undergoing constant changes. A progressive society must adjust itself to the advancing spirit of time for the good of its members. A storm of opposition was raised against his innovations, but it gradually subsided in the face of his unflinching determination. Virchand Raghva Gandhi would not have represented Jainism in the world congress of Religions held at Chicago (USA) and carried the message of Jainism to America and Europe, but for the liberal views and full support of Swami Atma Ram ji. He not only permitted Virchand Raghva Gandhi to proceed to America, he authorised him to represent the Acharya in the great Congress and gave him instructions for preaching in the West. He broke the fetters of conventional rules.

A priest of amiable disposition, it was a sincere desire of Swami Atma Ram ji to cultivate the true spirit of fraternity between the East and the West. He strongly pleaded for peace, goodwill and fellowship of various religions and communities. He exhorted the warring subsects of Jains to sink their petty differences and unite for the common good of society. He was pained to notice the exclusiveness of Oswals, Aggarwals, Khandelwals and so many other subsections constituting the Jain community. Although they were united by the ties of brotherhood, they were averse to intermarrying. The relations had become very strained. Swami Atma Ram ji was the connecting link between them and taking full advantage of his position he emphasised the desirability of their interdining and intermarriage. At several places, he succeeded in restoring cordial relations. In fact, the services rendered by the Acharya are great and glorious.

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The Jaina Gazette

Compiled by PK

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