The day Gandhi met his ‘spiritual refuge’ Raychandbhai
Gandhi credited three modern things which left a deep impression on his life. It included Raychandbhai, whom he called his spiritual refuge, Tolstoy’s book, ‘The Kingdom of God is Within’ and Ruskin’s book ‘Unto this Last’.
July 6, 1891 was an important day in the Indian national movement. It was the day when the conscience keeper, or the Mahatma of India, first met his spiritual mentor. Faced with a phase of ‘spiritual crisis’, and in a state of dilemma, Mahatma Gandhi met Shrimad Rajchandra on this day upon his return from England. The Father of the Nation called him Raychandbhai.
Gandhi wrote in his autobiography 'The Story Of My Experiments With Truth' that he credited three modern things which left a deep impression on his life. It includes Raychandbhai, whom he calls his spiritual refuge, Tolstoy’s book, ‘The Kingdom of God is Within’ and Ruskin’s book ‘Unto this Last’.
Raychandbhai, whose followers later set up the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission to keep his teachings intact, is little known outside of Gujarat but the role of this great man in shaping the religious outlook of Gandhi is undisputed.
Gandhi met him after a tedious sea journey, and at a time when the news of his mother’s passing was broken to him upon his arrival in India by his family members. It was a time after he was repeatedly persuaded by his Muslim and Christian friends in South Africa to convert to their faiths. That was the time when Gandhi met Raychandbhai, a jeweller and diamond merchant in Bombay. He was also a poet and philosopher. Some called him a Gujarati mystic. He was less than 25 years old when Gandhi was introduced to him.
“He was a connoisseur of pearls and diamonds. No knotty business problem was too difficult for him. But all these things were not the centre round which his life revolved. That centre was the passion to see God face to face,” writes Gandhi about Raychandbhai.
“I have since met many a religious leader or teacher. I have tried to meet the heads of various faiths, and I must say that no one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandbhai did. His words went straight home to me. In my moments of spiritual crisis, therefore, he was my refuge. Though I could not place Raychandbhai on the throne of my heart as Guru, he was, on many occasions, my guide and helper,” Gandhi writes in his autobiography.
After his face to face meeting, he also sent his ‘spiritual mentor’ questions, and Gandhi mentions that all the answers arrived promptly in a letter which helped him “resolve his doubts, and restore his faith in Hinduism.”
“He was also known as a Shatavadhani (one having the faculty of remembering or attending to a hundred things simultaneously).... 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 them. I envied his gift without, however, coming under its spell. The thing that did cast its spell over me I came to know afterwards. This was his wide knowledge of the scriptures, his spotless character, and his burning passion for self-realisation. I saw later that this last was the only thing for which he lived,” writes Gandhi.
Gandhi admired Raychandbhai for his renunciation. He taught Gandhi that it was the only way a man could live. Raychandbhai, who was a follower of the Jain religion, helped Gandhi to restore his faith in Hinduism, and to seek answers to the questions that he had been struggling with since his childhood. Gandhi realised that the idea of “religion which underlies all religions, which brings us face to face with our Maker” is “the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself” has its source in Raychandbhai.
India honoured Gandhi’s spiritual guide by releasing a commemorative stamp on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary in 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Raychandbhai the same year in his Independence Day speech, referring to him as a “mystic-poet.”
(The writer is a researcher in Gandhian studies based in Delhi.)