By Brigadier Chitranjan Sawant,VSM
The Convocation Ceremony was the crowning achievement of the first ever experiment done in imparting education through an ancient system in modern times.. Only a man of patience and perseverance, grit and determination of a high caliber could have done it. And he did it. He was Mahatma Munshi Ram. Later in life, on entering the Sanyas Ashram or the fourth stage of life in the Varnashram dharma, he renamed himself in the ascetic tradition as Swami Shraddhanand Saraswati.. Indeed that name motivated millions of men and women to join the struggle for independence of India from the British yoke. His towering image, both moral and physical, moved the masses. The masses comprised all classes and votaries of all castes and creeds, regions and religions. This mahatma was the magic man, although he himself believed in no magic like his main mentor and spiritual Guru, Maharshi Swami Dayanand Saraswati – the Renaissance Rishi..
Born on February 22, 1856 ( As per the traditional Hindu calendar the date of birth was : Phalgun krishna trayodashi,Samvat 1913 Vikrami) at village Talwan in Jalandhar district of the Punjab province, he was named as Brihaspati and Munshiram. The latter was easier to pronounce and became popular. His father, Lala Nanak Chand, was a police officer in the East India Company administered United Provinces. The young boy, a pampered child, moved from place to place on his dad’s transfers and was bereft of formal education in the formative years of life. Nonetheless, he learnt a lot in the school of life and, therefore, developed a pragmatic approach to life’s problems and their solutions. It indeed held him in good stead in later life when the going was tough. 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.
Munshiram gave the credit to Swami Dayanand Saraswati for putting him back on the rails. Munshiram was a young boy when Swami Dayanand Saraswati had visited Benares,now Varanasi, for the historic Shastrarth or learned disputation with the traditional pundits. A rumour floated on the waves of the sacred Ganges and its ghats that a magician sadhu was out in the streets at night, holding a mashal or an oil torch in one hand and a book in the other, to carry away youngsters. It was an anti-publicity done by the enemies of the great Swami who had won the intellectual and religious bouts against traditionalists mired in mirages of superstitions. The mashal in his hand was the torch of knowledge and the book was the Vedas, the divine revelation of mantras at the beginning of the Creation. Munshiram missed meeting the great reformer because his father did not want such a meeting to take place. Many years later, the same father encouraged his wayward son in Bareilley to meet the same sanyasi for a mental and spiritual cleansing. That was indeed a turning point in the life of Munshiram. After a long intellectual discourse with Swami Dayanand Saraswati there was a gradual change of heart in Munshiram. 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.
Lahore, the then capital of the undivided Punjab, and Jalandhar were the main places of action in initial years of a reformed Munshiram. He became a successful lawyer and earned name and fame. He was quite active in the Arya Samaj circles and took the Reformation movement seriously. He promoted movement of education of girls in the right earnest. As a matter of fact, when he saw his own daughter, Ved Kumari, coming under the influence of Christianity while studying in a Christian Mission run school, he made up his mind to wean away children of his compatriots from the external influence by providing them good education in schools run by the Arya Samaj. Like-minded Indians came forward to support him and the educational mission was a roaring success .He had, however, miles to go on this road of education. He had a vision. Educate young Indians in the Indian educational institutions run on the ancient Vedic system. The Gurukul system of education was the new mission of Munshiram.
History too had a major role to play therein. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who had founded the Arya Samaj in 1875 in Bombay, breathed his last in 1883 in Ajmer,Rajputana. The Aryas of Punjab decided to commemorate his singular contribution to the new Awakening in India by opening a chain of schools and colleges which would make our young men and women proud of their Vedic Dharm, their culture and traditions and their country. The Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School was founded in 1886 in Lahore. A young Arya Samajist graduate, Lala Hansraj, volunteered to work as its Headmaster without charging a single Rupee as a salary. All Aryas worked for the new venture whole heartedly. However, some of them like Lala Munshiram and Pundit Gurudatt felt that in the DAV School, the Anglo element was dominating the Vedic element. The new educational venture was far away from realizing the dreams of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. The Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, Punjab went with them. It was decided in Lahore to launch a scheme for the Gurukul system of education. Munshiram spearheaded the movement.
Money, money, money. That was both the problem and the solution. A sum of Rs 30,000 was required to launch the project. Who would collect this princely sum ? In the closing years of the 19th century, it was a major amount for men and women of limited means. The new Aryas were mostly middle class men and women in service of the government or other bodies and could not afford to donate a large sum, notwithstanding their wish to do so. Munshiram Ji took it upon himself to go round and achieve the seemingly unachievable. On return from Lahore, he stayed put in the waiting room of the Jalandhar railway station and made up his mind not to cross the threshold of his house until the mission of collecting the amount was completed. Indeed, a man of firm determination he was. A fine example he was for young men and women of today to emulate. Munshiram’s mission was a success. He succeeded in collecting a sum of Rupees 40,000.00 in eight months.
The dream came true. The Gurukul was officially inaugurated on 16 May 1900 at Gujaranwala in the West Punjab, now in Pakistan. 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. In the initial years it was the personal care and attention of Mahatma Munshiram that overcame the teething troubles. He had around him a devoted group of teachers and the taught. Their missionary zeal to make the novel project a success was of immense help when the infant Gurukul moved from Gujranwala in the Punjab to Kangri- Haridwar in the United Provinces. In the midst of dense jungles, on the banks of the Ganga river it was indeed an idyllic surrounding that any Rishi-Muni running an Ashram would fall for. Of course, it had its hazards too like the wild animals, rigours of terrain and a near absence of hospital facility. However, the devoted and dedicated students and teachers under the inspiring leadership of their Acharya, Mahatma Munshiram weathered it all beautifully well. Hunger, sickness and privations of sorts were rendered into meaningless words and phrases that existed in the dictionary of doubting Thomases sitting in the cosy comfort of their homes in Lahore. The jungles of Kangri and the Ganga of Haridwar gave the Brahmacharis a soothing comfort that the Devtas dream of.
Over a period of time the Gurukul became the proud alma mater of many men who made a mark on the national scene as patriots, journalists, teachers and writers. Each one of them had nothing but admiration for the mahatma who steered the ship for more than 17 years at a stretch. His was leadership of the highest caliber that a general of the army would wish for both in peace and war. In running the show there were problems galore. The Mahatma knew it well where the solutions lay and he lost no time in finding them. The financial help in cash and kind came flowing in. The annual function of the Gurukul held on 13 April, that is the Baisakhi day, drew in men and women from all walks of life and from all regions where the word Gurukul was heard and understood. Besides the parents and guardians who came to have a reunion with their sons and wards, there were writers, pressmen and booksellers too, not forgetting the detractors of the Mahatma who excelled in finding faults where none existed. Those who came to scoff remained to pray with the Mahatma.
Mahatma Munshiram made a debut in the world of journalism with his writings in Urdu and Hindi on both religious and social subjects. He wrote a large number of tracts too. 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. It would be relevant to mention that the mahatma never followed a populist policy and always chose to call a spade a spade. He stuck to Truth, come rain come shine.
Mahatma Munshiram entered the Sanyas ashram of his own volition. It was the call of his conscience. In his life span of three scores and ten, half of which he lived as a widower after the untimely demise of his devoted wife, Shrimati Shiv Devi, he wore ochre clothes of an ascetic and lived like one for nine years or so. He owned no property and coveted not for loaves and fishes of any office, high or low. However, the cause of upliftment of the downtrodden and the Shuddhi movement, that is , 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. More of that a little later. He founded many institutions and established Arya Samajes for the upliftment of the have-nots and the downtrodden. He was pragmatic in his approach and lamented that many political persons paid lip service to upliftment of the so-called Untouchables.
Mahatma Munshiram dabbled with the politics of the country and the Indian National Congress for a brief while.
It was for the noble cause of India’s independence. He surmised that it was the duty of every Indian to free the motherland from the British rule. It was this mission that saw him leading processions in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area against the oppressive Rowlatt Act. In 1919 the Mahatma emerged as an intrepid leader of the masses. His undaunting behaviour and reaction to the menacing soldiers of the Raj when he bared his chest inviting the soldiers to fire on him first made him a darling of the masses, both Hindus and Muslims. He went around addressing groups of people and preached peace in that surcharged atmosphere. His son, Indra, was by his side and has recorded those memorable events in his short biography of the mahatma entitled “Mere Pita”(My Father). The scenes were breath-taking.
4 April 1919. Jama Masjid, Delhi. A huge congregation of Muslims had gathered to mourn the dead and provide succor to the living patriots who were protesting against oppressive policies of the British rulers. On the pulpit of the mosque stood an Arya sanyasi in ochre clothes. He had been invited by the Muslim leaders to encourage them in their mission of freedom. The Sanyasi recited a Ved mantra invoking blessings of the Almighty and praying for success of the just struggle. The Rigved mantra ran thus : AUM tvam hi nah pita vaso tvam mata shatkrato babhuvith.
The address to the congregation ended with the words, AUM SHANTIH SHANTIH SHANTIH. The congregation responded with the word AAMEEN. It was a perfect scene of unity of purpose and amity among major sections of the Indian society. How sad that it was so short lived. Who knew that the Mahatma leading the Muslims would become a martyr at their hands.
The scene changes. 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 fiold of their forefathers.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. They turned intolerant. One Asghari Begum of Sind, along with her children and relatives, requested Swami Ji to convert them to the Vedic Dharm.Swami ji accepted her request and admitted her along with others to the Vedic fold in March 1926. She was renamed Shanti Devi. The Muslim ex-husband of Shanti Devi fought a legal battle to take her away to reconvert to their fold but lost. The great Swami, his son, Indra and son-in-law, Sukh Deo were all acquitted of charges of abduction and conspiracy. It added fuel to the fire. The social situation was volatile.
The Urdu newspapers of Muslims fanned the fire by their biased writings. Gandhiji did little to bring in peace. His anti-shuddhi statements only aggravated the animosity. Even the Muslim leaders of the top echelon of the Congress party like Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali made statements which were more of a hindrance than a help in bringing the two communities together. It was rather strange that the Muslims wanted to have unfettered rights to convert others to their creed but denied the same right to others to convert Muslims to the Vedic Dharm or any other faith. In their myopic policy of appeasement of Muslims the leadership of the Congress party failed to appreciate its adverse effect on the freedom movement. Swami Shraddhanand realized the gravity of this fallacious policy and distanced himself from it. The Vedic Dharm was as dear to the swami as appeasement of the minorities was to Gandhi and Nehru family.
Swami Shraddhanand was at his Naya Bazar (now Shraddhanand Bazar) residence in Delhi on 23 December 1926. He was convalescing after an attack of bronchial pneumonia. Moreover after an exhaustive and successful election tour in support of G D Birla, he felt a little drained out. At 4 PM came a man of Islamic background to discuss some religious matters with the Swami. The attendant, Dharmsingh, admitted him with great reluctance. The man, blinded by Islamic fanaticism, whipped out a revolver, when the attendant was away to fetch a glass of water for him, and fired two rounds at the swami pointblank. As the attendant came in, the murderer fired the third round at him. Swami’s secretary, Dharmpal, came running and overpowered the assassin and held him. until the police arrived. The assassin was tried and hanged till death. The Swami had attained martyrdom.
Indra, Swami ji’s son , recalled the words that Swami ji had uttered not long ago :
“Yes, it is a source of contentment to me that I am singled out as the one worthy of wearing the crown of martyrdom “.
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