It was the year 1970 and Shri Chitrabhanuji who was enjoying a zenith of popularity in Mumbai not only in Jain circles but also among population in general. It was his personality, youthful appearance, powerful oratory and deep knowledge of Jainism and other religions that drew masses to where ever he was speaking. His Mahavir Jayanti lectures on Chowpatty beach drew unprecedented crowds where government ministers also attended. He was also attracting attention of many westerners who wanted to learn meditation from him and learn about Jainism.
But the Munishri was not content in the strictures of monkhood and traditions of particular sect he was supposed to be representing. He wanted to fully expound Mahavir’s humanitarian message – of service to the sick and the poor. He led many relief operations for those who suffered natural calamities Like horrific floods in Bihar. He did not wish to be preaching (Vakhyan) to only those who came to the Upashrays. He wanted to spread Mahavir’s message universally. He was constantly getting invitations to speak at Jain Sanghs and multi faith forums from Africa, Europe and America. It was the invitation from the second Spiritual Summit in Geneva organized by Temple of Understanding in USA that finally persuaded him to travel overseas.
As a Jain sadhu who had walked barefoot 30,000 miles in thirty years, thoughts of using an Airplane, and traveling abroad were truly a revolutionary and controversial one. But in the end, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his hero – Virchand Raghavji Gandhi who introduced the western world a religion of non-violence almost 100 years earlier. So, on the night of March 29, 1970 amidst huge unruly and loud protests from so called “followers”, Munishree took a historic flight to attend the multi-faith conference in Geneva.
Munishree’s message to the delegates of the “Second Spiritual Summit” was a mixture of hope for the humanity and the need for the leaders of different religions to unite and create a common program that can bring amity worldwide. He proceeded to talk about how Jain ideas of “Nayas”, Syadvad and Ahimsa can contribute to the common goals for humanity and counter the curse of wars, hunger and poverty.
Geneva was just the beginning. Gurudev Shri Chitrabhanuji visited many European cities and America in this historic journey. Year later he traveled to Africa for 45 days visiting, lecturing Jain centers in many cities residents of which had never seen a Jain monk in seventy-five years of Jain migration to the continent of Africa. From there he went to America to attend the Third Spiritual Summit at Harvard University. His speech in front of august leaders of 40 different religious leaders earned him the title of “Hit speaker of the Day” in the local Boston newspaper. That headline alone brought numerous speaking engagement requests all up and down the east coast. Chitrabhanuji decided to settle in the US. He chose New York as his new home.
In New York, Gurudev Shri Chitrabhanuji taught meditation at various colleges, and within two years of his penniless arrival in the US, opened “Jain Meditation International Center” with the money he had saved from teaching. Almost all of his students were American but gradually, Jains of New York started visiting the center. The center obtained a small marble murti of Teerthankar Shri Mahavir swami and it became the first Jain place of worship in the US. As the years went by, Chitrabhanuji contributed enormously to organizing Jain communities in US and Canada. His organizing principal was that of Unity – all the Jains together without any distinctions of sect, languages or the regions of India they came from. He, along with a Sthanakwasi Muni Sushil Kumarji inspired formation of JAINA – the largest organization of Jains outside of India. Because of his fluency in English language, Chitrabhanuji became darling of the Jain youngsters- our second generation in America. It was his strong influence that kept many of our kids vegetarian. Chitrabhanuji helped form more than 40 Jain centers in the US and in Canada. During these years, Chitrabhanuji regularly visited Jain communities in UK, Singapore and of course India. He organized more than 12 annual pilgrimages to Palitana, Shikharji and for his American students. Only those students who became vegetarian and could recite Navkar Mantra were given opportunity to join in the pilgrimage. After the yatra of Palitana, the pilgrims were given new names like Chetna and Vikas signifying their new spiritual birth. There is a large group of Americans at Lake Whitmore in the state of Michigan who have chosen Chitrabhanuji as their leader and have their own church called the Light House Center named after a popular book by Chitrabhanuji titled “The Beacon”
After living nearly ten years in New York, In 1981, Shri Chitrabhanuji decided to move back to India with his family but planned to visit for six months of the year stay in the US to continue his work with JMIC hundreds of his American students and thousands of Jains all over North America. Only in 2016 he stopped going to America due to his advanced age.
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Returning to India was like a homecoming. When people learned that he had inspired formation of scores of Jain centers in the US and around the world and converted hundreds of Americans to become vegetarian he regained his popularity with the Jain community as if he had never left India.
In the year 1983, Gurudev Shri Chitrabhanuji formed “Vegetarian Society” (Reverence For Life) in Mumbai. He was appointed President of the society (today, in 2019 Chitrabhanuji at the age of 96 is still the President). This is of special significance when you consider that although Chitrabhanuji inspired formation of several organizations in India and around the world (Divine Knowledge Society in Mumbai, JAINA in the USA etc.), he never accepted any leadership position in any of those organizations.
In coining the phrase “Reverence for Life” for the Vegetarian Society, Gurudev Shri Chitrabhanuji was signaling to the world that Ahimsa can not be limited to “not killing” but should also mean unconditional love, respect and friendship to all living beings. Our treatment of fellow humans, animals, plants and the environment must all be directed by that understanding of Ahimsa. Our own self-worth cannot be measured by our physical possessions but by the number of blessings we collect from all the living beings. This was the message Chitrabhanuji preached to hundreds of thousands.
But a day of rude awakening for Gurudev was awaiting early in 1990’s. A group of Americans confronted Gurudev in Las Vegas where he was speaking about Ahimsa. These young Americans questioned Gurudev how could he, apostle of Non-Violence consume dairy? Gurudev had hard time even understanding the question at first. But the Americans politely brought up the gross cruelty visited upon dairy cows every single day not just on the day they are slaughtered for meat and leather. Surprised, Chitrabhanuji did not comprehend the full weight of the issue they were raising but promised them that he would study the subject.
Upon returning to their home in New York, Gurudev researched thoroughly plight of dairy animals. He consulted leaders of the vegan movement in America – people like Ingrid Newkirk of PETA and Dr. Neal Bernard of PCRM – Physician’s Committee of Responsible Medicine. What Chitrabhanuji learned, horrified him. For 70 years, he had been regularly consuming Milk, butter, curd etc. without ever thinking about the harm it was causing to the animals.
He learned that the milk is produced by a cow only after she gives birth and that milk is for the young cow. The young cow is deprived of mother’s milk so that humans can enjoy it. The newborn baby of the cow is separated from mother within three days of birth and never again the two are allowed to meet. For the maximum milk output, the cows are kept constantly pregnant with forced artificial insemination. The milk is obtained not by the loving hands of the farmer but by machines. The machines, without any feelings in them, try to get as much milk as possible from each cow and often traces of cow’s blood gets mixed with the milk. Do you know that the Food and agriculture department in the US and in India allow a small percentage of blood in milk?
Newborn male cows suffer the worst. Since they do not give milk, they are an economic burden to the farmers and quickly sold to the slaughterhouse for veal production. (veal is tender meat from 6-month-old male cows). Because mother cows are impregnated continuously to produce new cows, their milk production drops below economical cost of raising them. For that reason, 5-year-old cows are shipped to the slaughter house even though natural life span of cows is 15 years. On a dairy farm, all cows are destined for slaughter house. No exceptions. Nearly half (male cows) are slaughtered at 6 months of age and the rest at approximately 5 years of age. Additionally, mother cows loose forever their newborns in 2 or three days and they cry for their loved one for days in agony. You can see tears from their eyes as she searches for her baby. On top of that, they are impregnated again in two or three months to go through another round of hell.
All of the above described horrors are a routine practice of dairy industry everywhere. Torture and killing of 5 sensed animals have to be abhorrent to everyone but to Jains specially. Cow as a loving member of a farmer’s family are just fairy tales these days. Dairy cows are not allowed to freely graze on the fields – they are kept in a very confined tight places never even allowed to turn around. There is no doubt that the milk production subsidizes meat production. Meat industry is just the other side of the coin of milk production. Humans are the only species on earth that drinks milk from another species. Unlike the claims of dairy industry, milk is not necessary for grown humans. If a human child needed milk for growth, nature would not cut off milk production of mothers when the child grows teeth at the age of 2 years. As if that were not enough, nutritionally speaking, milk in fact causes more harm than good to the human health. Ever notice that in many instances, the first thing doctors tell their sick patients is to stop taking milk?
Learning all of the above both Chitrabhanuji and Pramodaben became completely vegan. Which means giving up all dairy products, leather, silk, wool or pearls. Also, they joined in the campaigns of vegan advocacy. He started losing sleep, dreaming about the plight of helpless cows and merciless consumption of milk and other dairy products by humans. In his public speeches, Chitrabhanuji stopped talking about Syadvad, Gandharvad or Anekant and began talking about only the virtues of veganism. His campaign for veganism is nothing short of advocating another revolution just like the first one when he decided to leave monkhood and travel by airplane.
Gurudev Chitrabhanuji was the first Jain leader to take up the cause of Veganism. He urged boycott of all dairy products (milk and Ghee) in Temple rituals. Why should anyone offer a product of Himsa to a Vitarag he would ask.? He sighted passages from our Agams that condemn use of dairy (Milk and milk products are considered Vigayee and not permitted during Aymbil). But His constant talk of veganism annoyed many Jains who turned a blind eye – refusing to take a critical look at reality of modern milk production practices. In fact, Some of Chitrabhanuji’s Jain followers turned against him for his insistence that milk products not be used in Poojas wherever he was invited to participate.
It is impossible to visualize how Jain community in America would look like today – fragmented and disheartened if Chitrabhanuji had not set foot on American soil. He was the first Asian leader of a religious community in America to be invited to offer a prayer in the House of representatives in the US. He received many honors from Universities, cities, states, non-profit organizations for his message of peace and non-violence. His core message of Veganism has been embraced by many young Jains in America, – but it has been largely ignored by his adult followers.
Once someone asked Chitrabhanuji if he was aware that his repeating the same vegan message at every turn was tiresome to many of his listeners. Chitrabhanuji laughed and asked if he had forgotten the way we were taught in Pathshalas when we were young. The Pathshala teacher never gave a fresh gatha of any given Sutra till the student had flawlessly memorized the previous gatha. “Why would I waste my breath teaching something new until they learn (implement) the current (vegan) lesson?”
Dilip V Shah
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