Acharya Mahapragya's Ahimsa Yatra
and its Impact on Society
Yatra or a journey on foot with a purpose is not new in the nonviolent Jain tradition. Lord Mahavira – the 24th Tirthankar who asserted that all jivas were equal walked all his life to alleviate human misery. The Jain ascetics are supposed to be on the move till they breathe their last. The main aim of their lifelong vow to keep walking till the end of their life is to carry the message of peace and nonviolence far and wide and inspire the masses to live a good life.
Like other Jain ascetics Acharya Mahapragya too has been walking on foot ever since the day he became a Jain monk at the age of ten years. ‘Then how is his present ‘yatra’ different?’ ask the people not familiar with the Jain tradition. The answer lies in the meaningful focus of his yatra. It aims at bringing the problems of all forms of violence into sharp focus. Acharya Tulsi, the founder of the Anuvrat Movement also traveled extensively on foot, covering more than sixty thousand kilometers, but then the focus was on ridding the Indian society of the moral filth that had gripped it soon after independence. Acharya Mahapragya also traveled with him wherever he went, thus imbibing strength and courage.
What is an Ahimsa Yatra? It is an endeavour to awaken a new faith in the infinite power of ahimsa (nonviolence) in the hearts of the people. It involves a lot of people and inspires them to think positively in unison with one another. As a result the cosmic energy system becomes active percolating through the minds of lakhs of people and unleashes a torrent of spiritual vibrations washing away the negative thoughts of the masses. This spiritual power was amply demonstrated in Gandhi’s Dandi March which went a long way in electrifying the nation. Acharya Mahapragya says, "Negative thoughts cause violence and positive thoughts help the natural evolution of the process of ahimsa. The negative ones are anger, arrogance, greed, hatred, fear, communal enmity and feelings of caste supremacy. Tolerance, politeness, dispassionate attitude, love, fearlessness communal harmony and human solidarity are positive thoughts. Ahimsa Yatra aims at imparting training in the strategies to transform the negative thoughts into positive ones."
Ahimsa is the Only Way to Survive
The advent of the new millennium brought unprecedented turmoil and unrest adding to the woes of the people who were already in miserable conditions. Worldwide terrorist attacks, communal and ethnic clashes, conflicts arising from globalization, poverty, exploitation and the increasing lust for power and wealth among people have made social life insecure and vulnerable. This pathetic situation touched Acharya Mahapragya deeply. He meditated on its causes and came to the conclusion that the problems that afflict the civil society today cannot be solved unless an intensive campaign is launched for mass psychological and attitudinal transformation. With this end in view, he has formulated a constructive programme to educate and train children and youths in nonviolence at national level. On the pattern of compulsory military training in many countries, he suggests that training in nonviolence should be made compulsory in all schools and colleges.
He embarked on Ahimsa Yatra at Sujangarh (Rajasthan) and generated tremendous enthusiasm among the people. Thousands joined the yatra and experienced the joy and happiness arising out of their awakened state of higher consciousness. When he decided to take his Ahimsa Yatra to Gujrat he was warned and strongly advised not to go, but he declared firmly, ‘Come what may but I will go’ and he went. As the Yatra entered the state of Gujarat which was aflame with communal passions, the environment began to change. Extinguishing the flames of anger and hatred the Ahimsa Yatra led by Acharya Mahapragya generated a sense of confidence in the victims and the perpetrators had a real change of heart. The response was undoubtedly positive. Addressing a gathering at a village in Gujrat Acharya Shri said, "Only that country becomes strong whose citizens know the way to control their emotions. No country can emerge powerful without peaceful coexistence, and it is impossible for a country to ensure peaceful co-existence of its people without restraint and discipline. Some people are educated into communal and caste frenzy. The frenzied state of their minds gives rise to an anti-social environment. The government tries to resist it through its might, but it is the duty of the citizens to see that the hooligans do not convert it into communal frenzy. People have to resist such tendencies nonviolently by arousing their consciousness." The yatra was a boon to the strife-torn people of Gujrat. Those who indulged in rioting and bloodshed realized that violence would cause more violence taking a heavy toll of innocent lives. The very glimpse of the Acharya disarmed them. They eschewed violence and pledged to refrain from killing innocent creatures. They persuaded others to join the Acharya’s mission of regenerating human society.
Ahimsa Yatra and its Impact
Acharya Shri said at another meeting, "Ahimsa Yatra’s main objective is to create ahimsa awareness among the people. The moment an individual’s attention is riveted on ahimsa, a fountain of peace springs within which not only makes him happy but all others in the area become happy." The worst affected place in Gujrat was Ahmedabad where hundreds of innocent children, women and men were massacred only because they belonged to a different community. Condemning the riots the Acharya said, "Whatever happened in Ahmedabad and other areas of Gujrat was most shameful. It has tarnished the fair name of our country. The people of Gujrat must not forget that it is the place where Mahatma Gandhi was born. It is the place where he made his experiments with truth." What is heartening is that the people listened to him. Ahimsa Yatra has transformed Ahmedabad and there is peace all around. Acharya Mahapragya had his Chaturmas at Preksha Vishva Bharati, Koba which is now the cynosure of all eyes. Political leaders, social workers and spiritual leaders flocked to him for advice. Thousands came just for a glimpse of this new avatar of ahimsa while others came to listen to him. Prior to his coming to this place the Acharya’s Ahimsa Yatra, passed through all the places in Ahmedabad which some months ago were the ghastliest scenes of horror. Seized by bestial instincts the people who lived together as neighbours for years killed each another. Turning his wheel of dharma the Acharya showered compassion and blessings on everyone and healed their wounds. Though he left Gujarat long ago, his wheels of dharma continue turning in all parts of the country. His message of ahimsa has pervaded every nook and corner. This peace achieved by the healing touch of ahimsa is durable. It is worth-mentioning what a taxi driver said, "We see in Acharya Mahapragya the real God. Had he not come here we would have all died long ago from starvation and neglect. He is our Messiah of Peace and Happiness. He has charmed the people of Gujarat with his limitless compassion. The very glimpse of this great man fills our hearts with joy and calmness. There is no fear now. We can go wherever we like and are earning our bread."
Acharya Mahapragya’s Ahimsa Yatra will continue till peace prevails everywhere. Maybe it crosses the frontiers to give solace to the people of the other parts of the world who are suffering from the scourge of fanaticism and ethnic conflicts. Let thousand come forward to participate in his sacred project of ushering in an era of perpetual peace. We bow in reverence before this nonviolent crusader for peace. We salute him.
The Wheels of Ahimsa Yatra Keeps Turning
Man’s life is in itself a yatra (a journey). Everyone who comes into this world has to go on a voyage in Samsara (the world). It is often strewn with formidable encounters. Most of the travelers are unaware of the purpose of their life. They neither know the direction nor the destination. They succumb to the difficulties and die ‘unwept, unsung and unknown’ on the way. Some trudge along wearily and life becomes a burden for them. There are some others who face
the challenges on the way boldly, unravel the mystery of life and attain a state of higher consciousness. They make their life a source of perennial joy, teach others the art of living the good life and radiate positive energy. Acharya Mahapragya is a traveler with a difference. He belongs to the second category. When he saw the flames of violence spreading into different parts of the world, he realized that the forces of nonviolence had become weaker and were in a state of disarray. They could do nothing to stem the tide of violence closing in on humanity. He decided to give a new turn to his routine journey on foot from one village to another as an obligatory ritual of his ascetic life. He shifted the focus of his journey from its being a mere instrument of self-purification to a strategy for awakening the consciousness of ahimsa among the people. He widened the scope of his routine Yatra (journey on foot) and made it an instrument of mass campaign to generate a powerful wave of ahimsa to wean the people off the cult of hatred.
With this objective in mind Acharya Mahapragya launched Ahimsa Yatra on December 5, 2001 from Sujangarh (Rajasthan). I would like to recall his first message to the people assembled on this occasion. He said:
“When we think over ahimsa we have two alternatives before us – individual and society. Individuals are many and they are governed by their emotions while society is governed by a system. It is the individual who creates a system and also follows it. Hence it is difficult to draw a line of distinction between an individual and society. Negative emotions cause violence and positive emotions give rise to ahimsa. Anger, pride, greed, hatred, fear, communal animosity and caste prejudice are negative emotions. Tolerance, Politeness, non-attachment, love, fearlessness, communal harmony and human solidarity are positive emotions. The objective of Ahimsa Yatra (a journey on foot to advance the cause of ahimsa) is to impart training in the strategies to transform negative emotions into positive ones. It is quite possible to change a person’s negative emotions into positive emotions by training him in ahimsa.
The spiritual aspect of training in ahimsa (nonviolence) is to awaken the mass consciousness of nonviolence and creating an environment of its formative influence on children. The practical aspect of training in nonviolence is - imparting vocational training to individuals to enable them to earn their living according to their needs. The problems of poverty, exploitation, criminal injustice and environmental pollution cannot be solved merely by spiritual training, nor can they be solved by bringing about a change in a system. The way to solve them is to awaken the individual consciousness of nonviolence and combine it with one or another vocational training to enable him to earn his livelihood.
The concept of Ahimsa Yatra and its programme are not based on any impractical and impossible assumption. Something practical and plausible capable of determining the direction of a change in accordance with a long-term policy can play an active role in stopping the march of violence. They project of Ahimsa Yatra has been formulated on the basis of this practical goal. We believe that all those who are deeply concerned about the noble cause of ahimsa and about the cultivation of ethical values in society and all those who think about making the social system healthy will join in. Ahimsa is the elixir which keeps individual, society and nation alive.”
This message which Acharya Mahapragya delivered on December 5, 2001 at the onset of Ahimsa Yatra has remained a beacon to all those who joined the ahimsa walk.
A yatra or a journey is an inborn human attribute. Everyone is on the move. Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March, Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s March across the country seeking the donation of the excess of land for the landless and Acharya Tulsi’s Anuvrat March to distant parts of the country with the purpose of creating a healthy and nonviolent society conveyed a moral message to the society. As the caravan of non-violent marchers led by Acharya Mahapragya, accompanied by hundreds of his white-clad monks and nuns, passed through village after village and town after town, the impact it created on the minds of the people was electrifying. The villages which a few days ago had been the scene of orgy, religious frenzy and killing, suddenly turned into shrines overflowing with love and compassion. Some scenes were reminiscent of the scene created by Lord Buddha when he was accosted by the dreaded Angulimar who was proud of having killed one thousand humans. This very sight of Buddha disarmed him. Many who participated in the communal bloodbath fell at the feet of Acharya Mahapragya and took a vow never to revert to the path of violence.
Originally the Yatra was planned only for three years, but when Mahapragya saw Gujrat aflame with communal violence he extended it to five years so that he could go to other areas vulnerable to violence and heal the wounds of those who suffered and thus prevent the recurrence of such events. Acharya Shri took his Yatra from Gujarat to Maharashtra, Daman, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, some parts of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Chandigarh. I was a witness to this divine spectacle and some place and I am convinced of the immense power of ahimsa which can transform not only an individual and a society but even the entire nation. So far Ahimsa Yatra has passed through 65 districts of the country, has covered more than 2500 villages, towns and cities and an area of about 9000 km. And if we count the days spent in Ahimsa Yatra they come to 2000. At the age of 89 this Jain Saint exudes the energy that surpasses even that of a youth.
It seems Acharya Mahapragya will continue his Yatra indefinitely till he is satisfied that the incidents of large scale violence and destruction have been reduced or have come to an end.
It is not merely a caravan of thousands of people moving together but the Anuvrat workers who walk with the Acharya organize youth meetings, dialogues and workshops on ahimsa. Acharya Mahapragya is of the view that unless the causes of violence are found out, it is impossible for us to meet the challenge of the forces of violence. Side by side volunteers spread into different directions and establish personal contact with the families afflicted with drug addictions, unemployment and stressful life. They stay behind and solve their problems. Verily the villages and towns trekked by the Acharya become centres of training in ahimsa.
Yuvacharya Shri Mahashraman, the successor to Acharya Mahapragya, who has been his constant companion throughout the march, realized that there ought to be a programme of individual commitments to a minimum number, but essential, ethical norms. At the end of Mahapragya’s discourse he asks the people to at least pledge themselves to observe the four vows. Many stand up and humbly accept the following vows of ethical norms:
1. I will believe in human unity.
2. I will not resort to quarrels and conflicts on the basis of caste and sectarian issues.
3. I will try to follow integrity in my personal life as far as I can.
4. I will try to remain free from drug addiction.
The tremendous impact being generated by the Ahimsa Yatra at national level is really amazing. It has enabled the volunteers to study the problems and identify their causes. The data being collected will prove extremely useful in the formulation of some projects aimed at abolishing poverty and hunger.
Acharya Shri believes that hunger is at the root of violence, so in order to address this challenge Mahapragya Seva Prakalpa (MSP), a Centre for Serving the Poor has been established. Anuvrat volunteers spread in all parts of India have taken up the cudgels. They will see that no one goes to bed hungry in their areas. They will also organize medical camps to help the poor to get free treatment.
It is an extension of Acharya Mahapragya’s Ahimsa Yatra, a new dimension to purpose of life for his followers. Thus we hope that Ahimsa Yatra will go on and will continue to wipe the tears of the afflicted and radiate love and compassion.
Dr. Sohan Lal Gandhi