‘Padma Shri’ Acharya Chandna: Jain sadhvi who walks non-conformist path towards spirituality

NEW DELHI, Jan 29:
Religion is not just about taking God’s name and preaching compassion but about serving people, says Acharya Chandna, Jain sadhvi, change-maker and thinker who helped force a revolution by introducing the concept of “compassion in action” to those who have renounced the material world.
Chandna, 86, was the first Jain woman to receive the title of Acharya in 1987 and is also the first first Jain sadhvi to be conferred the Padma Shri.
“I have always felt religion is not just about taking god’s name and that is why sadhus and sadhvis could not physically contribute in making a difference to society. For me, religion is about striving to resolve the everyday challenges of people and bringing peace to their lives. It is about serving people rather than preaching about compassion,” Chandna told PTI in a phone interview from Rajgir in Bihar.
She embraced diksha (renunciation of the material world) when she was just 14 and has since broken many stereotypes, adding to the traditional Jain school of thought and also helping it evolve.
Belonging to a small village in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, Chandna is the driving force behind Veerayatan, a philanthropic organisation based in Rajgir with centres in several parts of the world, including the US, Kenya, United Arab Emirates, UK and Singapore.
Veerayatan operates hospitals, schools, colleges and vocational training programmes. It has also initiated rehabilitation and emergency relief programmes in the wake of calamities such as the 2004 tsunami, the 2006 Surat floods and the Covid pandemic.
Referring to her award, Chandna said, “This award is not for me alone. There are thousands of doctors, teachers, volunteers and people who have been working tirelessly to serve humankind, whether in the form of education or medical treatment or taking care of the poor and underprivileged.”
“I am just part of the movement called Veerayatan,” added the spiritual guru who has been instrumental in transforming lives by providing education and medical care and has faced numerous challenges, including financial constraints and an attack by dacoits.
Recalling the details, her colleague, Sadhvi Yasha said a group of women monks, including Chandna, were beaten and burgled by a group of 15-20 musclemen in the early days of Veerayatan. When police asked for details, Chandna refused to divulge any, saying they are the followers of Mahavir and have forgiven their attackers.
Chandna, who once took a ‘maun vrat’ (a vow of silence) for 12 years to study Jain sculptures and different religions, chose Rajgir as the headquarters of Veerayatan in 1973.
“Dharma is incomplete without satkarma (good deeds).Religion accepts life in its entirety. To work towards getting rid of any physical or mental suffering is true religion. Service is no different from spirituality, service is spirituality,” she said.
Explaining her non-conformist way of thought, Chandna added,“If a boy has fallen in front of me and I do not lend him a helping hand thinking that touching a boy is prohibited in my religion… I don’t believe in such a thought.”
Humanity for her, she stressed, is the biggest religion and she will work for humankind till her last breath.
“My vision has not changed and never will,” she asserted.
Chandna is at equal ease, delivering lectures on spirituality or Jainism in the US or working in the dusty grounds of Bihar surrounded by the poor and sick. Her day begins at 4 am and she works till late at this age too.
“I am happy with my life journey so far as I could bring a little change in people’s life. I want to keep working hard till I am alive and want to inspire others too. I am 86 and I am so tied up that I don’t feel my age,” said the sadhvi.
“I have never felt disappointed or let the magnitude of our work affect me or put me under pressure. I never lost my confidence and courage and people supported me in a big way,” she said.
Chandna leads a dedicated team of highly educated sadhvis who have been assigned different duties or projects.
Being a woman, was it very difficult to choose a nontraditional path being a woman?
“I don’t think that women are inferior to men in any sense. Today, women are scaling new heights. Yes, initially I had to alter mindsets and gain the confidence, trust and belief of people to justify my work for the greater good. But gradually everyone supported us in our endeavour,” she said. (PTI)