On August 4, 2022, in the run-up to India celebrating its seventy-fifth Independence Day, the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission (SRMD), a guru-led Jain organization based in the small town of Dharampur in south Gujarat, unveiled the latest achievement in its meteoric rise to prominence: a state-of-the-art, 250-bed hospital intended to serve the rural and tribal populations of the area. Honored guests at the event included several high-ranking members of the Gujarat state BJP, including the party President, C.R. Patil, and the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Bhupendra Patel. The ceremony’s key moment was in the hands of none other than the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, attending remotely via video from Delhi. Upon his press of a remote button, a virtual curtain dropped to reveal the hospital to the crowd watching in the main assembly hall on the SRMD ashram’s grounds.
Social media posts from the SRMD around this time situated the unveiling in the context of the Modi government’s “75 Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” (75th Celebration of the Nectar of Freedom), featuring events and festivities in the year leading up to India’s Independence Day on August 15 that were meant to showcase India’s rapid development, modernization, and, in this case, care for its rural and tribal populations. (The event was also covered by several news outlets in English, Gujarati, and Hindi on TV and Twitter.) It is little surprise that Modi sought to laud the SRMD for building a hospital for poor and underserved communities, keeping with the Centre government’s limited engagement with neoliberalism, which has mainly taken the form of state divestment from public welfare and placing it increasingly in the hands of charitable organizations.
The link between the SRMD and Hindutva nationalism appears puzzling at first glance. Its mission statement is “Realise one’s true self and serve others selflessly”; it boasts some 197 centers worldwide, with efforts to reach audiences beyond Jain and even Indian communities by, e.g., YouTube channels in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Mandarin, German, Hindi, and Russian. There is, then, little obvious need to connect the Mission’s activities to the current ruling party of India. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to determine specifically why, the SRMD’s connection with the current Indian government has become essential to their online self-image, which has wide-ranging potential to affect the way its audience views the BJP. As the SRMD presents itself as an integral part of the BJP’s effort to serve India’s disadvantaged populations, this essay considers how BJP aims connect with the Mission’s efforts to reach Indian and diaspora Jain youth, especially as the Mission presents itself as a place to discover not only their Jain roots but also their Gujarati and Indian heritage, including charitable service as central to its spiritual program.
Jains comprise a small portion of the population of India and are spread throughout the country with important cultural centers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Karnataka. They are divided into two major denominations, the Shvetambar and the Digambar. Among Jains, Shvetambars are culturally dominant in Gujarat as well as in diaspora communities. While Jains occupy a range of sectarian and caste (jāti) communities, many Gujarati Shvetambar Jains hail from middle-caste communities and have traditionally engaged in mercantile trade and business. Some of the leading industrialists of Ahmedabad and Bombay (now Mumbai) during the colonial era hailed from these communities. Many Jains from this region have parlayed these advantages into positions of continued economic success in India and the diaspora. The Jains who form the SRMD’s base of support are almost exclusively from Gujarati Shvetambar communities.
The video of Modi’s remarks at the unveiling, streamed on the SRMD’s website and posted (in highly edited form) to their Instagram account, cut to the animated crowd as the Prime Minister declared his longstanding relationship with the Mission. Indeed, in June 2017, Modi joined SRMD founder Rakesh Jhaveri at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to announce the issuance of a stamp and coins commemorating the 150th anniversary of Rajchandra’s birth. Modi had also endorsed Jhaveri’s 2021 book, published by HarperCollins India, a commentary on Rajchandra’s magnum opus, Atmasiddhishastra (Treatise on the Perfection of the Self), which was featured prominently on the book’s website and SRMD social media accounts. Modi remarks that Jhaveri’s “commentary in English is…aimed at the spiritual welfare of the youth.” At a recent address to BJP party supporters near Dharampur, Modi praised the SRMD, the hospital, and other charitable work they are doing in the area. Modi’s visit and remarks were posted to the SRMD’s Facebook page in a well-edited video that makes his visit appear as if it were solely intended to put the PM’s stamp of approval on the Mission’s work.
The hospital unveiling event also came just weeks before Paryushan, the annual period of self-reflection and contemplation of the wide-ranging implications for harm to others that arise from one’s everyday actions. Traditionally, it is observed by Shvetambar Jains, who form the Dharampur Mission’s base of support, as a time of fasting, introspection, and public confession of wrongdoings (pratikaraman) that reinforces the moral standards and cohesion of the community. Jains’ widespread support for the BJP and for dismissal of evidence of the Sangh Parivar’s past violence and impending genocidal agenda has yet to meet any broad-based criticism within the community. The SRMD’s support for Modi is notable among Jain religious organizations only for the central role it plays in their online self-image.
Images on the SRMD’s social media sites, especially their Instagram feed, frequently show young people engaged in charitable work and spiritual self-cultivation. One image shows a young, well-dressed (though slightly out-of-place looking) male handing out food to a mother and children on the street while wearing an SRMD t-shirt; another shows a silhouette of a young woman sitting in meditation overlooking lush hills. Both mimic posters one customarily sees on college campuses for study abroad programs. The Instagram feed is especially geared to appeal to a young, cosmopolitan, middle- and upper-class, Anglophone audience, primarily from Gujarati Jain backgrounds. The Mission’s twofold image on social media as a place for spiritual self-cultivation and charitable service is meant to appeal to the sensibilities of diaspora and upper-class Indian youth.
Rakesh Jhaveri (b. 1966), the founder of the SRMD and styled Pujya Gurudevshri Rakeshji, is a Jain layman from a wealthy Mumbai family. His biography “The Unmoved Mover,” published on the SRMD YouTube channel, tells the story of a spiritually precocious youth who became attracted to the teachings of another Jain layman and religious leader, Raichandbhai Ravjibhai Mehta (1867-1901), known today as Shrimad Rajchandra, who is best known for his friendship with—and spiritual guidance offered to—a young Mohandas K. Gandhi. Jhaveri founded the Mission in 2001 with a purchase of land in Dharampur, located just a few hours’ drive north of Mumbai. Jhaveri’s charisma as well as the accessibility and relatability of his wisdom and teachings is the focus of the social media accounts. He is called “guru,” “sadguru” (true teacher), “messiah,” and “saviour.” These and his title Pujya Gurudevshri (Venerable Blessed Lord Guru) are the constant refrain of text included with photos of him on social media. Even if one had never met Jhaveri in person, the SRMD’s social media accounts make his persona as an advanced, charismatic spiritual leader a virtual reality.
While the Mission grew modestly for the first decade or so of its existence, in 2014 it launched a comprehensive social media campaign to reach a broader, global audience. While it already had a Facebook page for several years, its use increased to several daily posts; an Instagram account and YouTube channel were added along with a Twitter account. These social media accounts chronicle events at the ashram and Jhaveri’s global tours. Instagram is also used for a series called “#sadguruwhispers,” in which short, pithy statements of spiritual and practical wisdom are integrated with images of Jhaveri, the ashram, and mainly youthful attendees of the Mission’s ashram. These posts commemorate Hindu festivals, such as Vijaydashami alongside Jain ones. Jhaveri gives discourses on both Jain and Hindu texts, such as the Katha Upanishad. Thereby, Jhaveri links the spiritual project of the SRMD with a broader Hindu centrism that feeds the Hindutva narrative of which religious communities are permissibly Indian.
In recent years, the ashram has grown enormously. Its 223-acre campus includes large indoor lecture halls, meditation spaces, and classrooms. Jhaveri and his cadre of young renouncers, called “atmarpits,” give lectures and teach courses on meditation, yoga, and how to deal effectively with the stresses of work and everyday life. Both Jhaveri and the atmarpits regularly visit the US, UK, Canada and other global cities with significant Jain populations and have built a transnational network for their brand of Jain practical spirituality. In the process, through Jhaveri’s spiritualized nationalism, this network becomes a conduit to broaden the BJP’s acceptability and reach within diaspora Jain communities.
Jhaveri is manipulating an epistemological break that happened during the colonial era, in which Jain communities suddenly had to contend with the invention of Jainism. This is the notion of Jain religious ideas and practices that were abstracted and separated from the communities who supported Jain monastic lineages and adopted certain rites, customs, dietary guidelines, and other practices that had been part and parcel of the close relationship between caste communities and the religious orders they supported, becoming instead perennial truths that can be abstracted from the people and communities that have embodied them and re-made them over the centuries.
The SRMD’s existence speaks to the transnational nature of the contemporary Jain community; it gives us a window into the changes taking place in Jain society as diaspora wealth and interests are poured into organizations in India like the SRMD. These organizations then feed back their view of Jainism to their transnational audience via social media, portraying their spiritual program as an innovative but distinctly Indian take on Jain wisdom and ideals that just happens to conform to diaspora sensibilities. The sensibilities of diaspora youth come from being steeped in British and American spirituality cultures, which often reduce Indian traditions to self-help practices such as yoga and meditation. The Mission offers a place for young diaspora Jains to connect with their Gujarati and Jain heritage in a palatable way, free from many of the practices that have traditionally structured Jain communities, such as family goddess worship and the minutiae of Jain praxis, which have little relevance to Jain youths living in North America and the UK. Instead, Jhaveri offers these youths a new reason to engage with Jainism and Jain rituals as experiences that, infused with new symbolic meanings, leave them feeling, in the words of one enthusiastic young Jain woman from the US, “elevated.” This highly individualistic approach to Jain spirituality also comes with an interest in charity, a common refrain heard among diaspora and upper-class Indian Jains. Jhaveri has made seva (service), a concept not typically associated with Jain practice, part and parcel of the spiritual life of his ashram. The SRMD has also created a portfolio of rural schools, healthcare facilities, and other charitable services. (This has not stopped the SRMD from offering a “both-and” approach to spirituality, having opened a massive temple on the grounds of the ashram in 2021.)
Through its social media strategy, the SRMD is normalizing Hindutva ideology to diaspora Jain youth who are seeking to connect with their Gujarati and Jain heritage. As we try to peer into the future to see what effects this hyper-individualized approach to religious life will have on transnational communities such as the Jains, we cannot ignore the ways that social media is and will continue to be a key platform for imagining these communities. The terms under which these publics form will continue to evolve; indeed, they have already shifted dramatically in the span of a generation or two such that religious identity has become more salient than caste identity. As the logic of neoliberalism continues to put religion into a marketplace model, not only will Indian gurus find ways to relate to audiences through individualism, spirituality, and charitable service, but also through eliciting nationalist pride in their audiences that will continue to breed support for illiberal politics, veiled behind discourses of authenticity and charitable service that resonate with diaspora and upper-class audiences.