On 26 January 2020, Acharya Shri Chandanaji, affectionately known as ‘Tai Maa’, turned 84. Her birthday was celebrated at the various Veerayatan Centres worldwide. In Rajgir, free eye camps were organised over one week for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
She has touched millions of people of all walks of life!Tai Maa is not your typical hero. A radiant face, loving eyes, giving hands, a fragile figure clad in simple white clothing, showering love to one and all. She renounced worldly pleasures and took her religious vows of non-violence, compassion and truthfulness at the tender age of 14. She has devoted her entire life to her guiding motto, “Compassion in Action”, relentlessly pursuing causes that transform lives.
So what makes Tai Maa so extraordinary? What are the qualities of Tai Maa which we should try and imbibe in us?
Her determination never wavers. From a very young age, she knew her goal in life – to serve others.
Tai Maa decided that the work of Veerayatan should take place in Bihar, the land of Bhagwan Mahavir. The place where no one remembered Mahavir any more and no disciples could be found. A place which was lawless and violent, a place where there was no access to healthcare nor education, a place where millions were disadvantaged! A place where change would not easily occur as illiteracy was high! Yet Tai Maa was determined. When it came to buying land in Rajgir, where Bhagwan Mahavir spent 14 rainy seasons, a place which has rich Jain heritage 2,500 yrs back, Tai Maa knew exactly which land to buy. There was free land available in a different part of Rajgir which had greater accessibility but Tai Maa’s heart was set on the land where Veerayatan now stands. Many tried to convince her otherwise but she was not going to compromise in any way, actually the word ‘compromise’ does not exist in her vocabulary! She knew instinctively what would be a right choice and her decisions are made with such clarity! Notwithstanding the many challenges she faced on this journey to establish Veerayatan, including attacks by dacoits and threats from hunters and resistance from the local public suspicious of the good work she was starting – with her gentle and disarming personality, she remained steadfast, convincing the locals that she truly cared about alleviating their suffering and wanted to transform their lives for the better. And today we have a thriving and wonderful Veerayatan centre in Rajgir Bihar which is respected by all the locals.
The creation of the Brahma Kala Mandiram is another example of her determination. Tai Maa wanted to create a world heritage museum showing the stories and messages of various tirthankaras and Jain personalities. People could not understand the need for such a project as it was nothing to do with humanitarian work and thus there was immense resistance. But it seems as though Tai Maa can see the future! Today between 500-1000 new people, from all backgrounds, visit the museum each day! Imagine the seeds which are being planted in all these people’s hearts! Seeds of ahimsa, of compassion, of friendship…… And this is not enough! All the proceeds from the museum go towards running Veerayatan’s eye hospital so that treatments for patients are either free or highly subsidized. All the thousands of visitors who visit the museum are thus contributing to improved health of the local community – what amazing foresight on the part of Tai Maa!
Tai Maa renounced her worldly life to walk on the path of laid by Bhagwan Mahavir at a very young age of 14 with unwavering faith.
Tai Maa has deep understanding of Bhagwan Mahavir’s teaching and of what is tradition and what is the true essence of Jain religion. She has broken tradition and unveiled the path of seva for the renounced monks and nuns. This path has been difficult, with many obstacles on the way. Foremost being that the community vehemently resisted this break in tradition. But how did Tai Maa overcome this resistance? The clarity in her vision, her unwavering faith, the determination, the deep compassion and being fearless probably were the reasons.
A good example of this is based around using a mike when giving spiritual talks. Tai Maa’s voice is soft and when there are hundreds of people in the audience, then hearing what is being said is almost impossible! Tai Maa using a mike was not taken lightly by the community. Tai Maa was not being difficult. She was taking this decision with all awareness. There is tradition on the one hand and core principles which are eternal, Tai Maa says. She continues, ‘Traditions can be changed according to the times, but the core essence of religion is eternal.’
Monks and nuns were also forbidden from using lights. To Tai Maa this was an obstruction to her learning! Tai Maa wrote a beautiful story in her book ‘Mere Devdoot’ describing how her sister is an angel and became an instrument which allowed Tai Maa to learn.
When we intensely want something or have a desire to do something, then the path to achieve it opens up by itself.
From childhood I have had a deep longing to study. Whichever book I would start to study, I would wish to finish it in as short a time as possible so that I can start another one and so continue studying further and further. After daily activities and the evening pratikraman had concluded, we would routinely just sit for hours because of the stringent traditional vow that wherever sadhus and sadhvis are staying, lamps or bulbs cannot be used, thus making it was impossible to study. I was very much troubled that I could not use time wisely. I thought that if the means to study at night becomes available then so much more could be achieved. I used to plead to Pujya Bai Maharaj and Pujya Bade Maharaj, ‘Please make arrangements so that I can study even at night. The long hours of night are being spent meaninglessly and I don’t like it. Please make some facility so that we can have light. Whether you order it from Bhagavan, take it from the earth or the ocean, whatever you do I leave it to you but I really need light. Just enough to light up one page so that I can study and use my time wisely.’
My younger sister, Chandrakala stayed with me. She said, ‘I will make the arrangements.’ She was very clever in all sorts of ways. I thought this was impossible – how will she be able to make arrangements to bring us light? But Chandrakala’s imagination was striking.
Bikaner is a place where there is staunch following of doctrines, traditions and customs and to set up lanterns in the Upashraya was indeed a bold move. Yet 10 year old Chandrakala brought a lantern to the room, set it up and said, ‘You sit here and study at night.’
I do not know how or from where she managed to get the small lantern. Surprised, I just stared at her. Usually, elders take care of the young, but Chandrakala despite being young has always looked after me like a mother.
At that time, it looked as if my life had found a new direction. My withering wings re-energized to soar to new heights.
My achievements in life are because of my younger sister, Chandrakala, and the generosity of everyone around. Their efforts and timely decisions made all this possible.
Tai Maa, after renouncing her worldly life, has walked around 40,000 kilometers whatever the weather, with no shoes, with one item of warm clothing, with belongings carried in a small cloth bag as she could not carry much as she had long distances to travel. However now she travels by car. When asked what she preferred, she says she was happy and content then and she is happy and content now!
Nothing is ever a hindrance, not even her health. When she was ill recently she spent her time in hospital discussing plans to build a new hospital with the doctors treating her. So even in adversity, there is growth!
Tai Maa took the vow of silence for 12 years after renunciation during which time she read not only Jain scriptures but also Vedic and Buddhist texts. She loved learning but as mentioned, she travelled long distances by foot and to carry books would almost be impossible. But this was not a deterrent for Tai Maa – she would cut off all the unnecessary blank spaces in the pages in her book, just keeping the writing intact thus reducing the weight of books! What a logical solution!
She loves all birds and animals, all trees and plants, all people whether they have been good or not so good to her! Everyone is equal in her eyes and her heart. She has beautiful stories of her connection with nature and the communication she has with birds, animals, plants and trees!
She is an aware soul, every small incident is learning for her and acknowledges this with great humility. In Mere Devdoot, she recollects this particular incident:
This incident is of that time, when an eye camp was taking place in a town Vajiraganja, in Bihar. There was a huge crowd. All the workers were busy. Even I was talking to the patients. In the corner of my eye, I saw an old man who was sitting alone and from his bag he removed a small pouch with chappatis in it. He took one chappati and started eating it. A dog came and stood opposite him, wagging his tail. The old man only had 2 chappatis. He immediately gave the other one to the dog. I was observing all this from afar.
Today, even after many years, this incident swims before my eyes. At that time I could not decide how to approach him and what to ask. To satisfy his hunger, that man must have obtained the 2 chappatis with difficulty and without thinking about when and how he will get his next meal, he gave one chappati to the hungry animal.
Tai Maa’s aspirations for all are:
Do not enclose birds in a cage
Unobstructed flight will then cease
Instead create a world with open skies
Where every bird can fly with unfettered joy
Acharyashriji has written a book called Mere Devdoot or My Angels in which she describes through many lovely stories the impact others have had on her life. But on the occasion of her birthday we want to acknowledge that in fact we have a lot to learn from Tai Maa and how she has lived her life as she truly can be said to be our Angel! We will all say, ‘What amazing work Tai Maa has done and it is unbelievable what she has achieved’. But she, humbly will say, ‘This is not my doing, this is divine power.’ She thinks of others all the time – their wellbeing, how to transform lives, will they have something eat, putting herself in their shoes and with utmost compassion she feels the pains of others and does everything to transform lives.
Our heartiest congratulations to Tai Maa on her 84th birthday and immense gratitude that we all have her in our lives.