The Making of a Tirth: A Brief Story of Siddhachalam
(As published in Siddhachalam souvenir to mark Guruji’s birthday, June 16, 2004)
Conversation of Shri Madho Jain, a life trustee, with Jaipat S. Jain, a trustee
“Just as cakes become sweet when they are coated with sugar frosting, so do places in this world become holy and pure when a saint abides in them.”
– Nirvanbhakti verse 31, Vidhyadhara Joharapurakar, 1965.
Siddhachalam was a small but significant part of His Holiness Acharya Sushil Kumarji Maharaj’s life, and a very important part of the lives of Jains in America. Guruji (as he was lovingly addressed to by his followers) was a renowned muni in India before he embarked in 1975 on a controversial journey to the United States to spread the message of the Jinas and gather all Jains in a community. The founding in 1983 by him of Siddhachalam (“an abode of liberated souls”) in the proximity of the capital of the world as the first Jain ashram outside India was part of his grand vision of spreading the message of peace, non-violence and truth as enunciated by the Jinas and of giving to the Jains of America a forum and a picturesque tirth to come together.
Shri Madho Jain, a life trustee of Siddhachalam, in a conversation with Jaipat S. Jain, a trustee, relates the story of Siddhachalam from his personal experiences.
- JSJ: When did you first meet Guruji and how did he influence you?
MJ: I first met Guruji sometime in 1977 when I heard from a friend that there was in Utica in upstate New York a monk who taught Jainism to children. At that time, my daughter was a child and we were often concerned about how it would be to have her grow up in America. The idea of a camp run by a Jain monk attracted us to Utica. We drove to a desolate part of Utica and dropped her at the camp. We expected her to want to leave the camp. To our surprise, she was happy there and wanted to stay on. Our surprise was short-lived because when we met Guruji we too were drawn by his magnetism, charisma, compassion and joyfulness. In Guruji, I found an anchor on which my future generation could stay in this country.
- JSJ: With respect to Siddhachalam, what made you a part of the select few on whom Guruji depended?
MJ: Guruji hailed from the neighborhood of Gurgoan in India and so did I. That may have contributed to creating an initial sense of familiarity. He assigned me tasks from time to time and may have found that I could be relied upon. I was a successful professional and Guruji may have found my knowledge and experience useful. Also, I was available and happy to work with him.
- JSJ: How and when did the idea of Siddhachalam come about?
MJ: Guruji always wanted to set up an ashram in the New York area. New York area had many Jains, it was the capital of the world and it had the headquarters of the United Nations. Guruji thought New York was the right place to influence world opinion on issues like peace, non-violence, brotherhood and environment. He also thought it was important for all Jains to identify with the larger message of their religion rather than inter se differences. It is in that context that he was constantly searching for a suitable land in the tri-state area.
Guruji wanted the ashram to be a focal point where people come together to get a glimpse of the best of Jain thinking, art, culture and religion. He planned to build in the ashram replicas of Jain tirth, senior citizens’ homes and, among other things, develop an ahimsa university — a center of education and research on issues relating to ahimsa. He wanted animals, birds and humans to live in harmony in the ashram.
- JSJ: How and when did you select the land for the ashram?
MJ: 65 Mud Pond Road was an abandoned Jewish summer camp for handicapped children when we visited it in 1983. It was in a state of disuse and frequented by bears and snakes, among others. On his visit, an interesting event occurred. Guruji left his mukh-patti at the mantlepiece of the fireplace in the tenement that is now the office. To me it signified that Guruji had laid a claim on the property. Thereafter, we negotiated at length with the seller but we could not reach an agreement. Guruji, however, was optimistic. As it happened, the sellers were unable to sell it and eventually came around to finalizing the terms of sale with us.
- JSJ: Tell me about the establishment of the ashram.
MJ: Well, when the closing date for the purchase of property arrived, Guruji was at my residence in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. He probably sensed my wife’s and mine nervousness for the large financial commitment all of us were making. He told me that everything will work out. After acquiring the property, Guruji engaged in extended meditation because he wanted to cleanse the place of inhospitable spirits, snakes and bears. Hunting was prohibited and all fences were removed thereby freely permitting animals to come in and go out. Shortly thereafter, snakes and bears left the land, the land was tended and the place was full of flowers and life. By the way, true to Guruji’s word, soon after the property was acquired, donations started coming in and we prepaid our mortgage.
- JSJ: Who were the key people behind the establishment of the ashram?
MJ: Guruji’s American followers, who (like Guruji) were not Jains by birth, made the down-payment for the land. Guruji had many American followers who gave unstintingly and generously of their time, efforts and savings. Among those I remember distinctly is Shanti (Judy) Jain Smith, Guru Shakti, and Shirley Hardy, to name just a few. Dr. KC Bhaiji, Arun Kothari and I stood guarantee for the mortgage. America-based members of the families of Guruji’s followers in India were a constant source of support. But many others contributed time, skills and resources and the ashram would not have been possible without their contributions.
- JSJ: What did Siddhachalam mean to these different people?
MJ: Besides the opportunity to be in the company of Guruji, a towering person, the ashram itself meant different things to different people. To his followers of American origin, the ashram was a sanctuary for spiritual discipline. As residents of Siddhachalam, they engaged, in addition to basic chores, in meditation, spiritual reading and healing, study and chanting of mantras, worship meetings, yoga, works of mercy, and maintenance of ashram facilities, including a free kitchen for all residents and guests. Additionally, children and adult education camps became a key feature of the ashram and attracted both his American followers and followers of Indian origin. To his followers of Indian origin, the existence of a magnificent temple was an added, and to some, a key attraction. Indeed, over the years, more so after Guruji’s demise in 1994, Siddhachalam became and continues to be an important place of worship for Jains in North America.
- JSJ: I know that the original temple was very small. When was the large temple established?
MJ: The original temple was at the site of the current main temple. That spot was used by the prior owners of the land as a theatre for children performing drama. The original temple was 8 by 10 feet in size. The main temple was established in 1991. It was designed by Ghisulal Sompura, a well-known designer of traditional Jain temples. The temple was constructed in strict adherence to Jain principles for the construction of temples and continues to serve as the main place of worship at Siddhachalam. Well-known munis, besides dignitaries and others, graced the pratishtha ceremony in 1991. The munis include muni Kirtichandraji, muni Jinchandraji, muni Roopchandji, muni Amrendra Kumarji, Bhttarak Charukirtiji and Bhattarak Devendra Kirtiji. The temple provides darshan of five Teerthankars, Bhagwan Adinath (1st Teerthankar), Chandraprabhu (8th Teerthankar), Shantinath (16th Teerthankar), Parsvanath (23rd Teerthankar) and Mahavir Swami (last Teerthankar), in addition to Bhagwan Bahubali, Manidhari Dadaguru Jinchandraji, Chakreshwari Mata and Padmavati Devi. In addition to the main temples, Siddhachalam has two other temples. The smaller of the two, at the foot of the hill on which the main temple is located, contain the oldest pratimas brought from India for Siddhachalam. It also contains statues that can be purchased by a devotee at nominal charge. In the second temple, one can have darshan of Lord Parsvanath in addition to Saraswati Devi, Lakshmi Devi, Ambika Devi, Ghantakarna Mahavir, Parsva Yaksha, Padmavati Devi and Nakoda Bhairavji. It also has a statue of Guruji.
- JSJ: Was Guruji Digambar or Swetambar? The temple we have has both Digambar and Swetambar pratimas. How was that decision made? Did such a decision cause consternation among Jains?
MJ: Gururji was a Swetambar Sthanakvasi.1 The temples of Siddhachalam have both Digambar and Swetambar pratimas. Guruji rejected differences. He found harmony and unity among people, as he did among their beliefs in religious matters. He once told me that we now have a temple in which all pratimas are on the one pedestal under one roof, and all devotees also gather together under one roof. All that is missing is for the monks to come together on one platform to highlight the magnificence of the message of the Jinas.2 Guruji was a courageous man and I cannot imagine him doubting his decision to bring Digambar and Swetambar pratimas together. In Pittsburg, PA, he helped build the first Hindu-Jain Temple followed by several across the United States.
- JSJ: Has the inclusive view of Jainism as preached by Guruji been an obstacle to developing the ashram?
MJ: I do not think so.
- JSJ: How was it to work with Guruji? What kind of person was he?
MJ: It was very satisfying to work with him. He was a joyful person, full of energy, dynamism, and compassion. He was brilliant, mindful and caring. He had a passion to bring people together and convert their hearts.
- JSJ: Why does Siddhachalam celebrate June 15th?
MJ: June 15th is Guruji’s birthday. It is also around that date that the property for Siddhachalam was acquired.
- JSJ: What serious obstacles did Siddhachalam face over these years?
MJ: Chronologically, the first major problem Siddhachalam faced was that the town required us to find a direct access to the highway. Mud Pond Road traverses through the town and heavy movement of traffic on a small town road, the town feared, may disturb the quiet of the neighborhood. Guruji was sensitive to these concerns. Yet, there was no hope for a direct access unless the neighboring property could be purchased. Guruji was optimistic of a solution and as things have it, soon the neighboring land came up for sale. I do not want to imply that Guruji willed things, but it did seem to me at that time. That property was soon purchased by Siddhachalam and direct access was found to Route 521.
The most serious crisis that Siddhachalam faced was the sudden demise of Guruji in India on April 22, 1994. It was catastrophic for the residents, followers and for the ashram. To make things worse, soon thereafter, there occurred a major fire at Siddhachalam that engulfed the dining facility. That was financially and psychologically further devastating for Siddhachalam.
- JSJ: Is the dining facility that is now being inaugurated a replacement of that?
MJ: That’s correct. It is like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Because the town, in accordance with changed zoning laws, does not permit construction beyond the original plan approved for the former Jewish camp, the new facility is constructed on the same footprint, except that it is better planned and constructed. For that, we appreciate the perseverance of Siddhachalam management headed by Dr. Narendra Parson, former vice-chairman of the board of trustees, and Shanti Chandra Shah, former president of Siddhachalam.
- JSJ: How is it to be in the ashram without Guruji?
MJ: I miss him everywhere and find him in everything. He left his imprint on every aspect of the ashram. I personally miss the long walks we had together.
- JSJ: What, according to you, have been the major milestones for Siddhachalam over these years?
MJ: The major milestones were, chronologically, the establishment of the ashram, annual summer camps for children, recognition as a charitable organization under the Internal Revenue Code, recognition as a non-governmental organization by the United Nation (where we have a permanent representative), three-year contract with Columbia University, New York, for Jain studies, similar contract in a California university, acquisition of additional land and improvements, enlargement of the temples, amendment to the Siddhachalam Constitution, refurbishing of cabins and finally, the reconstruction of the dining facilities.
- JSJ: You have given a good part of your life to Siddhachalam affairs. What do you expect from the new generation?
MJ: I voluntarily retired from an active professional career as a technologist and business executive in 1984. Since then, Siddhachalam occupied a good part of my life. I expect the next generation to utilize the fruits of technology to better disseminate the message of Siddhachalam and to more freely give and share the fruits of their success in this great country. The next generation must develop in themselves and manifest at Siddhachalam a stronger spirit of service and compassion and engage in social and economic uplifting of the less fortunate among us. I hope we have at Siddhachalam periodic medical camps, care-giving of the old, feeble and the abused, and more time devoted to educational activities.
- One of the two major sects among the Swetambars. The other major sect is Murtipujak. Sthanakvasi reject idol worship, among other differences. Murtipujak, on the other hand, believe in idol worship.
- 2 Incidentally, Guruji was one of the members of the committee that oversaw the publication of Saman Suttam, the common teachings of all Jains. Saman Suttam was inspired by Vinoba Bhave and brings together the essence of Jain philosophy without regard to inter sect differences among the various Jain sects.