This story begins at the beginning of the 20th century in India, when a new class of educated and so called cultured elites in society believed that religion was the purview of illiterate, uncultured and blind followers. These fraternities always ridiculed religions during this time. The reformist movements had gained momentum under British rule and the so-called modern education system was thrust upon their crown colony in place of indigenous Vedic education. Even at such a time, a galaxy of leading intellectuals, philosophers and respected educationalists of society were flocking to Shastriji Maharaj and were bowing to his feet as his disciples with utmost reverence. Among these intellectuals was one Jethalal Chimanlal Swaminarayan, professor of Mathematics at the famous Gujarat College in Ahmedabad.
He was born on 29 August 1884 in the Kadva Patidar family of Shri Chimanlal Harivallabhdas, living in the famous Kadva Pole, Ahmedabad. Shri Chimanlal was a personal adviser to Shri Keshavprasadji Maharaj, then religious head (acharya) of the Swaminarayan Mandir at Kalupur, Ahmedabad. Jethalal inherited the Swaminarayan faith from his wealthy and reputable family.
Towards the end of the 19th century, members of this Patidar community were making their living from farming on the outskirts of the city of Ahmedabad. During this time there were some bright sons of this community, like Jethalal, who were enamoured by the new reformist education movement. Jethalal had a deep love for mathematics and had made his name in this field of study. His accomplishments in the field of mathematics were duly noted in the editorial of Sandesh, a popular newspaper. This editorial mentioned, “Of all leading mathematicians of the day, Shri Jethalal Swaminarayan was second only to Professor Paranjape, a top notch mathematician in the entire Bombay province” (Sandesh, 26 June 1941).
Jethalal went to Pune and studied under Professor Raghunath Paranjape the deep mysteries of mathematics. After this, he started his glorious career as a professor of mathematics, first with Gujarat Vidyapith and later with the renowned Gujarat College in Ahmedabad. In addition to mathematics, Jethalal also had a scholarly linguistic interest in Sanskrit. Jethalal had graduated with an M.A. degree in Sanskrit and was regarded among the leading Sanskrit scholars of the day. However, he chose to pursue a career in mathematics.
The split of the province of Bengal engineered by Viceroy Lord Curzon had precipitated into the Bang Bhang movement during 1908, leading to the public’s aspiration for the country’s independence from British Rule. Despite such a promising career in academia, Jethalal, at the young age of 22, chose to focus his energies on the independence movement and in the service of his country. He became restless with his fervour to serve his country. At that time, a convention of the Indian National Congress had convened and passed a three-pronged resolution of civil disobedience to British rule. Jethalal tendered his resignation from a prestigious and rewarding position in accordance with this resolution. The editors of Sandesh noted this and wrote in its editorial: “He had a very prestigious position at Gujarat College which he willingly gave up to take on the noble cause of liberating his country from the shackles of colonial rule. His sacrifice was no small matter. He could have instead secured a very honourable position at any other college in the state. However, he decided to sever his associations with all government run colleges and face inevitable financial hardships. This he considered his fortune in the service of the nation. Till his last breath, he considered any assistance or handout from the government unacceptable. His career as a professor and an intellectual was incomparable. One could not find a scholarly mind like him in all of Gujarat. Despite being recognized as a leading mathematician of his time in academia, he was never disengaged from public service” (Sandesh, 26 June 1941).
Besides his academic career, Jethalal’s political career was taking shape as well. After having resigned from his position as professor, he was a member of the legislative assembly for twelve years. This highly intelligent, incisively logical and gutsy patriot impressed all who knew him. A narrative in Mrs. Lilavati Munshi’s book Rekha Chitra (pp. 207-208) vividly explained Jethalal’s performance during one memorable day in a legislative session, which shows his true political acumen. This is the eyewitness narrative:
“Shivdasani (Member of Legislative Assembly) spoke after Petite (British Civil Servant). The proposal under consideration was by the Simon Committee; however, he spoke instead about the proposal of Bardoli Satyagrah. The next speaker was the honourable Swaminarayan. Who wouldn’t know the honourable Swaminarayan? His oratory style, his dressing style, his thoughts and his representation could easily be praised as uniquely poetic. He could be easily classified as an icon representing the entire culture of Charotar. The following illustration provides a more in-depth glimpse into his character: while he was a student of mathematics in college, he used to scribble solutions to complex mathematical problems on the bathroom wall while taking a bath. His devotion to his chosen field of mathematics was nothing short of legendary. He is now representing the Swaraj (Self Rule) Party in the legislature.”
The editor of the Sandesh newspaper, while speaking of Jethalal’s dazzling performance in the Bombay legislative council notes: “When he started bombarding with his incessant questioning in the assembly, even the most seasoned veteran members used to get spellbound. Moreover, he was giving nationalistic speeches to the general public and was aptly conveying the patriotic message to the masses. His power of oratory was straight forward and so effective that the public could easily understand his message” (Sandesh, 26 June 1941).