A Tribute to Jagdish Chandra Sharda

Jagdish Sharda with Sangh workers from Houston and other cities at Pune camp in 2010

Jagdish Sharda with Sangh workers from Houston and other cities at Pune camp in 2010

By Manu Shah

HOUSTON: Jagdish Chandra Sharda or Shastriji, as he was affectionately known, passed away peacefully on 25th December at the age of 97. While he always shied away from the limelight and would wave off any kind of praise, every one of the thousands whose lives he touched remember him as a towering personality who worked for Hindu unity selflessly, tirelessly and taught by example and compassion.

Shastriji’s last rites took place according to Hindu traditions in Markham, Toronto and was attended by more than 350 people. Family, friends, RSS karyakartas and pracharaks shared their memories of him at a prayer meeting on December 30th in Toronto where he settled after his retirement as a professor of Hindi in Nairobi.

Jagdish Sharda with Vijay Pallod at Vishwa Sangh Shivir Pune 2010.

Jagdish Sharda with Vijay Pallod at Vishwa Sangh Shivir Pune 2010.

Well into his 80s and 90s and troubled by advanced arthritis, Shastriji’s commitment to the Sangh never diminished. Ratan Sharda, a nephew, recalled how he had to persuade Shastriji to write his memoirs as he wanted to remain a selfless anonymous worker at the field level. He also stated that Shastriji’s life needs to be celebrated as he did the work of two lifetimes in one lifetime.

Citing instances of his spirit of humanity, his son Kamalesh recalled how it was customary to see him walk home with total strangers and offer them food and shelter and how Shastriji would carry hundreds of sandwiches made by his mother every day for refugees escaping Belgian Congo in Kenya.  
His student, David Hansburger spoke in Hindi and described Shastriji’s passion for sharing his knowledge and his systematic way of teaching. A granddaughter fondly recollected his penchant for narrating jokes and his firm belief that laughter is the best medicine.

Jagdish Sharda with Atal Bihar Vajpayee.

Jagdish Sharda with Atal Bihar Vajpayee.

The journey of this great soul began in the small village of Charik in Punjab. His parents and paternal grandmother were his role models – embodiments of sewa or selfless service. Shastriji excelled academically and despite the untimely death of his father and financial constraints completed his Honors in Sanskrit with flying colors.

While in school, the 17 year old Jagdish saw a group of youth playing Indian games, practicing yoga and speaking to each other very respectfully. This piqued his interest and he joined the group or the Shakha as it was called and thus began his lifelong journey with the RSS or Sangh.

In 1946, he secured a teaching position at the Arya Samaj Girls’ School in Nairobi, Kenya. On the ship, he met a fellow swayamsevak Manek Lal Rughani. The two would meet every day on the deck, play some games and conclude by singing the Sangh prarthana (prayer). By the time they disembarked, the group had 17 people.  Some were already swayamsevaks while others had become swayamsevaks on the deck. This was the beginning of Sangh work abroad.

On reaching Nairobi, Shastriji began contacting like-minded people to join him in starting a shakha. On 14th January, 1947, the first Shakha was launched with 21 swayamsevaks.  It is from this shakha and his efforts that the Sangh spread to Seychelles, Madagascar and the East African countries and later to England, Canada and Australia through Kenyan swayamsevaks who migrated to those countries.

The Sangh, Shastriji often explained, was not a reactionary movement but a proactive and positive one. Its aim was to strengthen Hindu society and remove caste, creed and linguistic barriers or differences. Swayamsevaks are taught to serve people in every possible way, especially in times of natural calamities.

After his retirement, Shastriji moved to Canada in 1980 where he continued to co-ordinate Sangh work till the age of 75. Simultaneously, he worked to establish the Hindu Institute of Learning (HIL) till the last days of his life so that the Hindu and Canadian community would have access to learning Sanskrit, Hindi, Indian music, the Gita and the Ramayana.

In the last few months, his health deteriorated rapidly but he continued working. When asked why he wouldn’t slow down he simply replied, “Pardon me oh Mother Bharat Mata. I could not do more for you.”

Two prominent Houstonians shared their thoughts about this great soul.

Ramesh Bhutada, National Vice President, HSS USA stated, “He is the first one to start Sangh shakha outside of India in Kenya, he has spent all his life to provide services for the Hindu community work. He did not seek any fanfare or recognition for the same. In a real sense he is a true Karmayogi.” Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awardee Ramesh Shah added “Shastriji was one of the pioneers in thinking of the Hindu community and its service towards humanity in the Western world after Independence. As a Swayamsevak, he not only started Shakhas but gave guidance on how to live with cooperation and serve society.”