"I know of nothing which is of greater value than reading the Gita. And yet, I have found a living person who follows the philosophy of Gita in his own life. He is my master and lives in an Ashram on the banks of Sabarmati river in Gujarat" said Vinoba Bhave, while concluding his fiftieth talk on Gita. Perhaps these were the apt words in which a disciple could pay tribute to his master. Acharya Vinoba Bhave is not known for wasting words superfluously, for he doesn't possess even a gram of sycophancy in him. Being a student of mathematics and also having a scientific temperament, he knew the worth and significance of the word as a medium of expression. His estimation of Mahatma Gandhi was as good as any judicious person could give. Not only does it shed proper light on the character of the Mahatma, but also speaks volumes on the character of his follower.
Vinayak was only 20 when he came to Kochrab Ashram on 7 June 1916 from Kashi, where he had gone to study Sanskrit. The young man who had gone all the way from Baroda to Kashi to quench his thirst for learning, suddenly left Kashi and turned up at the doors of the Ashram. This was another story of Gandhi's magnetic call. On reaching the Ashram, Vinoba was taken to the kitchen where Gandhi was cleaning and cutting vegetables for the meals. The first conversation continued between them while Gandhi was actually engaged in his daily routine. He welcomed the young man and offered him full membership of the Ashram.
After joining the Ashram, Vinoba conformed to its rigorous and austere life. He worked in the kitchen, in the workshop and in the garden like any other inmate. One day he was heard loudly reciting verses from the Gita and the Upanishads early in the morning at 4 o'clock. It was only then that the inhabitants discovered that the new entrant was a profound scholar of Sanskrit and the religious scriptures. It is interesting to know that Mama Phadke, an inmate of the Ashram from Maharashtra, was the first to name Vinayak as Vinoba, in the saintly tradition of Maharashtra.
In the following days Gandhi and Vinoba worked together grinding corn, cleaning toilets and studying the philosophy of Gita and Upanishads. Some time later, Gandhi described Vinoba to C G Andrews as "one of the few pearls in the Ashram, who came there not to be blessed, but to bless it". But Vinoba in all humility tried to reduce himself to a zero. He did not give the slightest impression of 'showing off.' In the course of a talk with an inmate Vinoba had said: "Only I can know what I have got in the Ashram. It was an early ambition of mine to distinguish myself, by some violent deed, in the service of my country. But Bapu cured me of that ambition. It is he who had extinguished the volcano of anger and other passions in me. I have been progressing every day of my life in the Ashram." Later, recollecting his first meeting with Gandhi at the Ashram, Vinoba wrote: "When I was at Kashi my main ambition was to go to the Himalayas. Also there was an inner longing to visit Bengal. But neither of the two dreams could be realized. Providence took me to Gandhi and I found in him not only the peace of the Himalayas but also the burning fervour of revolution typical of Bengal. I said to myself that both my desires had been fulfilled."
One day while taking bath in the river Sabarmati, Vinoba lost his balance and fell into a fast-moving current. He did not raise any scare for sometime, but when he found that he was being swept away, he cried: "Convey my namaskar to Bapu and tell him that, though Vinoba's body has disappeared, his soul is immortal." As luck would have it, Vinoba was soon thrown up on a strip of land in mid-stream where the water was shallow. From there he swam back to the Ashram.
Kakasaheb Kalelkar has also narrated another incident of similar nature. Once he and Vinoba had gone to a neighbouring village and were returning in the evening along the railway line, and as they were crossing the railway, bridge they heard the sound of an approaching train behind them. There was no railing or foot-path on either side of the bridge. Kakasaheb got scared and started running over the bridge on the wooden planks with gaps in between. Vinoba had weak eyesight so he could not see the gaping gaps between the planks. He too started running after Kakasaheb.. The slightest mistake on his part would have thrown him down into the gushing river below. But mathematics came to his succour and he negotiated the planks with arithmetical accuracy even without seeing them. The engine was only a few yards behind. Kakasaheb had already crossed the other end of the bridge but Vinoba was still running. Seeing that Kakasaheb shouted: "Vinoba, jump to the left." He did so and jumped into a pit nearby. Vinoba had a narrow escape. When Gandhi learnt of this incident, he advised Vinoba to wear glasses in order to stop further deterioration of his eye sight.
In his Ashram life, Vinoba did not rest for a minute during the day. He not only looked after the boys in the hostel and taught various subjects to the students of the Rashtriya Shala, but also spent a few hours in spinning, weaving, cooking, grinding, and preparing the fields with pick-axe for cultivation. Even while teaching, Vinoba exerted all his energy and would even perspire. Whatever he did was done with his whole being.
In 1920, Jamnalal Bajaj came in contact with Gandhi. He was anxious about starting a similar type of Ashram at Wardha, and requested Gandhi to shift there with other inmates. That was not possible at that time. There upon, on Jamnalalji's insistence, Gandhi agreed to spare Vinoba for Wardha Ashram. Maganlal Gandhi was against the proposal, but Bapu prevailed upon him. Vinoba agreed to go to Wardha with a few chosen colleagues and pupils.
Vinayak Narhari Bhave was born on 11 September 1895 at Gagode, formerly in Baroda state but now in Kolaba district of Maharashtra. His father Narhari Shambhurao was in government service at Baroda. Vinoba's grandfather Shambhurao, though deeply religious, was quite progressive in his views. His mother Rukminibai was a devout lady. She knew hundreds 'of Marathi Bhajans-devotional songs- which she would keep on singing in the course of her domestic work. Vinoba's early character was moulded mainly at the hands of his pious and affectionate mother. She led a life of simplicity and self-restraint, and observed religious vows with regularity. It was at her feet that Vinoba imbibed the basic precept: 'He who gives is a god: but he who withholds is a devil.' Vinoba once told a group of workers: "My mother was the source of strength. She had unlimited confidence in my capacity. That living faith of hers gave me immense strength".
Vinoba's personality was shaped by the great qualities of Shambhurao, Narhari and Rukminibai into an extra ordinary amalgam of the wisdom, devotion and action-Jnana, Bhakti and Karma. One comes but rarely across a man who combines the three qualities with such distinction.
In October 1940, Gandhi selected Vinoba Bhave as the first Satyagrahi-civil resister-for the individual Satyagraha against the British, and Jawaharlal Nehru was the second. Gandhi personally went to Pavnar Ashram to seek his consent. During the talk Gandhi expressed his desire to see Vinoba free from the rest of his activities for the Satyagraha. Vinoba's reply was very characteristic of him. He said: "I carry no load on my head. I am as prepared to obey your call, here and now, even as I would be, if the Yamaraj-God of death-had sent for me."
Both Jamnalal Bajaj and Mahadev Desai, who accompanied Gandhi to Pavnar, were deeply touched by this rare example of voluntary obedience and dedication.
After obtaining Vinoba's consent, Gandhi issued a comprehensive statement on 5 October 1940. He introduced Vinoba in the following words:
Who is Vinoba Bhave and why has he been selected for offering individual civil disobedience? He is an under-graduate, having left college after my return to India in 1916. He is a sanskrit scholar. He joined the Ashram almost at its inception..... In. order to better qualify himself he took one year's leave to prosecute further studies in Sanskrit. And practically at the same hour at which he had left the Ashram a year before, he walked into it without notice. I had forgotten that he was due to arrive that day. He had taken part in every menial activity of the Ashram from scavenging to cooking. Though he has a marvellous memory and is a student by nature, he has devoted the largest part of his time to spinning in which he had specialized as very few have. He believes in universal spinning being the central activity which will remove the poverty in the villages and put life into their deadness. Being a born teacher, he has been of the utmost assistance to Ashadevi Aryanayakam of Hindustani Talimi Sangh.in her development of the scheme of education through handicrafts. Sri Vinoba had produced a textbook, taking spinning as the handicraft. He has made scoffers realize that spinning is the handicraft par excellence which lends itself to being effectively used for basic education. He had revolutionised Takli spinning and drawn out its hitherto unknown possibilities. For perfect spinning, probably, he had no rival in all India.
He has abolished every trace of untouchability from his heart. He believes in communal unity with the same passion that I have. In order to know..... Islam, he gave one year to the study of the Koran in the original. He, therefore, learned Arabic.
He has an army of disciples and workers, who would rise to any sacrifice at his bidding. He is responsible for producing a young man who has dedicated himself to the service of the lepers. Vinoba was for years director of the Mahila Ashram in Wardha. His devotion to the cause of Daridranarayan took him to a village near Wardha... from where he has established contact with villagers through the disciples he has trained.
Vinoba believes in the necessity of the political independence of India. He is an accurate student of history. But he believes that real independence of the villagers is impossible without the constructive programme of which Khadi is the centre. He believes that the spinning wheel is the most suitable outward symbol of non-violence which has become an integral part in the previous Satyagraha campaigns. He has never been in the limelight on the political platform. With many co-workers he believes that silent constructive work with civil disobedience in the background is far more effective than the already heavily crowded political platform. And he thoroughly believes that nonviolent resistance is impossible without a hearty belief in and practice of constructive work.
But this was not the first time when Gandhi had talked or written about Vinoba. As early as June 1916, he had informed his father at Baroda in the course of a brief letter:
"Your son Vinoba is with me. He has acquired at so tender an age such high-spiritedness and ascetism as took me years of patient labour to do."
During the Individual Satyagraha, Vinoba courted three imprisonments and a year's jail term. During his incarceration he wrote the Swaraj Shastra or A Grammar of Politics, which is ranked among the very few original treatises on politics.
In 1942 Vinoba was again put behind bars on the very first day of the Quit India movement. He was kept under detention for three years, first at the Vellore Central Prison and later at the Seoni Jail.
On his release in 1944 Vinoba returned to his Pavnar Ashram and carried on his constructive work.
In early March, after the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948, an all-India conference was convened at Sevagram. Attended by many including Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, J B Kripalani, Shankarrao Deo and top ranking constructive workers like Kaka Kalelkar, R R Diwakar, Dada Dharmadhikari, P C Ghosh and Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba initiated the formation of the Sarvodaya Samaj, a world-wide organization of all those who believed in Gandhi's principle of the purity of means.
On Nehru's request Vinoba worked for some time among the refugees. He also toured other parts of the country to spread the message of love, compassion and sympathy.
After returning to his Ashram, early in 1950, Vinoba plunged into a new experiment of Kanchan Mukti or liberation from money economy. He and his co-workers took a solemn pledge to eat only what they could raise on the Ashram land and to wear only the Khadi which was spun and woven within its premises. All donations except in the form of labour or Shramdan were strictly ruled out.
While Vinoba was engaged in his crucial experiment of his life, a pressing invitation came from Shankarrao Deo, to attend the second All India Sarvodaya Sammelan at Shivarampalli near Hyderabad. Vinoba naturally demurred, but was ultimately prevailed upon. Thereupon, Vinoba announced his decision to go to the Sammelan, covering its 300 miles from Wardha to Shivarampalli on foot.
At the conclusion of the conference Vinoba expressed his desire to tour the Telengana area affected by terrorist activities. He refused to accept any kind of security arrangements. On 18 April 1951 when Vinoba reached Pochampalli village he was surrounded by 40 families of poor Harijans. They entreated upon him to give them land on which they could work hard and eke out their own livelihood. Vinoba was at his wit's end and did not know how to pacify the Harijans. First, he thought of asking the Government to consider their request. But, on the spur of the moment and without any expectation, he asked the audience in half seriousness, whether there was anybody amongst them who could donate land to the poor Harijans. A young man stood up with folded hands and urged Vinoba to accept his donation of a hundred acres. Everybody was pleasantly surprised and tears trickled down from Vinoba's eyes. He saw God's hand in this miracle. On enquiry, the Harijans conferred among themselves and stated that only 80 acres would suffice for their needs. Vinoba announced this first donation of land with deep emotion at the evening prayers.
This was the birth of the Bhoodan Movement in India. Prime Minister Nehru warmly lauded his work in the Parliament. The New York Times special Correspondent Robert Trumbull described Vinoba as "the God who gives away land" and "loots people with love". President Rajendra Prasad termed Bhoodan as not merely" a gift of land" but the "spirit behind it gives a vision of the social order that Mahatma Gandhi envisaged, and kindles and enlivens the hope of its attainment". The Time magazine featured this 'man on foot' in its cover story and hailed him as the dynamic disciple of Gandhi.
The Bhoodan March of Vinoba began and continued for more than thirteen years in different parts of India, covering a total distance of 36,500 miles, more than the circumference of the earth. During this Padayatra, he collected 4.4 million acres of land as free gifts, out of which about 1.3 million acres were distributed among landless farm workers. The Bhoodan Movement was followed by Gramdan and Jeevandan movements. Vinoba had also received 1.61akh villages as Gramdan, especially in Bihar and Orissa. All this had been achieved single-handedly. In Jeevandan, the person who created a thrilling joy was Jayaprakash Narayan who, while dedicating this life; said: "Despair had seized our hearts after the attainment of independence: Ahimsa was being treated as a negative creed. Vinoba has now dispelled these illusions. As the light of Bhoodan Yagna spreads out, these clouds of doubt and darkness scatter away…the task before us all is to sustain the new outlook by concrete work and to make it a reality."
Acharya Vinoba Bhave, the founder of many movements and hermitages, and hardly known outside India before 1940, became a world figure soon after the Bhoodan Movement. The "Walking Messiah and Saint" was invited by Bertrand Russell to join the Anti-Nuclear March in London in 1962, characterizing him as a "symbol of the role of conscience in human affairs." Arthur Koestler met him thrice and termed the Bhoodan Movement as the "greatest peace revolution since Gandhi". Ellsworth Bunker described him as "a saint who compresses into a small body and great spirit the essence of ancient Indian tradition."
Hallam Tennyson, grandson of the English poet who walked with Vinoba for several days, called him 'the embodiment of India', and remarked: "The twentieth century may be rich in jet aeroplanes, but it is pretty poor in saints. We need to remember that what we call 'progress' is nothing if it leads to no corresponding inner change, and Vinoba gives us this reminder in the one way which has power to move and impress." He ends it with a significant observation: "But with all his ascetism, Vinoba has resisted pride of poverty-that subtlest temptation of the saints. He has never urged anyone else to follow his way of life. And he goes his own way with a striking serenity. To someone who asked him if his work would succeed, he replied, 'Fire merely burns. It does not care whether anyone puts a pot on it, fills it with water and puts rice in it to make a meal. To burn is the limit of its duty'."
Vinoba Bhave died on 15 November 1982. Once in a message to the Sarvodaya conference, Jawaharlal Nehru had said: "in the troubled but dynamic scene that was India, the frail figure of Vinobaji stood like a rock of strength, modest and gentle, yet with something of the vision of the future in his eyes... He represented, as no one else did, the spirit and tradition of Gandhi and of India."