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ASSOCIATES OF MAHATMA GANDHI > VINOBA BHAVE > MOVED BY LOVE > Beginning the Quest
Beginning the Quest
My Life as a Student
Father had planned not to send his son to school but to have him learn dyeing. So he taught me at home up to the level of the fifth or sixth class, and then sent me for admission to the Kala Bhavan (art school) at Baroda, where he was well known and respected. Everyone there knew me as ‘Bhave’s son’, but they could not admit me. They asked me how far I had gone in English and I told them ‘up to the third English class’; since other candidates had got as far as ‘intermediate arts’, I had no chance. My father then began to teach me further himself, and finding that his lad spent more time roaming about than studying, gave me a lot of mathematical problems to keep me busy. So what did I do? I would concentrate on the more difficult ones which were set out in small type at the end of the text books, work them all out and leave the rest. Father realized that I grasped the subject, so he said nothing; and what I learned with him was all I needed up to the matriculation level. I would first finish my assignment in maths and English within an hour and then be off on my wanderings for four or five hours at a stretch. So finally in disgust Father dumped me in school.
There too I carried on in the same way. I not only went on roaming, I pulled my friends out of their homes to join me and gave them no chance to study. Babaji Moghe used to hide in some temple to study and keep out of my way, but I would search for him, find him and drag him out.
As a boy my two hobbies were reading and roaming. I would be off whenever I got the chance. Another friend of mine, Raghunath Dhotre, would always tell me that I had wheels on my feet. ‘Vinya,’ Mother would say, ‘in your last birth you must have been a tiger; for one thing, you must have your daily round, and for another you have a very keen nose, you can’t bear the slightest bad odour.’ So I soon knew every street in Baroda, and I would be off at all times of day or night—any time would do for me. I liked running too; I used to run a lot, without any idea of the distance covered.
I once set out for a run at half past midnight, and took the road past the Baroda Palace grounds. The sentry shouted his customary challenge Hukum . . . Dar,1 but I took no notice and ran on. A little later I returned by the same road. This time the sentry stopped me and asked why I was running. ‘For exercise,’ I replied. He retorted: ‘Who runs for exercise at one o’clock in the morning? You are up to mischief, you are a thief !’ ‘And when did a thief ever come back by the same road he went out?’ I demanded. He had no answer to that and let me go.
One Diwali2 I spent hours during the three days of the festival going into every little lane and side street in Baroda to see whether there were any houses that did not display the festal lamps. I did not find a single house in the whole city where no lamps were burning. The Muslim houses too all had their lighted lamps.
I also used to visit the various temples. There was one temple close to Kamathi-bag, whose deity I named ‘Lord of Exams’. Our college was nearby, and during examination days crowds of students would visit the shrine for darshan, and to pray that the Lord would grant them a ‘pass’.
In school and college my only concern was how soon the class would end and I be set free. There was one occa- sion when the teacher began to dictate notes. I wrote nothing, I just listened, and the teacher noticed it. When he had finished the dictation he told me to stand up and read what I had written. I stood up at once with my notebook in my hand and repeated all I had heard. The teacher was taken aback. ‘Just let me see your notebook,’ he said. I showed him the blank pages. ‘You won’t be able to read what I have written, Sir,’ I said.
Mathematics was my strong subject. The teacher was fond of his pupils and took great pains over his work. One day I consulted him about an exceptionally difficult problem. He thought for a while and then said: ‘Come back to me tomorrow. In all my years of teaching no one has posed such a problem before. I am so familiar with ordinary mathematics that I could teach it in my sleep, but this problem of yours is a different matter. I shall be able to give you an answer only tomorrow.’ These words made a very deep impression on me.
Our French teacher was of a quiet nature. He would never raise his voice while teaching. Once he was taking roll-call while we were writing examination papers. When my name was called out I, engrossed in writing, almost shouted, ‘Yes, Sir’. After finishing the roll-call he came to me and said, ‘I see, you were engrossed in writing. Still it is not good to shout in this manner. Your tone should have been gentle.’ And then he added, ‘I am telling this because I love you.’ This touched me deeply.
But some teachers, when the children can’t work out their maths problems, have a habit of slapping their cheeks. I wonder what a slap has to do with mathematics? Is it that a slap on the cheek stimulates the flow of blood to the brain, so that it begins to work better and so solve the problem? Could that be the reason? When I was a little lad, about twelve years old, one of the teachers in our school used to cane the children a lot. He seemed to think that caning was the only basis for knowledge. He had a long cane which he kept locked up. We children didn’t like caning, but what could we do? Finally one day I managed to pick the lock and throw the cane away. When the teacher found it gone he guessed, of course, that one of us had been playing pranks, but he said nothing. Next day he brought another cane, and I got rid of that one too. He got yet a third cane, and that also I disposed of. Then he got really annoyed and began asking questions to get at the source of the mischief, but none of the boys said a word—they were all on my side.
In the end, however, the teacher did discover the truth, and having found the culprit he had to devise a punishment. He sentenced me to five hundred ‘sit-ups’3 and told another boy to stand by and count. The boy was a friend of mine and his counting went like this: ‘one-two-three-four-seven-ten’. After a while he got tired and sat down. I went on with my ‘sit-ups’, and soon he started counting again, and told the teacher that the five hundred had been completed. But I too had been counting in my head, and I knew I had only done one hundred and twenty-three. So when the teacher told me to stop and sit down, I said: ‘The five hundred isn’t finished yet, Sir, only one hundred and twenty-three.’ The teacher thought, ‘Here’s an honest lad,’ and said: ‘Sit down, you have already done eighteen too many.’ So I did sit down, but I didn’t understand what he meant. I puzzled over it and in the end got it: five hundred meant five plus a hundred, not five times a hundred—and on that reckoning, as the teacher said, I had done eighteen extra ‘sit-ups’. That was how that teacher took pity on me, and I have never forgotten those figures.
Our English teacher once set, as the subject for an essay, ‘Description of a Marriage Ceremony’. But I had never attended any marriage ceremony. I couldn’t describe it—what was I to do? So I invented a story about a young man who got married, and all the sorrow which befell him and others as a consequence. The teacher noted on my essay: ‘Although you did not deal with the set theme, you used your intelligence,’ and he gave me seven marks out of ten.
The Central Library at Baroda was then considered one of the best libraries in India. During my vacations, after I had had my meal, I would spend the afternoon there. Two or three hours would go by very pleasantly; the librarian had given me free access to the books in the library. During the hot weather I would take off my shirt and sit reading stripped to the waist, until one day one the attendants objected that my dress was not ‘decent’; I ought to have the sense to dress properly, he said. I told him that I dressed by the common sense God had given me, and turned back to my reading, in which I was soon absorbed.
But a complaint reached the Director that a student was sitting in the Reading Room without a shirt and refus- ing to listen to the staff. The Director was an Englishman; his office was on the third floor and he summoned me there. I found him ‘correctly’ dressed in shirt and trousers—but he had a fan over his head. He kept me standing before him (as the English usually did in those days) but as he was older than me, I did not find that humiliating. But then he pointed to my naked torso. ‘Why this?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you know what good manners mean?’
‘Certainly I do,’ I replied, ‘in my own country.’ ‘And what is that?’ he asked. ‘In this country,’ I said, ‘we don’t think it’s good manners for one man to remain seated and keep another man standing.’ He was very pleased that a mere lad like me should have answered so boldly. He at once gave me a chair, and I explained that in India it is no breach of good manners to go naked to the waist in the hot weather. This he accepted, and went on to ask me which books I read, and then told the librarian to give me all the facilities I needed.
Then there was the celebration of the birthday of Shivaji. My friends and I were discussing where it should be held. Shivaji was a lover of freedom, I said, so we should celebrate the day in the open air, not under any roof; we should go off to the hills and the jungles. So that was settled, but then a difficulty arose: the day was not a holiday. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we are studying Shivaji in the history class. We might cut that class and go off into the jungle then.’ This was agreed; off we all went and held our commemoration with all solemnity. On the way back we began to talk about what would happen the next day, when we would surely be punished for our absence. I suggested that we each take a quarter-rupee with us to pay the fine.
In the history class the next day the teacher asked where we had been, and we said that we had been to the jungle to celebrate Shivaji’s birthday. ‘Couldn’t you have done that here?’ he asked. I answered like a shot: ‘Shivaji the freedom-lover can’t be commemorated in the halls of slavery !’ The teacher didn’t like that. ‘You’ll all be fined,’ he said, and we all put our hands in our pockets and laid the coins before him.
In this way we had a lot of discussion and debate about special days and important topics, and a lot of vigorous argument went on in the course of our walks. There were about ten to fifteen of us friends, and we all wanted to undertake some public service. After a time we decided to give our group a more definite shape, and in 1914 we formed a ‘Student Society’ which held regular celebrations of the birthdays of Shivaji, Swami Ramadas and so on. We also had study-discussion groups with talks on such topics as the works of the saints, love of country, the lives of great men, the development of character. At first we met in one another’s homes, then later we hired a room for a few annas. I began by asking Mother for the money for the rent, but afterwards everyone subscribed. We got together a good library, about sixteen hundred volumes of biography, travel, history, science and so on. I had once given a talk on Mazzini, which my friends still remember. In fact I used to be the main speaker and I used to give talks with a serious sense of responsibility.
It was in this Student Society that my public life began, and I believe that the foundation of Gram Seva Mandal (Village Service Society) by me in 1935 was, in a way, linked to that Society. I certainly profited by all the study needed for the talks I delivered, but the greatest boon the Society gave me was friendship; the friends I made in it have remained my friends for life and have never left me. In 1917 I returned to Baroda for its annual function, and suggested that the Society should propagate the use of the Hindi language. I wrote and told Gandhiji that I felt sure it would take up the work and be ready to carry on in Baroda his campaign for Hindi.
After High School I went to the College. But I found the ‘education’ being imparted there totally senseless. Once there was a notice that the Principal was indisposed; so there would be no class on that day. One of the students stood up and said, ‘The Principal is indisposed. Let Mr. Bhave take the chair.’ So I took a class of English poetry. What was there in that poem? It was just an average poem with words like ‘white foot, light foot’. What does one require to teach such a poem? And the Principal was drawing a salary of Rs. 1200 for taking a couple of classes per week ! It was nothing but loot. I could not interest myself in such studies. Ultimately I discontinued them.
Near our house in Baroda lived an old man who used to sit spinning yarn by hand for the ‘sacred thread’.4 I and my friends looked upon him as a laughing-stock. ‘What a relic of the primitive !’ we would say. In later years many of us joined Gandhiji; we too were destined to spend our time spinning yarn by hand on the wheel !

Leaving Home
When I was ten years old I resolved to follow the path of brahmacharya and already, even in childhood, I was thinking about leaving home. I had three great examples before me: Gautama the Buddha, the Maharashtrian Saint Ramadas and the Jagat-guru (world-teacher) Shankara- charya. They exercised a powerful attraction. The Buddha had left behind his wife and little son; Ramadas had been impelled to abandon his bride while the wedding ceremonies were actually in progress; Shankaracharya had never married at all, but taken the vow of brahmacharya and left home when he was only eight years old. These three men were always in my thoughts, and I cherished the inward hope that someday I too would leave home. I was like a girl whose marriage has been arranged, and who in imagination abandons her parents’ home and dwells already in that of her future husband. I too had inwardly left home, and I gave my attention to making sure that I did not go out into the world raw or ‘half-baked’. I prepared myself of course by study and meditation, and in addition I did all I could to make my body a fit instrument of spiritual discipline.
During childhood I had got hold of a book which des- cribed a brahmachari’s rule of life, and quoted from Manu the things forbidden to him: he should wear no shoes, use no umbrella, sleep on no mattress. So I too stopped using these things. Giving up the mattress and the umbrella cost me nothing, but going about barefoot, roaming on the tarred roads for hours on end in the fierce midday heat of Baroda, proved to be bad for my eyes. In Manu’s time students would probably be living in an Ashram where there was no need for any footgear. But as a boy I was very rigorous about this discipline of the body.
I also observed rules about eating and drinking. I never attended wedding feasts or similar festivities. My sister was married when she was still a child, and even at her wedding I stuck to my rule and told Mother that I was not going to eat the feast. Mother said nothing; she cooked some food for me and served me. But afterwards she told me, ‘Vinya, I can understand your not eating the sweets and other wedding delicacies, but why should you object to the plain dal and rice? How can it be wrong to eat the rice and dal cooked for the wedding, when it is exactly the same as what I have cooked for you now?’ How skilfully Mother managed it ! She didn’t argue: she cooked, she fed me, but then she made her point, and I agreed to eat the rice and dal as she said.
I had a knack of putting my thoughts into verse. I would compose poems, taking two or three hours, some- times a whole day, over each one. Then I would chant the verses aloud and correct any shortcomings that I noticed, and when I felt fully satisfied with it I would offer the poem as a sacrifice to the god of fire. One day during the cold weather I was sitting by the kitchen fire keeping myself warm and burning poems. Mother noticed it and asked what I was doing. When I told her she said: ‘But I have never seen your poems !’ So after that, whenever I completed a poem, I would first recite it to her and then throw it into the fire. Later in Benares I would sit composing my poems on the banks of the Ganges, and after I was satisfied with them I would immerse them in the water.
Near our home in Baroda lived a potter who kept a donkey. When I sat down to study at night it would begin to bray, and I found it especially irritating when I was working at some mathematical problem. Could anything be done, I wondered. Then it occurred to me that though the braying was a nuisance to me, the other donkeys probably enjoyed it, and in that case it couldn’t be called ‘bad’. From that day forward I began to train myself to think of it as ‘good’. Whenever the donkey started to bray I would stop studying and attend to its discourse, trying to hear the music in it. Sometimes I would start braying myself in unison with the donkey, so as to feel more at one with it. I began to hear ‘compassion’ in the sound and named it, in high-sounding Sanskrit, ‘Theme Song of the Donkey’.
As a boy I was physically weak and sometimes had severe headaches. When the pain became unbearable I would say to myself, sometimes speaking aloud, ‘This aching head is not I, I am not my aching head ! I am not my head, I am something else !’ It was a great help to me to use these words; they led me to practise the attitude of mind which declares: ‘I am not my body’.
I had also read the Yoga-shastra, and in it was a descri- ption of the posture of one who has attained Samadhi (the experience of ultimate unity). I would seat myself in this posture and imagine myself to have reached Samadhi, though all the time my mind would be running here and there. In Baroda the summers are extremely hot, so I would sit in this posture under the water-tap. As the water dripped from the tap above me and trickled over my head, I would imagine that I was the Lord Shiva5 himself entered into Samadhi. As I played these games my mind did sometimes grow so peaceful that I felt I really was in Samadhi. I don’t know whether it was what the scriptures mean by Samadhi, but it gave me a great joy and I felt emptied of all desire.
The Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaikwad, had installed a statue of the Lord Buddha in one of the public parks, the ‘Jubilee Gardens’, which I always thought of as ‘the garden of the Buddha’. The statue attracted me greatly because the thought of leaving home was in my own mind—put there by the life and teaching of Swami Ramadas, and reinforced when I became acquainted with those of Shankaracharya. It was kept continually before me by the statue of the Buddha, who in youth had turned his back on the pomp of kingship and the pleasures of family life, as being things of no account. There was no solitude to be found in my Garden of the Buddha, but I often went there nevertheless, in order to contemplate and reflect upon this image; it had a great influence on me.
Before I left home I made a bonfire of all my certificates, including my matriculation certificate. I wanted to cut loose, once and for all, from every cable that might tie me down, but Mother was very unhappy and asked why I should burn them. ‘I don’t need them now,’ I said. ‘Perhaps not now,’ she replied, ‘but what harm is there in keeping them?’ ‘No, I shall never take any salaried job,’ I said.
The thought of leaving home had come to me first in 1912, but I tested myself rigorously for four years before making my final decision. Once my mind was made up I never looked back. I wanted to go to Benares, for two reasons. One was that I had read Western science of education, and also studied the lives of the saints, and therefore believed that my education would not be complete without travel. Benares was reputed to be a storehouse of knowledge, especially of Sanskrit and the Scriptures. There I could study the Scriptures. The second reason for going to Benares was that it lay on the route both to the Himalayas and to Bengal, and both these places had a powerful attraction for me.
I felt a great affection and devotion for my father and mother. I was so deeply attached to my mother that in 1918 I went back home to be with her on her death-bed. After her death I chose two of her things to keep in her memory. One was a sari, her precious wedding sari; the other was an image of the goddess Annapurna to which Mother had always without fail made a daily offering. I used the sari as a pillow for many years, until we took the decision to use only khadi (homespun cloth) for all purposes, and the sari was not made of khadi. I went and bathed in the Sabarmati river and immersed the sari in its sacred waters. As for the image of Annapurna, I used it occasionally for meditation—which is a form of worship. But it had always been used for regular daily worship, and I began to feel that my mind would be more at ease if it were in the hands of some pious woman who would offer daily puja as my mother had done. I could have found many such, but I had a special faith in Kashibehn Gandhi.6 I said to her: ‘This image was my mother’s : will you accept it and offer the daily puja as she did?’ Reverently and lovingly she agreed.
But love and attachment for my parents could not stop me leaving home. Everything else paled before the force of the spiritual quest.
In those days one had to go to Bombay to appear for the Intermediate Examination, and a few of us set off from Baroda together. But I and two others, Bedekar and Tagare, left the Bombay train at Surat and took the train for Benares. I wrote to tell my father: ‘Instead of going to Bombay for the exam, I am going somewhere else. You may be assured that wherever I go I shall set my hand to nothing that is wrong.’ That day, the day I left home, was March 25, 1916.