The Holy Task
(April 1921 - February 1951)
All our friends, for one reason or another, were busy with political work. Even those who felt drawn to constructive work were caught in the political current. To keep out of it, while maintaining one’s breadth of outlook, is really a form of Yoga,1 and by the grace of God I was able to do it. For thirty years I continued my work, keeping the world under observation, but keeping aloof as though nothing whatever were happening in it. Thanks to the combination of the experience of this work and disinterested observation, I was able to grasp a number of things in a way that was not possible for those who were carried away by the current.
During the thirty years from 1921 to 1951, except for the unavoidable trips to prison, I spent my whole time in educational and constructive work, and I also thought a great deal about the principles on which it should be based. I was teaching, studying, reflecting and so on, but I took little part in the political movement as such, except in the Flag Satyagraha, Individual Satyagraha and the ‘1942 Movement’, which were matters of inescapable duty. Apart from that, the whole thirty-year period was spent in one place. I kept in touch with events in the outside world, but my own time was given to an effort to discover how far my work could be carried on in the spirit of the Gita, of ‘non-action in action’.
I entered on this task with such single-mindedness that it was something peculiarly my own. But I knew that ‘single-minded’ must not mean ‘narrow-minded’, that one must keep the whole in view. So while I was working in the Ashram, attending to village service and teaching students, I also kept myself informed about the various movements going on in the world. I studied them from the outside, but I took no part in them. I was in fact in the position of the onlooker who can observe the game better than the participants. If any leader or thinker visited Bapu at Sevagram he would direct him to me; it was not my habit to impose my ideas on others, but there were useful exchanges of thought, and in this way, even though I remained in one place, I had good opportunities to get to know what was going on and to reflect on it.
These thirty years of my life were shaped by faith in the power of meditation. I never left the place, I stuck like a clam to Paramdham Ashram and the river Dham. After the painful events in Maharashtra which followed Gandhiji’s demise, Sane Guruji2 was much perturbed and undertook a twenty-one day fast. He sent me a letter. ‘Vinoba,’ he wrote, ‘won’t you come to Maharashtra? You are badly needed.’ I wrote back: ‘I have wheels in my feet, and from time to time I have an urge to travel, but not now. When the time comes, no one in the world will be able to stop me. (It’s possible of course that God might stop me, He might take away my power to walk, but that is a different matter.) And until my time comes, no one in the world can make me get up and move.’ That reply shows the stubborn and obstinate spirit in which I stuck to my own work.
Nevertheless the touchstone of all my constructive work was whether it would contribute, however little, to Self-realization. I did my best to nurture in those around me a spirit of goodwill, and to turn out good workers. Both we and the government are interested in constructive work. The government will certainly take it up, and no doubt people will derive some benefits. But these benefits, and a revolution in one’s values, are not the same thing. They would be the same, of course, if we measure ‘benefits’ in terms of the eternities; otherwise such temporal, worldly benefits and the change in values are altogether different.
This change of values is what we mean by ‘peaceful revolution’. A revolution is not just any kind of change; a real revolution means a fundamental change, a change in values, and that sort of change can only take place peacefully, for it takes place in the realm of thought. This principle was the foundation of all my thinking, and my experiments were conducted on this basis.
I look upon myself as a manual labourer, that is why I spent thirty-two years, the best years of my life, in that kind of labour. I did different types of work, including those which human society cannot do without, but which in India are looked down upon as low and mean—scavenging (removing human excreta), weaving, carpentry, agricultural labour and so on. Had Gandhiji lived I would never have left these jobs; the world would have found me totally absorbed in some work of that kind. I am a manual labourer by choice, though by birth I am a ‘Brahmin’ which means one who is steadfast in Brahman, the Supreme, and follows the principle of non-possession. I cannot give up the faith in Brahman, so all that I do has one basic purpose, a deeper and wider realization of the Self.
At the earnest request of Jamnalalji Bajaj, Bapu decided to open a branch of the Satyagraha Ashram at Wardha, and directed me to take charge of it. So with one fellow-worker and four students I started work there on April 8, 1921.
Spinning as the Service of God
After I joined Gandhiji in 1916 I tried out many kinds of work, and I was one of the first to learn to weave at his instance. To begin with I wove nivar,3 and worked very hard at it, because by weaving twenty-five yards a day one could earn one’s keep. But no matter how hard I worked I couldn’t weave twenty-five yards in eight hours. In the end I managed to make twenty-five yards in ten hours; that meant really hard labour until 9.30 at night.
At that time, in 1916, all our yarn came from the mills. Then it dawned on us that mill yarn would not do India any particular good. So slowly we began to turn our attention to the spinning wheel. We sat down to spin, and next came the carding of the cotton and after that the combing of the fibre. I began to try out improved methods for all these processes. I would spin for hours, weave for hours, paying attention to every stage of the work and experimenting with it. Next I began to calculate what wages ought to be paid for spinning, and in order to arrive at a fair wage I began to spin four hanks of yarn a day. I would spin for hour after hour and live on my earnings. This experiment continued without a break for a full year.
When I began this sacred exercise it took me eight and a half or nine hours to spin four hanks. I practised spinning in different postures. I would spin standing for two or two and a half hours, and then sit on the ground, sometimes using my left hand and sometimes my right. To these four alternative postures one might add a fifth, sitting on a bench with feet on the ground. For part of the time I would teach as I spun, and for the rest remain silent. As I drew each length of yarn I would chant the closing words of the Gayatri Mantra,4 and as I wound the thread on to the spindle I would chant the opening line. All this made my task as light as air, and it seemed no labour at all to produce my four daily hanks of yarn.
My daily routine was usually to spin for about nine hours, during two of which I also taught—so that I once added up my account of my twenty-four hour day to twenty-six hours ! I tried to give four or five hours to other things, such as correspondence, while ten hours went in attending to bodily needs, including sleep.
I slept each night at the Kanya Ashram and spent the day in Nalwadi, returning to the Ashram at six in the evening. There I had talks with Bapu, Balkoba, Babaji (Moghe),5 Shivaji and others; then came the evening prayer, more spinning, and sleep. After the early morning prayer I held classes in the Upanishads for the boys and girls of the Ashram and some teachers. After the class I would start for Nalwadi and reach there by six a.m.
On September 1, 1935 I started a new practice, though in fact it was not really new, it merely became more noticeable. The whole spinning exercise was designed to demonstrate that a man could earn his living by spinning, provided he received the wages I had calculated, and the market prices remained steady. On this basis I reckoned that one should be able to live on six rupees a month; the diet included fifty tolas of milk, thirty tolas of vegetables, fifteen to twenty of wheat, four of oil, and some honey, raw sugar or fruit.
This principle, that a spinner should be able to earn his living by his work, had always been accepted from the first years at Wardha, 1922-23. The new practice we began at Nalwadi in 1935 was that at four o’clock each afternoon we reckoned up how much work had been done. If it was found that by six o’clock (after eight hours of work) the spinners would have earned full wages, then the evening meal was cooked. Otherwise, the workers had to decide whether to forego the evening meal, or to work extra time and earn the full wages. Sometimes the ration was reduced when the earnings fell short. My students were quite young lads, but they worked along with me enthusiastically to the best of their power.
The Charkha Sangh (All India Spinners Association) had fixed wages which amounted to only five rupees a month for four hanks daily, that is, for nine hours’ work a day. In my opinion a spinner should receive not less than four annas (a quarter-rupee) for his daily quota; Bapu would have liked it to be eight annas. But that would have put up the price of khadi, and the gentry would not be prepared to pay a higher rate. What could be done? The only way was for someone like me to experiment in living on the spinner’s wage.
Bapu soon heard of my experiment. He was living at Sevagram, but he was alert to everything that was going on. When we next met he asked me for details. ‘How much do you earn in a day,’ he enquired, ‘calculated at the Charkha Sangh rate?’ ‘Two annas, or two and a quarter,’ I said. ‘And what do you reckon you need?’ ‘Eight annas,’ I replied. ‘So that means,’ he commented, ‘that even a good worker, doing a full day’s work, can’t earn a living wage !’ His distress was evident in his words. At last, thanks to his efforts, the Charkha Sangh accepted the principle of a living wage, though in practice we are still a long way from achieving it.
This debate about wages went on for two or three years. The Maharashtra Charkha Sangh made the first move, and as no adverse consequences followed, they were embold- ened to take a second step, bringing the wage to double what it had been. An ordinary spinner could earn four annas by eight hours’ work, while a good spinner could earn six annas. Some specially skilful and hard-working individuals might occasionally earn as much as eight annas—the amount Gandhiji had proposed as the standard. But though the Maharashtra Charkha Sangh adopted the principle, it still seemed impracticable to people in the other provinces.
After I had succeeded in spinning four hanks of yarn in nine hours on the wheel, I planned a similar experiment with the takli (i.e. using a spindle). But my speed was so slow that I felt it was beyond me to achieve satisfactory results. I wanted some more capable person to take it up, because it was only by such experiments that the idea of khadi could really gain ground. I myself experimented for a full year with takli spinning by the left hand, and found that there was a difference of twelve yards in the production of the right and left hands. The purpose of the exercise was to find out whether a full day’s wage could be earned on the takli, spinning for eight hours with both the hands. My fellow-worker Satyavratan was able in this way to produce three hanks of yarn in eight hours.
In those days, about 1934, we used to come together every day at noon for takli spinning. I looked upon this as a form of meditation, and I told my fellow-workers that while I had no wish to impose my ideas on others, I did hope that there would be a better attendance at this takli meditation even than at meals. If this does not happen, one reason is that we do not pay attention to the principles upon which it is based. Meditation stands as it were midway between practical affairs and knowledge—knowledge of the Self—and acts as a bridge. Its task is to enable us, who are preoccupied with practical activities, to reach the Supreme Truth. Meditation appeals first to practical benefits, and by concentration on these benefits leads us to the further shore, to peace, contentment and knowledge of the Self. Let a person begin with the thought that if every inhabitant of India were to take to the takli or the charkha, many of the country’s ills would be remedied. If he starts spinning for that reason it will bring peace of mind. Whatever we undertake in this spirit of reflection or meditation brings both outward and inward benefit, and experience of the takli is of this kind.
A good deal of suffering and sacrifice has been associa- ted with the takli. In those days it was not permissible for a prisoner to keep one in jail, and Gopal Shankar Dandekar was allowed to have one only after he had fasted for it. Kakasaheb6 had to fast eleven days for it. Many others too, both men and women, had some severe struggles to get it. The story of their sacrifices on behalf of the takli is as intere- sting as the tale of Robinson Crusoe, and could be written in just as fascinating a way as the stories of the Puranas.
I feel convinced that the country will not achieve unity without this kind of meditation. It is not inter-marriage nor inter-dining between various groups, nor a common language, which will make us one nation; it is common feeling. A nation is an expression of the feeling of oneness. Where can we experience that oneness, that equality, except where we pray and spin together? Elsewhere, we are given divisive labels: teacher and taught, rich and poor, healthy and sick, and so on. I use the word ‘meditation’ both for prayer and for takli (or charkha) spinning. Spoken prayer is meditation in words; takli spinning is meditation in work.7
Living on Two Annas a Day
In 1924 I began to study economics. There were not many books to be had in my own language, so I read a number in English. To make my studies realistic I lived on two annas a day, as the average income per head in India was at that time two annas or less. I had three meals a day; of my two annas (eight pice) I spent seven pice on foodstuffs and one on firewood. The foodstuffs were millet flour, groundnuts, some vegetable, salt and tamarind. While this was going on I had to go to Delhi, as Bapu was fasting there. In Delhi the millet flour could not be had; wheat flour cost more, so I had to give up groundnuts. This practice continued for a year, and someone may perhaps ask what this austerity had to do with the study of economics.
I hold that we can only properly digest any subject when we adapt ourselves to it, and harness our senses and faculties accordingly. For two years, when I was concen- trating on the study of the Vedas, I lived on milk and rice alone, with nothing else. It is my custom to establish this kind of link between my lifestyle and my study, and it seems to me essential to do so. In this way I matched my standard of life to my study of economics. This study benefited me a great deal and I forgot what seemed useless to me. But I made a thorough study of such thinkers as Tolstoy and Ruskin.
Under Bapu’s Command
In 1925 there was a satyagraha campaign at Vykom in Kerala on the issue of temple entry. The Harijans were not only kept out of the temple, they were not even allowed to use the road which led to it. satyagraha had been in progress for some time, but seemed to be having no effect. I was then at Wardha, while Bapu was at Sabarmati. He sent word for me to go to Vykom and have a look at what was going on. He gave me a double job: to meet the learned, orthodox pandits and try to convince them, and also to make any suggestions I might have about satyagraha itself. I had neither knowledge nor experience then, yet Bapu put his faith in me, and I also in faith plucked up the courage to go. I had many discussions with the pandits at several places, and as they preferred to speak Sanskrit I did my best to speak it also, but I did not succeed in bringing about any change of heart. As for the rest, any satyagraha, if it is pure, is bound in the end to prove effective. I was able to make a few suggestions to those who were conducting it, and reported to Bapu what I had done. Later Bapu went there in person, and the problem was solved.
I tried to participate as well as I could in whatever activities Bapu suggested. In 1921 he called on us to get ten million members enrolled in the Congress, and to collect a Tilak Swaraj Fund8 of ten million rupees. I was then living at Wardha, and I took part in the work there. I went round the city from house to house, explained the principles of the Congress, and enrolled as members those who accepted them. Working for five or six hours a day, I could get only five or ten people to join, whereas others were enrolling two or three hundred members a day. I could not understand why there should be this difference, and asked if I might accompany them for four or five days and learn how to do better. ‘No,’ they said, ‘please don’t. You are doing well. Our trick is to get some big employer to pay fifty rupees, and enrol two hundred of his workers en masse at a quarter-rupee a head.’
At that time I was myself a member of the Congress, but in 1925 I resigned, as Bapu also did in 1934. It happened in this way. Without my prior consent I was appointed from Wardha to the Provincial Committee in Nagpur. The meeting was called for three in the afternoon, so I left Wardha at noon, taking with me a copy of the Rigveda to read on the train. When the meeting began all the members were given copies of the constitution, and at the very outset one member raised a point of order. ‘This meeting is irregular,’ he said, ‘because insufficient notice was given. It should have had so many days’ notice, see rule five on page four of the constitution.’ We all turned to that page. ‘Yes, that is the rule,’ said another speaker, ‘but in special circumstances meetings may be called at shorter notice.’ He too referred to some page or other, and a discussion arose about which rule should be followed. I looked at the rules in the book, which I had not before seen, and thought that if the meeting was declared irregular we should indeed prove ourselves to be fools ! Finally it was decided that it was in order and business could begin, but by then it was dinnertime and the meeting was adjourned. It met again after the meal, but I did not attend. When I got back to Wardha next day I resigned both from the Committee and also from the Congress itself, for it seemed to me that rules were being treated as more important than human beings, and the proceedings had no interest for me.
From the time I met Bapu, I have spent my life in carrying out his orders. Before that there was a time when I used to dream of doing some act of violence, so earning fame for myself and sacrificing myself on the altar of the country. Bapu drove that demon out of my mind, and from that time I have felt myself growing, day by day and year by year, and making one or other of the great vows an integral part of my life.9
From 1932 onwards, with Nalwadi10 as our base, we began going from village to village, trying to be of service to the people. After two or three years we came to the conclusion that a solid integrated plan ought to be chalked out for the whole neighbourhood. As a result of this thinking, in 1934 we set up the Gram Seva Mandal (Village Service Society), drew up a scheme of village work for the whole of Wardha tehsil,11 and started khadi, Harijan uplift and other activities in a few selected villages.
I have no particular attachment to institutions. I have lived in Ashrams such as Sabarmati, of course, and I even directed the Wardha Ashram. These Ashrams have moulded my life, and become a part of me, but I was not responsible for starting them. It was Gandhiji who started the Sabarmati Ashram and Jamnalalji who was responsible for that at Wardha.
In 1959, when the Gram Seva Mandal was twenty-five years old, I wrote to its members that in spite of lack of attachment to institutions as such, I had so far founded three of them. These were the Vidyarthi Mandal of Baroda (in 1911-12), the Gram Seva Mandal of Nalwadi (in 1934) and the Brahmavidya Mandir at Paunar (in 1959). One was the work of my early youth, the second of the prime of my life, and the third of my old age.
The first was not meant to continue indefinitely: it was active for the five or six years of our lives as students. It fully achieved its purpose. Of its members Babaji Moghe, Gopalrao Kale, Raghunath Dhotre, Madhavrao Deshpande, Dwarakanath Harkare and a few others joined me in public service and were engaged for the rest of their lives in one activity or another. Mogheji was with me even in the Brahmavidya Mandir.
The second institution is the Gram Seva Mandal. The seed-idea had in fact been sown in the Vidyarthi Mandal in 1912. This institution cannot be said to have succeeded one hundred per cent but I am well content with it, for it has done many kinds of service and produced a number of good workers.
In 1957, during the bhoodan (land-gift) movement,12 I suggested to the Mandal that the time had come for it to base itself on bhoodan. From the very beginning it had given the first place to non-violence and village industries; it should also work now for the establishment of a party-less society in the Wardha District. To this end those who were working for bhoodan in the district should be enrolled as members, and the Mandal should thus become the centre of work for the Gramdan-Gramraj revolution. Its emphasis on productive work and self-sufficiency should be maintained, but it should also do as much extensive work as possible. In other words, one aspect should be work of a permanent, self-reliant nature, while the other aspect should have a wider scope and it could be financed by sampatti-dan.
There is one more view of mine regarding the planning of our lives: it is not right that one individual should spend his whole life in one kind of work. When the work has taken shape, perhaps after twenty or twenty-five years, the senior workers should gradually withdraw and become vanaprasthis.13 I have always held this view, and there are not many senior workers in Paramdham. Like the ever-new waters of the river Dham, Paramdham itself remains ever new. I would like the Gram Seva Mandal to do the same.
Serving Broken Images
During out visits to the villages (from 1932 onwards) we made it a point to observe what was needed, and to hold regular discussions of how the needs might be met. We had no idea that we should find leprosy to be so terribly common, but it quickly compelled our attention, and the question of how to tackle it arose. We agreed that we could not ignore it, though at that time leprosy work had not been included in Gandhiji’s constructive programme. With the vision of all-round service before my eyes I could not neglect this aspect of it.
Our friend Manoharji Diwan was inspired to take it up, for the situation distressed him very much. He was living in our Ashram, busy with spinning, weaving, cooking, scavenging and other community work, and taking part in the village service. He came and told me of his desire to take up leprosy work, and I warmly encouraged him. But his mother, who lived with him, had no wish to see her son devoting himself to such work, and she came to me. I said ‘Supposing that you yourself were to become a leper, would you still ask Manoharji not to serve you?’ She thought for a moment and replied: ‘He has my blessing.’
In 1936 therefore the Kushthadham (Leprosy Centre) was opened at Dattapur with Manoharji in charge. For the first time I came into contact with leprosy patients. Two years later I went to live at Paunar, and while I was digging there I unearthed several images. They were ancient figures, perhaps thirteen or fourteen hundred years old, and after lying in the ground so long they were defaced; noses were disfigured, arms or other limbs were missing. Their faces reminded me of those of the leprosy patients, and now whenever I see the patients I think of the images. They are all images of God. The most beautiful new statue cannot call out devotion such as I feel for these old ones from the field, and when I see the patients in Kushthadham I feel the same reverence for them, and I have the greatest respect for those who serve them.
On one of my visits to Kushthadham I asked to work alongside the patients for a time, and joined those who were sowing seed in the field. It is not possible for me to put into words the joy I felt then.
When the Brahmavidya Mandir was established I suggested to Manoharji that now that he had spent twenty-five years in this service he should withdraw and ‘just live’ in the Mandir. He agreed, and came. Then twelve years later I asked him to go back to the Kushthadham, and once more he agreed. I felt that we should undertake to teach Brahmavidya to leprosy patients, that someone should live among them twenty-four hours a day and give them spiritual teaching; teach them prayers, sayings of the saints, the Rigveda and Upanishads, the shlokas of the Gita, the verses of the Koran, the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha, Mahavira. The teaching should include asanas (bodily exercises of Yoga), the practice of meditation, and pranayam (the control of breathing). I hoped that in this way some of them might emerge as fine workers, and be inspired inwardly to go and work in other places. As the patients were introduced to Brahmavidya they would understand that their disease was only of the body, that their true Self was other than the body. ‘Let the Self lift up Itself.’ If this teaching were neglected, our service would do them no real good.
In 1935 I was forty years of age. I do not usually remember my birthday, but on this occasion I had many reasons for doing some intensive reflection. I was responsible for a number of institutions and individuals, and it is not surprising that someone in such a position should take stock of his resources from time to time. On that occasion, with forty years completed, I examined both the past and the present. From the standpoint of arithmetic, forty years of one insignificant person’s life are as nothing in the endless vistas of time; yet from the point of view of that person, limited though it is, forty years is a period deserving of some attention.
Twenty years of my life had been spent in my home, and an equal number had been spent outside. Where should the future years be spent? A man is helpless regarding the past and blind to the future; he can only leave them aside and think about the present. So, in 1935 two segments of my life had been completed, and I had made up my mind about how I wanted to spend the remainder—though in practice the whole future is in the hands of God.
Broadly speaking, during my first twenty years or so I had accumulated knowledge, and during the following twenty years I had accumulated the power to observe the great vows. The next period, I decided, should be spent in accumulating love. In this task, as I realize, I have had the help of many noble-minded people. It is my great good fortune to have been in the company of the loving and the pure in heart. With such companionship one might spend many lives and come to no harm.