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Memoirs of a Padyatri
By Kalindi

Geography books in school mentioned that the highest rainfall in the country was registered in Cherrapunji and that Cherrapunji was situated in Assam. My acquaintance with Assam was limited. I had to look into the map to place Assam geographically. However today I was travelling in the same Assam - taking part in a padyatra with 'Bhoodan Wale Baba', that is with Vinobaji. It was pouring heavily and Baba was loudly chanting Vedic mantras.

Sa No Vrishtidiwaspri
Sa No Vajmanvarnam
Sa Nah Sahastrinirisha

He was also singing the meaning of this Vedic mantra - "Let there be rains from the heavens, this is the blessing of God on us, let there be no disturbance in our song.”

Rains, rains and rains! It has been raining incessantly for the past two days. Everyone is worried. How will Baba take out his padyatra tomorrow? He will start walking from 0300 am. The village is in the interior on the edges of the forest. It is possible that the area might be flooded. With rains in Assam, can the floods be far behind? All wanted that Baba should not proceed, halt here for some time, and start again once the rains die down. Amal Prabha Baidev (in Assam elder sister is called Baidev) represented all of us. She spoke to Baba in her calm polite manner, "Baba please do not go tomorrow, there might be floods ahead...." Baba replied, "If there is no road to go ahead then I will not go, but if there is any way, then I will have to go. I will go as far as I can go." Baidev told the other followers that Baba was determined to move forward, so let us think about the best route that we can take, and we should ensure that the best of our men should stay around him tomorrow.

Looking at the circumstances, it was decided that apart from local supporters, only a few others who had come with Baba should move ahead with him. I was among those chosen to go with him. At 0300 am the next day, eight to ten persons started with Baba. It was raining very heavily, and we had to walk along the railway bridge, and I remembered a story told by Baba.

Baba used to study in school at that time and he was walking along a railway bridge. Below it was a drop of 30 to 40 feet and there were gaps between the railway tracks - and Baba felt scared. He slowly crossed the railway bridge. But then to overcome his fear, he started crossing the bridge everyday. And then he also started running on the bridge. Once he was in the ashram at Ahmedabad, he went to Mount Abu on foot with Kaka Saheb Kalelkar. While coming back they were crossing a railway bridge. The train was chugging in from behind. Kaka Saheb crossed the bridge. Baba's eyes were weak, and it was evening, so he could not see everything clearly. He realised that he would not be able to cross the bridge if he walked. He had practice of running on a railway bridge. So he used his mathematical brain to gauge the distance between the two planks of the railway track and started running on a set rhythm so that his feet fell on the planks. The train was coming nearer, that much he could understand. He could not see Kaka Saheb, but he could hear his voice which said - 'Vinoba, jump left', and so Baba jumped and he was saved. Baba said, "If I had become afraid at that time, I would not have been able to run, would not have been able to think, and the matter would have ended there." Today Baba was looking at the surging water below and walking confidently on the bridge.

Finally the bridge ended and we came to the road. We walked a little distance and we saw a big water body. No it was not a water body. It was flood waters. The road ahead was under water. It meant that now we would have to walk on water. Immediately, four strong followers surrounded Baba. The water reached Baba's chest level. Manohar Bhai was walking with a small box on his head in which he carried Baba's milk that he had for breakfast. One of the followers held him steady. The water was flowing above my head and that of Swarna Behan, who was from Assam. Our hands were strongly held by some of the other followers of Baba. My legs were not touching any firm land. On that day, my legs which were not used to swimming were as if swimming on their own. We 'marched' in this fashion for around a furlong and then we reached a village.

The villagers were not aware that we were coming. No one ever came to their village. No one even came to ask for their votes. The village mukhia (chief) was called to one of the bigger villages and the matter was explained to him. So even though they knew that Baba would be coming, they did not believe that Baba would actually be reaching their village during the floods. Nothing had been done to welcome Baba. People were sitting in their houses. However, when they saw Baba coming towards the village, wading through the water, his body soaked and feet naked, the entire village ran towards him. Now it would appear that this is an exaggeration, but I saw this scene in that village on that day. Some started wiping Baba's feet with their clothes, while some started cleaning it with their tears. No, I am not repeating an old tale from the Puranas, but something I witnessed with my own eyes.

A similar difficult journey was at Kashmir's Pirpanjal range, which is 13,000 feet high. There we reached Mandi Loren and a heavy storm broke out. We had to halt there for six days. We got wireless messages from the Prime Minister, the President, asking Baba not to proceed any further and go to Kashmir by plane. However Baba said, "If it continues to rain like this, and we are unable to cross the mountain then I will take it as a message of the almighty and not go to Kashmir. I will return to Punjab. I only move according to 'His' will. Therefore, I have decided that if I cannot go by the mountain route, I will not go by any other route." Finally, the rain stopped and Baba crossed the mountain to reach Kashmir valley.

This storm had completely destroyed the life in Mandi Loren. Houses were collapsing. There was not a single dry place left. Baba and his followers' were living in tents. Underneath there was grass and on top the trampoline tent. An entire Muslim family was trapped when their house collapsed on them. Apart from the aged grandfather and his 12 year old grandson no one else survived. However, then the grandfather also died, and soon after the child became ill - he had acute diarrhoea. At that time Baba's travel arrangements were being looked after by Army general Yadunath Singh. He had great devotion towards Baba. He and Bahen Kusum Deshpandey who was part of the team, tried to save the boy, but failed. The boy died. Baba was present near the body. He read out mantras from the Vedas and Agni mantra and then read out verses of the Koran.

Hey Shant Jeev
Laut Chala Apne Prabhu Ki Aur
Too Ukase Prassanna Aur Woh Tujse Prassanna
So Mere (Allah Ke) Daso Mey Sammilit Ho Ja
Aur Mere Swarg Mey Pravishta Ho Ja
Oh silent one
You are returning to your Lord
You are happy with him, and he is happy with you
Come and join my servants (Allah's)

Baba used to say that all his efforts are aimed at uniting the hearts of people. The Bhoodan padyatra was such an attempt. Once the people asked Paigamber Hazrat Mohammad, you always talk about Allah, why don't you perform a miracle. Mohammad Sahab said, "I am an illiterate person and all of you are so learned, yet you all listen to me, is this not a miracle?" What Hazrat Mohammad had said was correct. Similarly, in the era of airplane travel, covering 50,000 miles on foot, was this anything less than a miracle? Baba used to say, "In 14 years, 50,000 miles have been covered. We have circled the earth twice, because the earth's diameter is around 24,000 miles."

His every act was for the last man standing in the queue. That is why he chose padyatra as his means to spread his message. There was great thought behind choosing padyatra. Bhave said, "After we got swaraj and especially after Mahatma Gandhi's death, I used to think a lot about the path we should be taking for development. During that time, I had the opportunity to travel by train, and that too in the first class, which I was doing for the first time in my life, for whatever reason that might be. I travelled across a vast swath of the country. I gained a lot. However, I kept on thinking. Will travelling in this manner help to give a push to ahimsa (non-violence)? Will the aim of changing society in the direction that we want be fulfilled? Ultimately, the train journey, was it based on ahimsa') It was not. How was the railways made? The money that was used in travelling, how did it come? All these thoughts came to mind. Also such a fast means of travel which did not contribute to seriousness of thought and only created a flutter in people, could it be the correct medium of travel to spread the message of ahimsa? If we use this means of travel, will we ever be able to reach the common man?"

His work and thought were based on the 'last man'. He had no other desire apart from thinking about the 'last man'. His worship to God had merged into service for the 'last man’. He once said, "My Krishna is not there in Mathura only. Wherever I go, I get a glimpse of my Krishna. You are all my Krishnas and I have come for your darshan." Another time, in jest he said a very important thing, "I do not get much opportunity to see my face in the mirror. There is no need for it. I always think that in all the differently dressed people, I see myself. I have always felt this way during my travels. Wherever I have travelled, people never thought that I had come from some other state. Rather, the love and affection which the people of Maharashtra showered on me was the same everywhere else also."

Baba's padyatra started at 0300 am or 0400 am every day. Generally, he reached his destination in four to five hours. In state like Bihar, it sometimes took longer. Most of the roads were dusty and uneven. That day we had to reach Gaya. And the next day .we had to reach Narayana's Sokhodavera ashram. It was winter. At around 2100 pm to 2130 pm, Narayana was wearing warm clothes and armed with a torch he was getting ready to go somewhere. There was a small band of workers with him. Some of them had shovels and some had hoes in their hand. Where were they going, and what were they going to do? We came to know that there were two routes - one was a long route, but the condition of the shorter route was bad. So Narayana and his men mended the short route so that people could walk on it. When Baba came to know of this, he was very happy.

During the padyatra the target was to cover one village every day. (In Tamil Nadu sometimes we used to walk twice in a day and cover two villages). Walking under the open sky and fresh air we used to get the smell of the habitation whenever we came near a village. Baba had a very sensitive nose and he used to smell even the faintest of odour. That is why his mother used to tell him "Vinya, you must have been a lion in your previous birth because your power of smell is very strong and you also like to travel." So the moment Baba got the smell he used to say "The village is nearby, we have reached our destination." And soon enough the people of the village could be seen coming towards us with their traditional instruments, all ready to welcome to Baba. There used to be a huge crowd to greet Baba and the crowd used to be there till late in the night. In some places it used to appear that there was a fair going on. And small shops also sprung up.

One day in the evening, after the public meeting ended, a chana seller came up to Baba. He took out loose change and some notes from his soiled and torn pocket and told Baba, "I do not have any land, therefore whatever I have earned today, I am giving it in your name." This was not a donation of any rich money lender or industrialist or a top ranking official, but that of a poor man, who had a heart that was rich.

There was such a woman in a village in Maharashtra. Her husband had died. She used to make papads to provide for herself and her children. She had read or heard somewhere that Baba was asking for land for the poor, and that the Baba was asking for a certain percentage of a person's earning as donation. So she sent her donation to Baba through a Sarvodaya worker. The donation amount was not very big, but the value of the feeling with which she gave the donation was unique.

When Baba received the donation, he stood silent for two minutes and then he wrote a letter to that woman. "Looking at your condition, even one paisa of your income given as donation would be sufficient. I am sending you a 'daan patra:' to you, fill it up and send it back to me. Use the money you have given as donation to purchase goods made in the cottage industries. I will consider as your donation, the money you save in purchasing products made by cottage industry instead of machine-made products. Send me the details at the end of the year."

The aim of Bhoodan and property donation was not to accumulate land or cash. Making this very clear, Baba said, "Wherever I take donation, I expect there is a churning of the soul, a cleansing of the self, a feeling like a mother's love for her child, friendship and love for the poor. Where feeling for others is engendered. Here feeling of hatred cannot survive. Bhoodan yagna is an experiment in non-violence, a life-changing experiment."

The Bhoodan Ganga had reached every small village in the most interior of places. It was an unforgettable experience. A village surrounded by trees, a hut made of grass and hay for Baba to stay. For the public meeting any elevated platform was sufficient, and the audience the poor farmers, all dishevelled would be listening attentively. Baba's address was in very simple language, and in the end there was question and answer with the audience. People used to participate in it very naturally. The meetings did not have the glamour or show of big public meetings in cities, but the exchanges touched the heart. It was a very natural unpretentious exchange, which reminded one of Jesus Christ, of a villages sage going around preaching from the Upanishads, of Adi Shankaracharya crossing forests and mountains while preaching.

It is amazing the ease with which Baba connected with these innocent villagers. However an anecdote reveals the same. Baba was putting up in a room of a dilapidated school in a little village. At 1030 am, we were chanting Vishnu Sahasranaam. Hearing the mantras people started coming to the room and soon every inch of space was taken up and people were even standing near the windows and doorways. It was as if the entire village had attended this event. The room was so crowded that even fresh air could not enter the room. At that time, it had not been many days that I had joined Baba. After the chanting was over, I told Baba that I was feeling a bit queasy during the chanting, and the entire room was filled with the stench of sweat. Usually Baba never tolerated anything unclean, but that day he looked at me for a few seconds and said, "If you feel squeamish about the smell of sweat, you will never be able to make friendship with humanity." It was only one sentence, but for a person like me who was bred in the city and was so called cultured, it was a big lesson. If a man feels squeamish in the presence of another human being, then it is negating humanism.

Instead of big cities, it is in these small villages that one comes across such memorable events. For instance, it was monsoon time. We were travelling in the Vardha district of Maharashtra. That was a very important day. The country's new Prime Minister Lai Bahadur Shastri was coming to meet Baba. The village was very fortunate, but it was so poor that there was not a single pucca house there. There was no school either. The government officials were very worried. Finally one house was selected and the owner of the house and his family were shifted elsewhere and the house was vacated for Baba. 'House' meant a small kitchen, a small room with a window and outside the room a shed where cattle were kept. That day we decorated the kitchen. We placed sheets there, covered the 'chulha' with a piece of cloth and put a lantern on it, because the room was very dark. The Prime Minister walked half a furlong as he was coming to meet a Rishi. Baba got up and welcomed him. Both of them were talking when a strong wind came up, and very slowly red chillis and skin of the onions that had been kept on the loft of the house started falling on them - it was as if the poor man was welcoming the dignitaries with the best of what he had in the house! Can any other country provide such a scene!

They were crossing the jungle in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh. During padyatras Baba used to keep silent till sun rise. After sunrise, he used to meet the guests, and if there were no guests he used to meet and talk to his own people, discuss issues and even share jokes with them. The entire atmosphere was filled with joy and happiness. This was named - ' Jangam Vidyapeeth'. Till this Vidyapeeth opened, till there was darkness, everyone was silent. Only the noise of footsteps was there. Sometimes one could hear the tune of morning raag from far away. Sometimes, the noise of a wild animal could be heard. At that time, I used to stay in the back row reading from the Gita with the help of a torch. However, the moment Baba started speaking, I used to run and reach the front row. That day also I was in the back row, when the organiser came searching for us and said, "you all should not remain in the back row. There are leopards in this jungle and they attack from the rear, so come to the front rows do not remain in the back." We said, "you are scaring us unnecessarily. We have been walking in this jungle for the past two days, but we have not seen any leopards." Nevertheless he took us to the front row. A little later he pointed out, "See, see the ground below you," And we saw fresh footprints of a leopard, and it could be clearly seen for quite a distance. There is a saying in Marathi, if God is protecting someone, then who can injure them.

It was in one of these villages on the edge of the jungle that school children presented Baba with a copy of Goswami Tulsidas's bhajans. Baba used to tell people about this very proudly in his speeches. Once he crossed Punjab and entered the Kashmir valley, he saw a Christian mission there. An old lady was standing there waiting for Baba. She wanted to greet Baba. Baba asked her whether she had Scofield reference Bible. She went inside and gave a copy to Baba. In Punjab, Shiromani Gurudwara Sabha resident gave copy of Granth Saheb in the Nagri script. Baba used to say, "Those who love others, will be loved by all."

Like the way people of all languages and states accepted Baba as then- own, similarly all the religious communities supported Bhoodan yagna from their hearts. Before Baba reached Kerala, four churches issued an appeal to the people, "This man is doing the work of Jesus Christ, and therefore all the Christians brothers should give their full support to this movement." Once during his travels in Uttar Pradesh, when Baba reached Sarnath, the Buddhist Bhikshus welcomed him and said, "We accept Vinobaji's claim that through Bhoodan movement he is only taking forward Lord Buddha's concept of Dharma chakra." When the Bhoodan yatra reached Malabar, the Muslims there said, "Whatever you are saying, the same thing has been said in the Koran."

In 1959, the Sarvodaya Sammelan was held in Ajmer. Then the Nazim of Dargah Sharif had invited Baba and said in his invitation, "We want that Vinobaji should come to the dargah. We want to welcome him, because our great saints also believed in love. I am also extending the welcome to all those who are with Vinobaji. All are welcome." The next day, thousands of people of all castes and religions, male and female, went to the dargah. The Shankaracharya of Kanchi also gave his blessings to the Bhoodan yagna.

Before the start of the Bhoodan yatra, when he used to undertake sadhna in the ashram, it was as if he was preparing for Antodaya (serving the last man in the queue). He used to weave for as long as 10 hours at a stretch, experiment with spinning, work in the fields for hours and even go to the open toilet in the villages.

During the initial days of the padyatra, there was regular spinning, and there was labour donation at the villages.

Baba stayed for one month in Indore, a city in Madhya Pradesh. During his stay, a 'clean Indore week' was observed. Baba used to go to different parts of the city and take part in the cleanliness drive. He said that he would clean the public toilets. Talking about that experience, he said, "Stool, urine and water - everything was there. The women from the sweeper community used to clean it every day. I too cleaned it with my hands. I had gloves on my hands when cleaning the toilets, but even then after returning home I wanted to wash my hands repeatedly. While cleaning the toilets, I was wearing slippers at that time, but I removed them, because as the name suggests, they were 'slippers' and if I slipped wearing them, it would have created more problems. On top of that it was raining. After cleaning the toilets my feet became very dirty. Washing them at home did not solve the problem, and I felt, 'Should I bask my legs before a fire?'" That is why Baba called this, "Sauch Karya" and said that a solution should be found so that no human being has to do this work.

After Madhya Pradesh, Baba went to Assam. In one and half years he covered the state twice. From there he had to go to West Bengal. To reach West Bengal from Assam, one had to go through East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He went to West Bengal through that route and he had an 18- day padyatra in East Pakistan.

After taking leave from Assam, five of us along with Baba entered Sonar Bangla, or East Pakistan. In the first village we went, there was a small welcome meeting. Two small children around 12-13 were sitting right in front. They were wearing tattered clothes, had lathis in their hands, and were sitting like kings. They looked at me and smiled as if we had a deep friendship. Then I suddenly realised that these two children had come to the village in Assam to see Baba. I asked, "where do you belong? - India or Pakistan". They said, "our house is here, but we often go to the other side to roam around. At that moment, Baba started his discourse, "I do not see any difference between Hindustan and Pakistan. The same air, the same land, the same people and the same heard." I thought, two more words should be added, "the same devotion and the same language." Because truly, the welcome that we got was similar to the one we received in Hindustan.

There was a big public meeting in the evening. Five to six thousand people took part. And day after day the number of people who took part in public meeting kept on increasing. At Noakhali ashram there were only a few workers who were looking after the entire task. There was lack of manpower, so there could not be much advanced publicity about Baba and his work. However, the message spread around to the people -"A fakir has come from Bharat and he has brought the message of love." And people used to come in droves. Sometimes, it used to happen that Baba would address thousands at a public meeting and within half an hour of his returning to his room, a similar size crowd would have gathered there. The convenor, Cham Chaodhary used to come and say, "Baba you will have to come again, a crowd of new people have gathered. They will not go back without listening to you." So within half an hour a new public meeting started and Baba again gave his discourse. Often during music festivals, the crowd gives the 'Once more* call to the musicians, but have you ever heard of a 'Once more' call for a public meeting?

On the very first day of hearing Baba's discourse, a gentleman had a calling from his heart. Of his four acre land, he donated one acre. Baba kept one hand on his shoulder and said, I will ask Allah's blessing for you. Hearing this, the man started crying. Announcing the donation, Baba said, "Imtatah has started with this land". Meaning the doors have opened. The donor who gave the land was called Abdul Khalik Munshi.

For 13 years, the padyatra (journey on foot) continued in India. Then it continued in car for four to four and half years. It covered all the states and almost all the districts. During the journey, Baba used to be among the people throughout the day and in the evening when all work was completed, he used to talk with his followers. They are such good memories, that one wants to recall them all the time and gain pleasure from them. And this pleasure is never ending. The message of those talks was that of self-development. Sometimes, Baba used to ask about someone's health and then talk about the spirituality and the relationship between the two. If someone had any angst within he used to tell the person to serve and overcome his anger. He used to discuss the bhajans of Tulsi, Tukaram, Gyandev and other sants and within all this there were jokes and general merriment. From our point of view these sessions were the best part of day. All the difficulties of the journey vanished in joy.

The motive of Bhoodan was not simply to bring about economic progress and economic equality. The main aim was to inspire the people to a higher religion. To ensure that man rises above himself, and moves towards self- enlightenment. He always used to say that for revolution there has to be change in society from outside and change of 'chitta' (or self) from inside. Simply by changing society from outside will not help matters. Baba also gave an equation for this - like H20 is water, C2H is revolution -which means changing two parts of Chitta or self and changing one part of society or 'Samaj'. This was the formula for revolution. He used to say that our saints and other great men have taught us the path of cleaning the 'chitta', we should follow that path and only then can man and society change and there will be equality.

It was to ensure that some universal or fundamental work continued being done in society that he set up six ashrams in the country during his day s of Bhoodan yatra. The main aim behind Bhoodan movement and setting up of ashram was the same - to encourage self-analysis. Bhoodan yagna still remains a unique thing in the entire world. Of the six ashrams, the Brahmavidya Mandir in Pavnar, where women gather for community meditation, was the place where Baba spent the last 12 years of his life.

Brahmavidya Mandir Pavnar
(District Wardha) 442111, MH, India.

Courtesy: Anasakti Darsha, Combined issue - July 2011 - June 2012, Vol. 7, No. 2 and Vol. 8, No. 1