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Prison Ashrams
It was in jail that I experienced a real Ashram life. All I had were a few clothes, a tumbler and a bowl. What better place could there be for following the vow of ‘non-posse- ssion’? Bathing, eating, working were according to rule, going to bed and getting up by the bell-a perfectly regular life ! One was not even allowed to fall ill ! The vow of control of the palate was practised every day; even the Ashram was not a better place for that. There was also plenty of time for thought and reflection. So even the jail could be made a part of the spiritual exercise of Ashram life.
I was greatly benefited by the chance I got in prison to live alongside all kinds of people. Before that individual satyagraha I had been in jail twice. I was arrested first in 1923, in connection with the Nagpur Flag Satyagraha. At first I was in the Nagpur jail, and was later sent to Akola. On that occasion I was treated like an ordinary criminal and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment with hard labour (breaking stones).1 I was even given a period of solitary confinement in a cell measuring nine feet by eight. In one corner was a stone hand-mill and in another an earthenware piss-pot. There was no work to do, no book to read, no pencil or paper, no chance even to go out. It was enough to drive a man mad.
However, I drew up a daily timetable for myself: ten hours for sleep, two or three hours for meditation, about three hours for eating, bathing etc., and eight hours for walking up and down. I covered at least ten miles each day, reckoning my speed at about one and a half miles an hour. As I walked I sang all the hymns I knew by heart.
Once I was pacing to and fro like this at about one o’clock at night, engrossed in thought. The warder came on his rounds, and puzzled at seeing me walking about, he knocked on the door. As I was completely absorbed I failed to respond, and the poor man became alarmed. He came in and shook me and asked me what was the matter. I tried to explain what I was doing and what the fruits of such contemplation might be, and he was very pleased. The very next day I received a real boon-he arranged for me to walk a short time daily in an open place.
I felt quite at ease in that cell. During the night I would meditate for about three hours, and one of the warders, who noticed this, would come and sit near me. One day he came with a lantern, and found that my eyes were closed. After waiting for some time he said: ‘Babuji, may I speak to you?’ I opened my eyes and he said: ‘I am leaving tomorrow. Please give me some teaching to guide me.’ Seeing me sitting every day with closed eyes he thought I must be some sadhu or yogi. So I gave him a few suggestions to satisfy him, and he went away happily.
I was kept in that cell for fifteen days, and during that time I realized the meaning of that verse in the Gita,2 which says: ‘One who sees non-action in action, and action in non-action, is truly an enlightened being.’ Finally, seeing that solitary confinement was no hardship for me, the gaoler sent me back to the ‘general ward’, and there too I felt equally happy.
In 1932 I was in Dhulia jail for six months. Many of my companions there found jail life very dull, because they had not learned the art of acceptance, and were feeling very rebellious. I decided that it was my job to cheer them all up. There was no question of seeking pardon or release from the Government, so I set to work to help them not to lose heart, and to find some interest in life in jail. Those who had known me earlier, and then shared the jail life with me, noticed my conduct. ‘When Vinoba goes to jail,’ they would say, ‘he completely forgets his love of solitude.’ I got to know personally every political prisoner in Dhulia jail. We would talk for hours together and I did everything I could to help and cheer them up.
At that time only ‘C’ class political prisoners were given work to do. I was in ‘B’ class, but I did not want to accept such ‘privileges’, and as soon as I reached the jail I asked for work. ‘How can I give you work?’ asked the gaoler. ‘You are not strong enough.’ ‘I am eating here,’ I said, ‘and I don’t believe in eating without working. If I don’t get work by tomorrow I shall stop eating.’ ‘Very well,’ he replied, ‘but I will not give you work. You yourself may do whatever kind of work you please.’
During that time of imprisonment I had to take it on myself to control all the political prisoners; conditions were such that if I had not done so there would have been no discipline at all. They were bent upon rebellion and would listen to nobody. There were about three hundred of them, all ‘freedom-fighters’. In my view, a soldier of freedom ought to do some bodily labour every day as part of the discipline of freedom. The jail discipline was to require every prisoner to grind thirty-five pounds of flour a day. I told the authorities that these political prisoners would refuse to do such work in obedience to an order, even if they were put in iron for disobedience. ‘Please don’t insist on it,’ I said. ‘Instead, we will voluntarily supply the whole prison with all the flour that is needed, and we will take responsibility for all the kitchen work also.’ They agreed to this proposal, so my next job was to tackle the prisoners. Everyone, I said, even those sentenced only to simple imprisonment, ought to grind at least twenty-one pounds of flour daily. They did not all agree at once because they suspected that I might be letting them in for something which I would not do myself. But when they saw me grinding, they all began to work enthusiastically, old and young, seniors and juniors. They not only did their own full quota, they ground also for the sick and the aged. As we worked we talked, discussing ideas and extending our knowledge. The place was no longer a jail; it became an Ashram.3
We had also undertaken to run the kitchen, and our very best people were engaged in this work. After the pulse was cooked, we mashed it into a thick, smooth soup, which took as much time as the actual cooking. We all remember it even now. It was so good that people declare that they would never get the like of it anywhere else. There were only ten or twelve of us who did not take spiced food: all the others were accustomed to spice. Little by little, however, all the political prisoners joined us in eating unspiced food, and then the other prisoners also began to ask for it. The number became so large that the gaoler came to consult me. ‘I am responsible for the health of these prisoners,’ he said, ‘and I am required by the rules to give them the fixed rations, which include chillies also. Please don’t disturb these arrangements.’ So I told the prisoners that when they got back home they could do as they wished, but that so long as they were in jail they should accept what was given.
I had to deal with so much business of this kind that people began to wonder why I had become so fond of society when I was reputed to like solitude. ‘Do you count me among the anti-social elements?’ I would ask. I mixed with the others in order to keep them all in good spirits. Sometimes it would become known that a letter had arrived but that the gaoler had kept it back. When I asked why he didn’t give the poor man his letter, he told me that it was not suitable to pass it on. I referred to this in one of my talks on the Gita. ‘There is a message for you in every wind,’ I said. ‘Why should you feel so sore if you do not receive that letter?’4 I would also tell them individually that if they were so unduly anxious it seemed they had no faith in God. In this way I did my best to strengthen and comfort them.

‘Talks on the Gita’ is Born
In Dhulia jail I was in the company of the saints, for men like Sane Guruji, Jamnalalji Bajaj and Apte Guruji were there with me. They suggested that I should give regular talks on the Gita; I agreed to do so and started to give a talk every Sunday. Sane Guruji wrote them all down word for word; it was surely by the grace of God that I was given such a wonderful scribe, for his heart and mine were as one and our feelings were in complete harmony. This recording of the talks proved to be a boon to the world, though at the time no one dreamed that these jail talks would later be read in every language throughout the country. But what God wills comes to pass. In jail-life nothing is certain; anyone, at any time, may be sent anywhere. The Government might have sent me or Sane Guruji elsewhere, or released one of us. But nothing of the sort happened. We were able to com- plete the talks on all the eighteen chapters. The Gita itself had been delivered on the battlefield; we too, in the jail, felt ourselves to be soldiers in a battle, the battle of freedom.
I can never forget that sacred experience, nor can I ever put into words what I felt when I gave those talks. But if God ever speaks through the lips of a man, then surely He spoke through my lips during those days. I never felt that it was I who spoke, and to the listeners too it seemed that the words they heard were not merely Vinoba’s.
To begin with I gave the talks to the male prisoners only, but the women asked the gaoler to give a chance to hear them also. Male prisoners were strictly forbidden to enter the women’s quarters, but the gaoler, whose name was Vaishnava, ruled that in this case Vinoba should be regarded as a woman, and boldly gave permission for me to talk to the women. I invited him to be present himself, and he not only attended the talks, he brought his wife with him.
So I began a weekly talk to the women, and it was not long before the ordinary prisoners also asked permission to hear me. The gaoler asked me if I was willing, and I said that I would be glad to talk to them, provided that he could give them an hour’s leave on some day other than Sunday. This was in the middle of the non-cooperation movement, but even so that fine gaoler gave them an hour’s leave every Wednesday for my talks. Some of these prisoners worked in the garden, and they used to make and bring flower garlands to show their affection for me; some others were under sentence of death, but they too were allowed to attend the talks. As a result, the whole atmosphere of the jail was spiritually enriched.
Meanwhile, my Gitai5 was being printed in Dhulia, and while in jail I was correcting the proofs. When the ordinary prisoners heard that I was soon to be released, they asked the Superintendent for two annas each from their jail earnings which were deposited in his keeping. ‘What do you want it for?’ he asked, and they said that one anna was for a copy of the Gitai, and the other was their dakshina6 for Vinoba. I can never forget the great affection which these prisoners showered upon me.

A Sacrifice in Faith
During the individual satyagraha of 1940 I was arrested three times and spent altogether about a year and three quarters in prison. By Bapu’s orders I had undertaken this Satyagraha in the name of the whole country, so when I got to jail it seemed to me that as the representative of all India, I ought to learn all of the India’s languages. In my own mind even that was not enough; I aspired to represent the whole world of humanity, and that meant learning world languages also. So I studied a great deal, and very deeply, both during these imprisonments and during that which followed August 1942: about five years in all. I studied for fourteen or fifteen hours a day, and while I was in Nagpur jail I used to listen to the Koran on the radio to get the correct pronunciation of the Arabic.
To go back to the period before the 1942 movement: Gandhiji was thinking that if he should be imprisoned he would start fasting from the moment he set foot in the jail. Jail-going was not now something novel; now his mind was churning this new idea: if we refused to recognize British rule and asked the British to ‘Quit India’, we should begin to fast as soon as we entered their jails.
Only one whose heart is filled with love is capable of such a sacrifice. Even if it were possible for an individual, could it ever become a movement? Of course thousands of people join an army, but would they join a fast? Gandhiji thought that it was possible; he himself, he said, would take the lead. This idea alarmed everyone, and those around him felt that it had to be stopped somehow. There can’t be such a thing as chain-fasting, they said. There can be no army of fasters, for such things can’t be done to order.
Bapu then called me to Sevagram and put his idea before me. The question was: if a wise man can do a thing in the fullness of his wisdom, could it be done by one of his followers from faith in him? ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘What the Lord Rama can do in the fullness of his knowledge, Hanuman7 can do in the fullness of his faith.’ There the matter ended; there was nothing more to be said and I got up and left.
Then, on the ninth of August, Bapu was arrested, but he did not think it proper to begin to fast immediately because he planned to have some correspondence with the Government on the issue. I did not know about this later development till afterwards.
Pyarelalji had not been arrested, and Bapu told him to send me word not to begin to fast as soon as I entered jail. For Bapu knew that after what I had said to him, that is what I would do, even though he had given no orders but merely asked my opinion. As it was, I had got from him something much more imperative than an order.
Soon afterwards I too was arrested. As soon as I reached the jail I said to the gaoler: ‘You know me well. You know that I have always obeyed the rules meticulously and got others to do the same. But this time it is different. I have already had a meal, so I do not need the midday meal here. But I shall take no food from this evening on, and I don’t know for how long. I am not doing this to violate your discipline, but for the sake of an inner discipline of my own.’
So I entered the jail, but two hours later I was summoned to the office. Pyarelalji had sent on Bapu’s message to Kishorlalbhai,8 who had asked the Deputy Commissioner if the message could be passed on to me. The D.C. referred it to the Governor, who allowed it on condition that not a word should be added. When the D.C. told Kishorlalbhai that the message would be given, Kishorlalbhai pointed out that Vinoba might not accept it as genuine unless one of our own group could deliver it personally. So in the end Gopalrao Valunjkar came and read Bapu’s message to me, and I gave up my fast. Nevertheless I feel I can honestly claim that I would have fasted not a whit less happily than Bapu himself, but I would have done it not from knowledge (like Bapu) but from faith. I have no doubt at all that an individual can make such a sacrifice, with the fullest reverence and love, in obedience to an order accepted in faith.

Vellore and Seoni Jails
From Wardha jail I was sent to Nagpur, and then to Vellore as I was classified as a ‘dangerous’ prisoner. When I arrived, the gaoler asked what I needed. ‘I need two things,’ I said, ‘a barber for my hair, and someone who can teach me Tamil, seeing that I am now in a Tamil-speaking province and shall be eating its food.’ By eight o’clock I was shaved and had a bath, and the gaoler had sent me a teacher. He did not know much Tamil, however, and although there were many Tamil-speaking people in the jail, I was kept apart from them.
The man sent to me knew some English, and I began to learn Tamil from him. Ten or twelve days later I started to learn Telugu, and after that Kannada and Malayalam, so that within a month I had begun to learn all the four languages of the South. Someone asked me why I was studying four languages at once, and I replied: ‘Because there isn’t a fifth !’ By studying the four languages together I was able to compare them and so learn more.
In Vellore jail all sorts of facilities were to be had for the asking, at government expense. This seemed to me to be a most enervating practice, designed to rob our movement of all vigour. I disliked it. There was famine in Bengal, yet here were we, asking for things like cots and chairs, making a fuss when we did not get them, and calling it ‘a struggle’. When in the end the Government conceded our demands, we called it a triumph, a victory. What a triumph ! What a victory ! It was nothing but folly and defeat.
Finally I was sent from Vellore to Seoni (in Central India), where I had the company of the late Bharatan Kumarappa.9 He asked me to teach him Hindi and I agreed and chose the Ramayana of Tulsidas for our text book. I told him at the start why the Tulsi Ramayana was important. ‘For Hindi studies,’ I said, ‘it is like the Bible and Shakespeare combined.’ After two months’ study he said to me: ‘What you said is absolutely true. You gave me the essence of it in one sentence.’ I replied: ‘The Bible is the Christian Scripture, and its language is sweet and simple. Shakespeare, great poet and dramatist as he was, is unrivalled in his use of the English language. He is great as a writer, the Bible is great spiritually. In Tulsi Ramayana there is a happy combination of the two.’
Political prisoners had the privilege of getting books to read. The jail officers would examine the books that were sent in, reject ‘objectionable’ books, and give the rest to those who asked for them. The books I asked for were never rejected, for I asked only for such books as the Gita and the Upanishads. ‘I asked for seventeen books,’ said one of my fellow prisoners, ‘and got only one or two, while Vinoba gets everything he asks for !’ ‘That is because the Govern- ment is a blockhead,’ I replied. ‘It doesn’t understand what is really dangerous. If it did, it would certainly stop the Gita and the Upanishads. Gandhi would not have become that ‘dangerous’ Gandhi, Tilak would not have become Tilak, nor Aurobindo become Sri Aurobindo, without the foundation laid by the Gita. Only those books which deal with the basic principles of life have the explosive force to destroy tyrannical power.’
Political prisoners in Seoni jail were allowed to write letters to their kinsfolk but not to others. I did not approve of the distinction between ‘my’ people and the rest, so I wrote no letter to anyone during my time there. One day the gaoler was talking to me. ‘Is there nothing at all that troubles you?’ he asked. ‘You always seem so cheerful and contented.’ ‘There is one thing that distresses me,’ I replied, ‘but I will leave you to find out what it is, and I will give you a week’s time.’ At the end of the week he came back. ‘I can’t guess what your difficulty is,’ he said. ‘Please tell me.’ ‘It is this,’ I said. ‘In this jail, I get no chance to see either the sunrise or the sunset; that is my trouble.’

Freedom from Institutions
As soon as I was released from jail after the individual satyagraha, I went to see Bapu. I remember that he said to me then: ‘Vinoba, this is not the last of your trips to jail, you will have to go again.’ ‘I am quite ready,’ I said, and we went on talking. ‘Have you brought any new ideas back with you from jail?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think that I should now free myself from all institutions, for otherwise I shall not be able to make any progress in non-violence.’ He said at once, ‘You are quite right.’ Then he went on, translating my thought into his own language: ‘That means that you will be of help to all the institutions but will not accept office in any of them.’
Ashadevi10 was sitting near. Bapu said to her: ‘It is good that Vinoba should free himself from these things. It is only when we can get away from such involvements that we are able to think to good effect. If our hands are loaded with daily affairs, we are not at liberty to think, and no new discoveries will be made.’ So Bapu set his seal of approval on my decision, and no one could say much against it. Bapu himself acted on my behalf, and explained my decision to those who were managing the institutions.
My last trip to jail was in the 1942 Movement, and I was released in 1945. I had done some more thinking during that time, and decided that after my release I must do scavenging work, so as to help in ‘the raising of the lowliest’.