Vinoba Bhave was a man of great purity. I worked with him from 1955 to 1962, during his twenty-year campaign to give land to the poor. He was a man who was able to move the hearts of landlords and touch them so deeply that, in all, they voluntarily donated four million acres of land. This extraordinary happening, unprecedented anywhere in the history of the world, cannot be explained in any other way than by recognizing that his demand for land came from the heart of a saint untainted by any self-interest, desire for personal glory, or pursuit of material gain.
Vinoba was doubtful of the value of formal education: he used to remark to his friends that the existing schools and colleges were only large factories for training 'your most obedient servants'. After leaving school without taking his final examinations he prepared for his future life by going to Benares to study, contemplate and discuss with sadhus and scholars. Finally he felt that these holy men were cut off from the real world. In the dualism of God and the world, the meaning of wholeness was lost. God can only be realized through the world. It was then that Vinoba discovered Mahatma Gandhi: Gandhi who was campaigning to liberate the untouchables from the shackles of class domination, who was working to revitalize rural life, and who was living in a community which worked through prayer and meditation. Vinoba went to stay at Gandhi's ashram, and both felt a deep attraction for each other. From then on Vinoba devoted his life to seeking God and serving the people, particularly dedicating himself to the poor of India.
Gandhi chose the little-known Vinoba Bhave, as one whose purity of motive was unquestionable, to be the first to raise the flag of independent India in the individual satyagraha campaign of 1940. Those who did not know Vinoba were surprised by the choice, but those who did know him approved wholeheartedly because here was a man who had no political axe to grind.
Vinoba's non-violent but illegal actions as part of the freedom movement involved him in years of imprisonment. In spite of this he kept himself in the background after independence. He spent seven years, partly in studying and translating the Gita, the Upanishads and other Sanskrit texts, and partly in constructive work for the upliftment of the poor in a small village in central India.
As is described in the following pages, Vinoba's great Land Gift Movement (Bhoodan) was brought about as a result of the riots between landless peasants and the mighty landlords near Hyderabad in south India. Vinoba was deeply disturbed by these riots, and travelled to the area in order to see if he could help to find a just solution to the grievances of the poor. The forty landless families of one village said they needed eighty acres for subsistence; and one landowner, Ramachandra Reddy, was so moved by Vinoba's presence that he made the unprecedented offer of a gift of one hundred acres of his land.
Vinoba could not believe his ears: this was too good to be true. The landless families accepted only their original request for eighty acres. They assured the landlord that they would serve Mother Earth with all their heart. Wiping away his tears, Vinoba said, 'Both the donor and the recipients are present here in our midst. Let them exchange the land in our presence. The donor should also help these labourers with some seeds and implements for cultivating the land in a co-operative way.' Then he added, 'I came with empty hands and I go with empty hands, but my heart is full.'
Land belongs to God-it belongs to all or none. Nobody created the land, so why should anyone claim to possess it? Air, water, sunshine, forests, hills, rivers and the earth are part of our planetary heritage. No one group or individual has a right to own it, possess it, spoil it, pollute or destroy it. We can receive the earth's fruits as God's gift and return what we do not need to God. And so Vinoba knocked at every door, persuading landlords, capitalists and Communists to establish a new relationship with the earth and its people. If you are rich, give; if you are poor, give. No one is a 'have not'. Some possess land, others property and yet others intellect and physical strength. Furthermore love and affection permeate the hearts of all human beings. We all have something to give, so give and give.
Through his campaign of giving gifts (dan), Vinoba inspired people to make a gift of land, gift of labour, gift of money, gift of tools, gift of knowledge. This was economics of the imagination. Hardly anybody refused this divine beggar. Vinoba's practice was never to antagonize the landlords, but to assist them to act rightly. The spirit of giving cannot be developed in an atmosphere of opposition and confrontation. Opposition reduces the chances of a change of heart and is itself a form of violence.
Vinoba's understanding of this was perceptive and profound: 'Take the example of a house. You want to enter the house, but it has high walls around it. You go to the wall and fight to get past it. You cannot. What happens? Your head is broken. But if you find a small door, you can get into the house and go wherever you want. But you have to find the door. Like that, when I meet a landlord he has many faults and shortcomings, and his egotism is like a wall. But he has a little door, a little goodness in his heart. When you are prepared to find the door, you rise above your own egotism and you enter his life. Don't worry about his faults, find the door. If sometimes I cannot find the door it is my fault: my fault that I am banging my head against his shortcomings.'
Living like the poor and seeing God in the poor, Vinoba became a fearless defender of the poor. He said: 'If you have five sons consider me the sixth son, the representative of the poor, and give me one sixth of your land to share with the landless.'
Vinoba became such a force in India that Prime Ministers and Presidents came to see him in the thatched huts and bamboo cottages where he camped during his long walks through the countryside. Where untouchables or people of different religions were not welcome, Vinoba would not go, whether it was a palace or a temple.
When he had reached the age of seventy-five, Vinoba decided to relinquish social and political action. He stopped his travels, and spent his time in prayer, meditation and contemplation. In spite of the fact that he was reluctant to talk about his life and refused to write an autobiography, Kalindi, a close associate and disciple, has from his own words woven together the story of his life, reflections and memories. Both she and the translator Marjorie Sykes have performed a great service by bringing Vinoba's insights and experience to us.
At the age of eighty-seven, Vinoba felt weak and unwell. He saw death approaching. Doctors wanted to prolong his life but Vinoba had no fear of death. He renounced all food, drink and medicine. When his fast unto death became known, his friends and followers gathered in their thousands to bid him farewell. After eight days of fasting Vinoba left his body in total peace.