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An Acceptable Sacrifice

In a few chosen phrases Gandhiji has explained why he has selected Shri Vinoba as the first satyagrahi. It is impossible to improve on that thumb-nail sketch. But it may not be inappropriate to add a few more facts about his busy life, in which all the twenty-four hours of the day have been given to activity of, prayerful service which alone, in his opinion, can take one to self-realisation. It is this that makes of his sacrifice “a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God”.

Within three years of his joining the Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati he was invited by Shri Jamnalalji to be at the head of the only branch of the Ashram at Wardha which he had opened, Vinoba’s services were lent by Gandhiji, and when he went there he chose as his co-workers people who were pledged to a strict observance of the vows. In 1923 he threw himself heart and soul into the Nagpur Flag Satyagraha movement, and distinguished himself as a model prisoner. After a visit to Nagpur Shri Rajagopalachari wrote about Shri Vinoba:

“Look at Vinoba, gentle as an angel, whose soaring spirit has reached the heights of scholarship, philosophy and religion, and yet whose humility is so genuine and successful that no official who does not know him can discover his greatness. He breaks his stone metal according to the ‘class’ the jailor has put him in, and no one knows the physical torture he silently bears. But we at the prison gate who heard about the treatment accorded to him gave way to an involuntary shudder.”

In the same issue of Young India 17 years ago I wrote a long article about him from which I condense the following:

“You may stay days and days with him without knowing him, and even when you know him you only begin to know him. You meet with a reserve which you cannot easily break. He does not talk much, rarely does he say anything about himself. And yet if you could get at the bottom of his profound depths, yon are sure to exclaim, ‘Nowhere have I struck such treasures.’ I do not think there is anyone in the C. P. Jails today who can be compared to Vinoba with his sturdy asceticism, his profound religious and philosophic learning, his matchless power of penance and self-discipline, and a rare humility which probably is a product of all the rest. We hear of the grim determination of the child Dhruva to realise God, the simple faith, unbending before all odds, of the boy Prahlad, and of the rare strength of the lad Nachiketas marching to the God of Death to be devoured up, and we wonder what these spiritual prodigies must have been like. You see Vinoba and you will not find it difficult to imagine any one of them doing the things they did.

In 1917 when Mr. Andrews was at the Ashram I remember Gandhiji describing to him Vinoba in these terms: “He is one of the few pearls in the Ashram. They do not come, like others, to be blessed by the Ashram but to bless it, not to receive, but to give.’ He devoted the first eight months in the Ashram to self-discipline - giving eight hours in the kitchen and doing scavenging work. Not a thought crossed his brain that his scholarship would rust away.

Early in his life he decided that a life of brahmacharya is essential to a life of service. His father wanted him to be a barrister or a big chemist for which he wanted to send him to Germany. He was set to learn French, therefore, so that it may be useful to him abroad. But on leaving home, apparently to appear for his intermediate examination, he left for Benares, and it was long afterwards through the C.I.D. that his father learnt that he had fled there. He devoted all his time to a study of Sanskrit, especially the Gita and the Upanishads. Though Gandhiji said that he had gone to the Ashram to give and not to receive, this is what Vinoba said in a talk: ‘Only I can know what I have got in the Ashram. It was an early ambition of mine to distinguish myself by a violent deed in the service of the country. But Bapu cured me of that ambition. It is he who extinguished the volcano of anger and other passion in me. I have been progressing every day of my life in the Ashram. Every year I have been making one of the Mahavratas my own!

In one of his articles in Maharashtra Dharma, a Marathi monthly issued by him from Wardha, he thus explained Samartha Ramdas', and incidentally his own, philosophy of life:

"We sleep, we walk, we work, we live and we die. All these are passive processes. Do we have sleep, or does the sleep devour us? We live because we cannot die, and die as soon as we cannot exist. Panini has said swatantrah karta— the ‘subject’ is independent. But there is no independence in any one of our acts. None of our acts is, therefore, active, it is all passive. Is that life worth living? Shri Ramdas Swami wanted to teach independent action—all action in the active mood, not in the passive; he wanted to die to flesh before his death, he wanted liberty, and therefore he left home and all, and told the youth of the world to resort to life in the hermitages in the prime of their youth. He practised the Bhagawat Dharma in his childhood and youth, like Prahlad, and set an example to Maharashtra.

And look at his way of study. ‘I have read a lot of Sanskrit,’ he says, ‘but I have not read the Shakuntal. The speech of the gods, which is the name of Sanskrit, is for freedom—Moksha—not for intellectual delight and luxury. I learnt Sanskrit not to read Shakuntal, but to learn the Gita, Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmasutras; for things that make for freedom of the soul, and not for poetry and literature. Philosophy and mathematics are my subjects, not literature.”

That was what I wrote 17 years ago, and the interval has been but a demonstration of the way in which he has translated his principles into practice, pressed all his philosophy and mathematics into the aid of the constructive programme which he has believed to be the external symbol of non-violence. He has trained under him students who are masters of the science and art of khadi-making, he has trained workers who have been content with a miserable pittance to bury themselves in villages working the constructive programme, and he has given, as Gandhiji has said, an ideal servant to the lepers. ‘Proficiency in all action” is the Gita's definition of yoga, and everything that Vinoba has done proves that he is one who has mastered that yoga. An ideal spinner, both on the wheel and the takli and with both the left and the right hands, he is an ideal village worker. Though highly intellectual, the villagers feel completely at home with him and are enraptured by his simple perfervid eloquence full of telling homely parables and illustrations. He has produced a Marathi translation of the Gita in parallel verse which reproduces the haunting music of the original in an amazing degree, and over a hundred thousand copies of it have been sold in Maharashtra. While carrying on in the village of Pavnar the experiment of the standard spinning wage, he found time to devote five hours each day to the study of the Quran in the original, and when yesterday Gandhiji asked him to repeat Al Fateha before the Maulana he did so with a pronunciation and intonation which the Maulana said were flawless.

It is to such a one that the honour has come of being the first satyagrahi in a campaign that Gandhiji will strive to make the most unsullied from the point of view of non-violence. To be chosen for the honour is a great thing; to have been chosen without having ever desired it is greater still.

- Mahadev Desai ( Sevagram, 16-10-40 )

Source: Harijan, Vol. VIII, No. 36, 20.10.1940, p. 325-326