Remembering Freedom Fighter – Acharya Vinoba Bhave

via V.N. Gopalakrishnan published on May 22, 2011

Vinoba Bhave was a freedom fighter and was considered as a National Teacher (Acharya). He was one of India’s best known social reformers and founder of the Bhoodan Yagna (Land gift movement). He was associated with Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian independence movement and became his venerated disciple. Bhave stands as a symbol for the struggle of the good against the evil, of spiritual against the mundane. His spirituality had a practical stance with passionate worry for the underprivileged. Bhave was chosen by Gandhiji to be the first individual Satyagrahi against the British rule and he participated actively in the Quit India movement. He was the first recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 1958. Government of India honoured him by awarding the Bharat Ratna posthumously in 1983.

Vinoba’s religious outlook synthesized the truths of many religions. He observed the life of the average Indian living in a village and tried to find solutions for his problems with a spiritual foundation. This formed the core of his Sarvodaya (Awakening of all) movement. When he started the Bhoodan movement on April 18, 1951, it attracted the attention of the world. He walked across the length and breadth of the country asking people to give him a portion of their land which he distributed to the landless. Chester Bowles, the American Ambassador to India, observed in his book, The Dimensions of Peace:“The Bhoodan Movement is giving the message of Renaissance in India. It offers a revolutionary alternative to Communism, as it is founded on human dignity”. Arthur Koestler wrote in London Observer in 1959 that the Bhoodan Movement presented an Indian alternative to the Nehruvian model of western development.

According to Vinoba Bhave, land reform should be secured by a change of heart and not by enforced government action. Later, he encouraged Gramdan i.e the system whereby villagers pooled their land, after which the land was reorganised under a co-operative system. “Gramdan is the most creative thought coming from the East in recent times”, wrote Louis Fischer. Hallam Tennyson, grandson of Alfred Tennyson wrote a book titled The Saint on the March narrating experiences as he moved with Vinoba into the rural India. Connected with Bhoodan and Gramdan, there were other programmes such as Sampatti-Dan (Gift of the Wealth), Shramdan (Gift of the Labour), Shanti Sena (Army for Peace), Sarvodaya-Patra (the pot where every household gives daily handful of grain) and Jeevandan (Gift of Life).

In March 1948, Gandhiji’s followers and constructive workers met at Sevagram. The idea of Sarvodaya Samaj (Society) surfaced and started getting acceptance. In 1950, he launched the programme of Kanchan-Mukti (freedom from dependence on gold and Rishi-Kheti (cultivation without the use of bullocks as was practised by Rishis (sages).

Vinoba was born into a pious Chitpavan Brahmin family on September 11, 1895 in Gagode in Kolaba district of Maharashtra. Vinayak Narahari Bhave was his childhood name and he was greatly influenced by his mother Rukmini Devi, a religious woman. He was highly inspired after reading the Bhagavad Gita, at a very young age.

A report in the newspapers about Gandhiji’s speech at the newly founded Benaras Hindu University attracted Vinoba’s attention. He wrote a letter to Gandhiji and after an exchange of letters, Gandhiji advised Vinoba to come for a personal meeting at Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad. Vinoba met Gandhiji on June 7, 1916 and subsequently abandoned his studies. Vinoba participated with keen interest in the activities at Gandhiji’s ashram, like teaching, studying, spinning and improving the life of the community. His involvement with Gandhiji’s constructive programmes related to Khadi, village industries, new education (Nai Talim), sanitation and hygiene also kept on increasing.

Vinoba went to Wardha on April 8, 1921 to take charge of the Ashram as desired by Gandhiji. In 1923, he brought out `Maharashtra Dharma’, a Marathi monthly which had his essays on the Upanishads. Later on, this monthly became a weekly and continued for three years. In 1925, he was sent by Gandhiji to Vaikom, Kerala to supervise the entry of the Harijans to the temple.

Vinoba was arrested several times during the 1920s and ‘30s and served a five-year jail sentence in the ‘40s for leading non-violent resistance to British rule. The jails for Vinoba had become the places of reading and writing. He wrote Ishavasyavritti and Sthitaprajna Darshan jail. He also learnt four South Indian languages and created the script of Lok Nagari at Vellore jail. In the jails, he gave a series of talks on Bhagavad Gita in Marathi, to his fellow prisoners.

In 1938, he shifted to Paramdham Ashram in Paunar, which remained his headquarters. Gandhiji greatly admired Vinoba, commenting that Vinoba understood Gandhian thought better than he himself did. After Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, many of Gandhiji’s followers looked to Vinoba for direction. Vinoba advised that, now that India had reached its goal of Swaraj (self-rule), the new goal of Gandhians should be a society dedicated to Sarvodaya, the welfare of all. A merger of constructive work agencies produced Sarva Seva Sangh (The Society for the Service of All) which became the core of the Sarvodaya Movement, as the main Gandhian organization working for broad social change along Gandhian lines.

Non-violence and compassion being a hallmark of his philosophy, he also campaigned against the killing of cows. In 1979, he undertook a fast and secured the government promise to enforce the law prohibiting the killing of cows throughout India. Bhave spent the later part of his life at the Paunar Ashram. His spiritual pursuits intensified as he withdrew from the activities and he breathed his last on November 15, 1982.

(Author is a freelance journalist and social activist. He can be contacted on [email protected]).

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