Acharya Vinoba Bhave

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TIME Magazine



TIME Magazine, May 11, 1953 (Cover by Ernest Hamlin Baker)

The cover article of TIME Magazine from Monday, May 11, 1953.

The farms around Benares, India's holy city, are nourished by the sacred Ganges. The soil is black and crumbly, as rich-looking as chocolate. Cane grows as high as a man's head. Water is knee-deep in the lush paddies. It is a happy land, where plump little children stand beside the road, laugh and wave to passing automobiles, where slender farm girls, with water jars balanced gracefully on their heads, smile shyly before covering their faces with colorful head cloths. Old men sit in the doorways of mud huts, contentedly puffing on long-stemmed hookahs.

But as the traveler goes on across the sluggish River Son, then turns south into the state of Bihar, the landscape begins to change. The land is dry and almost desert-like. Scattered here and there, like the bare bones of long-dead hills, are piles of gigantic stones. Jackals wander across the fields, and black kites wheel lazily in the sky. Tiny villages huddle beside the road, and when an automobile approaches, naked children cower in fright, then invariably, as panicky chickens do, dart into the car's path. Gaunt women, stripped to the waist, work in the fields.

Trudging across this bleak land last week, surrounded by adoring crowds wherever he went, was a gentle, half-deaf little wisp of a man, dressed in the garb of poverty — a homespun dhoti and cheap brown canvas sneakers — but lighted by a flame of authority that has made him one of India's most notable spiritual leaders. His name is Vinoba Bhave (pronounced bah vay). He has no place in the government or any other secular organization; he is what Hindus call an acharya (preceptor). Only a land with holy cities, sacred rivers and thin margins between want and plenty could have produced frail (5 ft. 4 in., 86 Ibs.), ascetic Vinoba Bhave. In two years he has become such a power in India that only Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is better known to the Indian masses.

New Urgency

Vinoba, as he is known to millions, was a trusted and faithful disciple of the late Mahatma Gandhi. He even looks somewhat like Gandhi, except for a grey beard and frowsy dark hair. He has the same emaciated body, wears the same sort of bifocal glasses, speaks in the same calm, soft voice, with kindly humor. One of the most learned men in India, he has studied Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Telugu, Kanarese, Malayalam and English, and this array of languages serves him well on his travels through polyglot India. It is not for his learning, however, that India's millions have given their hearts to Vinoba Bhave. They have done that because he, like their beloved Bapu (as they call Gandhi), has brought them a new hope.

It is no new doctrine that Vinoba preaches. It only seems so, because the times have given it new urgency. Walking from one to another of India's 700,000 villages, he asks those who have land to share it with those who have none. Without using the words of the gentle Evangelist who preceded him by two thousand years, he tells his audiences that it is more blessed to give than to receive. To those who have land he says: "I have come to loot you with love. If you have four sons, consider me as the fifth, and accordingly give me my share." To impoverished tenants and landless laborers he says: "We are all members of a single human family."

The results of this simple approach to man's better nature have been astonishing. Bhave calls his campaign Bhoodan Yajna, which means a sacrificial offering of land. Since he began his land distribution campaign two years ago, Vinoba has walked 6,500 miles on tireless feet, and has distributed more than a million acres of land to the poor. The largest single gift was 100,000 acres from a maharaja. The smallest was a gantha (one fortieth of an acre), donated by a Telangana peasant who owned only one acre himself.

Every Man's Heart

Not all of the gifts are prompted by charitable impulse. Some wealthy landowners support Vinoba Bhave and make donations because they hope his gentle usurpation will appeal to the mystic strain in all good Hindus more than the violence of Communism. Bhave has proved that, under certain circumstances, Indians do prefer his way, that Bhoodan Yajna is more effective in ending unrest than jailing thousands of Reds.

At one place he said: "Whatever village I go to, people tell me about the atrocities of the Communists. I pray to God to let the feeling of love for Communists also reside in my heart. Although the Communists commit acts of violence, still, how can we hate them? I wish everyone to realize God. I always pray to Him that He should kindle good faith in the heart of every man." In another village, held in a vise of terror, he spoke directly to the Communists: "Do you really believe in your ideology? If so ... why not come in the daytime instead of by night? If you want to loot the people, loot as I do, with sincerity and affection."

Every party in India approves of Bhave's movement, including Nehru's Congress Party and the Socialists — every party, that is, except the Communists. Even the Communists do not denounce the man or his goal, only his method (which they profess to scorn as inadequate and unworkable, despite the fact that it works). For 30 years the Congress Party has talked land reform, studied schemes, but has accomplished little. After independence, Nehru turned over land legislation to the state governments, where it has been obstructed by landowner interests. Of India's 357 million people, in a land where plague, pests, drought, floods, debt and ignorance conspire to perpetuate abject poverty, Bhave is one man who is doing something tangible about redistributing the land. To the Western eye, there are visible shortcomings in Vinoba's Bhoodan Yajna. It has not increased the number of acres or the quantity of crops, and therefore — his critics say—  provides no conclusive answer to India's immense agricultural problem. Although more than 70% of India's people work the land for a living, the nation must import food or starve. Yet Bhoodan Yajna has given pride of ownership to hundreds of thousands, and hope to millions more.

Eight Swishes

Vinoba Bhave is a sick man: he has a duodenal ulcer and malaria. For food, he takes only two cups of milk daily, the second laced with honey. Yet somehow he finds the energy to walk a steady ten to 20 miles a day. When he is on the road, he and his disciples get up in some sleeping village at 3 a.m. There is a patter of handclaps, a tinkling bell, the flash of a kerosene lantern, the shuffling of sandals in the dust, and the little group departs for the next village, singing hymns. When he is not on the road, Vinoba gets up an hour later and meditates for an hour. At 5, he has his first cup of milk, swishing each mouthful exactly eight times before swallowing.

Bhave's entourage numbers a dozen or more enthusiastic young Hindus, male and female, average age about 24, who stay three months to a year with him, so that the membership is constantly changing. Some disciples usually precede him to the next village, to announce his arrival from a sound truck and to see that everything is in order (including latrine-digging, if a big crowd is expected). The only permanent member of the group is Damadar Das, 38, who joined Gandhi at 18 and became Bhave's secretary after the Mahatma died. Damadar Das mails copies of Vinoba's speeches to the newspapers and keeps track of the land deeds, although each one is shrewdly inspected and initialed by Bhave personally.

Bhave's ashram (retreat) is at Puanar in Madhya Pradesh, about six miles from Gandhi's former ashram at Wardha. The main bungalow at Puanar, donated by Gandhi's old benefactor, the late millionaire Jamnalal Bajaj, seemed so luxurious to the ascetic Bhave that he was tempted to refuse it. Finally he accepted, but stripped the bungalow to its bare walls. Like Gandhi before him, Bhave is an expert spinner and weaver. Unless it is raining, he sleeps outdoors every night, whether on the road or at Puanar.

Lifelong Celibacy

Vinoba Bhave was born 57 years ago to a Brahman (high-caste) family in Gangoda, a village in western India. His given name was Vinayak, but Gandhi changed it to Vinoba in later years, and the disciple accepted it as his name. At ten the boy began his career of holy man: he made a resolution of lifelong celibacy, gave up sweets and started going barefoot. Gandhi, who in young manhood was a lawyer and a comfortably married man, admired Vinoba's untarnished virginity. The Mahatma frequently said that his only regret in life was that he had known the delights of sex.

At 20, Bhave was shipped off to study at Bombay, but went instead to Bengal. Apparently (he is reticent about his early life) he joined the nationalist movement in Bengal, eating at public kitchens. He studied Sanskrit at Benares, and became deeply immersed in Hindu theology. He first saw Gandhi in 1916. Being too shy to approach the Mahatma, Bhave wrote a letter instead, and Gandhi invited him to join the ashram at Sabarmati. When Gandhi learned that his new follower had not written to his family for several years, he sat down himself and wrote to Bhave's father: "Your Vinoba is with me. His spiritual attainments are such as I myself attained only after a long struggle."

Return Before Nightfall

Bhave was restless at Sabarmati, however, and went away to study more Sanskrit, telling Gandhi that if he did not find peace of soul he would be back in a year. Over the ensuing months, the others in the ashram forgot his promise, but one morning at prayers, the Mahatma said that this was the day Vinoba had promised to return. Vinoba was back before nightfall.

In 1932 Bhave suffered his first arrest for taking part in Gandhi's civil-disobedience movement. Thereafter he spent several more terms in British jail, serving a total of about two years. After India won her nationhood, through the bloody communal riots between Hindus and Moslems and through Gandhi's death, Bhave remained in obscurity, except for occasional newspaper articles carrying his strictures against money. To Bhave, money "tells lies and is like a loafing tramp." For a medium of exchange he favored scrip, showing the number of hours a person had worked to earn it.

Two years ago he went to the state of Hyderabad to attend a meeting of Gandhi's old disciples. The Communists were terrorizing Hyderabad, especially the Telangana district, and Bhave was appalled by what he found there.

Culture & Blood Baths

In the 10,000 square miles of Telangana, 8,000,000 peasants had long suffered the worst land tyranny in India. They were virtual serfs, without hope of getting land of their own. Communist guerrillas moved in to correct this — in their own way. They killed or put to flight scores of landowners, distributed the land, seized whole villages and set up their own schools. In battles between guerrillas and state constables backed by government troops, 3,000 people were killed and 35,000 Reds jailed. Both landowners and farmers were caught in the murderous crossfire.

Bhave wandered into areas from which the police had warned him to stay away, but he was unharmed. At first he preachedahimsa (Gandhi's old nonviolence), but he soon saw that this was not enough. "I confess," he said, "that the incendiary and murderous activities did not unnerve me, because I know that the birth of a new culture has always been accompanied in the past by blood baths. What is needed is not to get panicky, but to keep our heads cool and find a peaceful means of resolving the conflict. The police are not expected to think out and institute reforms. To clear a jungle of tigers, their employment would be useful. But here we have to deal with human beings, however mistaken and misguided. When a new idea is born, new repression cannot combat it."

Then Vinoba Bhave thought of asking landowners to give land to the landless, saying (or at least politely implying) that if they did not, the Communists or the government might take it away. Thus Bhoodan Yajna was born, in bloody Telangana. Even the Nizam of Hyderabad, reputed one of the richest and most miserly men in the world, gave some land, though neither the Nizam nor Bhave would say how much (the merit acquired by giving is lost by boasting of it). Some 35,000 acres were collected and reassigned to the most destitute. Gradually the revolt and the terror died down.

Palms & Mango Leaves

Prime Minister Nehru's government was delighted. Nehru too is Gandhi's heir — but a modern, half-Westernized one. Gandhi had a political core which Bhave ignores and Nehru has inherited. Nehru, moreover, believes in industrialization and irrigation and vast schemes; Bhave believes in self-denial and spinning wheels. After Bhave's triumph in Telangana, Nehru wanted him to come to New Delhi and discuss Bhoodan Yajna with the National Planning Commission, and offered to send a plane down to fly Vinoba back. Vinoba said: "I will come, but in my own time, and as always." He walked, with members of his ashram. New Delhi was 795 miles away.

That slow plodding to the capital, which took two months, was a triumphant journey. At nearly every town and village, Bhave found arbors of palms and mango leaves erected for him to walk through. Underfed, ragged villagers crowded around to touch the holy man's feet, and to bathe them when he would stop for a rest. Municipal dignitaries garlanded him with flowers, which the little ascetic passed back to the crowd. At each departure, the elders walked with him a mile toward the next village. And at every stop, he held a prayer meeting and carried on with Bhoodan Yajna.

At New Delhi, he stayed in a bamboo hut near the concrete ghat in which Gandhi's body was cremated. Nehru called twice, in the midst of a busy election campaign. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, came and told Bhave to take as much as he wanted of Prasad's land holding in Bihar. Members of the Planning Commission came and stayed for hours. Even a delegation of Communists, headed by Party Boss Ajoy Ghosh, paid a courteous visit. After eleven days, Bhave left New Delhi and has not been back to the capital since. He dislikes cities.

No Animal Matter

Three months ago, while walking through Bihar, Vinoba Bhave was seized with acute malaria. His temperature rose above 103, but he kept on walking as long as he could, then continued by bullock cart. In Chandil, a small village, he collapsed and was put to bed, but he refused all medication. "God," he said, "either wants to free me or desires to purify this body for employing it again in His work." He also refused to be taken to a hospital in Patna, the state capital. Said he: "Do not people also die in Patna?"

Crowds gathered around the house where the holy man lay ill. Half a dozen state and national government officials sent doctors to care for him. Dr. Prasad and others pleaded with him to take the drugs they prescribed.

Finally, on being assured that the medicines contained no animal matter, Bhave consented. He improved almost immediately. During his convalescence, Nehru and Prasad flew down for a visit. And his disciples carried on with Bhoodan Yajna, collecting 33,000 acres of land. When Bhave took to the road again, the donations came in so fast that the ashram's bookkeeping system was almost snowed under. Last week, after 110 miles of dusty tramping in Bihar, he had picked up another 365,000 acres.

The Way of Love

Nowadays Vinoba Bhave reads only three books: Euclid's Elements, Aesop's Fables and the Bhagavad Gita. For him, as for Gandhi, the Bhagavad Gita is the supreme book of human guidance. This great Sanskrit poem, embedded in a larger work called the Mahabharata, is later than the Vedas and the Upanishads, and fills a role in the Hindu holy books something like that of the New Testament in the Bible. During one of his jail terms, Vinoba lectured every Sunday on the Gita. He translated it into Marathi* verse, and this work sold about a quarter of a million copies.

The Gita prescribes three paths for the soul's union with God: karma-yoga, the way of action, jñana-yoga, the way of knowledge, and bhakti-yoga, the way of love. The poem is set in the frame of bloody battle, a great battle on the plain of Kurukshetra. The hero, Arjuna, is downcast because he must fight against men who, he suspects, are his brothers, even though they are foes, and the god Krishna givers Arjuna advice. Krishna persuades Arjuna that it is permissible to fight, indeed, that he must fight, so long as the struggle serves no selfish ends. Although most Indian scholars believe that the poem refers to a real battle, Gandhi was so deeply committed to nonviolence that he convinced himself that the battle of Kurukshetra was an allegory, that it portrayed the conflict of good & evil in the human heart.

Bhave practices karma-yoga, the way to God through action in the world: "You must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachment to results." It is not to be undertaken with out first mastering the other yogas, learning control of the body, the breathing and the mind; learning concentration through love and devotion by prayer; gaining knowledge by meditation.

Vinoba Bhave has read and admired the scriptures of other religions, and he knows that the way of love was discovered long ago in many places outside the mountain-walled subcontinent of India. Yet in this racked century, the way of love seems, as Bhoodan Yajna shows, always new.

"My object," says Vinoba Bhave, "is to transform the whole of society. Fire merely burns; it does not worry whether anyone puts a pot on it, fills it with water and puts rice in it to make a meal. Fire burns and does its duty. It is for others to do theirs.

"The people are going to solve their problems, not I. I am simply creating an atmosphere. The beginning is always small, but when the atmosphere spreads, somebody will ask — and somebody will give."



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