Thursday, August 25, 2005

Vinoba Bhave

The year was 1916. A young man was visiting India’s holy city of Benares to contemplate the crossroads before him.

Should he go to the Himalayas and live as a religious hermit immersed in silence and prayer? Or should he take the road to West Bengal and join the freedom movement that was fighting the British colonizers?

Twenty-year-old Vinoba Bhave was intensely drawn to both ways…

Before I continue, let me say that the names of the Ramon Magsaysay Awardees for 2005 have been announced. The RM Awards Foundation (RMAF) will honor these exemplary Asians on Aug. 31. Included in this week’s RMAF to-do is the launching of the second volume of Great Men and Women of Asia (GMWA). This book project is RMAF’s way of popularizing the lives of past RM awardees who, through their work and example, made an impact on the lives of many Asians.

We are in search of models, aren’t we?

I wrote four of the stories in last year’s first volume. This year, because of time constraints, I agreed to do just one. I picked the much-revered Vinoba Bhave, recipient of the first RM Award for Community Leadership in 1958.

To continue… Bhave had already completed two years of college and was well-versed in the ancient philosophies and scriptures. Gifted with a sharp mind, Bhave excelled in mathematics and was interested in higher learning.

But Bhave had also a thirst all the worldly knowledge he had acquired could not quench. There was a fire in his soul that would not stop burning.

While in that state of unease in the holy city, Bhave read about the speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi. Something in Bhave stirred. He wrote a letter to Gandhi, the holy man in home-spun loin cloth who was leading a satyagraha (non-violent) movement and would later become the leading voice and symbol of India’s struggle for independence from the British raj.

The meeting with Gandhi changed the course of Bhave’s life. He would later recall: ``Providence took me to Gandhi and I found in him not only the peace of the Himalayas but also the burning fervor of resolution, typical of Bengal. I said to myself that both of my desires had been fulfilled.’’

Bhave joined Gandhi in his ashram (a religious community which was also the hub of political and social activity for Gandhi’s followers). Bhave learned at Gandhi’s feet and internalized his vision. Praying, fasting, teaching and studying Hindu scriptures, spinning, leading protests—these were some of the non-violent activities of Gandhi’s unarmed army. Imprisonment only strengthened their resolve to continue the freedom movement.

There was little doubt that Bhave would be Gandhi’s spiritual successor. Indeed, after the bloody birth of India as a new nation in 1947 which was followed by national turmoil, and Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Bhave emerged to bring the Gandhian revolution a step further into another realm.

Vinayak Bhave, whom Gandhi nicknamed Vinoba, was born in 1895 into a high-ranking Brahmin family in Gagode Village south of Bombay. After Gandhi’s death, Bhave vowed to carry on Gandhi’s dream of sarvodaya, or a non-violent society dedicated to ``the welfare of all.’’

Bhave was the father of the bhoodan (land gift) movement that spread in the 1950s and took the Indian countryside by storm.

Bhave lead peace treks around India to spread the sarvodaya spirit and to soothe the wounds of a divided nation. Freedom from the British had resulted in two nations--India and Pakistan. Ethnic strife especially among Hindus and Muslims further pushed the populace into more turbulence.

Bhave saw that independence from foreign domination did not necessarily result in freedom from want and oppression. The huge majority of the rural poor did not have land to till. What would they live on?

While visiting a village in Telangana (now Andrha Pradesh) in 1951, Bhave received an appeal from landless peasants. Having nothing to give, Bhave turned to the village to ask whether there was anyone who had land to spare. A prosperous landowner stepped forward and offered a hundred acres.

That act of generosity opened up the road ahead. It inspired Bhave to continue his journey, traveling by foot from village to village, asking people if they had land to share with the poor. Thus was born the so-called bhoodan (land gift) movement.

Bhave’s efforts met with extraordinary enthusiasm. His journey of seven weeks yielded an initial 1,200 acres. His fellow workers gathered 100,000 acres. By 1954 the movement had totaled 2.5 million acres, far exceeding government land reform efforts.

Bhave was not easily impressed by his own success. All that land, all that generosity, were not going to solve all of the problems of the Indian people. ``We do not aim at doing mere acts of kindness,’’ Bhave wrote, ``but at creating a Kingdom of Kindness.’’ He taught that more important than the gift was the spirit behind the gift, that is, the spiritual revolution that was being waged. Bhave was indeed a holy teacher and he deserved being called acharya by his followers.

In no time, the land-gift movement reached a new phase. Bhave began to seek out whole villages willing to commit to the ideals of sarvodaya. And so the gramdan (village gift) movement was begun.

For 13 years Bhave walked throughout India. Barely 90 pounds and sometimes suffering from ulcers and malaria, the man in a home-spun dhoti continued to brave the sometimes turbulent countryside to reach out to both the haves and the have-nots. ``All revolutions,’’ Bhave said, ``are spiritual at the source. All my activities have the sole purpose of achieving a union of hearts.’’

There’s more…

Published by Anvil, GMWA I and II are available in bookstores and RMAF.