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The 1958 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
BIOGRAPHY of Vinoba Bhave
VINOBA BHAVE was born on September 11, 1895, of Brahmin parents in Maharashtra in Western India. He left his formal studies at Baroda at the age of 18 to seek a life of self-denial and striving for understanding and to learn Sanskrit at Benares.
In 1916, he met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time at Sabarmati Ashram. Until the Indian leader's death, VINOBA BHAVE was one of Gandhi's most trusted and faithful followers. Asking once for a year's leave of absence, he spent it studying intensively "to train his mind" and scavenging in the villages "to train his soul." In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, when Indian leaders adopted a policy of nonparticipation in the war effort, Gandhi chose VINOBAJI as the first satyagrahi to offer himself for arrest as protest against British edicts barring public speeches and assemblies espousing nonparticipation. Most of the next five years he spent in jail.
Today, ACHARYA VINOBA BHAVE is one of India's greatest Sanskrit scholars, deeply learned in Eastern philosophy and skilled in mathematics. He has mastered much of the religious and philosophic lore of his land and "seems to live and move and have his being in it." His utter simplicity of manner and dress bely the fact that he is a savant at home in 18 Indian and foreign languages, including Persian, Arabic, French and English. The title ACHARYA, given by popular acclaim for his wisdom and scholarship, has become a part of his name.
Until he launched the Bhoodan Yajna (ritual sacrifice in the form of voluntary land gift) in 1951, VINOBAJI's name was little known outside of those close to Gandhi.
The Bhoodan Yajna began in April 1951. ACHARYA VINOBA BHAVE had walked 300 miles from his ashram in Madhya Pradesh to a meeting of Gandhian workers in Hyderabad State. After the meeting he decided to return through Telangana area, which had been the center of intensive Communist activities for some years. There the Communists had started a movement for the redistribution of land among the landless peasants by destroying title deeds, threatening the landlords and generally terrorizing the people through arson, murder and other violence.
On the third day of his trek as he entered the village of Pochampalli, some 40 Harijan families, of the former lowest caste Untouchables, surrounded VINOBAJI to explain why they supported the Communists. They needed land and the Communists were ready to give. ACHARYA had no answer at first. But he placed the problem of the 40 families before a meeting of the whole village. He asked, with little expectation of result, whether any one in the audience would like to part with some of his land in favor of these poor families. A landowner stood up to offer 100 acres, though the Harijans had demanded two acres for each family, or only 80 acres.
VINOBAJI reflected deep into that night, he relates, and concluded that "the Great Power that rules over all is after some new activity." Thus "commanded" to dedicate himself to this work, he calculated the amount of land needed for all of India's 10 million landless farming families and arrived at 50 million acres—about one-sixth of the cultivable land in the country.
Encouraged, he traveled to another village and received a similarly gratifying response. Appeals in other villages brought in 12,000 acres in less than two months. Since then he has walked more than 20,000 miles and received contributions of about five million acres of land.
In a short time, Bhoodan gained national importance. Prime Minister Nehru invited VINOBA BHAVE to New Delhi to explain the movement to government officials. ACHARYA went as he had gone to hundreds of villages— by walking. It took him two months to make the journey, traveling 795 miles and gathering 17,000 more acres on the way.
Bhoodan Yajna is a process aimed at changing mental outlook to make possible a peaceful transference of ownership of land to the landless. "My movement," says VINOBAJI, "is primarily a moral movement for the regeneration of our people and the reorientation of the social and economic values of life."
ACHARYA VINOBA BHAVE shuns politics as a means of social and economic reform. Instead he goes directly to the villages to preach the principles of sarvodaya—the phrase made familiar by Gandhi and meaning welfare for all—and to carry his own bhoodan (land gift) message.
He draws heavily upon Indian mythology, history and epics to provide illustrations. He reminds his audiences that by old tradition the land belonged to the village, and the panchayat, or council of elders, distributed it according to the number in each family. He speaks of dana (charity), yajna (sacrifice), tapas (austerity), asangraha (nonpossession). The people listen.
ACHARYA is known as a man of action. He never preaches anything he does not practice. His self-discipline is of a rare kind.
Every party in India irrespective of its political affiliations, including the Congress Party and the Socialists, approves VINOBA BHAVE's movement. Even those who have no faith in nonviolence do not denounce the man or his mission. They only express doubts about his method which they consider unworkable.
"My aim," VINOBAJI once declared, "is to bring about a three-fold revolution. Firstly, I want a change in people's hearts; secondly, I want to create a change in their lives; and thirdly, I want to change the social structure."
"My mission is not to stave off revolution. I want to prevent a violent revolution and bring about instead a nonviolent revolution. The future peace and prosperity of the country depend upon the peaceful solution of the land problem," he says.
According to him, class hatred and class conflict are not ordained by Providence. Social justice and the development of human personality are not contradictory and incompatible. "Love is more powerful than hatred. Harmony is more natural. Spirit can move mountains." Time, he insists, has proved that satya (truth) and ahimsa (nonviolence) are far more powerful than other weapons for the solution of human problems. It is the means that determine the ends and not vice versa. Bad means, he declares, cannot be expected to produce good ends.
Addressing the Communists directly, he once asked, "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 love and affection."
VINOBAJI believes that the pattern of agriculture in a thickly populated sub-continent like India must be small scale farming. Instead of trying to pool land, efforts should be made to introduce cooperative endeavor in main agricultural operations, such as ploughing, weeding, harvesting. He seeks cooperation in farming "for its moral and economic benefits and because it would enable India to achieve true self-rule."
Those who have witnessed his work and the spirit in which he is carrying it on can have no doubt about the revolutionary character of his movement. Everywhere he propagates the idea that property in land is wrong and that land should be as free as air and water. But, as water has to be regulated properly for social purposes, so must land be utilized for the welfare of the community. In insisting that all property should be treated as a sacred trust to be used for social ends, ACHARYA VINOBA BHAVE is restating the Gandhian values.
Bhoodan land is distributed only to landless tillers willing and able to make it produce. The recipient is obligated to work the land by his own efforts or with-the aid of his neighbors. The distribution takes place at public meetings in the village and all tests are applied there. One of VINOBAJI’s followers is also present.
In spite of his 63 years, ACHARYA still travels from seven to 15 miles a day on foot. Behind, walking abreast as they enter a village, are members of his small retinue who accompany him on his daily marches.
A typical day starts at three or four a.m. with a bell to arouse the party. A brief chanting of prayers in VINOBAJI’s room is followed by a simple repast—ACHARYA himself customarily eats only curds and milk, sometimes a little honey or a little lemon juice—or this may be taken along the way at dawn if the trek starts early. Then VINOBAJI appears usually clad in a white shawl, white loin cloth and sandals or barefooted, and the group sets out toward the next village, paced by ACHARYA's quick, stiff-legged gait, his arms swinging outward and behind. He is left alone for the first half hour or so as this is his time for silent thinking.
VINOBAJI keeps walking without breaking stride until they reach the destination for the day. Always the party is welcomed, a hut usually has been cleaned for ACHARYA and another for his party. One of his groups invites the crowd to the prayer meeting to be held in the evening. Then breakfast is taken—perhaps pancakes and stewed spiced vegetables. At 10:30 a.m. there are prayers in VINOBAJI’s room. At 11 a.m. the local committee meets VINOBAJI’s secretary who gives them an encouraging talk. Alone, VINOBAJI reads the papers and attends to his correspondence. The others wash their laundry. At noon there is a simple lunch, then rest, then silent spinning. At three p.m. VINOBAJI may consult with workers or talk with visitors, including those who have come to offer land.
In the schoolyard at five o'clock, the prayer meeting begins. Whole villages turn out for these occasions. ACHARYA sits in white wrappings on a platform in the midst of the crowd. His voice, magnified by the microphone, is still soft and gentle. His thin arms shoot out with flung fingers. The voice remains calm. VINOBAJI has acquired the idiom of the people. Some say he is as close as Gandhi in feeling the pulse of the people. He sits throughout the meeting with complete composure, no agitation or restlessness. He speaks in simple sentences. The crowd listens attentively. He ends with a silent prayer. The crowd parts to let him through.
In the evening another simple meal is ladled out onto banana leaves. At eight p.m. exactly a bell clangs and ACHARYA's party steps into his room for prayers. First, silence. Then VINOBAJI softly but joyously chants. The others join in: Bhagavad Gita, "The Song of the Lord," Krishna giving the warrior Arjuna courage to fight, the promise of immortality of the soul and the glory of action in a just cause.
Next they take up VINOBAJI’s own staccato hymn:
"Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya . . ."
Nonviolence, Truth, Honesty,
Chastity, Nonpossession, Labor,
Temperance, Fearlessness, Religious Tolerance,
Independence in Material Needs,
Avoidance of Class Distinctions.
These eleven vows should be observed in humility."
They end, praying slowly: "Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti." (God, Peace, Peace, Peace.) They withdraw and VINOBAJI retires.
Although the Bhoodan Yajna by itself cannot be a conclusive answer to India's immense agricultural problem, it has nonetheless awakened a new consciousness and roused new hope in the hearts of millions. The people notice that whereas politicians come and go to their villages and leave nothing of themselves behind, VINOBAJI always leaves the inspiration of his example and his teaching and usually a land gift from the local landowners.
ACHARYA VINOBA's mission goes beyond the distribution of land. By teaching the people to live and work together, he is also showing them the way to what he believes should be the goal of a sprawling society like India. The aim of his movement, he reiterates, is sarvodaya—welfare of all—through the path of nonpossession and not dispossession.
Along with bhoodan (land gift) were later included sampattidan (cash gift, or the pledge of one's income to buy tools, animals and seed for those receiving Bhoodan lands), sadhandan (gifts in kind, such as equipment, tools, etc.), shramadan (labor gift), buddhidan (intelligence gift, as for propaganda or administrative work), jeewandan (life gift) and gramdan (village gift).
More recently added were gram rajya (administration of the village by the villagers themselves), shanti sena (peace army) and sarvodaya patra (depositing every handful of grain in a pot, by the youngest member in the family). The idea of the peace army is to replace the present police and military. VlNOBAJI asks for only 75,000 Shanti Sainiks, or peace army members. Sarvodaya patra is both an active vote for the sarvodaya program and decentralized automatic arrangement for the support of the peace army. This last program, VlNOBAJI and his followers feel, could be universally accepted and would create a national organization and manifest a collective will that would be unique.
Some have asked why the sampattidan; for example, was not launched at the same time as the bhoodan yajna. Landless people who receive land under the Bhoodan scheme obviously cannot cultivate it unless they have the tools. "I knew it from the beginning," says ACHARYA "but I chose to follow the formula which says 'attend yet to the root and all else will grow automatically.' The land problem is more fundamental than any other."
VlNOBAJI lays stress, as Gandhi also did, on the village and cottage industries because he daily sees "how the people in the rural areas have to waste their energies as they have no regular and full-time work to do." This unemployment and underemployment, he feels, not only bring about physical deterioration but also undermine mental and physical capacities.
Though he does not oppose the Government as such for its policies and practices, he stresses the need for building up strong jan shakti (power of the people) to keep the government in balance. He is concerned that the village communities should be given ample opportunities for developing their social, economic, political and cultural life in accordance with their own ideas and aspirations. At the same time, he tells the village people that the increasing authority of the state results from their own default.
"Paradoxically enough," VlNOBAJI told villagers in Kerala State when they had elected the Communists to power, "after the attainment of independence the people have become more dependent. They think that everything will be done by the Government. This is a very wrong notion. Nothing could be more dangerous. The Government is like a bucket and the people are like a well. The bucket can take only a small quantity of water from the well . . . But nowadays a wrong idea that the bucket holds more water than the well has gained way.
"The Government is formed by the servants whom you yourself choose . . . The people of every village should use their brains and draw out plans for their respective villages . . . Plans for rural health should be drawn in the village itself. Then the Government should be asked to help in its execution."
Such a "bold, socio-economic revolution by nonviolent means" as he is promoting is naturally controversial. Some have called him a communist, saying that the only difference between Gandhi (and BHAVE) and Marx is Gandhi's (and his) belief in nonviolence. VlNOBAJI replies: "This is like saying that there is only this little difference between two men, that one breathes and the other does not. But you know that for the first we must cook a meal and for the second we must light a funeral pyre."
Others argue that the land given as a gift is often poor quality, barren, rocky and uncultivable. ACHRARYA VINOBA admits this, but adds, "To my mind no land can be called useless. I will make full use of even the poorest quality of land, even the rocky tracts and hills." More than the quality of the land, ACHARYA emphasizes, is the fact of peoples' willingness to part with their property voluntarily for a social cause; he sees in this the seeds of a mighty revolution. Apart from the moral and psychological value of the Movement, the poor quality land could be utilized for pastures, afforestation, the rehabilitation of displaced per sons and so on. "It is interesting to note," VlNOBAJI observes with his gentle wit, "that most of the poor quality land has been donated not by the poor but by the rich. It is a curious phenomenon that God has made the hearts of the poor rich and those of the rich poor."
Something like one-fifth of the lands donated has been distributed to the landless. The problem is lack of efficient organization to do the job. ACHARYA himself has not wanted to become "organization-bound," and feels that the economic side is not his responsibility. With such a leader as Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the most popular political figures in India, recently leaving active politics to devote his life to the Bhoodan Movement, others may follow who will take hold of such administrative jobs.
There are critics who point out that VlNOBAJI’s economics are based unrealistically on an era long since past and are not applicable today. Still others question the advisability of further fragmentation of the land.
On one occasion VlNOBAJI mentioned some of the objections to Bhoodan and then turned away from them. "Nobody can resolve all the world's affairs," he said. "We had Rama and we had Krishna. They did what they could for the world. But there was no end to problems. One can only do one's work."
To many he is the "voice of India." "It is not," they say, "that VlNOBAJI has found all of the answers that have to be found. But today we are faced with a question. When India is rebuilding her society after independence what precedents do we follow? Most Indian intellectuals have had training in Western thought and there are the Communist experiments for us to see. But VlNOBAJI has shown us intuitively an approach to the problems that is out of our own past."
"His work, the walking and thinking have kept pace with one another," they continue, "thus the ideas have greater force. The essential thing is not the collection of land in itself but rather the search for an answer applicable to this society. After Gandhi, VlNOBAJI is the only one to make the people feel their inner strength. Before there can be social reform there must be a climate for it and his purpose is to bring about such a human awakening."
ACHARYA himself confidently asserts, "I make claim to the correctness of this work for three reasons. It is in tune with the cultural traditions of India. It contains in it the seeds of economic and social revolution. And, lastly, it can help in the establishment of peace in the world . . . Circumstances have compelled me to come out and be audacious enough to be an initiator of this great Yajna (Bhoodan). But whether it is impertinence or humility I dedicate it to God and request all my sisters and brothers to cooperate with me."
Bhave, A. V. From Bhoodan to Gramdan. Tanjore, Sarvodaya Prachuralaya, 1957.
Friedenberg, Walter. "Vinobaji: the Gentle Revolutionary." (Written in Kerala, India) Institute of Current World Affairs, 1957.
Narain (Narayan), J.P. The Evolution Towards Sarvodaya. Tanjore, S. India, Sarvodaya Prachuralaya, 1957.
______. From Socialism to Sarvodaya. Rajghat Kashi, Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1958.
______. Sarvodaya Social Order. Tanjore, Sarvodaya Prachuralaya, 1957.
______. Socialism to Sarvodaya. Madras, Socialist Book Centre, 1956.
Interviews with persons acquainted with Acharya Vinoba Bhave.Back to top