An incognito great
A paragon of generosity and intellectual curiosity, Acharya Vinoba Bhave tirelessly toiled to bring wide-ranging societal reform to a post-Independence India
Every few epochs, society is enriched by great reformers like a Swami Vivekananda or a Mahatma Gandhi. But just like behind every Vivekananda, there was his spiritual anchor in Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, so too Gandhi must have had one. Most of know about Acharya Vinoba Bhave as a freedom fighter, a Bharat Ratna, and as Gandhiji's disciple. But it is a revelation to know that Gandhiji himself called Acharya Vinoba Bhave as an exalted spiritual soul.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave was a self-taught scholar extensively knowledgeable in scriptures, be it Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity or even Islam. Before he wrote a treatise on Islam, Acharya Vinoba Bhave learnt Arabic to understand the Holy Quran's true teachings. After he wrote the treatise, he sent the manuscript to Islamic scholars worldwide to get their approval. And to their credit, the scholars heartily endorsed his treatise as a fine commentary on their holy book.
His treatise on the Gita called the 'Gita Pravachan' was a set of discourses given to jail inmates during his incarceration in Dhulia Jail during the freedom struggle in the year 1932. Even to this day, Acharya Vinoba Bhave's 'Gita Pravachan' is being reprinted in dozens of languages every year and is considered as one of the best commentaries on the Gita for the simple fact that contemporary examples and metaphors are used by him to illustrate a complex religion-spiritual theory propounded thousands of years ago.
These two examples about the Holy Quran and the Gita prove beyond doubt the scholarly yet highly heterogeneous facet of Acharya Vinoba Bhave as a towering spiritual personality of India who lived amongst us till as recently as 1982.
Having said this, Acharya Vinoba Bhave's quintessential contribution to Indian society came by the way of his Bhoodan Movement which invoked the unique human quality of kindness in millions during his time. Acharya Vinoba Bhave openly declared that societal change can be brought about by three methods – 'Katl' (Coercion), 'Kanoon' (Law) and 'Karuna' (Compassion).
Acharya Vinoba Bhave had the foresight to experiment with a future where he believed change could be ushered through invoking compassion. This, although it appears to be a romantic theory, unless it is practically delivered on the ground, it would remain a pipedream. To test this theory of change via compassion, Acharya Vinoba Bhave started his Bhoodan Movement.
On the eve of independence in 1947, India was in a state of penury due to hundreds of years of slavery and natural resource exploitation. So it was natural for policymakers and governments to plan and invest in infrastructure which involves land. Land in India was owned by a handful of landed gentry who employed the landless labour to manage their lands. In free India, with the Constitution guaranteeing equality and universal adult franchise, this skewed property ownership paradox was sure to invite unrest amongst the majority of poor Indians. Maybe Acharya Vinoba Bhave foresaw that unequal wealth distribution would give rise to dissension which would be exploited by the political class to create their own disenchanted vote banks.
It is in this backdrop that Acharya Vinoba Bhave launched his Bhoodan Movement which was nothing but appealing to the conscience of the 'Haves' to compassionately part with a small portion of their vast property to their neighbour 'Have Nots'.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave's modus operandi towards achieving this was very simple. He chose to walk from village to village, meeting all kinds of people to heartily listen to their problems. Then he would gently goad the landholding zamindars to part a sixth of their vast fortunes towards the landless of their village considering them to be their youngest sixth brother. This small ownership would make many poor happy while they would more happily than even continue to participate in the betterment of their elder brother's agricultural fortunes.
This method of Acharya Vinoba Bhave was so successful that from 1951 to 1969 that he travelled mostly over foot all over India for 18 years, nearly 40 lakh acres of land got donated by the rich to their neighbourly poor. To the extent that many governments enacted 'Bhoodan Laws' to legally transfer the title of the donated lands. The Bhoodan Movement was, in fact, the precursor to the nationwide anti-land hoarding laws known as the 'Land Ceiling Act 1976' which brought about massive social equality in India.
True to his sainthood, Acharya Vinoba Bhave never got into the nitty-gritty of his movement's after-effects since his sole aim was a long term experiment to prove the efficacy of his theory that compassion instead of law or coercion was the future of social harmony for the new human.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave was in the mould of Buddha, Mahavira and Adi Shankara who had the gumption and courage to first propound an altogether new theory and then crisscross their motherland meeting millions of common men personally to test the efficacy of that theory.
Acharya Vinoba Bhave was, in short, a sage, a scholar, a politician, a scientist, a reformer and an economist all rolled into one. To perpetuate his experiments for posterity, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, on the lines of Adi Shankara, set up six Ashrams all over India in Paunar (Maharashtra), Pathankot (Punjab), Indore (MP), Bodhgaya (Bihar), Lakhimpur (Assam) and Bengaluru (Karnataka) where he instructed that uninterrupted service of the needy should take place in an atmosphere of simplicity and a sense of compassion.
His final motto was "Hamara Mantra Jai Jagat, Hamara Tantra Gram Swaraj" — "Think global and act local".
The writer is a media consultant by profession and belongs to a family of Acharya Vinoba Bhave's disciples. Views expressed are personal