Vinoba: Gandhi's "Spiritual Successor"

By Mark Shepard | 1988-06-01 12:00:00

All revolutions are spiritual at the source. All my activities have the sole purpose of achieving a union of hearts.

- Vinoba

It was your typical Third World Communist insurrection. As usual, the issue was land monopoly by the rich. As usual, the struggle was launched by university-bred radicals, and sustained with young male recruits from among the poorest. As usual, the insurgents tried to break the land-lords' monopoly by driving them out or killing them and distributing their land. They had gained control of 3,000 villages - that is, until the army arrived.

As usual, most of the peasants were caught in the middle by the conflict between the Marxist "liberators" and the government forces sent to subdue them. Villages were occupied by government troops during the day and by Communists at night. Each side would kill villagers suspected of sup-porting the other side. Most peasants lived in fear of both sides.

The locale was Telegana, a region now in Andhra Pradesh in central India. The time was several years after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination and India's attainment of independence.

Of all Gandhi's disciples, the one esteemed most was a reserved, austere individual called Vinoba. Vinoba was known for his scholarship, for his compulsion to hard physical labor, and for a dispassion that Gandhi had always sought for himself as a spiritual ideal but never attained. What's more, Gandhi once commented that Vinoba understood Gandhian thought better than he himself did.

Following Gandhi's assassination in 1948, Vinoba was the figure to whom many dedicated Gandhians turned for guidance. Vinoba gave their movement a new focus and a new name: Sarvodaya, "the welfare of all."

But it was Vinoba's journey through Telegana that electrified India and first drew international acclaim. It was in 1951, following an annual Sarvodaya conference. The government had shown it would win in Telegana, but the conflict wasn't over. Vinoba hoped to find a solution both to the violence and to the injustice that had spawned it. So, refusing police escort, he and a small company set out on foot through the region.

On the third day of his walk, Vinoba stopped in the village of Pochampalli, which had been a Communist stronghold. Setting himself up in the courtyard of a Muslim prayer compound, he was soon receiving visitors from all the factions in the village.

Among the visitors were forty families of landless Harijans. (Harijan "child of God" - was Gandhi's name for the Untouchables, the outcasts of Hindu society.) They told Vinoba they had no choice but to support the Communists, because only the Communists would give them land. They asked, Would Vinoba ask the government instead to give them land?

Vinoba replied, "What use is government help until we can help ourselves?" But he himself wasn't satisfied by the answer. He was deeply perplexed.

Late that afternoon, by a lake next to the village, Vinoba held a prayer meeting, which drew thousands of villagers from the area. Near the beginning of the meeting, he presented the Harijans' problems to the assembly. Without really expecting a response, he said, "Brothers, is there any among you who can help these Harijan friends?"

A prominent farmer of the village stood up. "Sir, I am ready to give one hundred acres."

Vinoba could not believe his ears. Here, in the midst of a civil war over land monopoly, was a farmer willing to part with 100 acres out of simple generosity. And Vinoba was just as astounded when the Harijans declared that they needed only 80 acres and wouldn't accept more! Vinoba suddenly saw a solution to the region's turmoil. In fact, it seemed to him a sign from God. At the close of the prayers, he announced he would walk all through the region to collect gifts of land for the landless.

So began the movement called Bhoodan - "land gift." Over the next seven weeks, Vinoba asked for donations of land for the landless in 200 villages of Telegana. Calculating the amount of India's farmland need to supply India's landless poor, he would tell the farmers and landlords in each village, "I am your fifth son. Give me my equal share of land." In each village - to his continued amazement - the donations poured in.

Who gave, and why?

At first, most of the donors were farmers of moderate means, including some who themselves owned only an acre or two. To them, Vinoba was a holy man, a saint, the Mahatma's own son, who had come to give them God's message of kinship with their

In any case, as Vinoba's tour gained momentum, even the announced approach of the "god who gives away land" was enough to prepare the landlords to part with some of their acreage. Soon Vinoba was collecting hundreds of acres a day. What's more, wherever Vinoba moved, he began to dispel the climate of tension and fear that had plagued the region. In places where people had been afraid to assemble, thousands gathered to hear him - including the Communists.

At the end of seven weeks, Vinoba had collected over 12,000 acres. After he left, Sarvodaya workers continuing to collect land in his name received another 100,000 acres! The Telegana march became the launching point of a nationwide land-gift campaign. Soon several hundred small teams of Sarvodaya workers and volunteers were trekking from village to village, all over India, collecting land in Vinoba's name. Vinoba himself - despite advanced age and poor health - marched continually, touring one state after another.

As the campaign gained momentum, friends and detractors alike watched in fascination. In the West too, Vinoba's efforts drew attention. In the United States, major articles on Vinoba appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker- he even made the cover of Time Magazine.

By the time of the 1954 Sarvodaya conference, the Gandhians had collected over three million acres nationwide. The total eventually reached over four million. Much of this land turned out to be useless, and in many cases landowners reneged on their pledges. Still, the Gandhians were able to distribute over one million acres to India's landless poor - far more than had been managed by the land reform programs of India's government.

After 1954, Vinoba began asking for "donations" of whole villages, in a program he called Gramdan - "village-gift." These villages were then reorganized along Gandhian lines. Lend was distributed to meet the needs of the individual families, while official title to land was held by a village council. This prevented the land from again collecting in the hands of the rich, as usually happens following land reform programs.

Also, in the Gramdan villages, the village council was made up of all adult villagers and made all decisions until everyone accepted it. This was meant to ensure cooperation and make it harder for one person or group to benefit at the expense of others.

By 1970, the Gandhians had collected official Gramdan pledges from about 160,000 villages - almost one-third of India's total. But actually putting Gramdan into practice turned out to be impossible in the great majority of these villages. Still, there are today over a hundred Gramdan "pockets" - some made up of hundreds of villages - where Gandhian workers have settled in for long-term development efforts. These pockets form the base of today's Gandhian movement, and provide the setting for many of the Gandhians' marvelous stories of grassroots effort and nonviolent struggle.

Along with these come stories from other branches of the Gandhian movement - from Shanti Sena, the Gandhians' "Peace Army," combatting riots through nonviolent intervention; from the Chipko ("Hug-the-Tree") Movement, blocking irresponsible logging in the Himalayas; from the nationwide "JP Movement" led by Jayaprakash Narayan, which in the mid-1970s almost brought down the government of Indira Gandhi.

As for Vinoba, he returned to his ashram last in June 1970, though he continued to inspire new programs for the efforts of his followers. Finally, in 1982, after suffering a heart attack, Vinoba decided to "leave his body before his body left him." He therefore simply stopped eating until his body released him.

Another Great Soul had passed.

This article is adapted from Mark Shepard's Gandhi Today: A Report On Mahatma Gandhi's Successors, on the contemporary Gandhian movement in India and around the world. The book is available from Peace Magazine at $13.5O.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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