by C. Jotin Khisty
Originally printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Khisty, C. Jotin. "Justice through Love: The Lessons of Vinoba Bhave." Quest 98. 3 (Summer 2010): 100-102.
Sometime in 1951, news began reaching the outside world about a slender man of nearly sixty who walked tirelessly along the dusty village roads of India, talking about a Land Gift Mission, the likes of which very few people had ever heard of before. Walking for miles from village to village, covering every corner of the subcontinent, Vinoba Bhave collected more than five million acres of land (an area larger than that of Scotland), in the form of gifts from rich and poor alike, which he redistributed to the landless (Kumar, 13). His slogan for this redistribution was "Justice as Fairness." This extraordinary accomplishment, unprecedented anywhere in the history of the world, can only be explained by recognizing that it stemmed from the heart of a saint, scholar, sage, practical philosopher, and educator, all rolled into one.
Born in 1895 to Brahmin parents in a small village in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Vinoba Bhave took a vow of lifelong celibacy and service to others at the tender age of ten. Searching for a way of life that would embody both spiritual truth and practical action, Vinoba discovered Mahatma Gandhi in 1916 and became his ardent follower, embracing the principles of nonviolent social change.
Out of his scores of able followers, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India's first prime minister in 1947, Gandhi chose Vinoba to be his spiritual successor to carry on his mission; in fact, Vinoba was the first person to offer nonviolent resistance (satyagraha) to the British Raj in the campaign of October 1940, and as a consequence was imprisoned for almost five years. Gandhi's admiration for Vinoba was limitless: "He is, next to me, the best exponent and embodiment of nonviolence" (Sitaramayya, 219). As one of the great spiritual leaders and social reformers of modern India, whose work and personal example moved the hearts of millions all over the world, from prime ministers to the poorest of the poor, Vinoba proved to be a true disciple of Gandhi.
Vinoba Bhave is best remembered for at least two major movements that he initiated and practiced. First, the principle of sarvodaya ("welfare for all"), which he advocated, refined, and put into practice. Although it was originally Gandhi's idea, Vinoba enlarged its scope. It may be recalled that while the English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748—1832) developed the theory of utilitarianism, which essentially stated that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the objective of justice, sarvodaya aimed for the greatest happiness for everybody. It is for this reason that sarvodaya is considered by many philosophers as one of the most original contemporary contributions to political thought (Appadorai, 127).
Sarvodaya postulates that the good of the individual depends upon the good of all and that all work, high or low, is of equal value. The sarvodaya movement contributed to the development of self-governing village communities by educating people to settle local issues through consensus or near-unanimity, by teaching villagers to practice the optimum use of limited resources, and by developing people's capacity to run their own affairs with minimum governmental control and assistance, eventually leading to the welfare and harmony of all. Vinoba strongly emphasized the true value of basic education, good farming practices, and the expansion of handicraft industries.
Vinoba's second major contribution was embodied in the Land Gift Mission. It stemmed from his observation of the vast disparities of wealth and lifestyles among virtual neighbors in the same society. How, he would often ask, can it be just or fair that a large segment of society is barely able to meet its minimum nutritional needs, while a tiny proportion of the population spends large sums of money on luxury goods, many of which are wasted? His aim was to bring about a threefold revolution: a change in people's hearts, a change in their lives, and a change in the Indian social structure. And he tried his utmost to accomplish all three through love.
Referring to the Land Gift Mission during his prayer meetings, Vinoba would remind his audience that land belongs to God'it belongs to all or none. Nobody created the land, so why should anyone claim to possess it? Air, water, sunshine, forests, hills, rivers, and the earth are part of the planetary heritage. No one group or individual has a right to own, possess, spoil, pollute, or destroy it. We can receive the earth's fruits as God's gift and return what we do not need to God. With this message, Vinoba knocked at every door, persuading landlords, capitalists and communists to establish a new relationship with the earth and its people. Hardly anybody refused his request. Gifts of land, labor, money, agricultural tools, and knowledge all poured in from rich and poor alike (Kumar, 2).
Another significant act of Vinoba's'one that had never been achieved before'was his successful negotiation with hundreds of armed robbers in central India. In early 1950, soon after India gained independence, the state of Madhya Pradesh was desperately trying to eradicate bands of armed highway robbers called dacoits. With roots going back hundreds of years, these notorious robbers were known to waylay and murder travelers on the highways of central India. Even during the British Raj, no police force could round them up. But Vinoba performed a miracle.
Sometime in 1960, when Vinoba was visiting central India on a peace campaign, Tahsildar Singh, son of the notorious robber leader "Raja" Man Singh, wrote to him from jail. Tahsildar Singh had been condemned to death and appealed to Vinoba to see him before he was hanged. He also requested Vinoba to meet the leaders of his dacoit comrades in central India who were still at large. On getting this message, Vinoba was moved to the depths of his heart and immediately contacted the gangs and their leaders to come to meet him as a friend, assuring them that they would be treated justly. After many rounds of discussions with Vinoba, something happened that was quite unexpected. These hard-hearted robbers melted. People for whom armed robbery had become a means of livelihood bowed their heads in repentance and promised to abandon their former way of life.
On May 19, 1960, scores of these robber leaders and their comrades met Vinoba, laid down their guns'costly weapons, equipped with powerful sights'and surrendered themselves. Vinoba proved through his quiet diplomacy that the combination of nonviolence and love is a spiritual force of great power. Peace and tranquility has reigned in this part of India ever since (Kalindi and Sykes, 167).
Vinoba Bhave made many other significant contributions to India's political thinking and awakening, such as mobilizing people's power through the use of nonviolent and peaceful strategies, raising spiritual consciousness, introducing handicraft education in schools, advocating inexpensive agricultural innovations, and implementing water supply and irrigation projects in rural areas.
Vinoba was truly an agent of the poor, the homeless, and the destitute, because he himself lived a life of poverty. He presented their case and fought for their rights. In one of his essays on poverty he wrote: "A psychological change cannot be brought about by war and violent revolution. Ultimately it has to be the dedication of one's all for the well-being of all. Those who have must look upon those who have not as a mother looks upon her hungry child. She feeds it before she feeds herself; she starves before she allows it to starve. Let those who have the strength, the skill, and the knowledge for producing wealth and the power of holding it, dedicate themselves to the service of the poor" (Brown, 195).
I had the privilege of witnessing Vinoba in action. I was one of the fortunate people to be inspired at an early stage of my career by his silent revolution. As a civil engineering undergraduate in 1948, I met him at Sevagram, Gandhi's headquarters, and for the next four years volunteered to help him with tasks that he entrusted me with, such as helping villagers with simple planning projects, surveying parcels of land, and preparing and checking agricultural land assessment records connected with his Land Gift Mission. In the summer of 1960, I was again briefly associated with Vinoba when his Peace Campaign led the dacoits to lay down their weapons.
Many a time, when we volunteers were bogged down with a problem and expressed our frustration, Vinoba would remind us of his philosophy: "Never take any step without first going deeply into the matter and getting at the root of it." At other times, when we approached him with a formidable situation, he would say: "Don't be afraid of any problem. No matter what it is, no matter how big it is, it will eventually seem small to you, for you are bigger than the problem. After all it is a human problem, and it can be solved by human intelligence." On many other occasions he would encourage us to use our collective intelligence by pooling our resources and know-how to tackle the problem. This inspired us to think of alternative solutions and select the best one. It was his dedication, his sincerity, and above all his utter transparency that overwhelmed us and kept our spirits high. Vinoba steered us along the right path with gentle whispers.
Vinoba would remind us that justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. In his view, any theory of justice, however elegant, must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well-organized, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. As first principles that underpin human activities, he would say, truth and justice cannot be compromised. For me personally, it was a great privilege to learn from this "walking saint," because his life reflected his devotion to truth and his dedication to justice.
For the last seven years of his life, Vinoba relinquished almost all activities and took a vow of silence, spending his time in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. He died peacefully on November 15, 1982, at the age of eighty-seven. Millions from all walks of life, from the president of India to humble peasants, came to his cremation ceremony (Kalindi and Sykes, 253).
These words by Hallam Tennyson, British pacifist and great-grandson of the poet, capture the essence of Vinoba's lifelong mission: "Vinoba did not promise permanent solutions, he redirected our gaze to the universal good and rekindled our faith in human capacities....He did not worry about the fruits of his action. If his actions were sound enough then their influence would work on the soggy dough of human consciousness and help it to rise up to achieve something nearer to its full potential" (in Kalindi and Sykes, 11).
Appadorai, A. Indian Political Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Brown, D. Mackenzie. The Nationalist Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.
Kalindi and Sykes, M., eds. Moved by Love: The Memoirs of Vinoba Bhave. Bideford, Devon, U.K.: Resurgence, 1994
Kumar, S., ed. The Intimate and the Ultimate. Shaftesbury, Dorset, U.K.: Element, 1986.
Sitaramayya, P. The History of the Indian National Congress, vol. 2. Bombay: Padma, 1947.
C. Jotin Khisty, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His article "The Marriage of Buddhism and Deep Ecology" appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest.