A “Padyatra” with the “Acharya”

FPJ BureauUpdated: Sunday, June 02, 2019, 01:53 AM IST
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Hari Chand Aneja gives a touching account about the life and times of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, the man who sought land for landless farmers of India.

Can we please give him a cup of tea? I know your Ashrams rule forbids it but he is unwell and the doctor has advised it,’requested Mrs. Jankideviji Bajaj, wife of Mr.

Jamnalal Bajaj, one of Indias freedom fighters. Acharya Vinoba Bhave nodded his permission.

Thus I received a cup of tea, at Paunar Ashram, established by the Acharya in 1934, on the banks of Dham river in a village, five miles from Wardha.

The Acharyas permission was mandatory because anyone who joined his ‘padyatra’had to abide by the rules of the Ashram. Some of the rules were: wear only ‘khadi’apparel, wash your own clothes, sleep on the hard floor in village huts, eschew stimulants like tea and alcohol. Walking about 3 to 4 miles daily from dawn to dusk, in the dust of the village streets, in November 1964 dehydrated me. Hence, I needed a refreshing cup of tea.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave, was a passionate disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. He had made it his lifes mission to seek surplus agricultural land from the rich in Indias villages and gift it, to the landless poor. He started the movement from Pochampally village in Andhra Pradesh, on April 18, 1951, after interacting with 40 ‘Harijan'(‘children of god’, the name given by Gandhiji to the untouchables) families. He walked across India asking people with land to consider him as one of their sons and donate one- seventh ( 14 per cent) of their land to him.

For 14 years from 1951 to 1965, dressed in a simple ‘dhoti’, shirtless like his political and spiritual guru Gandhiji, sunglasses, a cap covering his head and ears and a staff in hand, he walked across the country seeking land for the poor.

His movement gained momentum.

I joined the ‘padyatra’for a week, to study this intensely spiritual social activist.

We commenced our day at 4 am with prayers and a light breakfast of ‘poha'( rice flakes). Our group of 15, led by the Acharya, also reverentially called ‘Baba’, walked 3 to 5 miles to a village. Baba would address a local meeting, crowded by poor landless peasants and the ‘zamindars’. In his soft sonorous voice, he beseeched the affluent landowners to donate surplus land to his ‘Bhoodan’movement.

Lunch would comprise of simple rice and ‘dhal’, offered to us by local villagers.

Baba was successful in most villages in securing some land for the landless poor. His integrity and purpose were unimpeachable.

He was considered a true disciple of his mentor Mahatma Gandhi. From 1917 to 1921, Baba lived with Gandhiji in his ashrams and been inspired. He accompanied Gandhiji on the 1930 ‘Dandi Salt march and was incarcerated for it.

After resting for about 30 minutes, we would march 1- 2 miles to another village. Again, Baba would persuade the rich landlords to donate their surplus lands to him.

By dusk, we reached a third village.

We bathed by the village well or stream and then recited evening prayers.

The evening prayers were an important part of the daily ritual.

Baba was born a Hindu, but had had written books explicating the Quran and Christianity. Thus, his prayer meetings were deeply humane, embracing universal values.

After prayers, we ate a simple meal offered to us by the local villagers.

By 9 pm, we were exhausted and fell asleep on the earthen floors of the village huts.

Baba was always greeted enthusiastically and reverentially as we walked through small hamlets.

Groups of people would stand by the mud paths, with folded hands, seeking his blessings. Many just wanted to touch his fingers and hands. He was their only hope – a 70- year- old holy man who trudged miles every day to serve the poor.

Our last night was spent at ‘Sewagram’, Mahatma Gandhis ashram in Wardha. I spent some hours studying the frugal quarter of Mahatma Gandhi, which has been maintained as if he were yet living there. His reading glasses, wooden sandals, the famous paperweight of three monkeys stay as he left them. The roof of his ‘kutir’was covered with dry, thatched leaves. One of the most celebrated leaders of our century lived in simple conditions, befitting an ordinary rural peasant.

The Baba maintained weekly day of ‘monvrata'( silence), so that he could meditate. He communicated briefly by writing. It was my last day at the ashram and I wanted to pay my respects to him. I was ushered into his presence as dusk descended on the ashram. The Baba sat on the ground and worked on his ‘charkha’. I handed him a slip of paper, with my gratitude written on it, ‘A blind man has found his eyes in your ashram.’Baba was kind. He responded by writing, ‘Although you stayed for a few days, it made me happy. Please follow the path of ‘Sarvadoya'( welfare of all).

Babas blessings are with you.

8/ 11/ 1964.’I have treasured Babas note for the last 48 years.

When a country grows rapidly, land becomes a prized asset. It also becomes fiercely expensive.

In many parts of India, the price of land has spiraled five fold in the last decade. There has been a frenzy amongst the rich and powerful to buy or grab land. Media reports scams of land acquisition by the rich and powerful at throwaway prices. The lack of land and livelihoods in parts of rural India sparked the violent Naxalite movement in 1967, which has grown stronger.

About 199,000 farmers have committed suicide between 1997 and 2008 frustrated by indebtedness.

I am reminded these days about my ‘padyatra’48 years ago, with Acharya Vinoba Bhave. He walked 40,000 miles, received 1000 villages, amounting to 5 million acres ( 20,000 square kilometers) of land as donations from the rich and distributed it free to landless farmers, between 1951 and 1965.

He gifted a livelihood to the poor for they could till and reap. The Acharya bequeathed to the affluent too – he taught them the grace of giving. India needs to rediscover this lost value.

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