The Bhagavad-Gita is no stranger to the West. Nor is Vinoba Bhave, the author of these talks on the 'Song Celestial'. Since the death of Gandhi, one name that has sent, if not a wave, a ripple of hope throughout this frightened world is that of Vinoba.
During Gandhi's life Vinoba's name was not much known even in India. Today, however, the remotest villages resound with the words 'Vinoba' and Bhoodan. Even outside India, well-informed circles have sat up to take notice of the 'walking saint' and his land-gift mission. Many thinkers in the West have seen in Vinoba's message a solvent for that war of ideologies that has become the despair of the human race.
Vinoba was born in a Brahmin family of Maharashtra (India) in September 1895. From his childhood he showed a remarkable lack of interest in worldly affairs. A brilliant undergraduate, he gave up college because that sort of education was not what his soul craved for. The idea of utilizing his education in order to make money never entered his head. So, he went to Banaras (Varanasi—India's holiest city and acknowledged as the premier seat of Sanskrit scholarship) to study Sanskrit and Philosophy and to live a life of contemplation and brahmacharya (self-discipline in the most comprehensive sense).
Through he gave up college, Vinoba has remained a student all his life. Unlike Gandhi, he is an erudite pundit of Sanskrit, Philosophy and the religious literature of the world. He has studied the Koran in Arabic, which language he learnt only to be able to read that holy book in the original. He knows the Bible and Christian religious literature as well perhaps as a Doctor of Divinity.
I shall not forget the occasion when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama movement of non-violent resistance to racial segregation, met Vinoba with his wife. Jim Bristol of the Quaker Centre, Delhi, it was, I think, who in introducing Mrs. King spoke of her proficiency in music and suggested that she might sing some hymns and Negro spirituals for Vinoba. Everyone was delighted at the suggestion. I looked at Vinoba and wondered loudly if he knew what the Negro spirituals were. We were all startled, most of all the Americans, when Vinoba, as if in answer, raised his ever-downcast eyes towards Mrs. King and intoned softly, 'Were you there, Were you there, When they crucified my Lord?' When Mrs. King sang that spiritual, it had an added poignancy for us.
Vinoba is a linguist. Besides Sanskrit, Pali and Arabic, he knows English well; reads French; was recently learning German; knows all the major Indian languages. He loves Mathematics. His quest for knowledge is insatiable. But it is not knowledge as ordinarily understood. Most knowledge he regards as superficial and is interested in seeking after the fundamental truths of life. He has an uncanny capacity for separating the chaff from the grain and going to the root of a question. I have not met another person with as keen, razor-like a mind as Vinoba's.
'Vinoba literature', i.e. the collection of his writings and speeches, is already a voluminous affair and is ever-growing. It deals mostly with Philosophy and the theory and practice of non-violence.
To go back to his early days again. There were from the beginning two urges, or rather two tributaries of a single stream of urge, that impelled Vinoba onward. The one came from his identification with his fellow-creatures and impelled him, naturally, to work for the freedom of his country. Due to this urge he felt strongly attracted by the courage, dedication, sincerity and spirit of self-immolation of the revolutionaries of Bengal (whom the British unjustly called 'terrorists').
The other urge pulled him towards the Himalayas—the traditional home of spiritual seekers—for a life of meditation and spiritual fulfillment. While torn between these urges (whose essential unity was not yet clear to him), Vinoba came in touch with Gandhi, who seemed to synthesize beautifully the two urges in his own life. Therefore, he threw in his lot with that newcomer from South Africa who was saying strange things and doing what was even stranger. That was way back in 1916. Vinoba was among the first to join Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram, near the textile city of Ahmedabad. It was from there that Gandhi directed the freedom movement till the beginning of the famous salt satyagraha of 1930.
From that first day of contact Vinoba remained steadfast in his loyalty and devotion to his chosen master, though it would be doing an injustice to him to regard him as a disciple in any narrow sense of the term. It was clear to those who came to know him even during Gandhi's lifetime that he possessed a mind and character, an originality, and above all, a spiritual quality, that were destined to take him beyond the limits of a mere follower—no matter how brilliant—and make him a master in his own right. Those who have followed closely Vinoba's work and thought, know how great have been his own 'experiments with truth' and how significant his contribution to human thought. Particularly significant has been his development of the theory and practice of satyagraha beyond the stage where Gandhi left them.
When Gandhi was assassinated at the beginning of 1948, he was about to launch upon an even greater undertaking than the winning of India's freedom. Gandhi had his own vision of the future India and, as he used to say jokingly, he wanted to live till the age of 125 years in order to make that vision a reality.
That vision was of a new social order—different from the capitalist, socialist, communist orders of society; a non-violent society, a society based on love and human values, a decentralized, self-governing, non-exploitative, co-operative society. Gandhi gave that society the name of Sarvodaya—literally, the rise of all, i.e. a society in which the good of all is achieved.
To bring about this grand social revolution, Gandhi had conceived of different means from those followed in history—the means of love. He had used the same means in his struggle against the British. But Gandhi did not live to put his concept into practice. Nothing was more natural than that the task should have devolved upon Vinoba.
This is not the place to write about the Bhoodan movement. But this much must be said, that it is the first attempt in history to bring about a social revolution and reconstruction by the means of love. Vinoba is doing a path-finding job in this field. The results of his experiment may have a far-reaching impact on a world that is so torn with hatred and charged with violence.
One final word about Vinoba is essential so that he may be truly understood. Vinoba is not a politician, not a social reformer, nor a revolutionary. He is first and last a man of God. Service of man is to him nothing but an effort to unite with God. He endeavours every second to blot himself out, to make himself empty so that God may fill him up and make him His instrument.
The talks of such a man of self-realization on one of the profoundest spiritual works of all times should be of inestimable value to all—irrespective of race, creed or nationality.
Specially written for the foreign edition of the 'Talks on the Gita' published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London