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ASSOCIATES OF MAHATMA GANDHI > VINOBA BHAVE > MOVED BY LOVE > My Mother
My Mother
The Ideal Devotee
There is nothing to equal the part my mother played in shaping my mind. I have spent time in the company of many good men; I have read the books of many of the great, filled with the wisdom of experience. But if I were to put all that in one pan of the scales, and in the other what I learned from my mother of practical devotion, that second pan would carry the greater weight of value.
Mother was a really great devotee. She would serve everyone in the house with their food, and finish all her other household work, and then before eating her own meal she would seat herself before the Lord and carry out the ritual of worship, offering the lights and flowers in the customary way, just like everyone else. But the devotion in her heart was revealed when she made her obeisance to the Lord at the end of the puja. Bowing before him she would grasp both her ears1 and pray aloud: ‘O Lord of this bound- less universe, forgive me my faults,’ while tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks. Such tears are not produced at will; they can come only from a heart overflowing with devotion. Of course it is common enough for us ordinary folk to shed tears on special occasions such as Ramanavami or Krishnashtami,2 as we contemplate the divine image we have installed for the festival. But I have watched the tears flowing every day, at the ordinary daily puja, in a way impossible without a heart-devotion. Of all my treasured memories of Mother this is the most precious.
Mother was an ordinary housewife, busy all day long with her work, but her mind dwelt continually on the Lord. She was in the world, but the world was not in her mind or on her lips, and we never heard her utter a harsh word. From the moment she rose in the morning she would be repeating the Name; as she sat grinding the grain she would sing hymns to the Lord. All her songs were songs of worship, and she sang them with wonderful love and devotion. She had a very sweet voice, and she would become completely absorbed in her singing.
I said to her once: ‘Mother, you must sing a new song every day—it won’t do to have yesterday’s song today or today’s song tomorrow !’ So for six months she sang a new song for me every day, so many did she know. She was from Karnataka where her family still lived, and she knew Kannada songs also, besides Marathi.
Whatever Mother was doing, whether bathing or cooking, she would be inwardly absorbed in some devo- tional chorus or other, so much so that one of the dishes occasionally got salted twice over. She herself would never eat until everyone else had finished and she had completed her puja. I was usually the first to sit down to the meal, but I paid very little attention to the food: I simply ate whatever was set before me and then went off. Then my father would come and say that there was too much salt in the vegetables. In the evening Mother would tackle me: ‘Why didn’t you tell me that the vegetables were over-salted?’ ‘Why didn’t you taste them and find out for yourself?’ I would reply. But that would never have seemed right to her. How could she possibly taste food until she had finished her worship and made her offerings?
Mother had great respect for my father, but she also took a lot of notice of what I said. For example, she had resolved at one time to offer to the Lord one hundred thousand grains of rice. Every day as she made an offering, she took a handful of rice and offered one grain at a time, counting as she did so. Father saw what she was doing, and said: ‘Why do you do it in that way? Why not weigh up one tola3 of rice and count the number of grains in that? Then you can easily reckon up how many tolas will make one hundred thousand grains, and you can add an extra half-tola to be sure you have the full number.’ Mother did not know what to say to this, so when I came home that evening she asked me about it: ‘Vinya, this is what your father suggests. What do you think about it?’ I said: ‘Well, this offering of yours, this hundred thousand grains of rice, isn’t just a matter of accounts or arithmetic. It’s matter of devotion, done in the name of God and the saints. With every grain you count your mind is fixed on the Name, so you should go on counting one by one, I think.’ Mother was very pleased and told my father about it.
When the Nagapanchami4 festival came round Mother used to offer puja to the Nag (the snake), and she would ask me to make a drawing of the Snake-god for her. ‘You can get a beautiful drawing in the bazaar, Mother,’ I would say. ‘May be,’ she would reply, ‘but I don’t want their beautiful drawings, I want your drawing.’ Such was her affection for her son. So I would take a small wooden plank and draw the Nag on it with red kumkum powder.
Every evening Mother would set the milk for curd, invoking the Lord as she did so. Where was the need, I once asked her, to bring God into the business? ‘Look Sonnie,’ she answered, ‘of course we on our part do everything we can, but all the same it will only set well by God’s grace.’ She knew that there is a place for both human effort and divine grace.

The Teacher of Good Conduct
Mother insisted, when I was a child, that I must water the tulsi5 plant every day. One day after my bath I came straight to the kitchen and sat down for my meal. ‘Have you watered the tulsi?’ asked Mother. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then go and do it now. I will only give you your food when it’s done.’ That was her lasting gift to me. She gave me so much else, milk to drink, food to eat, and stayed up night after night to care for me when I was sick; but this training in right human conduct was the greatest gift of all.
There was a jack-tree in our courtyard at Gagode. I was only a small child then, and as soon as I saw a fruit beginning to grow I would start asking when I could eat it. When at last it was ripe Mother would cut it down and fill a lot of leaf-cups with segments of the fruit. Then she told me to take these as gifts to every house in the neighbourhood. When they had all been distributed she would seat me at her side and give me some of the sweet segments to eat. ‘Vinya,’ she would say, ‘we must first give, and afterwards eat.’ She was teaching me some of the deepest truths of philosophy, but she made it into a little rhyme:
    Giving is God-like,
    Hoarding is Hell6
This teaching of hers made such an impression on me that without it, I must admit, I might never have had the inspiration to start the land-gift movement.
If any of our women neighbours fell ill Mother would go to the house and cook for the family. At such times she would first finish the cooking for our own household and then go to the other house.
‘That’s selfish, Mother,’ I said one day. ‘You take care of your own children and your own home first, and the other family comes second !’ Mother began to laugh. ‘What happens?’ she said. ‘Our food is cooked too soon, so it gets cold. I want those people to have their food fresh and hot, so I go there and cook it at the proper time. That’s not selfish, it’s unselfish !’
When I was little I was afraid of ghosts. Mother explained to me that ghosts would never harass the devotees of God. ‘But if you feel frightened just take a lantern with you while going out in the dark and go on repeating the Name of God. Whatever ghosts happen to be there will soon run away.’
One night during that time I saw a big shadow on the wall. It was my own shadow, but I was too little to know it. It seemed terribly tall, the tallest man I had ever seen. Off I ran to my Mother. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said. ‘That fellow is your slave. Whatever you do, he will do. If you stand up, he will stand up too. If you sit down, so will he.’ I thought I would try this out and see what happened. I sat down, he sat; I stood up, and he stood; I walked along, so did he; I lay down and he lay down too. He was my slave, I discovered—why be afraid of him? That was how Mother rid me of fear of ghosts by faith, and fear of shadows by commonsense.

God in Human Form
If a beggar came to our door Mother would never allow him to go away empty-handed. One day a very sturdy-looking beggar came, and Mother gave him alms. I protested. ‘Mother,’ I said, ‘that man looks perfectly fit; to give to such people is to encourage laziness. Those who give to the undeserving are the worse for it themselves. Does not the Gita tell us to consider that gift pure which is given at a fit place and time to a worthy person?’ Mother listened, and then said very quietly: ‘Vinya, who are we to judge who is worthy and who is unworthy? All we can do is to regard everyone who comes to the door as God, and offer what is in our powers. Who am I to judge him?’ To this argument of my mother’s I have not to this day been able to find a convincing reply.
My father often had a needy student living with us in the house. When some food was left over from a previous meal Mother would eat it herself, and if there was too much for her she would serve some to me. For the student however she always served fresh hot food. This went on day after day, and finally I spoke to her about it. ‘Mother,’ I said, ‘you tell us that we ought to regard everyone as equal, but you are still making distinctions yourself. You never give that boy left-over food, you always give it to me. You are not treating us as equals, are you?’
Mother answered at once: ‘Yes, you are right. I do treat you differently from other people. I am attached to you, I am partial to you, because I still look upon you as my son, whereas I look upon that other boy as God in human form. When I can see you too in that way, these distinctions will disappear.’
There is a custom among the Brahmins to set aside five small portions of rice at every meal as an offering to God. One day I omitted to do this, and Mother asked if I had forgotten. ‘No, I’ve not forgotten, but I’ve been thinking. Five of these portions make about a quarter tola of rice, so that in a month of thirty days it adds up to about seven tolas. There are about thirty million Brahmins in India, and that means that in the course of a year about thirty million seers7 of rice go to waste. It’s not right to throw away all that rice when there are so many poor people in the country.’ ‘All right,’ Mother replied. ‘You are a learned fellow and I’ve no doubt your calculations are correct. But my way of reckoning is different. If you put that scrap of rice by the side of your plate, the flies sit on that and not on the food that you are eating. The flies get something to eat, it’s a service to other living creatures.’ I often reflected on the meaning of what she said. One day I was idly swinging a stick, striking the wooden columns of the veranda. Mother stopped me. ‘Why are you doing that?’ she asked. ‘They are an image of God, why do you hurt them?’ I stopped at once. In India, the feeling that even a wooden pillar should not be needlessly hurt is in the very air we breathe. This reverence for all the creatures of God is something Mother taught me from earliest childhood.
As a child I was often sick and under medical treat- ment. When Mother gave me the medicine she used to make me recite a Sanskrit verse, and one day I asked her what it meant. She said: ‘It means, Look upon the doctor as God, and upon his medicine as Ganga water.’ ‘Might it not equally well mean that God is the true healer and Ganga water the true medicine?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that is also a correct interpretation, but one has to be fit for it; for the present, you had better look upon the doctor as God.’ Two alternative lines of thought, and truth in both of them.
Mother was not well-read but she was familiar with the stories of the saints in such books as Bhakti-vijay. One day I commented that saints like these were to be found only in ancient times; there were none such today. Mother replied that there are saints alive in our times, but we do not know about them. ‘If there were no saintly spirits to give the world the strength of their austerities, how could it survive?’ That was her faith, and on the basis of that faith she taught me things which have been of value to me throughout my life.
I myself became my Mother’s teacher in reading. One day she was spelling out the words in a book of hymns, letter by letter, so that it took her at least fifteen minutes to read one hymn. I was sitting in the upstairs room, and I could hear her struggling with the letters. In the end I came down and helped her to finish the hymn. After that we read together a little each day, and she was able to finish the whole book.

Mother and the Gita
One early morning I was sitting in the upper room reciting one of the poems of Wordsworth. Mother heard me. ‘Why that lingo, Vinya, at this time of day?’ she asked. I told her the meaning of the poem. ‘It is a good book I am reading,’ I said. ‘I know you would never read anything bad,’ she replied, ‘and even in English some good things must have been written. You should read English too, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the early morning you should read Sanskrit.’ She meant that while other things might be read at other times, only Sanskrit was fitting for the sacred early hours.
It was Mother who gave me my enthusiasm for Sanskrit. When I was about to enter High School there was a discussion at home about which ‘second language’ I should choose. Father suggested French, and I agreed. Mother took no part in the discussion but she listened to it all, and when I came home from school in the evening and sat down to eat she asked me which language I had chosen. ‘French,’ I replied. ‘Shouldn’t a Brahmin boy learn Sanskrit?’ she asked. ‘Of course he would,’ I said, ‘but that doesn’t mean he has to learn it at school.’ Nevertheless Mother’s words made an indescribably deep impression on me, and after that I began to study Sanskrit.
About 1915, I think, a man was giving commentaries on the Gita in Baroda, and Mother would go every night to listen to his discourse. After a day or two she came and said: ‘Vinya, I can’t follow what he says; can you please get me a copy of the Gita in Marathi?’ I did so, but when she opened it and saw that it was in prose, she asked for a verse translation instead; probably she found the verse easier to read. I found that Vaman Pandit’s Samashloki Gita (translation of the Gita verse by verse) was available and got it for her. But in a few days she said that it was too difficult, she couldn’t understand it. ‘What’s to be done?’ I asked. ‘There is no simpler translation.’ Her answer came like a shot: ‘Why shouldn’t you make a simple translation for me? You could do it !’ It was Mother’s faith in me which made me write my (Marathi) Gitai.

The Giver of the Ascetic Ideal
As a child I was full of day-dreams. I used to dream of brahmacharya,8 so I gave up sleeping on a mattress, wearing shoes and so on. One day Mother remarked: ‘Vinya, you do a lot of playing at asceticism; if only I were a man I would show you what real asceticism is.’ The fact is that she felt the slavery of womanhood, even though in our home Father gave everyone their full freedom. I feel quite sure that she was capable of doing what she said. Her three sons all became brahmancharis. ‘Vinya,’ she would say, ‘a virtuous life as a householder brings salvation to one generation, but the life of brahmacharya at its highest brings salvation to forty-two generations.’ When she was thirty-six years old, at her earnest desire, she and my father took a vow of celibacy, as Father told me himself after she had died.
Mother died at the age of forty-two on 24 October 1918, at the same age as Tukaram, whose devotional hymns she so often read. I was with her when she died, as it seemed to me, in great peace. I had asked, did she feel at peace? ‘Completely at peace,’ she had replied. ‘For one thing, you are grown up, and I have no anxiety either about you or about your brothers, for you will look after them. For another thing, two months ago I had that darshan of the Lord.’ She was referring to a visit to the shrine at Dakor two months earlier. Dakor is only four hours’ journey from Baroda, but because of her household work she had never previously been able to go during all her twelve years in Baroda.
When the time came for Mother’s last rites to be performed I said that I would carry out all the ceremonies myself without bringing in any Brahmin from outside. The others, however, were against it. ‘Do you think your mother would have liked it?’ my father asked. ‘I feel sure that she would,’ I replied. ‘She would prefer me to anyone else.’ But they didn’t agree; so I absented myself, bathed, and sat down to study the Vedas. From that day on the Vedas took my mother’s place.
Some of my mother’s words have had such an influence on me that I have included them in my book Vichar-pothi (Random Reflections): Vinya, don’t ask for much. Remember, Small is Sweet, Much is Mischief.
A stomachful of food and a cloth to cover the body, that is all we need.
Give ear to nothing save the words about the wise, the gods and the saints.
When you serve your country, that service shows your devotion to the Lord, but let there be songs of devotion also.
Mother had the fullest faith in me, her son, and that faith had moulded me. When I left home my father, thinking it would comfort her, told her that I would be sure to come back after a little while. Mother did not agree. ‘When Vinya says something he will not change,’ she said. ‘See,’ said the neighbours, ‘this is how modern boys behave; they care nothing for their parents.’ ‘What !’ Mother retorted. ‘As if my Vinya would ever go off and get into bad ways ! He will never do anything wrong.’ To this day Mother is with me; she is an abiding part of my life.
O Mother, you have given me what no one else has given, and yet even you did not give me in your lifetime what you are giving me now, after your death ! I need no other proof of the immortality of the soul.