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ASSOCIATES OF MAHATMA GANDHI > VINOBA BHAVE > MOVED BY LOVE > The Service of the Saint
The Service of the Saint
At Kashi
In my pursuit of Spiritual Reality I arrived at Kashi (Benares), and found a place to live on the second floor of a house at Durga Ghat. One of my two companions went back home after a short time, the other remained with me. His name was Bedekar, but we used to call him ‘Bhola’ (‘the innocent’) because he was so simple-minded and open. He had that genuine affection for me which asks for no return.
One day while we were still in Baroda, Bhola asked me to go with him to meet a sadhu, Narayan Maharaj, who had come there. I myself did not readily accept any sadhu without careful enquiry, but as Bhola was very eager to attend the meeting I went with him, and we watched and listened from the fringe of the crowd. Someone asked: ‘Maharaj, where do you come from?’ He replied: ‘The dwelling-place of Narayan is everywhere in the universe.’ I grabbed Bhola’s hand and pulled him out. ‘Why are you dragging me away?’ he protested. ‘If that is the kind of thing you want to hear,’ I said, ‘I could have read it to you any day from the Upanishads. The man ought to have given a straight answer to a straight question, and told them the name of his village. You really are a Bhola, a simpleton !’
Bhola had a fine physique. He would swim right across the Ganga and back again, while I could only stand and watch. But we had been in Kashi barely two months when he fell ill, and his sickness suddenly took a serious turn. I put him into the Ramakrishna Mission hospital, but it soon became clear that he would not recover, and he too realized it. I asked him if I should send word to his family. ‘Where is the need?’ he replied. ‘They will hear about it somehow or other.’ ‘Then’, I said, ‘who would you like to light the funeral pyre?’ ‘You should do it,’ he said, and I agreed. He died the following day.
This was the first time I had such an experience. I had never even attended any cremation. The expenses were no problem. I possessed two rupees, which I had earned by teaching English in a private school. The teacher did not know much English, so I offered to teach for an hour or so each day. ‘What will you charge?’ they asked, and I replied that two rupees a month would do. ‘Is that enough?’ they asked, and I told them that as I was getting my meals free I needed no more. We used to go to a charitable kitchen for our midday meal, and there each of us was also given two pice,2 which was enough to buy a supper of curds and sweet potatoes.
Two rupees were enough for several cremations, for the main expense was for the firewood for the pyre. I arranged for the cremation on the banks of the Ganga, and recited the prescribed mantras. Next day, when I went as usual to take my meal in the charitable kitchen I found gossip going on; some people were saying that I had cond- ucted the cremation without the proper rites. I retorted that there were no limits to the power of the Ganga; any human being, even any crow, cremated by the Ganga would go straight to heaven, as assuredly Bhola had gone.
I am apt to live in the present, with little thought of the past or care for the future, but I do not forget the happenings which meant a lot to me, and this loss of my friend Bhola is the main thing I remember about Kashi. Among other memories is that of the Central Library. It had a great many of the scriptures in Sanskrit and Hindi. I spent hours there daily and had soon finished them all. I wanted to study Sanskrit and asked a pandit how long it would take. ‘Twelve years,’ he replied. I told him that I could not spare so much time. ‘How much time can you give to it?’ he asked. ‘Two months,’ I said. He stared at me in amazement.
Every evening I spent an hour by the side of the Ganga. Sometimes (as I have said) I composed poems which I then consigned to the river. Sometimes I sat in meditation or in deep thought, sometimes I listened to the debates between the pandits which took place daily at the riverside. One day there was a debate between the advocates of advaita (non-duality) and those of dvaita (duality). The advaita party was declared victor. I stood up. ‘Mr President,’ I said, ‘I want to say something.’ The President saw that I was a mere boy, but he gave me permission to speak. ‘Sirs,’ I said, ‘what you have just witnessed is the defeat of advaita, not its victory.’ This contradiction of the judgement startled them, but I went on: ‘How can anyone who really believes in advaita enter into debate at all? Those who involve themselves in such arguments have lost their case from the start. It’s not possible to have an argument at all without recognizing the principle of duality.’ So I said my say, and left them.
While in Benares I needed a lock, and bought one from a shop in the street leading to the charitable kitchen. When I asked the price the shopkeeper said ten annas. I took the lock and gave him the money. ‘I am paying you what you ask,’ I said, ‘but the proper price of this lock is two annas; you are asking far too much.’ The shopkeeper said nothing, and I went on my way. I had to pass his shop every day on my way to the kitchen, but I carefully avoided looking in his direction. Two or three days later he called me. ‘I charged you too much for that lock,’ he said. ‘It was wrong of me.’ And he gave me back the money. This moved me very much and won my respect.
I had brought just one book along with me from home. It was Jnaneswari3, a book for which I had a great reverence. One night I was troubled by a dream, so the next day I began to use my Jnaneswari as a pillow for my head at night, and the dreams stopped.
I spent two months and some days at Kashi, and then turned my steps towards Bapu.4

The Satyagraha Ashram
During my boyhood I had already been attracted by Bengal and the Himalayas, and dreamed of going there. On the one hand I was drawn to Bengal by the revolutionary spirit of Vande Mataram5, while on the other hand the path of spiritual quest led to the Himalayas. Kashi was on the way to both places, and some good karma had brought me as far as that. In the event I went neither to Bengal nor to the Himalayas; I went to Gandhiji, and found with him both the peace of the Himalayas and the revolutionary spirit of Bengal. Peaceful revolution, revolutionary peace: the two streams united in him in a way that was altogether new.
When I had reached Kashi the air had been full of a speech which Bapu had delivered at the Hindu University there. In it he had said a great deal about non-violence, his main point being that there could be no non-violence without fearlessness. The violence of the mind, shown in violent attitudes and feelings was, he said, worse than open, physical violence. It follows from that that the most important aspect of non-violence is inward non-violence, which is not possible without fearlessness. In the same speech he had referred critically to those Indian Princes who had come to the meeting decked out in all kinds of finery. This had all taken place a month before I arrived, but it was still the talk of the town. I read the speech, and it raised all kinds of problems in my mind. I wrote to Bapu with my questions and received a very good reply, so after some ten or fifteen days I wrote again, raising some further points. Then came a postcard. ‘Questions such as you have raised about non-violence,’ he wrote, ‘cannot be settled by letters; the touch of life is needed. Come and stay with me for a few days in the Ashram, so that we can meet now and again.’ The idea that doubts could be set at rest by living rather than by talking was something that greatly appealed to me.
Along with the postcard came a copy of the Ashram rules which attracted me still more. I had never before encountered anything like them in any institution. ‘The object of this Ashram,’ I read, ‘is service of our country in such ways as are consistent with the welfare of the world as a whole. We accept the following vows as needful to attain that object.’ Then followed the eleven vows: truth, non-violence, non-stealing, self-control, bodily labour and so on. This struck me as very surprising indeed. I had read a great deal of history, but I had never heard of vows being regarded as necessary for national freedom. Such matters, I thought, are found in religious texts, in the Yoga-shastra, and for the guidance of devotees; but here is someone who insists that they are necessary for national service too. That was what drew me to Bapu. Here was a man, I felt, who aimed at one and the same time at both political freedom and spiritual development I was delighted. He had said ‘Come’, and I went.
I alighted at Ahmedabad railway station on June 7, 1916. I had not much luggage, so I put it on my head and started out, asking my way as I went. I crossed Ellis Bridge and reached the Ashram at Kochrab at about eight in the morning. Bapu was told that a new man had come, and sent word for me to meet him after I had taken my bath. I found him busy cutting vegetables. This too was something new; I had never heard of any national leader who occupied himself with such a job, and the sight of it was a lesson in what was meant by bodily labour. Bapu put a knife in my hand, and set me to work at a job I had never done before. That was my first lesson, my ‘initiation’.
As we sat cutting the vegetables Bapu asked me some questions, and then said: ‘If you like this place, and want to spend your life in service, I should be very glad to have you stay here.’ Then he went on: ‘But you look very weak. It is true that those who seek self-knowledge are not usually physically robust, but you look ill. Those who attain self-knowledge never fall ill.’ That was my second lesson ! I can never forget what Bapu said to me then.
After that, I had no more talks with Bapu except about the immediate work in hand. I was usually fully absorbed in my work, but I also used to listen to his conversations with the many people who came to see him. He knew that I was a well-intentioned lad, though others were apt to consider me rather a dullard. During one of these conver- sations Bapu had commented that some remark was ‘just a secondary expression’. I interrupted. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s the language of devotion.’ ‘You are right,’ said Bapu at once, ‘The language of knowledge and the language of devotion are not the same.’ It was just like him to listen with respect to someone like me, hardly more than a child, and accept what I said. Others too began to listen to me after that.
Nevertheless the general low opinion of me was certainly justified. At twenty-one I was a very raw youth, and as my friends know, I had very little of what is called polish or good manners. I hardly talked to anyone; I busied myself in my work, or was engrossed in study, meditation or reflection. I had risen early one morning and was reciting an Upanishad in my room. Some of the others heard me, and told Bapu that I knew Sanskrit. He asked me some questions and from that time he occasionally asked me to say something during the time of common prayer. So life went on.
Bapu, it seems, had decided to take me in hand and get me into shape, and later, when enquirers visited him at Sevagram, he would ask: ‘Did you meet Vinoba? If not, you must certainly do so.’ One of these friends was a well-known Indian revolutionary. As Bapu suggested it he walked over to Paunar to see me. When he arrived, I was digging in the field. I happened to raise my head, and seeing him standing there asked why he had come. ‘Simply to have your darshan,’6 he replied. What could I say? He remained there for some time, but said no more. Later he complained to Bapu: ‘What kind of a man did you send me to see? He didn’t even speak to me !’ Bapu had a shrewd idea of what had happened. ‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Digging in the field.’ ‘Then what is there to be angry about? Vinoba was working; how could he have talked to you then? My dear man, don’t you know that if you want to meet someone you should first make an appointment?’7
That was how Bapu dealt with the visitor, but the next time I saw him he scolded me: ‘My dear fellow, when someone comes to see you, it’s part of your job to meet him and talk with him.’ In this way, little by little, Bapu moulded me into shape; wild creature that I naturally am, he tamed me, and as I sat at his feet he transformed me from a barbarian into a servant of all. It was in his company that I began to hunger for service, that service which is now for me an instrument of worship, seeing the Lord in humanity.
I don’t know whether Bapu ever tested me, but I certainly tested him, and if he had seemed to me to fall short in any way I would not have stayed. He kept me with him, in spite of all the failing which his scrutiny must have revealed, but I for my part would not have remained if I had found anything wanting in his devotion to truth. I have seen reputed ‘Mahatmas’ who regarded themselves as liberated spirits, perfect beings; none of them had any attraction for me. But Bapu, who always considered himself imperfect, attracted me enormously. ‘I’m still very far from perfect truth,’ he would say, and he had a far greater influence on me than any of those who claimed to have attained it.
When I met Bapu, I was enchanted by the unity in him between the inward and the outward. It was from him too that I learned the meaning of Karma-yoga (the path of action for spiritual liberation). This is spoken of in the Gita, of course, but it was personified in Bapu’s life; in him I saw it in practical terms. The Gita has a description of a Sthitaprajna, one who lives in steadfast wisdom. To meet such a person in the flesh would be the greatest of blessings; I have seen with my own eyes one who came very near to that great ideal.
I gained much from being with Bapu in the Ashram, where life was experienced as one and indivisible. Bapu never thought of himself as anyone’s guru or anyone’s disciple. Neither do I; I am no one’s guru, or disciple, though I fully agree that a guru may have great importance. A guru who is a fully perfected soul may indeed be able to liberate a disciple by darshan, by a mere touch or a single word, even by the inward will alone. But for me that is theory only, for in practice I have met no such guru. I can only say that the things I learned from living with Bapu have stood me in good stead to this day. It was like living as a child with his mother, and so gaining insights which nothing else could give.
At one point there was a plan that Bapu should go to help Abdul Gaffar Khan8. He felt that it was possible that he might not return, so he called me to talk things over. I spent about fifteen days with him, and after he had spent two or three days questioning me I began to question him, and asked him about his own experience of God. ‘You say that Truth is God,’ I said. ‘All right, but you also told us that before you undertook your fast an inner Voice spoke to you. What do you mean by that? Is there something mysterious about it?’ ‘Yes’, he said, ‘there certainly is. It is something quite out of the ordinary. The Voice spoke to me very clearly. I asked what I should do, and was answered, you must fast. For how long? I asked, and was answered, twenty-one days.’
That is the story of a personal encounter, in which one party asks and the other answers, just as (in the Gita) the Lord Krishna talks with Arjuna. Bapu was a votary of truth, so the accuracy of his report is not in doubt. He said that the Lord had spoken to him in person, so I asked him, ‘Do you think it possible for the Lord to take visible form?’ He said: ‘No, I don’t think so, but I did hear a voice clearly.’ ‘How can that be?’ I replied. ‘If the form is transient, so is the voice. And if He speaks in a voice, why should He also not appear in a form?’ Then I mentioned similar mysterious experiences of others and recounted some of my own experiences. In the end he agreed that although he himself had heard only a voice and seen no visible presence, that did not mean that a vision of God is impossible.
At the time when his Autobiography was being published, he asked me what I thought of it. ‘You are a votary of truth,’ I replied, ‘and you would write nothing false, so it can do no harm. I can’t say how useful it will be, for each reader will take from it what suits himself.’ ‘You have given me what I wanted,’ said Bapu. ‘It is enough if it will do no harm.’ He drew a big circle in the air with his finger. ‘In the end,’ he said, ‘all our efforts come to zero. All we can do is to serve, and leave it at that.’ Those words of his are enthroned in my heart; they contain Bapu’s whole philosophy.

On Leave for a Year
In 1917, with Bapu’s permission, I took a year’s leave from the Ashram, partly in order to restore my health, partly for study. I planned first to study Sanskrit at Wai. Because of my love for the Gita I had already made a start at home with the help of my friend Gopalrao. At Wai there was a good opportunity, for Narayan Shastri Marathe, a scholar who was a lifelong brahmachari, was there teaching Vedanta and other systems of philosophy. I had a keen desire to study under him, and I stayed there a good long time, studying the Upanishads, the Gita, the Brahma-sutra (with Shankaracharya’s commentary), and the Yoga philosophy of Patanjali. I also read the Nyaya-sutra, the Vaisheshik-sutra, and the Smriti of Yajnavalkya. That satisfied me, for I now felt that I could go on with my studies, if I so wished, independently of a teacher.
My other purpose was to improve my health. The first step was to walk regularly ten or twelve miles a day. Next, I began to grind six to eight kilos of grain every morning; and finally I performed the yoga exercise called Surya-namaskar (salutation to the sun) three hundred times a day. These physical activities restored my health.
I also thought carefully about my food. During the first six months I took salt, but later gave it up. I did not use spices at all, and took a vow never to use them again. I lived for a month on bananas, limes and milk only, but found that that reduced my strength. In the end I settled for about three quarters of a seer of milk, two chapatis (pancakes) of millet flour (weighing about twenty tolas), four or five bananas and (when it could be had) one lime fruit. I had no desire to eat anything merely because it was tasty, but I felt uneasy that this diet was rather costly. I was spending about eleven pice a day, four pice for the fruit, two for the flour, five for the milk.
I had settled on this diet to maintain my health; but I had also in mind the practice of the eleven vows. I was away from the Ashram, but I was nevertheless determined to follow its way of life. I not only kept the vow about control of the palate, but also that of ‘non-possession’. I possessed only a very few things—a wooden plate, a bowl, an Ashram lota (brass vessel used as a mug), a pair of dhotis, a blanket and a few books. I had taken a vow not to wear a shirt, cap or coat, and I used only Indian hand-woven cloth and nothing of foreign make. This meant that I was also keeping the vow of swadeshi. I believe that I did also keep the three vows of truth, non-violence and brahmacharya, so far as I understood them.
Along with this personal discipline I took up some public service. I conducted a free class on the Gita for six students, taught them the whole text and explained the meaning. Four other students studied six chapters of Jnaneshwari with me, and two more studied nine of the Upanishads. I myself did not know Hindi well, but every day I read Hindi newspapers with my students and so did my share in popularising Hindi in the Marathi-speaking areas of the country.
In Wai I started ‘Vidyarthi Mandal’, a students’ club, and fifteen of the boys joined with me in grinding grain, so as to earn some money to equip a reading room. We charged people only one pice for grinding two seers of grain and the money so earned went to the reading room. My fifteen volunteers were all Brahmin boys in the High School, some of them very rich. Wai was an old-fashioned place and people thought we were fools, but nevertheless we carried on for about two months and the reading room got about four hundred books out of it.
During that year I also covered about four hundred miles on foot, visiting four or five districts of Maharashtra in order to extend my knowledge. I saw some of the forts renowned in history, such as Raigarh, Sinhagarh, Torangarh. I also visited places associated with the saints, mixed with people and observed what was going on. I was specially interested in some of the treasures of knowledge that were hidden away in people’s houses—old books and manuscripts and so forth. I enjoyed historical research, and especially examining documents of a spiritual nature. I had a great advantage in being comparatively unknown. I could do what Saint Tukaram describes: ‘enter the heart, touch a man’s feet in humble reverence, and get from him his hidden treasure.’ Nowadays I get no chance to bend and touch anyone’s feet!
While on this tour in Maharashtra I used to give talks on the Gita. I could not be said to have any real experience; I was only twenty-three, and only the Lord Krishna knows how far my understanding went. But I poured out my inward feelings, becoming totally absorbed as though in a kind of repetitive prayer. As water falls drop by drop on to the Shiva-linga,9 so do thoughts continually repeated imprint themselves on the heart. In that spirit I would give my talks; they were an expression of my inner devotion to the Gita.
I never stayed more than three days at any village. The first day I got to know the place and the people, and then at nine in the evening I gave my talk, and if interest was shown I stayed two days more. It usually happened that on the first evening sixteen or twenty men and women would assemble, but I addressed them as if they had been a thousand; the second day the number increased—two or three hundred would come.
It so happened that the Shankaracharya of Sankeshwar Math was visiting a particular village at the same time as I was. He used to give his discourse in the mornings. Hearing that there was a young sadhu there whose talks were well liked, he hinted that he would like to meet me. My time that day, however, was so occupied that I could not go. Then I received a letter from him, and went and bowed before him. ‘I’m very glad to meet you,’ he said. ‘If the calf had not come to the cow, the cow would have had to go to the calf !’ My eyes filled with tears; I still remember those words, for they won my heart. He asked whether I had read Shankaracharya’s commentaries. I told him that I had read the commentary on the Gita and was then studying that on the Brahma-sutras. This pleased him very much.
At Tasgaon village I had to stay for a week; I was unable to walk because of an abscess on my leg. On the first day, before it could be lanced, it gave me continuous pain. For those seven days I sat on a bullock cart to give my evening talks. I noticed with interest that as soon as the crowd had gathered and I began speaking I no longer felt the pain, and only became conscious of it again when the people had gone to their homes at the end of the talk. During that enforced seven-day stay I spent my time reading, and finished my study of Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Brahma-sutras.
In every village I would get in touch with the young people and invite them for walks. I would start very early, as soon as I had bathed, and if I had company, as I usually did, there were vigorous discussions. Occasionally I was alone, and spent the time in my own thoughts, returning by eleven or twelve o’clock. The days thus passed pleasantly. I also tried to make known the principles of the Satyagraha Ashram both by my words and by my conduct. Waking or sleeping, even in dreams, one prayer, one refrain, was always with me: may God accept my service, may this body be an instrument of His will.
I had told Bapu that I would come back in a year’s time, and I returned to the Ashram exactly a year to the day from the time I had left it.

Bapu: an Abiding Presence
Bapu loved and trusted me very much, and I for my part had laid my whole being at his feet; so long as he lived I simply carried on my work untroubled. Now however I wonder whether, if I had left the Ashram and joined in his work outside a few years earlier, I might perhaps have had the privilege of giving my life for the cause before he did, even though I might not have been able to extinguish the fire which consumed him. After he had been shot, I had the feeling that at the least, if I had joined Bapu in his wider field of work when I was released from jail in 1945, I might have been able to shield him and take on myself the fatal attack made on him.
But, by God’s decree, things take their course. Gandhiji was killed by a man of unbalanced mind, and I got the bad news at Paunar two hours later. At first, for a day or two, I remained calm; I am by nature slow to feel the impact even of such a blow as this. It came home to me two or three days later and I broke down. It was my duty to speak daily at the evening prayer at Sevagram, and my tears overflowed as I spoke. ‘What, Vinoba,’ said one of those present, ‘are you weeping too?’ ‘Yes, brother,’ I replied. ‘I thank God that He has given a heart even to me.’
Nevertheless it was not Bapu’s death that set my tears flowing. He had died, I believe, as it behoves any great man to die. I was upset because I could not prevent my brother men from putting their faith in murder. When I heard of Bapu’s death my immediate reaction was: now he has become immortal. Time has only strengthened that conviction. When Bapu was in the body, it took time to go and meet him; now it takes no time at all. All I need do is close my eyes and I am with him. When he was alive I buried myself in his work, and went to talk with him only now and then. Now, I talk with him all the time and feel his presence near me.
‘There are sages who strive through birth after birth,’ wrote Tulsidas,10 ‘and yet at the moment of death they do not have the name of Rama in mind.’ Not so with Gandhiji; his last words were ‘He Rama’; no devotee could have done more. Some of his ashes were immersed in the river Dham at Paunar. As I stood that day on the banks of the Dham it was as though I were witnessing a new birth. What I felt as I recited the Ishopanishad cannot be put into words. The sages speak to us of the immense range of the soul, the Self; we reverently accept their teaching, but only on that day did it come home to me as a reality. So long as a great soul lives in the body his power is limited, but when he is released from the body his power knows no bounds.