Later life

Vinoba Bhave was a sick man, he has a duodenal ulcer and malaria. For food, he took only two cups of milk daily, the second laced with honey. Yet somehow he found the energy to walk a steady ten to 20 miles a day. When he was on the road, he and his disciples get up in some sleeping village at 3 a.m. There used to be a patter of handclaps, a tinkling bell, the flash of a kerosene lantern, the shuffling of sandals in the dust, and the little group departed for the next village, singing hymns. When he was not on the road, Vinoba got up an hour late and meditated for an hour. At 5, he used to have his first cup of milk, swishing each mouthful exactly eight times before swallowing.

Bhave's entourage numbers a dozen or more enthusiastic young Hindus, male and female, average age about 24, who stayed three months to a year with him, so that the membership is constantly changing. Some disciples usually preceded him to the next village, to announce his arrival from a sound truck and to see that everything is in order. The only permanent member of the group is Damadar Das, 38, who joined Gandhi at 18 and became Bhave's secretary after the Mahatma died. Damadar Das used to mail copies of Vinoba's speeches to the newspapers and kept track of the land deeds, although each one is shrewdly inspected and initialed by Bhave personally.

On June 7, 1966, 50 years after his meeting with Gandhi, Vinoba announced that he was feeling a strong urge to free himself from outer visible activities and enter inward hidden form of spiritual action. After traveling through India, he returned to Paunar on November 2, 1969 and on October 7, 1970, he announced his decision to stay in one place. He observed a year of silence from December 25, 1974 to December 25, 1975.

Bhave's ashram (retreat) is at Puanar in Madhya Pradesh, about six miles from Gandhi's former ashram at Wardha. The main bungalow at Puanar, donated by Gandhi's old benefactor, the late Millionaire Jamnalal Bajaj, seemed so luxurious to the ascetic Bhave that he was tempted to refuse it. Finally he accepted, but stripped the bungalow to its bare walls. Like Gandhi before him, Bhave is an expert spinner and weaver. Unless it is raining, he sleeps outdoors every night, whether on the road or at Puanar.

Vinoba spent the later part of his life at his ashram in Paunar, Maharashtra. He fell ill in November 1982 and decided to end his life. He died on November 15, 1982 after refusing food and medicine for a few days. Some Indians have identified this as sallekhana. It is the Jain religious ritual of voluntary death by fasting.


In early November of 1982, Vinobaji went on a fast, a total abnegation of all solid and liquid foods. By then, he was already 87 years old and was quite frail and weak. Politico VIPs of the Congress brand from Delhi started making a beeline-pilgrimage to the Paunar Ashram as it was expected that Vinobaji would pass away soon. Indira Gandhi, the then PM, also flew to Nagpur and then took a helicopter to go to Paunar.

The news of Vinoba's 'fast unto death' spread like wildfire and some people were in favour of saving his life. But the Ashramites perhaps wanted him to go, after his own fashion. They indulged in the legal quibbling that Vinobaji had only declared an "indefinite fast" and not really "fast unto death" and so legally he was not actionable. A lawyer from Wardha filed a Writ Petition in the Nagpur Bench of the Hon'ble Bombay High Court alleging that the Collector (DM) of Wardha and the SP (Superintendent of Police) of Wardha were guilty of abetting the suicide attempt by Vinobaji. The Court sent notices to these two functionaries who were in a quandary as to what should be done.

So, Divisional Commissioner (DC) rushed to Wardha from Nagpur and they immediately went into consultations. The DC was a higher authority with an advisory role only but those two district heads had to take a decision as to whether just wait which would mean facing the High Court, or take action to arrest Vinobaji under the law and force- feed him. Force- feeding entailed injections only since the man was too adamant to imbibe anything orally.

DC told them that they should arrest Vinoba. Vinobaji was clearly on a fast unto death. That amounted to suicide and therefore an arrest under the law followed by force-feeding was the right option, as they could not take the High Court matter lightly. Arrest would not mean hand-cuffing and removal to the Police Station but a simple declaration followed by injections in situ.

The Collector and the SP then wanted the clearance of the Chief Minister for further action. They spoke to the then CM, Mr.Babasaheb Bhosale, who was in Bombay. He took the opinion of DC who clearly and forcefully told him that the arrest was the only option as even the CM could not save the Collector and the SP against any possible High Court proceedings. But politicians being potiticians, the CM had the last word and told that “Vinobaji is a great spiritual man and even Gita in chapter two says that body and soul are the same, and you know he follows Gita. This is the way great Yogis go and therefore we should not interfere".

So, the die was eventually cast. No action against Vinoba. No one could say how many days he would continue fasting like that. But within the next forty eight hours or so, Vinoba expired. It was on 15 November 1982. The PM and VIP entourages again converged on Paunar to bid farewell to the great man. The public lost a great well-wisher and a champion of their causes.

Sankalp Unit