Bhoomidanam (“land gift”) was a movement led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, an Indian sage and Gandhian disciple who walked hundreds of miles through India for 13 years with the mission of convincing landlords to renounce some of their holdings, for the social uplift of the poor and downtrodden and in order to promote village self-sufficiency. Chief amongst his many accomplishments was the founding of the Brahma Vidya Mandir, an ashram where women practiced agriculture, prayer, and nonviolence in order to achieve self-sufficiency.
Like Gandhiji, he sought peace, freedom, and self-determination for the Indian people from the tyranny of the British Empire through the method of ahimsa (non-violence). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with him in 1959 during his trip to “the Land of Gandhi,” where he engaged in a deep study of the tradition of nonviolence in Indian philosophy and its practical application in the freedom struggle of his people here in the United States.
I painted this portrait because last year, we undertook a celebration of the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi in the United States in an effort to raise national and world consciousness about Gandhiji, a singular personality whose example of perpetual truth-seeking, humility of conduct, depth of intellect and perception, compassionate action and eloquence of tongue and thought, brought together the starving multitudes of India, who were left destitute by more than three hundred years of British exploitation. Gandhiji taught us that education was not simply the assimilation of books and theorems but cultivation of the human personality, the sum total of a man’s actions which together constitute his character.
It behooves us to celebrate such a world historical personality in the twenty-first century as a new beast slouches towards India, the American Empire, which has arguably caused even more ruinous consequences to Indian industry, agriculture and folkways albeit in a much shorter span of time. Education has deviated from the Gandhian ideal as Indian labor is forced to work for Western powers for a mere pittance, while corporations greedily devour India’s intellectual and physical products, sucking out the very lifeblood of the Indian man and woman.
Central to this terrible saga is the aggressive advance of the Indian elite and petty bourgeoisie in America, which enjoys the fruits of exploited Indian labor along with the white bourgeoisie and indeed, the bourgeoisie of every race. Together they even suppress the working poor here, particularly the black poor, who are exploited in ways quite similar to the poor and downtrodden in India, denied education, housing, and basic civil rights. All the while these personalities claim to be “experts” on India and South Asia. It was for these rights that Dr. King and Vinoba Bhave were fighting.
America, which is presently facing a grave crisis of governance and an even graver crisis of violence, must return to Dr. King’s prognostication that the choice today is not between nonviolence and violence but in fact, between nonviolence or non-existence. As superpowers like Russia and China, along with the fast-failing behemoth of Europe, contend for power with the capsizing American Empire, the masses are once again left floundering and bewildered.
In his report about his trip to the Land of Gandhi, Dr. King observes that “the bourgeoise—white, black or brown—behaves about the same the world over.” He implores the American people to partake of the gifts of Mother India “in a spirit of international brotherhood, not national selfishness.” Herein lies the significance of Dr. King’s two-day meeting with Sri Vinoba Bhave during his trip to Ajmer, pictured below: the desire to join the Satyagraha of African-Americans who had recently desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama with the Satyagraha of the Indians, who had newly won independence after having successfully ejected the British from Indian soil.
Bhave was a disciple of Gandhiji who continued to transmit Gandhiji’s message of peace after the physical form of the Mahatma was assassinated. Vinoba ji is said to have been admired by Gandhi, particularly for his strict and sincere observance of brahmacharya or the law of celibacy, which was a key component of the Satyagraha program.
Rev. King visited with Vinoba Bhave for two days on March 2 and 3, 1959. During their meeting, Vinoba referred to King as the American Gandhi; he himself was known amongst followers as the “Second Gandhi.” Sadly in the recent years, the city of Ajmer, where King visited with Vinoba ji has been neo-colonized by the Americans. Thus, whereas Dr. King’s pilgrimage to the city and visit with Vinobaji was an effort to fight Western imperialism through the method of ahimsa, President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010 was its very antithesis–history as a consequence became farce and nonviolence has degenerated into mere rhetoric in the hands of the neoliberal class, who have coopted the language of nonviolence for the perpetuation of war, poverty, and injustice rather than their ultimate eradication.
Obama and his ilk might be best served to remember Dr. King’s advice, to quote an article of his about Gandhiji in an issue of Bhoodan magazine, “Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethics of love is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for freedom and human dignity…His spirit is a continual reminder that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.”