My Father: The Yogi

Jan - Feb 2006

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My Father the Yogi

My father’s way of life was not unlike Gandhiji’s, in that while he was flexible in many things, he was very firm on points of principle. Not to cause pain to others, always to show respect to older people, to be helpful to one’s neighbors—that was his code of conduct. When I was a child he gave me a little book of maxims from which I learned a good deal about these standards of conduct, and which also showed me my faults. I owe my father a great debt of gratitude, and I remember him as I remember my mother, with joy and thankfulness. I may not have recounted so many reminiscences of him as of her, but he too is
part of the very fabric of my life.

Father was scientific in everything he did. He ate by rule. His evening meal was a bowl of milk, three wheaten pancakes and ten tolas of vegetables. For breakfast he took a quarter-measure of milk. These meals were fixed and never varied. The midday meal he left to mother’s choice and ate whatever she prepared, though he himself decided how much.

When he began to suffer from diabetes he reviewed his diet and gave up all sugar and milk. For milk he substituted chhana  (sour curd), and instead of wheat and cereals he began to eat soybean, which contains a lot of protein and fat but is low in carbohydrates. He set about making the change in an interesting way. On the first day he took one soybean only and reduced the quantity of wheat by three grains. On the second day he took two beans and reduced the wheat by six grains. In this way in about six weeks he had gradually reduced his intake of wheat to forty per cent of what it had been, and in the end, with fifteen tolas of soybean and some vegetables, the disease was cured.

At another time be suffered from piles. One day he visited another house where he was served with puri (fried pancakes) and karela (bitter gourd). Next morning he had a good bowel movement with no difficulty, and began to wonder which of the two dishes had had this effect. So next day be tried eating only puri, but got no benefit. Then he tried karela, found it was beneficial, and continued to eat it regularly. That is an example of his scientific and experimental turn of mind. He outlived Mother by thirty years, and for nearly twenty of those years he lived almost entirely on milk though he sometimes took soybean too.

One day my brother Balkoba asked father what difference Mother’s death had made to him. ‘Since she died I have been rather better in health,’ he replied. ‘I am a man who believes in self-restraint and science, but while your mother lived I used to leave one meal a day in her hands and eat whatever she set before me, whether or not it was good for me. Now, I eat only what seems to me to be good for my health.’ When Balkoba told me about this I was very much moved. What power of detachment there was in that response! It was very close in spirit to the words of Tukaram:

My wife has died, she has attained her freedom;
And to me the Lord has granted release from illusion.

Father was a yogi, mathematician and scientist. As a chemist he carried out a lot of experiments with dyes. He would dye small pieces of cloth with various dyes and then test them to find out how fast they were, how they stood up to strong sunlight and hot water. He kept them all in an album with details of the dye and the results. ‘You could have dyed a whole sari for me with what you are using on all those scraps!’ said Mother once. ‘As soon as I have completed these trials you shall have many saris, not just one,’ said Father. ‘But till then you’ll have to put up with the scraps!’

When the first textile mill was started in Baroda, Father was delighted. He came home full of happy excitement and told us all about it. ‘Why,’ said Mother, ‘you seem to be even more delighted than when you heard of the birth of your first-born, Vinya!’ Modern thinkers are happy with machinery. For them it means the birth of a new age, and they can’t wait to discard the tools of the old one. Like nestling birds, wanting to fly high into the sky the moment they come out of the eggshell, our modern thinkers too want to fly high, now that they are no longer imprisoned within the eggshell of the old tools. ‘India must be modernized,’ Father would tell us day after day.

Nevertheless, when Gandhiji started the Village Industries Association Father was very pleased with the idea. Gandhiji invited him to visit Maganwadi (the headquarters of the association  in Wardha), and he inspected everything that was being done. His advice was that a machine should be used for the pulping of hand-made paper, and all other processes carried out by hand. That was in 1934-35 when Maganwadi had only just begun, and there was such emphasis on hand processing that Father’s advice was not then accepted. Later, however, it was realized that he was right and a pulping machine was installed.

From Maganwadi Father wrote me a letter on which, unfortunately, I cannot now lay my hands. I ought to have kept it, but I do not usually keep the letters I receive, and I must have let that one go with the rest. He had written ten or twelve pages in a large hand on paper with a slightly bluish tinge. ‘Everything about this letter,’ he wrote, ‘is my own handwork. I made the paper, I made the ink, I made the pen I am using, and I am writing with my own hand.’ The letter was an example of complete self-reliance. Father went on: ‘The paper is a bit blue. I could have bleached it, but only by getting a chemical from outside, so I decided to leave it as it was, and really there is nothing wrong about the colour.

Father also urged that we should study what had been written in England on these subjects about one hundred and fifty years ago, when England was still using handspun yarn. When the mills were started there was a transition period during which many experiments were tried out. Now that India is in a similar position books of that period would be of use here, he thought. He bought whatever he could find, and made a good collection.

Father was by nature very self-reliant: he never asked Mother or us children to do things for him, and after Mother died he never had any servant to look after him. Someone once suggested that he should get a woman to clean the cooking vessels, sweep the floors and so on. He replied: “No matter how good she might be, she would be bound to make occasional mistakes, and then I might lose my temper and scold her. I would rather do a little work myself than run the risk of hurting someone’s feelings.”

Father was extremely punctual and self-disciplined. He had a friend in Baroda to whose home he would go every evening to play chess. They had arranged to play for half an hour a day, no longer. At the time Mother had gone to her parents’ home in Karnataka, so I used to go to this friend’s house for my meal, and was there when Father came for his game. It was to end at seven, and Father sat down with his watch in front of him, and got up to go on the minute. Sometimes the game was not finished, and when he stood up his friend would say: ‘Oh, just let us finish this game; it won’t take more than five minutes.’ Father never agreed. ‘We can finish tomorrow,’ he would say. ‘Leave the board as it is, and we can start from where we left off.’ No one could ever persuade him to change his rules.

He was also very fond of music. During his later years he studied Indian music with a Musalman musician, and would practice as much as seven or eight hours a day. He was anxious that our old classical music should not be lost, and he took a great deal of trouble to get two books published at his own expense: Nadar Khan’s Mridangabaj and Sheikh Rahat Ali’s Thumari-sangraha. He had eight or ten more books in his possession which were deserving of publication.

My father gave me plenty of beatings when I was a boy, but even his beating was done scientifically so as not to injure any of the bones. Every day I would roam about the town and come home late, and after supper before going to bed I was expected to report to Father. He would be sure to discover some kind of mischief or disorderliness in my day’s doings—I had not put his book in its proper place, I had not folded my clothes neatly, I had been obstinate about something: there was always some reason for a beating. I sometimes asked Mother why she didn’t beat me too. ‘What?’ she would say. ‘Do you want me to add to what you’ve had?’

Then one day things were different. I had been roaming about as usual, had come in and eaten my supper, but there was no summons from Father; he just went to bed. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘for once I’ve got off without a beating!’ But the same thing happened the next day, and the next, and the day after that; he never beat me again. I only found out what was behind it when I read Manusmriti. Manu says: ‘When your son reaches the age of sixteen you should treat him as a friend.’ On that first day I had entered my sixteenth year, so following the law of Manu my father stopped beating me. In other words, he had beaten me only because he regarded it as a necessary part of a boy’s education.

When Father first left Gagode for his job in Baroda we did not go with him, but stayed on with Mother in Gagode. He would sometimes visit us and bring little gifts, and when the Diwali holiday drew near Mother said he would be sure to bring sweets. I looked forward to this very eagerly and when Father arrived I ran to greet him. He put a rectangular package into my hands. I felt it and thought, it can’t be round laddus or pedha, they would have been in a bundle; perhaps it is burfi. But when I tore off the wrapping paper I found two books, Children’s Ramayana and Children’s Mahabharata. I showed them to Mother and her eyes the filled with tears. ‘Your father has brought you the best sweets there could possibly be,’ she said, and I have never forgotten her words. In fact I relished those sweets so much that I still relish them today.

Father had his own way of teaching us good conduct; he always tried to explain things reasonably. He and Mother both disliked seeing us leave uneaten food on our plates; it would do of us no harm, they said, to take a little less. Mother would say: the ‘Fate has decreed that each person has a fixed amount of food to last his lifetime—so eat less and live longer.’ An interesting way of thinking! Father appealed to our commonsense. ‘Where do you enjoy the taste of your food?’ he would ask. ‘It’s on your it’s tongue, isn’t it? So keep it there as long as you can, go on chewing it, don’t swallow it down straight away.’ And of course a person who chews his food slowly does eat less. So Father appealed to science and Mother to the wisdom of the Upanishads, and it’s a very good thing to keep them both in mind.

During Father’s last illness he sent no word to his sons. My friend Babaji Moghe happened to go to Baroda; he visited my father, saw his condition, came back to Wardha and told me. My brother Shivaji was in Dhulia. I asked him to go to Father, and with a good deal of difficulty Shivaji persuaded Father to leave Baroda and go with him to Dhulia. There he died on Sharad Purnima, the day of the autumn full moon, 29 October 1947.

It was suggested that the ashes should be immersed in the river Godavari at Nasik, which was not far away. I arrived a few days earlier and asked why the Godavari should claim Father’s ashes: ‘The Godavari is water, the bones are earth—what authority has water over earth? Fire to fire, air to air, water to water, dust to dust—that is the rule.’ So after the body had been cremated and the ashes collected we dug a hole in the courtyard of the house, buried the ashes, refilled the pit and planted a bush of tulsi. Many people criticized us for doing this; in their opinion ashes should always be immersed in some ‘Ganga’, some holy river. I felt however that there was justification for our action in the Vedic prayer, ‘0 Mother Earth, give me a place for my dead body.’ Western commentators discuss whether cremation or burial is the more primitive custom. That is a matter of historical conjecture, but a single verse of the Vedas combines the two: first burn the body, then bury the ashes. So on the authority of the Vedas we committed Father’s ashes not to the river but to the earth. We set up a stone over the grave, and carved on it some words of Saint Ramadas: ‘May all be happy, that is my heart’s desire.’
-    Acharya Vinoba Bhave

[Published with glad permission of Kalindi Behan, the original compiler in Hindi (and translated into English by late Marjorie Sykes) of Vinobaji’s Memoirs titled ‘MOVED BY LOVE’ of Brahmavidya Mandir, Pawnar (Wardha).  – Editorial Team]

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