Unveiling the life of a modern Gandhi whose selflessness and devotion are nonpareil.
|“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Nothing, no other person's life story summarises this more than the story of an amazing saint of modern India: Baba Amte. This is the astonishing story of a remarkable individual.
Baba Amte: The Sadhu of Modern India
India, they say, is the land of sadhus, or what are commonly known as “sages” or “mendicants”. While probing the history of ancient India will uncover great sadhus who renounced their everything and prayed for the welfare of the common man, modern India has, among its countless millions, a soul that is as pure as snow that falls from the winter skies. That soul is Murlidhar Devidas Amte , more popularly and with profound respect known as Baba Amte.
The early years:
Baba was born in interior Maharashtra, a state of Independent India, on 26th December 1914, to wealthy Brahmin jahagirdar (land-owner class) parents. One of eight children, Baba grew up with a hard, disciplinarian father and a sensitive, caring mother. Earning his initial qualifications in Wardha, he moved on to Nagpur where his father held a responsible position with the British crown. Armed with degrees and diplomas in agricultural sciences, law and literature from various universities in Maharashtra, Amte set out to conquer the world, and found himself looking at the country’s poor and discovering the hard side of life. His transformation from a modern philistine - who hunted boars and deer with his own gun at 14 years of age - to a selfless social worker who has been living with social outcasts for the last 60 years - has been documented in detail. It has truly been a remarkable journey.
Even when he was surrounded by luxury and wealth, Baba, as a child, despised the segregation of children of his parents’ servants from his own brothers and sisters (and himself). Thus, the fire of concern for the underprivileged burned back then too. When he visited “Shantiniketan”, Tagore’s ashram in Bengal, and “Sewagram”, Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, the young Baba was suitably impressed. He also avidly read and was awed by the works of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. During the later years of adolescence, Baba used to roam around in the jungles and in tribal areas of eastern Maharashtra. During these sojourns, he developed kinship and camaraderie with the poor tribal people whose sufferings he saw vividly from up close.
Baba's life-defining years:
It is while enjoying the life of luxury that the inequities of life hit him strongly. He realised that while he earned comfortably by arguing cases in court, the farmers who worked at his father’s estates made a pittance for over 12 hours of daily toil. Telling lies to save his moneyed clients also ate at his conscience. He could not stomach all this without feeling the need to do something about it. He opened the estate well to the untouchables who worked his family’s farms so that they would have access to clean water right where they lived instead of trudging for miles every single day to reach a well that they were allowed to draw from.
Over the years, and more particularly after being imprisoned in the aftermath of the Quit India movement of 1942 (in which he participated as a lawyer to defend his fellow countrymen), he completely lost interest in his profession and began to appreciate the “richness of the heart of the poor” and the “poverty of the heart of the rich”. He decided to shun his wealth and his previous life-style and to become “one” with the poor and the downtrodden of the society. He took vows of celibacy and effected a change in his persona too. It was around that time that he met Indu, fell in love with her, and reversed his stance on celibacy. Indu was an understanding woman who agreed with his thoughts and on his wedding day, the two renounced his property and set up a simple residence in the tribal areas of a place called Warora.
Baba was deeply influenced by a saint called Sane Guruji, whose selfless dedication for the downtrodden of the society he watched and admired unconditionally. Guruji’s efforts at getting the upper classes to permit the untouchables to visit an important temple at Pandharpur touched a chord in Baba’s heart. The following words of Guruji made Baba realise that the weak can indeed vanquish the strong with their determination.
Through my tears I shall reach my ideal;
In my tears rests the power to crush steel and stone.
My tears are my God.
Never deprive me of my tears
Let my eyelids never get dry
As the poor men and women joined the ashram that Baba and Indu (now called Sadhana) had created, Baba became more and more popular with the community at large. He was vice-chairman of the Warora municipality and chairman of the scavengers’ union. For nine months he worked as a scavenger, carrying baskets filled with excreta on his head.
The turning point:
The turning point in Baba’s life came one rainy evening, when he was returning home. A huddled figure lay on the roadside. At first it seemed like a bundle of rags. But then he noticed some movement. Baba looked closer and recoiled instantly. Lying before him was a man in the last stages of leprosy. The dying man had no fingers. Maggots crawled over his naked body. Horrified by this sight, terrified of infection, Baba ran home. But he could not run away from the self-loathing which began to hound him. How could he have left a lonely forsaken man to lie there in the rain? So he forced himself to return and feed the man. He also put up a bamboo shed to protect him against the rain. That man, Tulshiram, died in Baba's care and irrevocably changed young Amte's life.
Baba had faced the demon of fear for the first time in his life! A man who fought the British daringly, challenged his own authoritarian father and worked with excreta found himself in total denial after this experience. He made up his resolve to overcome his fear by meeting the situation head-on.
In those times, leprosy, known as “the curse” or “kodh” was a disease that caused society to shun the victims and to cast them out completely at the mercy of the natural elements. While this shattered the victim’s morale and drove him/her to despair and often to suicide, the physical disfiguration and the ravages of the illness itself made the victim disabled and totally helpless.
Baba began to read extensively about leprosy. He offered his services to the leprosy clinic at Warora. Soon, his work expanded to opening of several clinics. Around the same time, medical treatment in the form of a drug called DDS became available. Its use made it possible to achieve a cure of this deadly disease. However, and this is what differentiated Baba from the hundreds of medical efforts to treat the disease, lepers needed not just medication but a shelter, a home, where they could recover with dignity and self-respect; where they could work to earn their livelihood; where they could create, manage and support activities that could lead to sustenance of the entire community of their brothers and sisters.
Baba said, ”A person can live without fingers, but not without self-respect.”
His appeal to the government to grant him a place to build a leper home was answered with the grant of 50 acres of uncultivable, barren land. Armed with the support of his wife, his two sons Prakash and Vikas, Rs. 14/= in his pocket, a lame cow, a dog and a few of his dedicated leper followers, Baba Amte leveled the land, cleared stones and debris, removed the stumps of amputated trees and began to build Anandvan (The Forest of Joy). Their task was cut out for them. Their first task was to find water, and find it fast. Day and night, the team toiled in digging a well. Their effort bore fruit when they hit water at a depth of 32 feet below ground level.
They started farming and within a few years, put up their produce in the local market for sale. However, men and women did not purchase food-grains from what they felt were “contaminated” human-beings. Baba’s untiring effort and vision turned the opinion around as visitors came from nearby localities, then other parts of the country, and finally from all over the world to see this miracle that was unfolding before their very eyes. Baba started several workshops for carpentry, forging, blacksmithing, weaving, handicraft, and so on.
A college of agriculture was soon added to the list of achievements at Anandvan. Soon, there followed a home for orphaned children, a school for the blind, an old peoples’ home, a crèche, a full-fledged multi-disciplinary university, a community function hall, a water management institute and an institute for the deaf and the dumb. These multi-dimensional efforts brought a string of awards, grants and recognitions both to Baba in his individual capacity and Anandvan. These include the Demian-Doughton Award (1983), Indira Gandhi Memorial Award (1983), Templeton Prize (1990), the Raymond Magsasay Award (1985), the U.N. Human Rights Award (1988), Global 500 – U.N. (1991), Right Livelihood Award, Sweden (1992), International Gandhi Peace Prize, India (1999) and the Padmavibhushan (1986). The last is a civilian award of the highest magnitude and is conferred on exceptional citizens by the Central Government of India.
Three hundred and fifty km south of Nagpur, a city located in the center of India, lay an undeveloped tribal region called Hemalkasa. Baba had some idea of the miserable lives of the local tribals, called the Madia-Gonds. In 1973, Baba, who had recently undergone several surgeries for severe back spondylosis (and had become disabled as a result of the advanced disease), shifted his focus on these hapless individuals. He and his wife, along with his son Prakash and the latter’s family, erected an ashram for the development of the local tribal people. During this time, the government announced two large dam projects in Hemalkasa. If implemented, the dams would wreak havoc and destruction of the fragile community and submerge many of their villages and towns. Baba Amte initiated a concerted drive that was able to initially stall and later force the cancellation of both the dams. This ashram has since become the permanent home for Prakash and his family. Even to date, Hemalkasa continues to be the backbone for the Madia-Gonds of this area.
With the success of the protests over erection of the two dams, Baba decided to train his guns on the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Narmada Dam in Gujarat. He left Anandvan (after having stayed there for over 40 years) in the care of his other son Vikas and established his residence in Kasrawad in Gujarat. He continued his agitation with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, an NGO led by a spirited Indian woman social worker – Medha Patkar. Although several attempts were made to ask the government to re-consider the building of a dam that would displace lakhs of individuals, submerge huge forests and completely change the ecosystem of the locality, the matter has still not been fully resolved. However, the tide has clearly turned in favour of making a smaller dam that will not cause so much damage and dislocation.
His present life:
At the age of 93, Baba Amte continues to be a source of inspiration for millions of Indians who revere him for his selflessness and humble way of life. Although Amte has returned to Anandvan in the sunset of his life, his name remains a shining beacon for underprivileged communities everywhere.
One of his quotes is very impressive: "Joy is more infectious than leprosy”.
© Dr. Taher Kagalwala, June 2007.