Half a century ago a man was moved to the core by the unbearable miseries, agony and social ostracism being suffered by victims of leprosy. It was sufficient to help him realize what his life’s mission ought to be. He wanted to be faithful to his conscience. He relinquished his luxurious life style, his lucrative profession and voluntarily embraced poverty to identify himself with the deprived and the depressed. The rest of his life was a saga of struggle, a struggle against the infirmities of the mind of man, a struggle against the cruelties of the world. The rest of his life was a poem in action; a beautiful poem of self-less service, of creative compassion, of unflinching faith, of determination, love and peace. Yes, the reference here is to none else than the great humanitarian Baba Amte, who has been honoured with several prestigious awards including international ones such as The Templeton Prize (popularly know as the Nobel Prize for Religion) and The Right Livelihood Award (popularly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize). But for such a great person as Baba who says: “I want no Nobel Prize. I have ever sought but a noble enterprise; the smile of a man who is oppressed or a child who is suffering is what I covet more than any award.” What are these awards? What prize can equal his service and sacrifice? What words can describe his vision and mission? No doubt, no awards and recognition can ever do full justice to him. He is simply well beyond them all. He is simply unaffected by bouquets and brickbats.
This realization of a poet found its fullest expression in the life and work of Baba Amte. He sought not God in the sanctum sanctorum of a temple but found him even in the heart of a disfigured and decomposed leper. He worshipped not by the chanting of mantras, by the offering of flowers, but by the worship of work, by lighting lamps of hope in hearts grown with despair, by serving wounded souls with love and care.
His Anandwan (forest of joy) is not a rehabilitation center where thousands of lepers and other disabled men find food and shelter but it is a school from where they learn lessons of self-help, self respect and selfless service. It is a school from where they learn lessons of co-operation and peaceful co-existence. “Work Builds; Charity Destroys” is his sublime philosophy. His is a philosophy in action. He would say, “Give them a Chance not Charity.” And that’s what he precisely did. He created for the leprosy-stricken and the disabled ample opportunities to let them stand on their own feet. His motivating approach towards leprosy has ever been, “You can live without fingers but not without self-respect.” His Anandwan is a self-made, self-sustaining, modern, model village. It is a miniature India where unity and harmony, joy and love reign supreme. He is a Magician who transforms self-pity into Ability; a Mechanic who mends the minds of men; a Messenger who leaves everywhere messages of love and peace.
The Child who was the Father of the Man
Baba’s fraternity with the down trodden and his pointed disregard for all social barriers and caste taboos even as a child, were indications of the non-conformist approaches, highly progressive outlook and the active sense of justice which was to be so characteristic of him in his future life. We find traces of the future Baba Amte in the six year old boy who found fulfillment on a Diwali day by capturing the joy of a blind old beggar by offering him all the coins he had instead of spending them on firecrackers and sweets as did his friends. It is this spirit of service and philanthropy that tells us that “to live for others is the most fertile pleasure in this world”.
What was it that led this wealthy son of a wealthy father to abandon all his ancestral property? What was it that led this flourishing lawyer to throw away his successful and lucrative profession? What was it that led this chairman of the scavengers union to take upon himself the work of a scavenger for as long as over nine months? What was it that made this man overcome the initial fear and revulsion he felt at the sight of a decayed leprosy victim he stumbled upon near a garbage heap and what was it that subsequently led him to return to and take care of this dying leper? What was it that made this student of the school of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta to offer his own body to be used as a guinea pig for experimentation of a vaccine for leprosy? What was it that made this man throw away his and his family’s comforts to the ravages of a barren uninhabited wasteland and take up rehabilitation of lepers as his life’s mission? What was it that made this man build this friendship of pain with the lepers even at the cost of his own ostracism from the outside society? It was, no doubt, that great Baba Amte that lay within that did all these and more. No doubt, it was this same spirit which silently worked for the welfare of suffering humanity, so zealously and tirelessly, suffering untold miseries, never for a moment losing faith in himself, never for a moment abandoning the company of righteousness. But, what a pity, it took almost three decades for the outside world to start recognizing his significant service. But, thankfully, what pioneering work he did is now not only being widely recognized but being tried to be replicated at many places across the globe.
As an Environmentalist
Baba envisaged and worked towards a harmonious relationship between man and nature. He said, “No one has the right to arrange the funeral of the future.” He decried lopsided and myopic developmental strategies and priorities and in a true Gandhian spirit teaches us that there should be “sufficiency for all before there is superfluity for some.” He said: “The honeybee’s treasure of nectar is not obtained at the cost of the flower. In fact its act of extracting honey delivers fulfillment to the flowers. You need learn not from Gibran, Gorbachev or even Gandhiji. Choose instead to learn from the honey bee – as your silent partners they will show you how to develop without destroying.”
With a life dedicated to the service of the poor and the suffering, with a life dedicated to the mitigation of social conflict and abuse, environmental plunder, communal strikes and like issues, with a life dedicated to the furtherance of unity and peace, Baba has unfolded before us a life, our social workers, developmental activists and even politicians may do well to learn from. He said: “The 3Ds and 4Cs I believe to form the essential ingredients to success in the development of a social undertaking are Determination, Dedication, Devotion, tender Concern, loving Care, Compassion and Conviction.”As a Social Activist
As a Source of Inspiration
Baba said: “The modern young generation is but a spectator’s generation! They want politics without commitment and power without performance. But let me warn you that nothing worth achieving has ever been achieved without involvement with purpose. Instead of begging for signatures of others, the young should stamp his signature on times and events!” But still Baba had reposed boundless confidence in youth and has ever been a great source of inspiration to many young men and women of our times. He said: “Friends, you must now gird up your loins for constructive work which, like the roots of a tree, draws substance unto itself. Then alone will you be able to face the challenging task of nation building. I urge you, before you make a start, to study and understand this secret of the seed becoming one with the soil.” He has infused inspiration and strength in many a youth across the globe. What is heartening to note is that, unlike many other greats including Mahatma Gandhi, he along with his great wife, Smt. Sadhana Amte, has also been able to gift to mankind an entire family of committed social workers-children, their spouses, grandchildren etc. They are all now engaged in carrying forward his vision and mission with equal zest and an uncompromising determination.
The battle against himself
The goodbyeQuite early in life, he fell victim to a progressive spinal degeneration – a self earned reward for the years of untiring manual labour that he had put in for the welfare of his suffering fellowmen. But this disability which left him in severe pain and with the choice of either standing or lying down but never sitting up was not enough to deter his indomitable spirit. He was also unmindful of the pacemakers which managed his heart. So, as years went on, as a person who recognizes that “Responsibility is not transferable” he kept embarking upon newer and newer goals, one after the other. At 93, his body had almost forsaken him but what was inspiring was that he hadn’t forsaken his mission and vision even then. Towards the end he was detected with an early stage of leukemia. Still he refused to budge. Instead of getting imprisoned in a hospital he preferred to spend the rest of his life too with his people. So he was still in Anandwan. His spirit was still the same. This great nonagenarian was still bubbling with so much youth and energy as he kept guiding and inspiring still the hundreds who kept visiting him daily. Even from deathbed he exhorted everybody to come up with constructive and creative works. He would say: “Unless you are inspired you cannot inspire others. Unless you are moved you cannot move others.”
On 9 February 2008 Baba bid us the final farewell after accomplishing much, after paving a new path, after entrusting us with a lot of duties and social responsibilities. As always, Maharogi Sewa Samiti will be carrying forward these duties and responsibilities with dedication and determination. For us, through his work and wisdom, through his ideas and ideals, Baba will remain ever alive.