What is the most innovative and nationally important development initiative Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched in his first nine months in office? It is, undoubtedly, the Swachh Bharat mission. No previous prime minister gave such high priority to something so basic as making India clean. The mission has galvanised a large number of people and one hopes the government does not let its momentum slacken.
Every mass campaign needs inspiring icons — “brand ambassadors” being the corrupted, commercialised term for them. This is where the PM has done one thing right and one thing wrong. He has, commendably, made Mahatma Gandhi the messenger of the mission. No other leader in the modern history of the world gave as much importance to cleanliness and sanitation as Gandhiji did. However, Modi has also diluted the mission’s missionary character by naming sundry celebrities, mainly from the fields of entertainment and sports, as brand ambassadors. They add zilch inspirational or practical value to the mission. On the other hand, revered personalities from India’s rich and diverse spiritual-cultural traditions, who not only popularised but also practised the mantra of “Clean Outside, Clean Inside”, are hardly seen in the government’s Swachh Bharat campaign.
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One such venerable personality is Sant Gadge Baba (1876-1956). This peripatetic mendicant-saint from Maharashtra, one of the greatest modern-day social reformers in India, worked for, and among, the poorest of the poor. (In 2010, the Maharashtra government launched a campaign for clean villages called the Sant Gadge Baba Gram Swachhata Abhiyan.) For 50 long years, from the time he left his home and family in 1905 until his death, he wandered from village to village, from town to town, with a broom in hand, his only other worldly possession being a small earthen pot he used to beg for food.
Baba, an illiterate scholar who studied in the “University of Life”, was a preacher par excellence. He sang bhajans composed by Bhakti saints, Sant Tukaram being his favourite. Cleanliness is godliness, he would retort when some people ridiculed him for mixing bhajans with broom-work. The first thing he did after entering a village was to sweep the streets, especially the streets of “untouchables’ quarters”, singing songs interspersed with his signature slogan, “Gopala! Gopala! Devakinandan Gopala!” (Gopal is another name of Lord Krishna, son of Devaki.) People would join him and very soon the village would wear a clean look. Thereafter, usually after a common, contributory meal that people of all castes and communities ate together, he would gather the villagers for an interactive kirtan session of two-three hours at night.
His kirtans had a mesmerising, and also belief-shattering, effect on the audience. For, he would boldly challenge religious orthodoxy and people’s entrenched beliefs and behavioural modes on what constituted cleanliness and impurity, morality and immorality, faith and blind faith. (He is at his unorthodox best in his last kirtan, delivered in Mumbai on November 8, 1956, just a month before his death; it is available at youtube.com/watch?v=9N5v6eBizw.)
Baba, who was born into the caste of washermen (parit), questioned discrimination on the basis of caste and gender. “If God is the Father of all human beings, and if He is kind and all-loving, how can He be unkind towards some castes and kind towards others?” he would ask. Selfless and compassionate service of those in need is the highest form of religion, he preached. “God does not reside in temples, masjids, idols and places of pilgrimage. He resides in the dwellings of the poor and the grief-stricken.” Free of all metaphysical debates about god, his simple message, delivered in the culturally rich native language of the common people, was that “Dharma means food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, shelter for the homeless, care for the sick, education for the children of the poor, love and protection for animals and birds, hope for those in despair.” Above all, he insisted, dharma means dissolution of the ego, a precondition to experiencing the divinity in humanity.
As behoves any true saint, his deeds matched his words. Like Saint Francis, he lived a life of voluntary poverty of an extreme kind. The shirt he wore was a patchwork of pieces of torn old clothes used by others. He had absolutely no attachment to money or life’s material comforts. Yet, donors, small and big, poured money into his charitable projects. He built numerous dharamshalas, goshalas, schools and hostels for poor students, and homes for destitute children in different parts of Maharashtra.
He fiercely attacked greed, corruption, exploitation through money-lending, alcoholism, superstitions, animal sacrifice as a religious rite and other personal and social ills. Ridiculing godmen who claimed to perform miracles, he would say, “Man himself is a great miracle! Injustice in society is also a miracle. How is it that the farmer, who harvests gold in the form of food from the land, has to starve? This, indeed, is the strangest miracle!”
Thus, the holistic ideal of cleanliness he propagated had physical, ethical, spiritual and social-reformist dimensions. In this, he had much in common with Mahatma Gandhi. Like Gandhiji, he treated patients of leprosy, a dreaded and stigmatised disease those days. He greatly respected the Mahatma, describing him in his kirtans as a “devdoot” (an emissary of God). The respect was mutual.
Significantly, Baba was also highly respected by B.R. Ambedkar. The two met several times. Baba handed over a dharamshala he had established in the temple town of Pandharpur to Ambedkar for his care. Once, in 1949, Ambedkar, who was India’s law minister then, came to know that Baba was unwell in Mumbai. He rushed to see him. Baba told him: “Why did you take the trouble of coming? Your each minute is precious. I am just a fakir. You are the one occupying a position of high authority.” Ambedkar’s reply is significant: “My authority as a minister, Baba, is short-lived. Once the ministership goes, the person has no authority. Your authority as a saint is everlasting.”
It is not for nothing that the common people in India reverentially describe saints as “maharaj”.
Thus, Baba is more popularly known as Sant Gadge Maharaj. It is the unique greatness of Indian culture that the words baba and fakir are regarded as synonymous with “king”, one who continues to rule over the hearts of common people long after he is dead.
To sustain the fervour of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and convert it into a successful social force, we should seek inspiration from the lives of India’s venerated and most beloved saint-reformers like Gadge Maharaj. Modi should popularise and project them as the icons of “swachh Bharat”, and not celebrity brand ambassadors, many of them men and women of straw who hanker after fame and fortune and leave no transformative influence on people.
Also, following the footsteps of Gadge and Gandhi Baba, the PM should expand the scope of Swachh Bharat to mean not only clean streets but also clean hearts, clean minds, clean institutions, clean politics and clean governance. After all, many ills in our society, including the lack of outer cleanliness, are due to the growing lack of inner cleanliness.
The writer, an aide to former PM A.B. Vajpayee, runs the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Sanitation, Cleanliness and Community Health in Mumbai
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