Q&A With Kanti Shah

Jun 22, 2005

A saint sees a devoted young man sitting in the back of the room. He calls him up and says, "Young man, let me read some Gandhi to you." The young man humbly gets up and sits at the feet of the saint. As the saint grabs a book, he says, "You should read this translation in Gujarati." The young man simply nods his head as the saint reads half-hour worth of excerpts from that book.

That young man was Kanti Shah, that saint was Vinoba Bhave and that book was "Vinoba on Gandhi". And Kantibhai had himself written the book! He humbly remembers, "Seeing underlines and various hand-written notes was deeply satisfying. Vinoba had thoroughly read and enjoyed the book."

Of his biography, Vinoba said he couldn't have done a better job himself. JayPrakash Narayan said the same thing of his own biography that Kanti Shah wrote. Over the course of the last several decades, he has written more than 100 books that have been translated in dozens of languages.

To meet such an intellecutaly and spiritually grounded soul is indeed a privilege. Below is an edited interview with Kanti Shah:

How did you commit yourself to service?

I was born in a middle class, Bombay family. When Vinoba Bhave started the Bhoodan movement in 1951, I wanted to leave home but since I was the oldest sibling, I decided to wait till both my sisters were married. And indeed, in 1960, I left within six months of my sisters getting married.

What did you do after leaving home?

I went on a pad-yatra with Vinoba. It turned out that they needed help with some transcribing some of his talks and issuing a regular newsletter (Bhoomi Pootra), so I took on that responsibility. I carried that for 50 years, until two years ago, when I handed it off to the next generation.

So, you're retired now?

[Laughs]. Retirement is such a bureaucratic concept. A true Gandhian never retires. Work continues, but now I don't decide if my writings go in the newsletter or not. That's the only difference. Vinoba used to say you have to act with the spirit of inaction; inaction without action is just laziness.

You've been running the Sarvodaya Trust in Pindval for decades. How did that start?

In 1968, I met with two sisters -- Kantaben and Harvilasben -- who had also decided to dedicate their life to service. Vinoba told us, "Don't go to Bhavnagar, go to Abhavnagar". That is, go where no one else will go, where there is dire need. So we decided to serve the extremely tribal areas. Another doctor friend of ours, Navneetbhai, also decided to join us on our routine trips to Pindval; at the time, Pindval was an area without any running water or electricity, an area that was (and still is) 99.9% tribal.

In 1974, all four of us moved to Pindval to provide various services for the tribals. We started a free medical clinic, then started giving employment to the locals by making khadi, and eventually tried to get them the basics of life: food, cloth, shelter, health, education and culture. We gave ration cards for grains, where we would subsidize its cost by 50%. Many years later, we also started a residential school for about 200 children. Since Pindval gets 150 inches of rain every year, we improved agricultural practices of local farmers, built check dams and gave very low-cost roofing tiles. Now, we serve about 150 neighboring villages, see 40,000 patients annually, and provide 25-40 lakhs of khadi employment for the tribals.

From what we hear, your work is extremely well appreciated by the people. How do you manage to get funding in this remote place?

We don't take any government funding or accept money from big foreign agencies. Our humble donor base, about 1500 supporters, keeps our 70 lakh annual budget going. More importantly, this is all very pure money. Not all money is pure.

In 1966, a young engineer regretfully came to us to donate his entire first check: "I hope you will accept such a small amount." Of the 465 rupees, Kantaben told him, "This is not a small, it's too big. Instead of giving us everything, decide to donate a certain percentage for upliftment of society (to any NGO), from every pay check." After some discussion, they agreed on 10%. Last year, that same engineer, came to deliver a check of 20 lakh, 10% of his annual income. He now jokes, "I really don't want to give this. It's that darn 10% commitment I made to Kantaben." [Laughs]

Another time, Kantaben had gone to give a presentation to a group of women in Bombay. The maid overhears the conversations and begrudgingly says, "These people you are helping seem to have less than me. I have 11 rupees. Will you accept it?" She did. Every year, that woman sends odd amounts of 11, 20, 25 rupees. See, this is not just money; it's emotion, it's heart, it's spirit, all put together. Kantaben's talking point was always, "We all spend money for offering to temple idols. What about human idols? What will you do for them?"

How do you define spirituality?

[Laughs] I'm allergic to the word spirituality. People use it to control others. It is used and abused by the intellect, not heart. Sure, you can compare notes on spirituality but you can't really talk about its essence.

What is India's biggest need?

We need to learn to be true to ourselves. Everyone is blindly copying the West. Instead, we should have a first hand experience of life. We must greet life face to face and see it with open eyes. Nature is our biggest teacher. Hindustani's [Indians] have lost the pride of their culture and heritage, in the name of progress.

What do you think about globalization?

What is globalization? If you have money in your pocket, you should be able to buy anything and if you have made something, you should be able to sell it in any corner of the world. Our most pressing question really is: do you want a global market or a global family? In a global market, big fish eats the little fish; in a global family, the handicapped child gets more attention than the normal one. Competition versus love. Where do you stand on it? Our culture hasn't even framed this question yet.

How can we achieve a global family?

We have to change our lifestyles, our default track. It's a vast task, but many forces are striving for this. We must make this change at the depths of our being. Wolfgang Jacks put it best at an 'Another World is Possible' conference: "What is required today is not a bit of green tarnish; what is required is the greening of the mind." Just being an environmentalist is not enough. The conscious mindset has to penetrate in every part of our life, of our society.

Today, unfortunately, we are stuck in this mega-mania. Everything has to be bigger and bigger, including temples. And then there's machine mania and the have-more mania. We have just focused on material comforts through intellectual knowledge. It used to be that necessity is the mother of invention. Today, invention is the mother of necessity. Factories make something and then manufacture the need through advertisements.

What is development, then?

Development mania started after World War II. Truman gave a lecture on radio saying that it is America's burden to share our progress with the rest of the world. With that one single statement, he made countries like India under developed. Everyone started thinking that America is developed, and what India has is underdeveloped. This resulted in the rat-race that you have seen for the last 50 years.

I'm not saying that material doesn't have any value; there's a threshold of material gain, beyond which we get happiness. But we cannot have unlimited wants. They have to be controlled. India is not under developed, it's just a different lifestyle.

How do you define progress?
It's a very difficult thing to define. Like this chair you are sitting on, I have four pillars that encapsulate Gandhi for me:
  1. Blossoming of the human personality: what is in us, should come out. Whatever helps this blossoming, Gandhi would be for it. Machines, for example, aren't to be opposed by itself, but if it hinders this blossoming, then he is against them.

  2. Blossoming of human relationship: we must go deeper into man's relationship with man. It shouldn't just become a customer-producer relationship. Everything can't be a transaction in life. Today, we don't even know our neighbors in many parts of the world. Your thoughts should be global, but you have to act locally. If I do some work, the question must be asked: how will it affect my fellow man? Without this question, we can't have progress.

  3. Blossoming of man's relationship with nature: why do we have nature? Is it just so we can control it? Is it just there for our consumption? A child rests in the lap of the mom when he is young; if he gets older and smarter, mom is even older, wiser mom. Today, we have environmental, ecological problems because of this broken relationship between man and nature.

  4. Blossoming of man's relationship with creator: we talk about our technologies, but consider the intricacies of the whole human body. Our digestive system, our delicate cerebral system, how everything works together like clockwork. You can program computers, but can we do something like this? Sure, we can put some genes together to make a nose, but that's nowhere close to who we are. You have to ask the question: who made this? How this thing called human being manifested? I'm just here for 75 years; what happens after that? If you break the relationship with this question, or label it all as luck, then there can be no progress either.

If Gandhi were alive, would he use a computer?

[Laughs] Forget computers, he would even use robots. Gandhi is not against machines. But we must ask the question of why machines? We have to use it with discretion.

So, you would seriously use robots?

Oh yes. I think we can use robots for four D's: Dirty work, Dangerous work, Dull work and Delicate work. In India, there are still people whose livelihood comes from picking up human feces; this is dirty work. Miners get trapped because of gas and mud slides, which is dangerous work that can be done by robots. When people are forced to do repetitive work, their minds shut off; robots can do this work. And then if you want to send a rocket up in the sky, it's requires incredible precision; it's delicate work that robots can easily do.

Yet if we setup a cloth mill in Pindval, I will strongly oppose using robots because it will take jobs away. Machines should not rule man, man should rule machines. You cannot let the horse take you amuck; you should know how to ride it.

What is the state of Gandhians today?

Today, Gandhians are all frustrated. They are all sitting on a platform, waiting for death. There is no movement, just stray thoughts. With a glorious past, we have done a lot ideologically. But now, there's no momentum and lack of serious leadership. We have all committed 'sati' on the funeral pyre of Gandhi. The spirit of Gandhi is not imbibed in the common worker, who just doesn't have enough trust or clarity of thought.

You know, back in the ancient days, when the flag on the king's chariot goes down, everyone goes numb and entire armies stop fighting. Today, there is no flag on top of the chariot. Yes, ultimately, everyone is a leader but a people's movement still needs leadership. That is lacking today.

By traditional definitions, you have lived a 'Brahmachari' (celibate) life, isn't it?

Yes, but this is where I disagree with Gandhi and Vinoba. Celibacy has its place, I am myself celibate, but everyone should have a choice. There can't be a standard rule, a higher or lower gradation. I think sex is natural. My assault on Gandhi and Vinoba is that they tried to take man to the Gods but in reality, they took them towards animals. Gandhi's position on sex was that you have physical contact only when you want to have kids. This is just like animals; they are instinctive, but they only mate during mating season. Nature has given full freedom to man, we don't need to wait for a particular season. Gandhi and Vinoba's stance steals the freedom of human life and without that freedom, you can't go towards Godhood.

My second issue with the man-woman relationship is that of male domination. We haven't really explored a true male-female relationship. Until man and woman are at par, all we have is a form of friendship and not a true union. Men have to understand the futility of domination, and women have to stop copying men; females should have their own identities and not be measured by how well they can copy men.

Talks about the male-female relationship stop at the biological. But in its true sense, they need to penetrate into the cultural and spiritual.

You have written so many books. What is your favorite one?

Every one. A mother has no favorite son, does she? [Laughs]

Did you write a book on the miracles that Kantaben experienced?

Ah, yes. Three of us, Kantaben, Harvilasben and I have known each other for a long time, since 1960. Kantaben and Harvilasben, you can say, were twins. In fact, Vinoba even started addressing them jointly as "Harish-Chandra" and Pujya Mota, a spiritual saint in Gujarat, even let them stay in the Hari-om Ashram together where typically only individual retreats are allowed. Kantaben faced a lot of tribulations growing up, but that led her deeper into her spirituality. Her path was simple: to chant the name of Raam. But sometimes, she would chant for days and days without any food or water or any knowledge. Sometimes, flowers would manifest in her hands, sometimes chandan, sometimes roses. In Amarnath, one time, an anklet appeared on her ankle and another matching one appeared on the shiva-ling that she was praying to. Often, people in her immediate radius would experience very pleasant scents.

But Vinoba was also very clear on these miracles: when a child is learning how to walk, parents generally encourage him/her with adulations. This is just God doing the same to you, early on in your path. If you get stuck there, your progress will stop.

Your 'Vinoba on Gandhi' book was translated in all languages in India, in English, Italian and many others. How did that come about?

People like Vinoba and Gandhi didn't sit down and write books like Karl Marx. They take a thought, practice it for 8-10 years, evolve it and perfect the ideas bit by bit. So I read 300 lectures of Vinoba on Gandhi and tried to understand all his thoughts as they progressed through time. The book was a result of that. After the English translation, I got an inflamed letter that said: "How can you say that these are authentically Vinoba's thoughts?" I took that letter to Vinoba and he responded to the gentleman saying, "I have read the book, from beginning to the end, twice. I wholeheartedly stand by it."

Is it true that Jayprakash Narayan gave your book to Indira Gandhi?

[Laughs] Yes. In 1973, JP went to visit Indira, in the middle of heated and intense political disagreements. He said, "You don't understand me. If you want understand me, read this book," and left her a copy of my biography on him.

Do you have a particular author that you like?

I think I have read all books of Eric Fromme, and even translated and edited some of them. The Sane Society, Art of Loving, Revolution of Hope, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, Anatomy of Human Violence, these are all some of his titles. He must've been a saint, to have gone deeply and profoundly into all these topics. Although the Freudians don't agree with him, he has taken Freud to the next level.

I also like Fritjof Capra's Tao of Physics and Turning Point. A while back, I translated Turning Point in Gujarati. Elvin Toeffler's The Future Shock, The Third Wave, and The Power Shift are also great reads.

Is there an experience from your life that left a lasting impression on you?

[Pause] In 1969, on a Dandi-yatra reenactment, we all decided that we will eat at the house of harijans (untouchables) tonight. My engineer friend and I, we paired up to go to this one particular house. They made some basic food for us, but the untouchables also had this particular tradition of going out to beg for leftover food every night (this is before refrigerators overtook their cooler role and became godowns). So after we started eating, the oldest lady of the house walks in from the back and puts all this meshed leftover food in front of us and says, "Bapji, please help yourself to this food too." My first thought was a repulsive one: "How can we eat this?" But in the second minute, I put myself in their shoes and realized that this is what they eat everyday. If I say no them, it's an insult to their dignity. So, I ate it and realized what it really means to be equal.

Now, years later, when I wrote about this experience, I got one flame mail: how can you accept that food and propagate that behavior in the world? My response to that is that if two people are standing face to face, what authority -- idealogical or not -- do I have to reject his offering? Whether you take it or not is really a test of how equal you treat him or her to be, in that very moment.

What gives you joy?

Everything, even in seeing you. In spirituality, 'brahmacharya' is a popular word; it describes a person who steadfastly walks the path of 'brahma'. I have coined a new word: anandcharya, someone who steadfastly walks the path of joy. If racing cars at 150 kilometers per hour gives you joy, that's great too. That activity might evolve, but so long as you are doing what gives you joy, you are on the right track.

What will happen to your work, to your organization, after you pass away?

[Laughs]. I have absolutely no worries because I believe in reincarnation. There were some big people before me, so they all have to be reborn somewhere. [Laughs] They will come back and do this work. I'm not worried at all.

What inspires you most about life?

Diversity. Everyone is after career, after money. In every generation, there will be a certain percentage of people who will push the bounds. Like you guys, who bucked all traditional pressures, to walk across India. I get inspiration from knowing that there will always be those who authentically push us to the frontiers of human existence.

How do you define 'service'?
Seva is not just your surface level action. Seva is how we face people, how we interact with all of life; seva is reflected in your everyday actions, everymoment actions.

Thank you so much for spending time with us.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."