Experiments with Truth

Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave

“When a thing is true, there is no need to use any arguments to substantiate it,” wrote Vinoba Bhave. Oh really?

Like so many of the wonderful aphorisms spun by Gandhians about the nature of truth (and, principally, by Gandhi-ji himself) this inspiring line from Vinoba-ji is itself true only in the most metaphysical and therefore trivial sense. Truth, it seems, isn’t a requirement for a socially, politically, or spiritually stirring catch-phrase, even when the very subject is truth.

Naturally, we give guys like Gandhi-ji and Vinoba-ji the benefit of the doubt. They were not only among the most brilliant men of the twentieth century, but were impressive in both the purity of their motivations and clarity of their ethics. The moral certitude of the line quoted above would, however, feel quite a bit sketchier were if it were attributed to, say, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or George W. Bush, all of whom might be equally plausible authors.

There are good reasons not to be too hard on Vinoba-ji. Sure, he failed to recognize that almost all the fun lies in the argument and very little of it resides in the ultimate truth of the matter. But fun wasn’t really his big thing. And we must readily acknowledge that it is convenient to be able to offer the occasional pronouncement without having to “show your work”, as though all of life were a high school math exam.

I spew this kind of unsubstantiated crap all the time. Sometimes I get called on it; often, when the things I say have the veneer (if not the deep resonance) of truth, I get away with it. Which brings us back to Vinoba-ji – and to our story.

I live half of each year in the country Gandhi-ji and his faithful lieutenant, Vinoba-ji, made. India fascinates and perplexes me; and I find nothing more confounding than the paucity of ethical (or even effective) political leadership in the place that gave the world these two great men. I am fond of underscoring the tragic irony of India’s useless political cesspool by questioning how this could happen in the country that gained independence through something as ballsy and original as the radical application of nonviolence and achieved the largest peaceful redistribution of wealth in the human experience.

This latter accomplishment, of course, refers to Vinoba-ji’s spectacular Bhoodan Land Gift Movement. Between 1951 and 1963, Vinoba-ji walked the length and breadth of India, asking landowners to allocate a portion of their holdings to be given to the landless poor. In that time, five million acres of land were given –- and the movement also established the basis for subsequent legislative land reform in India.

But, a friend asked, is there any documentation to support this assertion that the Bhoodan Movement represented “the largest peaceful redistribution of wealth in the human experience”?

Enter Rahul Brown, who is perhaps best known to readers of memestream as the auteur behind such films as The Law of Love and A Close Shave. Rahul came up with the following calculations to support the claim.

Consider the average price of agricultural land in India today: $4 / square foot, by one estimate. Land within 40 km of a city is presently worth Rs. 20-40 lakh (roughly $44.4K – $88.8K at current exchange) per acre, by another estimate.

Thus, in modern terms, Vinoba-ji’s 5 million acres might be worth:

5M acres = 217.8B square feet
217.8B square feet * $4 / sq. ft = $871B

or

somewhere between
5M acres * $44.4K / acre = $222B
and
5M acres * $88.8K / acre = $444B

Rahul was willing to be conservative. He wrote, “Assume that half of the land is totally worthless. (Is anything totally worthless?) That still places the modern value of the Bhoodan Movement at between $111B and $435B USD. This would seem to verify MBJ’s comment. By comparison, the Gates Foundation’s current endowment is $34B, and the entire foundation world’s assets are roughly at $290B.”

The long-suffering American wealthy might argue that their tax dollars make Vinoba-ji’s project look like chump-change. (People in other countries pay taxes too; but, in the unique American epistemology, if you don’t know that other countries exist, perforce they don’t — or at least couldn’t possibly matter.) Leave aside the question of whether the direct benefits conferred on taxpayers by the payment of tax disqualifies this as pure wealth redistribution; if the Tea Party class is even half as aggrieved as their ceaseless whining suggests, the taking of their assets by taxation sounds like coercion, deprivation of basic liberty, and barely sublimated violence – hardly peaceful.

That’s the argument I’d make in support of Vinoba-ji’s achievement. Truth worth arguing for.

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7 Responses to “Experiments with Truth”


  1. 1 naren 4 December 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Delightful as ever. You must consider publishing your essays in book form

    Naren

  2. 2 millyonair 6 December 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Another excellent essay! Inspiring, too, to think about someone walking across the entire country just asking people to help take care of other people. That’s pretty cool.

  3. 3 mbjesq 7 December 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Thanks, Naren. But not even my mother would read that book.

    The rest of you should know a little-something about the man who advanced the notion of spreading my verbal cancer beyond the safe quarantine of this blog. He is Narendra Shenoy, author of a pants-wettingly funny blog called Autobiography of an Ordinary Man. But he’s no ordinary man. And his blog is currently nominated for an Indiblog award for humor writing. Stop by and show him the love.

    Emily, Gandhianism was plenty cool. All the more shame that it has been almost entirely lost in less than three generations, the victim of toxic reverence from supporters, ignorant scapegoating by opponents, and indifference from most points in-between.

    MBJ

  4. 4 Hiyaa 16 December 2009 at 5:15 am

    You are very gifted and I really loved reading two of your posts today. Very powerful writing and your grip on the language is excellent.
    Will follow your posts. They stimulate!
    Cheers
    Sandy

  5. 5 Hari 16 December 2009 at 5:04 pm

    This is my first visit to your Blog. You write very well and your blog is very informative. I also like your sense of humor.

  6. 6 Jere Hodges 5 January 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Mark, thanks for having this available. I discovered this quote while working today’s Crypto-quip in my local newspaper. You’ve done a remarkable job exploring the quote and the background.

    (I wasn’t able to decipher the author’s name with the available crypto-data – so I had to look here to find Mr. Bhave.)

  7. 7 Brooks Anderson 5 March 2010 at 5:49 am

    Dude,

    You’re still cranking out thought-provoking and highly-appreciated tracts.

    We missed dearly you this cold season in Pondy.

    When might we next see you?

    The mango trees are flowering.

    I remain thoroughly perplexed by the hatred of Gandhi among young Indians, including folks you and I regard as good friends.

    Brooks


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