He was Baba Amte, born to a wealthy Indian family in 1914. At the time India was a British colony and so poor, many of its people struggled to put food on the table. Most were illiterate.
As a boy Baba was troubled by the monumental poverty he saw outside his family’s huge estate. To his parents’ dismay, he spent time with the servants and sometimes ate his meals with them and he played with children in the lower-castes.
But as an adult, Baba put this behind him. He lived a privileged life as a playboy, with fancy cars, and he hunted big game. He graduated from college, then law school and became a successful attorney. However, despite all his material possessions Baba’s life seemed empty.
And then came a grand awakening.
He spent time with Gandhi and was deeply touched by Gandhi’s compassion for all of mankind as he even had “untouchables,” living with him. He saw Gandhi’s willingness and joy to live his life in search of love and truth and to treat the world with kindness and forgiveness.
Gandhi had also been a successful lawyer but closed his law practice and surrendered nearly all of his possessions to live humbly with the poor in ashrams. This inspired Baba and later he would do as Gandhi did giving up his law practice and his wealth to form ashrams and live with the poor.
Meanwhile Baba joined Gandhi’s nonviolent movement to end British rule of India and was jailed by the British. He used his legal skills and encouraged other lawyers to join with him in support of Gandhi, whose actions eventually overthrew British rule and led to an independent India in 1947.
As a disciple of Gandhi, Baba lived a modest life, wearing simple clothing made from local looms; eating fruits and vegetables he helped grow.
In 1947, Baba and his wife Sadhna started an ashram, and were joined by untouchable families, and by other poor people. Baba became a scavenger, and also carried away buckets of human waste, a job normally reserved for untouchables.
Then one day as heavy rains pelted the ground, Baba had another life changing experience.
He saw a destitute leper named Tulshiram lying helpless in the mud, all alone in the world. This poor man had no feet on which to stand, or the hands to uplift his body.
Wearing tattered rags and covered in the mud soaked earth, Tulshiram was near death. But Baba was repulsed by the sight of him, and fearing he could catch leprosy from him left him behind. But Baba’s conscience troubled him and soon he returned and brought Tulshiram home with him.
There Baba with his own hands fed Tulshiram and tried to get him medical care in what little time was left in this poor man’s life. As a result, Tulshiram found some comfort in his final days and by his devotion to Tulshiram, Baba’s life was greatly affected as well.
Baba read everything he could find on leprosy and even took a leprosy course at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine. He became so immersed in the subject and so determined to help lepers, at one point; he courageously had the leprosy bacilli injected in himself to help find a cure. To everyone’s relief, Baba did not contract leprosy.
In 1951, Baba and Sadhna started the Anandwan (“Forest of Joy”) ashram in a distant jungle, to welcome and rehabilitate leprosy patients. The government was happy to give Baba a 250 acre land grant in the middle of nowhere to be rid of these poor, suffering lepers.
Anandwan began with few resources, as the land was overrun with snakes and scorpions and the rocky soil was difficult to till, especially by lepers with extreme physical limitations. To get drinking water and water for irrigation required them to trudge over a mile to the nearest well and then tote the water back, trip after trip.
However with Sadhna, their two little boys, six lepers and a dog and a cow they met the challenge and began to build Anandwan into a major success. And in the years that followed, as drugs were developed to treat leprosy, Baba collected enough supplies to help lepers in the over 60 villages that surrounded Anandwan.
Today, Anandwan has 5,000 residents, and has a university, two hospitals, a school for the blind and an orphanage.
Both of Baba and Sadhna’s sons became doctors and each followed in his parents’ footsteps to do humanitarian work. The elder son Vikas and his wife, Dr. Bharati Amte run a leprosy treatment center, an Anandwan hospital, and help run Anandwan itself.
The younger son, Prakash and his wife, Dr. Mandakini Amte operate a hospital and a school in a poor village, and they also manage an animal shelter. Their sons, Digant and Aniket are doctors as well and they too have begun to devote their lives to humanitarian causes.
As remarkable as all this is, there was even more to Baba. Using Gandhi’s principles when India’s government in the name of progress forcibly removed people from their homes, he came there to peacefully oppose them.
For example, when the government wanted to build a massive dam on the Narmada River, one of India’s largest rivers, which would destroy many villages, Baba traveled from Anandwan to live for awhile with some of the villagers and joined a protest movement to try to stop the development.
And Baba was renown in India for his Shramadaan Shibir (a voluntary service camp) in which he personally influenced thousands of attendees over the years. He uplifted them with stories and he showed them impressive buildings lepers built, despite their deformed bodies.
As Gandhi had influenced Baba, and millions of others, Baba did too, challenging people to make a compassionate difference in this world. Not to accept or ignore the suffering of others, but to do something about it, however insurmountable the problems might at first appear.
When Baba recently passed away at 93, he left behind a massive army of compassionate people influenced by his words and actions working to alleviate suffering in India and all over the world.