Listening in With … Arun Gandhi

Arun Gandhi

As a boy of Indian parentage growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, Arun Gandhi was brutally beaten up by both blacks (for being too white) and whites (for being too black). His mother and father—Mahatma Gandhi’s second son, antiapartheid activist Manilal Gandhi—wanted to quell their son’s escalating anger about racism, so they sent him to India to live with his grandfather from age 12 to 14. Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings during those two years changed the course of the younger Gandhi’s life. Now an octogenarian, he is keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive through peace activism, teaching nonviolence, and working to end poverty. Here, he talks to Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about the next evolution of his grandfather’s philosophies.

Katy Koontz: Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the Season for Nonviolence. How has the Season grown in the past two decades?

Arun Gandhi: The first Season was meant only for the first year to celebrate my grandfather’s 50th memorial anniversary and Martin Luther King’s 30th memorial anniversary at a function at the United Nations. The event attracted 5,000 people, and all of them in one voice said, “This Season will not end. It has to go on year after year.” And so it took on a life of its own. So many people, including many from Unity churches, have helped. That’s the whole principle behind the philosophy of nonviolence—to bring communities together to work for an ideal.

KK: What do you hope that the Season will be able to accomplish in the next 20 years?

AG: I hope people will come to understand that just because we are not at war, that doesn’t mean we are living in peace. True peace is achieved only when there is harmony in our communities—when we feel each other’s pain and happiness. What we have today is just the opposite. We have so many disparities, and they cause anger and frustration. That’s what leads to violence.

KK: You've said that poverty is the worst form of violence. Why is that?

AG: I recently read that in the United States alone, we destroy $160 billion worth of food every year. It just goes down the drain, when millions of people in our own country are going to bed hungry every night—not to mention in other places around the globe. That is an example of passive violence and ignoring the pain and anguish of other people.

KK: In 2008, you founded the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute to help fight poverty. Can you tell me more about the institute?

AG: Although India is growing very fast economically, 50 percent of the population still lives in extreme poverty, and millions of children are trapped in poverty for generations. From the time they begin to walk, these children are sent out to beg. Once they get a little older, they are made to work. We have children of 5 or 6 years old who work brickyards for 50 cents a day carrying 10 or 15 bricks at a time on their head, transporting them from place to place. Some of these children are so young that their skulls have not fully hardened and so the bricks have flattened their heads. 

The institute has rescued about a thousand such children, giving them education, shelter, food, and clothing. We hoped to replicate this kind of program in other countries, but unfortunately we were not supported financially to that extent. We've just been able to raise the money needed for maintaining this one institution.

KK: You've said that nonviolence is about personal transformation. It's a philosophy that has to be lived, and when it's used instead as a strategy, the result is limited. Can you elaborate?

AG: Nonviolence used as a strategy becomes a weapon of convenience. Once a conflict is resolved, we go back to our ways. I don’t necessarily mean the United States alone—all over the world, people are choosing a materialistic way of life encouraged by industry as well as the government. This makes people selfish and greedy, wanting to get the biggest share of the pie for themselves at the expense of others. When we have that kind of lifestyle, we are building a whole culture of violence that dominates every aspect of our life. Our languages become violent. Our sports are violent. Our entertainment is violent. Our music is violent. Our religion is violent. Our relationships are violent. Everything about us is violent, and in that culture of violence, using nonviolence as a tool to resolve conflict has limitations. We may resolve a conflict once or twice, but if we never focus on the source of the conflict, we let that problem fester. Later, we say nonviolence doesn’t work, so we go to war.

The only redemption for the world today is to transform that culture of violence into a culture of nonviolence where we begin to show greater compassion, respect, love, understanding, and acceptance of people—not only those close to us, but all the people of the world.

This whole idea of nationalism and patriotism is a very negative idea. It makes us believe that we have to preserve just our corner of the world and forget about the rest of the world. It encourages us to ignore that all of us are interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent, and that what happens in one part of the world is going to affect the rest of the world whether we like it or not.

KK: Or whether we recognize it or not.

AG: Right. The stability and security of the United States depends on the stability and security of the whole world. If we don’t work toward creating that, we will not be able to preserve our country, even with all our weapons, our military, and our other strengths. If the rest of the world perishes, we are going to perish along with it.

KK: One vital key is your grandfather’s view that effectively responding to violent events requires that we concentrate on what we can change instead of retaliating. We then separate people from their actions, hating the violent actions and not the people perpetrating the violence.

AG: Exactly. That’s what the culture of nonviolence would teach us. We have to focus more on the problem rather than the people. We catch a criminal and lock him up and think now everything is going to be fine. But crime increases, and we build more prisons and lock up more people.

Why is crime increasing? Because we never focus on the root of the problem. We’ve taken the easy way out. We divide people into good and bad people, thinking that if we eliminate all the bad people, we will have a world full of good people. However, each one of us has the capability of being good or being bad, depending on what buttons are pressed and what circumstances we have to face. So what are we going to do? Eliminate all of humanity?

KK: Your grandfather advocated seeking justice through self-suffering. What if your opponent isn’t compassionate enough to care that you’re suffering? Will this work in extreme situations such as dealing with ISIS?

AG: These extreme situations have not cropped up overnight. They become extreme because we’ve ignored the problem for years. If we become more conscious of our responsibility and of the needs of other people, we won’t have such extremists. But basically, this whole idea of peaceful conflict resolution through self-suffering comes from the fact that we are all capable of being good and doing good. If we appeal to the goodness in our opponent, we might be able to raise his standard and bring the goodness out of him. As British historian Aldous Huxley once said, much has been written about what Gandhi did for India through nonviolence, but nothing has been written about what he did for the British. By awakening the goodness in the British, Gandhi raised the standard of the British people.

KK: Which then has a ripple effect—that’s the point, isn’t it?

AG: Right. So even during the height of the struggle against the British, if Indians referred to the British as our enemy in my grandfather’s presence, he would tell them that the idea that the British were our enemy was wrong. He’d explain that they are our friends and we are trying to change their attitudes. You can’t change a person’s attitude if you brand them as an enemy.

KK: That’s a very high-level concept.

AG: It can be difficult to understand because we are so conditioned to the culture of violence. But if we consider adopting a culture of nonviolence instead, love and compassion dominate our thinking, and being compassionate toward people who are suffering isn’t so difficult.

KK: Did your grandfather’s assassination test your dedication to nonviolence?

AG: I was 14 years old, and I had just returned to South Africa a few months before. I must confess that when I heard the news, I was moved to anger. But my parents said, “Arun, you’ve forgotten the lessons that your grandfather taught you. He wouldn’t appreciate that kind of talk. He would want you to dedicate your life to bringing about a change in society so this kind of violence doesn’t take place.”

So they showed me the way to forgive and to dedicate my life to doing something constructive. They focused on the problem and not on the person, whereas I was focusing on being angry at the person who did it and not solving the problem of violence.

KK: You make a strong distinction between compassion and pity, noting that charity can actually be oppressive. Can you expand on that?

AG: We show our compassion through charity, which which sometimes can take a very oppressive attitude. For instance, many churches run soup kitchens feeding hundreds of people a day who eat and then leave. That’s a charity out of pity. We feel pity for the hungry people, and we provide them with food—but then they don’t have incentive to improve their lives. They become dependent, and if the soup kitchen closes, all those hundreds of people will be helpless again.

Compassion means that we help rebuild their self-respect and self-confidence and help them realize that they can stand on their own feet. They don’t have to depend on other people to get what they need. Instead, we generally act out of pity. We feel sorry for the people and say, “Okay, give them this,” and then we’re done with it. We feel good that we’ve done our duty, but we have not really done our duty. We have just made that person more dependent on us or on society.

When we try to do something good, we must think twice because with people who have suffered any kind of oppression—economic, social, or cultural—the first thing they lose is their self-respect and self-confidence. They come to believe they’re incapable of achieving anything. They are dependent on society, and society must give them what they need, and that whole cycle continues. We have to be conscious of doing things that will build their self-respect and self-confidence and allow them to stand on their own feet.

KK: You call yourself a peace farmer. How did you develop that analogy?

AG: As a boy, whenever I got frustrated, my parents and grandparents would always tell me that I shouldn’t have very high expectations because that’s the way to get frustrated quickly. They said I should look at myself as a farmer who plants seeds in a field. Even if half the crop fails, he’s still happy he’s got something, and he continues to go and plant seeds with the hope that one day he will get a wonderful crop.

They told me a person working for peace is the same as a farmer. We go out and plant seeds in the minds of people. I can talk to you and plant all these seeds, but it’s ultimately up to you whether you understand what I’m saying, learn from it, and change your life.

KK: I’m intrigued by the religious services your family had in your grandfather’s home. They incorporated aspects of all the major religions—they weren’t just Hindu. How did that come about?

AG: India has a substantial number of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists, and my grandfather knew that for everyone to live together in harmony, we all had to respect the different religions. He made a study of all their scriptures and found that none of them contained the whole truth. Each had just a little bit of the truth. The only way we can come closer to understanding the whole truth, he said, is by taking the little bits of truth from each religion and making them a part of our own. So he incorporated their prayers into his prayers.

Also, there are a lot of misconceptions about Hinduism, including that we worship thousands of different gods. What Hindus believe is that nobody has seen the true image of God, so nobody can know what God looks like. We believe that there’s only one power that we call God, but there are many different images of that one God. We just accept all the images.

KK: That’s similar to Unity philosophy, which says we’re all expressions of God, but there’s really just one God.

AG: Right.

KK: You’ve said philosophies need to keep evolving so they don’t turn into dogma, noting that some of what your grandfather said a hundred years ago may not be true today. How has the concept of achieving peace through nonviolence changed since your grandfather’s time?

AG: The whole culture of nonviolence that we’ve been discussing here is something Grandfather didn’t talk about. He was concerned about using nonviolence only for political conflict resolution. These ideas I’m talking about now are the evolution of his teachings, and it’s what I think he would have done if he were alive today. I am positive that I’m on the same track, and that I have just gone a few miles ahead of him.

KK: There’s a famous saying often attributed to your grandfather that you use frequently: Be the change that you wish to see in the world. While that sounds like his philosophy, those exact words don’t appear in any of his writings or speeches. Is that your wording?

AG: That was the gist of his philosophy—what he loved, worked for, and talked about. Yes, those words are mine, but the idea is his. I’m amazed at how that has gone viral. Everywhere I go, people talk about “Be the change,” which makes me very happy.

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