Sometimes ordinary words fail us. Take, for instance, the concept of nonviolence. It is far more than the absence of violence, says Arun Gandhi, architect of the Season for Nonviolence.
To illustrate his point, Arun Gandhi likes to tell a story about his grandfather, the famed spiritual leader and social reformer Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi.
It was the mid-1940s, and Arun was an adolescent living at his grandfather’s home in India. On the way home from school he threw away a pencil stub, assuming his grandfather would replace it with a new one.
That evening when he asked his grandfather to buy him a new pencil, he was instead asked a series of questions: “He wanted to know how the pencil became small, and where did I throw it away and why did I throw it away and on and on, and I couldn’t understand why he was making such a fuss about a little pencil until he told me to go out and look for it. I said ‘You must be joking. You don’t expect me to go out and look for the pencil in the dark?’ He said, ‘Oh yes, I do. Here’s a flashlight.’”
After hours of searching, he did find the pencil, and when he returned home, his grandfather taught him a valuable lesson.
Mahatma Gandhi told him that even in the making of a simple pencil, many natural resources were used. By throwing it away, he was throwing away resources—and committing violence against nature. When society’s affluent carelessly use the world’s resources, they deprive the less affluent of those resources—which is violence against humanity.
Such acts qualify as passive violence, which the average person commits on a daily basis without thought, said Arun Gandhi.
Passive violence takes many forms, be it waste, discrimination or disrespect.
His grandfather believed that these relentless acts of passive violence incite anger in the victims, who eventually lash out with physical violence, a lesson that Arun has carried with him through life.
Arun Gandhi has dedicated himself to spreading the messages his grandfather taught him more than half a century ago. Each year he leads a tour to India to show how Gandhian principles are still applied, despite persistent poverty and inequality in the country.
The stories he tells about his grandfather have provided insight into one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century.
That’s Why He Said ‘Be the Change’
Arun says that the media helps sustain a culture of violence. For instance, when a criminal is sentenced, the press says that the victim’s family now has closure, he noted in an interview with Unity Magazine. Arun, whose grandfather was assassinated in 1948, scoffed at the idea of closure. “It just means ‘we got revenge,’” he said. “That’s not justice. That’s the main reason we can’t stop crime.”
Instead of seeking revenge, society needs to address the reason the criminal committed the crime, he said.
All too often, people do not have techniques for managing their anger, he said.
Arun himself knows something about managing anger. As an Indian youth raised in apartheid South Africa, he was the target of racial violence—not just from whites, but also from blacks. “It filled me with a lot of rage,” he said. “I wanted an eye for an eye.”
Concerned for his well-being, his parents sent Arun to India to live with his grandfather when he was 12. “He taught me how to channel anger,” Arun said.
His grandfather told him not to act on anger, but to write instead. He began to keep an anger journal, a learning tool he still recommends.
To drive home the message about the different forms violence takes, the elder Gandhi instructed his grandson to draw a “family tree” of violence, the offspring being physical violence and passive violence.
Arun would chart events that happened every day—showing disrespect, being wasteful, engaging in arguments—and see in what way his actions might have hurt someone. The “tree,” posted in his bedroom, proved to be a very visual learning tool: “It filled up the whole wall,” he said.
His grandfather believed that such introspection on a personal level would help reduce violence on a larger level.
“That’s why he said, ‘Be the change you want to see,’” said Arun Gandhi.
An Agent for Change
The cornerstone of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy is ahimsa, the Hindu notion of a state of consciousness that is devoid of violence.
“People haven’t really understood the scope (of nonviolence),” said Gandhi. “They see it as political. Grandfather used it to gain independence for India. Martin Luther King used it to gain civil rights for blacks.”
“But it’s more than political. It’s deeper than that, and people have not understood. To live that philosophy (of ahimsa) requires sacrifice people are not willing to make.”
“We are accustomed to a culture of violence based on materialism and consumption. It’s a very selfish existence.”
Arun Gandhi’s frankness has led to controversy. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he and his late wife, Sunanda, founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, now based at the University of Rochester in New York, to further the study and practice of nonviolence. In 2008, he resigned as president of the board of the institute after he posted a blog message titled “Jewish identity can’t depend on violence,” that cited Israel as a player in the “culture of violence” in the Middle East.
He later apologized. “Unintentionally, my words have resulted in pain, anger, confusion and embarrassment," he stated in his resignation letter.
Although the decision to resign was painful, “I didn’t want to sacrifice the institute for my beliefs,” he told Unity Magazine.
He has since turned his focus on another project. He describes the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute (www.Gandhiforchildren.org), which promotes schools for impoverished children, as “my new obsession.”
Arun says he’s frequently asked if Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings are relevant still today.
“His philosophies are based on love, respect, and understanding. If we question whether his philosophies are relevant, we question whether love, respect, and understanding are relevant.”