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Arun Gandhi

Nonviolence in the 21st Century

Challenges and Choices


The definition of non-violence as the »Pursuit of Truth« (Satyagraha) is the basic principle of Monhandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence. The condition for overcoming our fear and becoming free in our search for truth and peace is liberation from a possessive mentality. Peace can be created and grow only when we interact with the world. In our search four essential principles guide the way. These four principles are truth, ahimsa, trusteeship and constructive action on the public level and respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation at the personal level. In order to apply these principles it is necessary to understand the manifold ways in which humans practice violence. In addition to physical violence humans also commit an inordinately large amount of passive violence, both consciously and unconsciously. The different forms of physical violence can ultimately only be overcome by becoming conscious of and fighting against passive violence in ourselves. Living non-violence is therefore a practical necessity and it is in this that the relevance of non-violence lies for the 21st century. 1



Nonviolence as pursuit of truth

Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas K. Gandhi
(1869 – 1948)
external linkBiography
1 Going back to the first challenge when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi developed his philosophy of nonviolence in South Africa and wanted an appropriate word to describe it he could not find one. »Passive Resistance« and »Civil Disobedience« did not appeal because he said there was nothing passive or disobedient about the movement. He even offered a reward to anyone who could come up with a positive English word to describe what he had in mind but, alas, no one could.
2 At this point Gandhi decided a Sanskrit word may be more appropriate since he was planning to move back to India and lead the Indian struggle for freedom. He found Satyagraha described his philosophy the best. It is a combination of two Sanskrit words, Satya, meaning »truth«, and Agraha, meaning »pursuit of«. Thus, Satyagraha means the »Pursuit of Truth«, which is important because it is the opposite of the Western concept of »Possessing the Truth«.
3 Nonviolence, therefore, can be described as an honest and diligent pursuit of truth. It could also mean the search for the meaning of life or the purpose of life, questions that have tormented mankind for centuries. The fact that we have not been able to find satisfactory answers to these questions does not mean there is no answer. It only means we have not searched with any degree of honesty. The search has to be both external and internal. We seek to ignore this crucial search because the sacrifices it demands are evolutionary. It means moving away from greed, selfishness, possessiveness and dominance to love, compassion, understanding and respect. It means to be true to our Faith and religion – it is not enough that we pray ten times a day but that we make the scriptures the basis of our existence.
4 Because of our materialistic and greedy lifestyle we have become very possessive. We seek to possess not only material goods but even our spiritual beliefs and even peace, if we find it. How many times have we heard people say: »I am at peace with myself.« Or, when Gurus say to their devotees: »Find your peace and hold on to it.« Can anyone find peace or spiritual awakening and greedily hold on to it for themselves?

The meaning of peace

»This is the meaning of peace. It must nourish your soul and the souls of others, it must multiply by interacting with the elements.« 5 A favourite story that Grandfather liked to tell us was the story of an ancient Indian king who was obsessed with the desire to find the meaning of peace. What is peace and how can we get it and when we find it what should we do with it were some of the issues that bothered him. Intellectuals in his kingdom were invited to answer the king's questions for a handsome reward. Many tried but none could explain how to find peace and what to do with it.
6 At last someone said the king ought to consult the sage who lived just outside the borders of his kingdom: »He is an old man and very wise,« the king was told. »If anyone can answer your questions he can.« The king went to the sage and posed the eternal question. Without a word the sage went into the kitchen and brought a grain of wheat to the king. »In this you will find the answer to your question,« the sage said as he placed the grain of wheat in the king's outstretched palm.
7 Puzzled but unwilling to admit his ignorance the king clutched the grain of wheat and returned to his palace. He locked the precious grain in a tiny gold box and placed the box in his safe. Each morning, upon waking, the king would open the box and look at the grain to seek an answer but could find nothing.
8 Weeks later another sage, passing through, stopped to meet the king who eagerly invited him to resolve his dilemma. The king explained how he had asked the eternal question and this sage gave him a grain of wheat instead. »I have been looking for an answer every morning but I find nothing.«
9 The sage said: »It is quite simple, your honour. Just as this grain represents nourishment for the body, peace represents nourishment for the soul. Now, if you keep this grain locked up in a gold box it will eventually perish without providing nourishment or multiplying. However, if it is allowed to interact with the elements – light, water, air, soil – it will flourish, multiply and soon you would have a whole field of wheat which will nourish not only you but so many others. This is the meaning of peace. It must nourish your soul and the souls of others, it must multiply by interacting with the elements.«
10 In the life-long pursuit of truth we must always be guided by love, compassion, understanding and respect, allow everything we have to interact positively with the elements and help create a society of peace and harmony. The more possessions we have the more we have to secure them from those who covet it generating feelings of jealousy and the desire to take by force what the needy cannot get through compassion.

Liberation from the fear

»I am prepared to die but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.«

Mohandas K. Gandhi
11 The success in attaining enlightenment or finding the truth depends on how honest we are and whether we can liberate ourselves from the attachments that tie us down. Gandhi said being liberated politically or socially is not enough. He did not mean that we become careless or adopt a »don't care» attitude towards life and relationships. Freeing yourself of attachments means one must be willing to stand up for truth and justice and not be afraid of the consequences like losing your possessions, your job or even your life. It is only when we reach that level of spiritual power that nonviolence will become relevant.
12 When white racists humiliated Grandfather in South Africa because they did not want a »black« man travelling in a first class compartment of a train he tried to enlist the support of the non-whites in South Africa to stand up for their rights. Instead, he found that fear dominated their response. »What will happen to my family? My job? My home and possessions?« The middle-class was content to submit to the white man's injustices rather than stand up to them and risk losing everything. That was when grandfather discovered the corrupting influence of materialism.
13 This attitude persists everywhere. We still accept injustice because we are afraid of suffering and losing our possessions or our security. True liberation comes when we can liberate ourselves from the fear that controls our lives. In the final analysis that is the key. In reality, this is not something impossible that nonviolence demands. When we are forced by law to sacrifice our lives to protect our country in war we don't ask who is going to take care of the family or what will happen to my possessions. We just go with the knowledge that we may not come back again. This is a sacrifice that is forced upon an individual by a government. Then, why is it so difficult for the same individual to make the same sacrifice to stand up for justice, ethics and values?
14 »I am prepared to die but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill«, Gandhi said.

Core principles of nonviolence at the public level

»I am but a seeker after Truth. I claim to have found a way to it. I claim to be making a ceaseless effort to find it. But I admit that I have not yet found it. To find Truth completely is to realize oneself and one's destiny, i.e., to become perfect. I am painfully conscious of my imperfections, and therein lies all the strength I posses, because it is a rare thing for a man to know his own limitations.«

Mohandas K. Gandhi
15 The four essential principles of Gandhi's philosophy are quite simple to understand and implement. At the public level the four principles are: Truth, Ahimsa, Trusteeship and Constructive Action. While at the personal level the four principles are: Respect, Understanding, Acceptance and Appreciation.
16 The meaning of Truth is, of course, obvious. We must remember truth has many sides and it is ever changing. What appears true today may not be true tomorrow. Or what appears to be the Truth to us does not necessarily appear to be the Truth to others. We cannot therefore say that we possess the Truth and so our understanding or Truth is the right one. We must develop the ability to look at everything from different perspectives and have the humility to understand that we could be wrong.
17 Ahimsa, is the Sanskrit word for total nonviolence, that is, nonviolence in thought, word and deed. Grandfather recognized the limitations of ahimsa. Living the way we do being totally nonviolent may not be possible for everyone. It may even not be possible for anyone. Yet, it must be the objective of every individual in the same way as getting an »A+« grade is the objective of every student who goes to school. If any student goes to school with the mindset that he/she will never get an »A+« grade then that student is in big trouble. That person has already discounted himself and will, therefore, only slide down into oblivion.
18 Trusteeship is a unique concept that needs to be properly understood. Each individual has the talent or the ability to achieve our goals. We exploit that talent or the ability for personal gains in the belief that we »own» the talent or ability. Gandhi said we don't own the talent but we are appointed »Trustees« by God and so we must use the talent to help others, less fortunate or talented than us. But this »giving« or »sharing« or »helping« must not cripple the receiver.
19 There is a very thin line that divides »pity« and »compassion« and we often mistake one for the other. Pity is degrading and oppressive while compassion is uplifting for both the giver and the receiver. Pity is when we give a hungry person money to buy food or when we feed the hungry through soup kitchens. When feeding becomes an end in itself then we are causing a problem. Feeding should be a means to constructive action. By feeding the hungry we make them dependent on handouts.
20 On the other hand, compassion requires that we get involved in finding ways in which the unfortunate can be helped to become self-sufficient citizens. The help they receive should be such as to help rebuild their self-confidence and self-respect which are crushed by poverty and oppression.
21 Constructive Action is the natural corollary to trusteeship. It means getting involved in finding constructive solutions to problems. We are usually so pre-occupied with the Self that we don't have time for anyone or anything. We usually want to hang the responsibility on someone's shoulders. Usually the Government's shoulders yet they have severe limitations. Bureaucrats or paid social workers don't always have the compassion needed for this kind of work. In 1970 six young people in Mumba City in India, each working for a livelihood and committed to raising their children, decided to find a solution to the overwhelming homelessness in the city that is growing rampantly.
22 Using Gandhi's philosophy of trusteeship and constructive action this group, led by Mahipat Rao Mohite, assembled more than 500 homeless people and challenged them to become a part of the solution by saving a coin everyday to build the necessary capital so that an economic project could be launched. Mohite could have sought donations or applied for grants but that would give the homeless the feeling they could ask for what they need and receive it on a platter.
23 Mohite said the homeless would have to collectively save a coin every day. Most people would have considered this impossible or even heartless to ask someone to save a coin every day when they did not know where the next meal was going to come from. However, the homeless accepted the challenge and with Mohite's encouragement saved the equivalent of 11,000 dollar in about 19 months.
24 The money was used to start in 1971 a small textile factory with second hand power looms in a tin shed in Vita village near Sangli, 200 miles south of Mumbai. Some 70 of the homeless were sent to the village to work in the jointly owned factory under the guidance of Mohite and his friends until the homeless were trained to run the business for themselves. Today all those who contributed to the capital are back in their village living on the earnings of their four textile factories, enjoying a much better life-style and able to send their children to schools and higher education.
25 The homeless continued saving money and in 1978 opened the Sangli Jilla Kranti Cooperative Bank in Mumbai City. Today the Bank has 7 branch offices and total assets worth 2 million dollar. This is an example of what Gandhi meant by trusteeship and constructive action. Mohite and his friends did not make major sacrifices other than their leisure and vacation time.

Core principles at the personal level

»I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.«

Mohandas K. Gandhi
26 The four principles of nonviolence to be practiced by individuals begin with Respect. We must respect ourselves, respect others and respect our relationship to all of creation. A myth persists, especially in the West, that we are independent individuals with no responsibilities towards others. A cohesive society cannot be built with each individual pulling in different direction. To achieve harmony and cohesiveness we must accept the fact that we are inter-dependent, inter-related and inter-woven working together to build a human society.
27 It is not enough to respect individual human beings. We must also respect different cultures, different ways of life and different belief systems. Danger lies in our becoming competitive, in believing that ours is the only way and the best way and attempting to impose our way on others. To assume that our way is the best is to say that we »possess« the truth. When we accept that others could also be right then we join others in an honest search for truth.
28 Religion, Grandfather explained, is the beginning of a spiritual journey. When we come to understand Religion properly we reach an understanding of spirituality, that is the acceptance and respect for different ways of worship. Salvation is when we reach the mountaintop. When we become one with creation and creation becomes one with us.
29 Understanding is reached when we learn who we are and what is our role in all of creation. In our arrogance we believe that humans are not a part of nature. We are here to conquer nature. In our attempt to conquer nature we are destroying our habitat and cannot expect to survive for very long.
30 Acceptance is reached when we accept the differences – physical and philosophical – between human beings. When these differences begin to melt away then we accept each other as human beings and can dispense with the labels that keep people apart.
31 Appreciation of our humanity is achieved at this stage.

Physical and passive violence

Gandhi's family
enlarge Mohandas K. Gandhi with his grandson Arun
32 The best way, however, to understand Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence is to first understand the extent of violence that we practice, consciously or unconsciously, every day of our lives. Grandfather made me aware of the violence in society, including the violence within myself, by asking me to work on a family tree of violence on the same principles as a genealogical tree.
33 He said: »Violence has two children – physical and passive. Now, everyday before you go to bed I would like you to write under each heading everything that you experienced during the day and the relationship of the violence with each other.«
34 I had to be honest and write about my own acts of violence during the day. This meant that every night I had to analyse my actions and if I found them to be violent then the act had to be put down in its appropriate place. It was an excellent way of introspection and acknowledgement of one's own violence.
35 Gandhi emphasized the need to understand the manifold ways in which humans practice violence. Apart from the physical violence – wars, killings, beatings, murders, rape etc. – we commit an inordinately large amount of passive violence both consciously and unconsciously in the form of hate, prejudice, discrimination, oppression, name-calling, teasing, looking down on people, speaking to people impolitely, classifying people by their religion, their economic standing, their gender, their habits and the millions of other ways in which our actions or even inaction hurt people. In a selfish, self-centred world we ignore the plight of people, we continue to overconsume the resources of the world and continue to create an economic imbalance.
36 The relationship between passive violence and physical violence is the same as the relationship between gasoline and fire. Acts of passive violence generate anger in the victim, and since the victim has not learned how to use anger positively the victim abuses anger and generates physical violence. Thus, it is passive violence that fuels the fire of physical violence, which means if we wish to put out the fire of physical violence we have to cut off the fuel supply.
37 We generally deny our own violence because we are ignorant about it or because we are conditioned to look at violence only in its physical manifestation where we use physical force. However, we don't consider oppression in all its forms as passive forms of violence.

The problem of anger

38 If Gandhi was concerned about freeing India from the imperial clutches of Britain he was more concerned about freeing human society from the stranglehold of the culture of violence. A culture that is so deep-rooted and pervasive that most of us have come to believe violence is our inherent nature. There is a problem with this argument. If violence is indeed our nature why do we need martial arts institutes and military academies to teach us to fight and kill? Why are we not born with these instincts?
39 The fact is it is not violence that is our true nature but anger, the fuel that generates violence. Anger is, to use an electrical analogy, the fuse that warns us of a malfunction. However, sadly, we have learned to abuse anger instead of using it intelligently because the culture of violence is based on the need to control through fear. Psychologists have recently concluded that an inordinately high number – over 70 per cent – of the violence that plagues human societies everywhere is the result of the abuse of anger. Anger is an important emotion that plays a significant role in our lives and yet we have ignored it totally.
40 Does our ignorance mean there is nothing human beings can do to stop the abuse of anger? I believe we have the commonsense and the capacity to learn and improve our nature. At Sevagram ashram in the late forties there were two things that Gandhi stressed in our daily lessons. First, that we develop the ability to evaluate ourselves regularly – in the words of Socrates »An unexamined life is not worth living« – and second, that we learn to channel anger into constructive use rather than destructive abuse.
41 He told us anger is like electricity – just as powerful and useful when used intelligently, but as destructive and deadly when abused. Like electricity, the energy of anger must be channelled intelligently to serve humanity constructively. Writing an anger journal is one way of recording the offensive episode for posterity. However, the intention should not be simply to get the anger out of one's system but to find an equitable solution to the problem that caused the anger. A problem nipped in the bud saves a lot of grief.

The relevance of nonviolence for the 21st century

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42 It is difficult to reconcile Gandhian thought with the modern theory that nonviolence is simply a strategy of convenience. In the words of Gandhi nonviolence »is not a coat that you can wear today and take off tomorrow«. Although Gandhi emphasized the need for spirituality in the practice of nonviolence that was not the only reason why he believed nonviolence must be a way of life. For Gandhi living nonviolence was a practical necessity. Unless one lives it, one cannot practice nonviolence. Just as we are required to create a whole culture of violence around us to practice violence we need to create a culture of nonviolence around us to practice nonviolence.
43 The complexities of Gandhi's nonviolence need to be understood holistically and not dogmatically. It is unfortunate that most scholars have looked at nonviolence only as the opposite of physical violence. We cannot appreciate the depths of nonviolence until we appreciate the breath of violence that is practiced in society today. Just as the absence of war is not peace; superficial calm in a society does not indicate the lack of turmoil and conflict.
44 We are building mega urban societies around the world that lack soul and substance. We ignore the basic question – can a society be cohesive, compassionate and caring if every member is taught to be selfish and self-centred? In Gandhian terms a society is an enlarged family and should possess the same positive characteristics – compassion and cohesiveness. However, the materialistic society we have created not only fosters selfishness but we encourage it in our children when we advise them to be successful at whatever cost. Passive violence festers in every society until it becomes unbearable and eventually explodes into physical violence. It incidentally, brings into question our concept of justice. In a world steeped in the culture of violence justice has come to mean revenge – an eye for an eye, Gandhi said, only makes the whole world blind. In a culture of nonviolence justice would mean reformation by recognizing that those who do wrong do it out of ignorance or attenuating circumstances. Punishing the person instead of resolving the problem only aggravates physical violence in the form of crime and violence.
45 The story of the starfish has an appropriate moral lesson for us. A man once went early in the morning to the beach for a walk. Dawn was still minutes away from breaking. In the haze he saw a figure near the water's edge picking something up and throwing it into the water. Out of curiosity he went to enquire and was told that during the night the tide came in and washed all the starfish ashore and when the sun comes out they will all perish. The curious man looked at the shoreline and saw thousands of starfish stranded. He said: »You aren't going to be able to save all these starfish so what difference is it going to make?« The Good Samaritan was still busy throwing the starfish and had one in his hand that he was about to toss into the water as he turned and said: »It will make a big difference to this guy.« The moral clearly is that we should not be overwhelmed by the state of the world and do nothing to change the world. Gandhi always believed that small acts of change can ultimately make a big difference.
46 The choice before humanity, to quote Gandhi's words, is quite simple: »We have to be the change we wish to see.« Unless we change individually no one is going to change collectively. For generations we have been waiting for the other person to change first. A change of heart cannot be legislated, it must come out of conviction.
47 The question that we need to ask is, therefore, not whether nonviolence is relevant but whether we are willing to move away from greed, selfishness and all the negative attributes that govern our lives to the more positive attributes of love, compassion, understanding and respect. The choice is ours to make. That is the essence of Gandhi's message.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/5/fga-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.


This essay is the enriched and updated version based on a prior article, published by the external linkM.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. go back


Arun Gandhi (*1934 in Durban, South Africa) is the fifth grandson of India's spiritual leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi. He worked for 30 years as a journalist for The Times of India. Together with his wife Sunanda, they started projects for the social and economic upliftment of the oppressed using constructive programs, the backbone of Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of several books. The first, A Patch of White (1969), is about life in prejudiced South Africa; then, he wrote two books on poverty and politics in India; followed by a compilation of M.K. Gandhi's Wit and Wisdom. He also edited a book of essays on World Without Violence: Can Gandhi's Vision Become Reality? (1994), wrote The Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur, the Wife of Mahatma Gandhi (1998), jointly with Sunanda, and, more recently, Legacy of Love: My Education in the Path of Nonviolence (2003). In 1991, Arun and Sunanda Gandhi founded the external linkM.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.
Arun Gandhi
M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
650 East Parkway South
Memphis, TN 38104
Fax: +1 (901) 452 2775
external linkhttp://www.gandhiinstitute.org/AboutUs/Founders.cfm
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