Legacy of Nonviolence
The Satya Interview with Arun
Arun Gandhi is the grandson of Mohandas
K. Gandhi, the spiritual leader and peace activist whose dedication
to nonviolence has inspired generations. Aruns father, Manilal,
spent over 14 years in South African prisons for his nonviolent efforts
to change the apartheid system. Arun Gandhi has continued the familys
legacy by dedicating his life to spreading the message of peace and
nonviolence. He has written eight books and hundreds of articles. To
celebrate the 125th anniversary of his grandfathers birth, Gandhi
edited World Without Violence: Can Gandhis Dream Become Reality?
(New Age International Publishers, 1994), a collection of essays
poetry. In 1987, he and his wife Sunanda moved to Memphis, Tennessee
to study racism in the American South to compare it to color discrimination
in South Africa and the caste system in India. In 1991 he founded
M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence to promote the principles
of nonviolence. Recently, Arun Gandhi shared with Catherine Clyne
on nonviolence and the aftermath of September 11, offered advice
to activists, and explained his views on ahimsa and vegetarianism.
Have the tragedies of September 11
had any impact on your worldview?
Not in the negative sense, no. But it has sort of endorsed what I have
always believed is going to happen to us; that we are going to be consumed
by more and more violence because of the nature of our lives and because
of the nature of the societies that we have built.
Has it strengthened your commitment to nonviolence?
Yes it has, very substantially. I think theres still hope for
people to change, and if we change we will be able to change the
and create less violence.
Peace activists have been struggling
toward that vision for years. But many are losing hope and momentum
because calls for peace and nonviolence are not particularly welcome
in America right now. What suggestions or encouragement would you give
I can see their point. The unfortunate thing is that although most
of the peace activists are working for world peace, individually,
of us have the capacity to influence or change the whole world. However,
we have the capacity to change ourselves and the people around us,
if we work from the grassroots level and begin to change, the world
will eventually change. If we want to make drastic changes overnightand
that kind of thing doesnt happenthat leads to frustration,
and when we see the kind of violence of September 11, we question whether
its worth the struggle or not.
Given that, what might be a feasible
nonviolent response to the September 11 attacks?
We will first of all need to understand how and why the attacks took
place. We tend to focus a lot on what happened on September 11 itself
and make our judgments based on that one incident. But it isnt
what happened on September 11 that is so important as are the events
that led to it over the years, and what we can do to change those things
so that we dont go on facing this kind of tragedy all the time.
Weve got to work to put our house in order and see that we dont
cause exploitation and things like that that eventually cause people
to hate us and to use violence against us.
So you would advise individuals to
look inward and change rather than continue beating drums to stop the
violence in Afghanistan?
We need to change, yes. We need to change our attitudes and our relationships
with each other. We have individually and collectively become very
and self-centered and that is what really leads to much of the hate,
prejudice and violence. We need to look at what is good for the worldnot
just at what is good for the U.S. So we have to have our country
and that can happen only when the individuals change. It cannot come
from the top down, it has to come from the bottom up.
Given whats going on, do you
envision a peaceful resolution to this conflict between the U.S.
Afghanistan, the Taliban, terrorists and/or bin Laden?
Well certainly I dont envision it immediately because nobodys
going to accept it. The media doesnt even want to print anything
about nonviolence. Everybodythe government and the peopleis
so angry, they just want to use violence and destroy, so I dont
think theyre going to seek a peaceful solution. But it shouldnt
detract us from the overall problem.
What do you think peace activists
could be focusing on that theyre not?
First of all, I think we need to understand peace and violence. Many
people think nonviolence is the non-use of physical force, and that
as long as we are not using physical force we are not violent. Peace
does not mean the absence of war. We commit a lot of violence in
waysin our society, in our families and in our neighborhoodsand
thats what accumulates and eventually leads to physical violence.
The foundation of nonviolence is bringing about a change through
love, respect and understanding of each other; learning that we are
enemiesand that some of us are misguided, and we need to change
their thinking and their approach to problems. That can be done only
through respect and understanding for each other.
I also think that peace activists should be focusing on these things
instead of on major world issues upon which small groups of people
not going to have any impact because they can get frustrated and
use violenceit happened in Seattle and Washington. Instead of treating
people with respect and understanding, they feel that the only way they
can attract attention is by destroying property. That only turns people
awayeven people who believe in the philosophy turn away from
that kind of rabid violence.
You experienced severe grief with the
tragic violence that happened to your grandfather...
Yeah, weve had a lot of violence in our family, not only against
my grandfather but even my father, who worked all his life against apartheid
in South Africa and was in prison for about 14 years. He suffered hardships
and torture in prison, and he died pretty young. And then more recently
my nephew was assassinated for political reasons in South Africa at
the age of 29. So weve had our share of violence.
Im sorry to hear that, thats a lot to handle. So, with that
load, what advice would you give to grieving Americans, who naturally
want to strike back at those whove hurt them so terribly?
Weve got to redefine what we mean by justice. Justice does not
mean revenge. When we seek revenge in the name of justice, we are seeking
an eye for an eye and well only make the whole world blind,
as my grandfather would say. Justice should mean reformation; we
redouble our efforts to bring about a reformation in the world.
Nonviolence is also about forgiving. If we seek revenge and are so
obsessed by it that we cant think of anything else, we destroy our lives.
But if we put that incident behind us and dedicate our lives to creating
a society where this kind of thing doesnt happen again, that
would be much more meaningful.
So, when youre talking about
nonviolence, how do you approach those who, up until now, have closed
their ears to such talk about forgiveness and having an open mind?
I tell them very frankly about my own experiences and about what Grandfather
taught us, and how we were able to move ahead from all this violence
that we have suffered and dedicate our lives to creating a better society.
I leave it to them to do the right thing.
I spoke to the parents of the children of the high school in Columbine,
Colorado after the tragedy and they were very angry and wanted revenge.
In fact, I was warned by some people that if I spoke to them about
theyd throw me out of the room because they were so angry. Well
I said that I cant speak about anything else because nonviolence
is about forgiveness, so I went and opened my heart to them. I told
them I understood their pain and anguish because I have seen it and
Ive experienced it.
How receptive were the parents at Columbine?
They were very receptive; they saw the wisdom, and some of them came
up to me afterwards and said they were going to dedicate their lives
to doing constructive things and not seek revenge. And some of them
did just that.
Thinking about moving mountains: When
you lived in South Africa and in light of all the work that your father
did against the apartheid system, did you have any idea back then that
apartheid would end in your lifetime?
No, I didnt even dream that. I thought it was going to go on
endlessly and that many people would come and go before changes would
But we were all very pleasantly surprised. These are the things that
bring hope and make it all worthwhile.
Today, many people feel its
just as inconceivable that people in our society can change the perception
that violence is the only way to resolve problems. What gives you
that things will change?
I think of what Grandfather would advise us. He would say that you
must look at yourself as a farmer who goes into the field, then plants
and waits and hopes that those seeds will germinate into a good crop.
In the same way, we go out and do our thingspeak and teach peopleand
hope and pray that the seeds we are planting in the minds of people
will germinate and eventually become a good crop. We have to realize
that thats about as much as anybody can do. After that, the
person has to do the rest of it by him- or herself. Some people change
and some people take more time.
How would you describe the concept
or lifestyle of ahimsa?
I think ahimsa is love. I dont agree with the translation of
ahimsa as nonviolence. The difference between the two is that when
ahimsa as nonviolence, we become absolute and say that it has to
be absolute nonviolence. But life is not about absolutes. We cannot
an absolutely nonviolent society or an absolutely nonviolent lifestyle.
We have to be realistic; all that we can do is reduce the level of
to the bare minimum. So I think that living in ahimsa is a world
believing in love and compassion, not just in nonviolence.
When you say absolute, what
do you mean?
Like the Jains, for instance. Ahimsa comes out of their tradition
and they believe it has to be absolute. You have Jains who walk around
a broomstick, sweeping the road and covering their mouths so they
step on or inhale insects and that kind of thing. Even that doesnt
really make you absolutely nonviolent because youre still killing
tiny insects and things underfoot that you dont see. It also opens
them up to ridicule; a lot of people question, saying, you do
this and you do that and that causes violence, and its
true that life is not absolutely nonviolent.
For instance, my grandfather was involved in a long dialogue with
Jains when the town he was living in was infested with a lot of rabid
dogs. The city council wanted to catch these dogs and put them to
sleep to save the community from rabies. But the Jains objected.
that it was violent and they wouldnt allow it. Grandfather said
that it was more violent to keep them alive and make them sufferas
well as making the community sufferthan to put those dogs out
of their misery.
Absolutism, where you take it to ridiculous ends, doesnt work.
Many of these Jains will not kill anything themselves but they will
get somebody else to kill for them. They get their house fumigated by
somebody else, killing all the roaches and other insects that infest
their homes. They take recourse in thinking we are not doing it
ourselves, somebody else is doing it, so its their business.
And thats wrong. Whether you do violence or whether you make somebody
else do it for you, it doesnt absolve anything.
In that regard, on a less radical level,
do you feel that a vegetarian diet has a role to play in the pursuit
It is the ultimate level of nonviolence, but to believe that vegetarianism
automatically makes a person not violent is wrong, becauseas I
saidnonviolence is much more than not using physical violence.
I feel that vegetarianism is the ultimate level of nonviolence that
we can attain. We have to be able to attain all the other levels of
nonviolencegetting rid of all the passive violence that we
have within ourselves, building good relationships and behaving well
other people, treating them with respect and all of those other things.
We have to address all those first before we address the diet.
Are you vegetarian?
So you havent reached that
level of nonviolence yet?
No, not yet. But on the other hand, I am not altogether nonvegetarian,
in the sense that I dont eat meat all the time or every day. But
its also partly to prove the point that I was just making, because
people commonly believe that once you are vegetarian, you are nonviolentthats
the end of it and theres nothing else you need to doand
I want to change that perception.
But you admit that eating animals causes
Oh yeah, sure. It is violence and it is suffering, theres no
doubt about that.
Many Satya readers feel that being
vegetarian is simply one way that people can be on the path of nonviolence,
even if they havent fully addressed some of the other forms
of violence. So on an individual level, what do you encourage people
do to nudge their lives toward a path of ahimsa?
I try to teach them what I just talked about. I tell them they have
to look at all the different levels of violence that we practice
and unconsciously too. If they want to be vegetarians, thats fine,
but to believe that just because you have become a vegetarian you are
automatically nonviolent and theres nothing else you need to
do, that you are better than the next man who eats non-vegetarian
that is wrong. We have to be more conscious.
How do economics and finances factor
into your vision of a peaceful world?
We mostly use economics and finances to exploit people today. Theyve
made us more selfish and self-centered, and each one of us wants to
grab the biggest piece of pie that we possibly can. That causes imbalances
in the world and much of the fighting that we see and experience today.
Even this whole episode with Afghanistan, if you trace it back to its
origins, it is because of our oil politics; its not something
that has crept up overnight. Its that kind of exploitative policyindividually
and collectively as nationsthat aggravates the situation.
How can Americans learn this?
All of us need to have an open mind and search and look for things,
and not just become herds of sheep that are going to be drawn by
in whichever direction they want us to go. We have to be more conscious
of whats going on. Unfortunately, our tendency is that as long
as it doesnt affect us directly we dont want to get involved,
we want to mind our own business and not be bothered about other
Democracy does not mean the right to go and vote every four years.
Democracy means that we need to be alert, active and responsive and
see what is
going on in our country and in our name; whether the country is being
taken care of properly or not, whether the policies pursued are honorable
or not. We need to let our politicians know that we dont like
what they are doing. Instead, once we have gone to cast our vote, we
go to sleep for the next four years and leave the politicians to do
whatever they want. And thats where the trouble starts.
Have parents asked you for advice on
how to talk with their children about the events of the past few months?
Yes, many have asked me about that. We need to tell the children
that violence is not right, that it is happening because of certain
decisions that we have made, and the wise thing to do would be to
change those decisions so that we dont lead to more violence.
But it is something that the parents, more than the children, need
What is the question that you wish
people would ask you but dont? Is there something in the big picture
that were just not getting?
Since the days we were living in caves, we have changed really substantially
in all respects except one, and that is our handling of conflict.
those days we used to pick up the club and bat each others heads.
Today we pick up guns and shoot each other, and thats the only
difference. So why havent we changed? Its not because we
cantwe have demonstrated that since we have changed in every
other respect. So why cant we change this one thing? The answer
is because we dont want to. Because we find that controlling
each other through fear is so convenient and quick, rather than through
Controlling through love requires more commitment than controlling
To learn more about the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and
to read articles by Arun Gandhi, visit www.gandhiinstitute.org
or call (901) 452-2824.