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December 2001/January 2002
A Legacy of Nonviolence

The Satya Interview with Arun Gandhi


Arun Gandhi is the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the spiritual leader and peace activist whose dedication to nonviolence has inspired generations. Arun’s father, Manilal, spent over 14 years in South African prisons for his nonviolent efforts to change the apartheid system. Arun Gandhi has continued the family’s 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 grandfather’s birth, Gandhi edited World Without Violence: Can Gandhi’s Dream Become Reality? (New Age International Publishers, 1994), a collection of essays and 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 the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence to promote the principles of nonviolence. Recently, Arun Gandhi shared with Catherine Clyne his thoughts 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 there’s still hope for people to change, and if we change we will be able to change the world 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 them?
I can see their point. The unfortunate thing is that although most of the peace activists are working for world peace, individually, none 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, and if we work from the grassroots level and begin to change, the world will eventually change. If we want to make drastic changes overnight—and that kind of thing doesn’t happen—that leads to frustration, and when we see the kind of violence of September 11, we question whether it’s 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 isn’t 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 don’t go on facing this kind of tragedy all the time. We’ve got to work to put our house in order and see that we don’t 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 selfish 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 world—not just at what is good for the U.S. So we have to have our country change 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 what’s going on, do you envision a peaceful resolution to this conflict between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the Taliban, terrorists and/or bin Laden?
Well certainly I don’t envision it immediately because nobody’s going to accept it. The media doesn’t even want to print anything about nonviolence. Everybody—the government and the people—is so angry, they just want to use violence and destroy, so I don’t think they’re going to seek a peaceful solution. But it shouldn’t detract us from the overall problem.

What do you think peace activists could be focusing on that they’re 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 other ways—in our society, in our families and in our neighborhoods—and that’s 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 friends—not enemies—and 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 are not going to have any impact because they can get frustrated and use violence—it 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 away—even 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, we’ve 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 we’ve had our share of violence.

I’m sorry to hear that, that’s a lot to handle. So, with that load, what advice would you give to grieving Americans, who naturally want to strike back at those who’ve hurt them so terribly?

We’ve 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 we’ll only make the whole world blind, as my grandfather would say. Justice should mean reformation; we should 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 can’t 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 doesn’t happen again, that would be much more meaningful.

So, when you’re 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 forgiveness, they’d throw me out of the room because they were so angry. Well I said that I can’t 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 I’ve 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 didn’t even dream that. I thought it was going to go on endlessly and that many people would come and go before changes would take place. But we were all very pleasantly surprised. These are the things that bring hope and make it all worthwhile.

Today, many people feel it’s just as inconceivable that people in our society can change the perception that violence is the only way to resolve problems. What gives you hope 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 seeds, and waits and hopes that those seeds will germinate into a good crop. In the same way, we go out and do our thing—speak and teach people—and 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 that’s 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 immediately and some people take more time.

How would you describe the concept or lifestyle of ahimsa?
I think ahimsa is love. I don’t agree with the translation of ahimsa as nonviolence. The difference between the two is that when we translate ahimsa as nonviolence, we become absolute and say that it has to be absolute nonviolence. But life is not about absolutes. We cannot have an absolutely nonviolent society or an absolutely nonviolent lifestyle. We have to be realistic; all that we can do is reduce the level of violence 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 with a broomstick, sweeping the road and covering their mouths so they won’t step on or inhale insects and that kind of thing. Even that doesn’t really make you absolutely nonviolent because you’re still killing tiny insects and things underfoot that you don’t 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 it’s 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 stray dogs. The city council wanted to catch these dogs and put them to sleep to save the community from rabies. But the Jains objected. They said that it was violent and they wouldn’t allow it. Grandfather said that it was more violent to keep them alive and make them suffer—as well as making the community suffer—than to put those dogs out of their misery.

Absolutism, where you take it to ridiculous ends, doesn’t 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 it’s their business.’ And that’s wrong. Whether you do violence or whether you make somebody else do it for you, it doesn’t 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 of ahimsa?
It is the ultimate level of nonviolence, but to believe that vegetarianism automatically makes a person not violent is wrong, because—as I said—nonviolence 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 nonviolence—getting rid of all the passive violence that we have within ourselves, building good relationships and behaving well with 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 haven’t reached that level of nonviolence yet?
No, not yet. But on the other hand, I am not altogether nonvegetarian, in the sense that I don’t eat meat all the time or every day. But it’s also partly to prove the point that I was just making, because people commonly believe that once you are vegetarian, you are nonviolent—that’s the end of it and there’s nothing else you need to do—and I want to change that perception.

But you admit that eating animals causes suffering.
Oh yeah, sure. It is violence and it is suffering, there’s 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 haven’t fully addressed some of the other forms of violence. So on an individual level, what do you encourage people to 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 consciously and unconsciously too. If they want to be vegetarians, that’s fine, but to believe that just because you have become a vegetarian you are automatically nonviolent and there’s nothing else you need to do, that you are better than the next man who eats non-vegetarian food, 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. They’ve 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; it’s not something that has crept up overnight. It’s that kind of exploitative policy—individually and collectively as nations—that 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 politicians in whichever direction they want us to go. We have to be more conscious of what’s going on. Unfortunately, our tendency is that as long as it doesn’t affect us directly we don’t want to get involved, we want to mind our own business and not be bothered about other things.

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 don’t 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 that’s 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 wrong decisions that we have made, and the wise thing to do would be to change those decisions so that we don’t lead to more violence. But it is something that the parents, more than the children, need to believe.

What is the question that you wish people would ask you but don’t? Is there something in the big picture that we’re 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. In those days we used to pick up the club and bat each other’s heads. Today we pick up guns and shoot each other, and that’s the only difference. So why haven’t we changed? It’s not because we can’t—we have demonstrated that since we have changed in every other respect. So why can’t we change this one thing? The answer is because we don’t want to. Because we find that controlling each other through fear is so convenient and quick, rather than through love. Controlling through love requires more commitment than controlling through fear.

To learn more about the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and to read articles by Arun Gandhi, visit or call (901) 452-2824.


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