True Believer

Nina L. Diamond is a Miami-based journalist and the author of "Voices of Truth: Conversations With Scientists, Thinkers and Healers."

In an era of Columbine, Lara Croft and a Madonna video too violent to be aired on MTV, the study of nonviolence sounds almost quaint. But one man in Memphis, Tenn., has carried the torch for Mahatma Gandhi for the last 10 years, promoting his teachings on human rights to high school students, international assemblies, the National Security Agency--anyone willing to listen.

He is the founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and his affinity for one of the 20th century's most revered men comes naturally: Arun Gandhi is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

At 12, Arun was sent from South Africa to live with his grandfather for 18 months--during the critical time that led up to India's independence in 1947 and its immediate aftermath. In 1957, Arun returned to India, where he worked as a journalist and a keeper of the Gandhi flame. Three decades later, he moved to the United States, thanks to a research grant from the University of Mississippi, to study the parallels among Indian caste systems, South African apartheid and U.S. race problems. Arun, now 67, opened the Gandhi Institute on the grounds of Christian Brothers University in the fall of 1991.

Funded by grants, program fees and private donations, the institute sponsors seminars, workshops, lectures, conferences and special programs worldwide, focusing on areas of nonviolence such as conflict prevention, anger management and relationship and community building.


When you look back at the Gandhi Institute's first 10 years, which programs have had the most impact?

[People] have been interested in learning more about nonviolence. They have a very limited understanding of the philosophy. [They] think nonviolence is a political strategy to be used in big political conflicts, but we've been able to show them that it's much more than that; it's a personal philosophy that empowers the individual.

To take a nonviolent approach in everyday life? That it's not just about refraining from physical violence, but also psychological and emotional violence?

All of that. And also by learning to think nonviolently, we reduce the level of violence in our personal lives, too.

Did your grandfather have any tips about what people should do when they feel angry?

One of the things he asked me to do was every time I felt a surge of anger, if I could walk away from the situation and take time out, and go and write. He asked me to write an anger diary, to pour out my feelings and all the anger into the diary. And then, in a moment of calm and peace, go back and read what I'd written and see how I could have used that energy in a more positive manner.

He also taught me there may be some occasions when you can't walk away. Then you have to face it at that moment. But in those circumstances, don't react in anger. Count to 10 or say under your breath, "Calm down, calm down." Just repeat it like a mantra until you feel in control of your senses. And then do whatever is necessary.

He said that we are not governed by logic, so we can't eliminate all violence. There may be violence necessary in our lives, but as we become more and more civilized, we should be able to reduce the level of violence as much as possible.

Tell me a story about your grandfather, one in particular that you think people need to hear in these times.

Well, I think the one thing everyone needs to remember or learn regarding his philosophy is that nonviolence is not as narrow as the term sounds. People seem to look at nonviolence as, "As long as there is no war, there is peace," or "As long as we aren't going around beating up people, we are not violent." Grandfather made me aware of this at a young age through little pencils.

When I was coming back from school one day, I had this little pencil in my hand, about three inches long. I thought to myself that I deserve a better pencil, that this is too small for anybody to use, and so I threw it away. And that evening when I asked him for a new pencil, he subjected me to a lot of questions.

He wanted to know how the pencil became small, and where I threw it away, and why did I throw it away. And then he finally told me to go and look for it. And I thought he was crazy. I asked him, "How do you expect me to look for this pencil in the dark?" And he said, "Well, here's a flashlight. Take this and go out and look for it." And I went and looked for it, and spent about two or three hours.

When I finally found it and brought it to him, he said, "Now I want you to sit here and learn two very important lessons. The first is that even in the making of a simple thing like a pencil, we use a lot of the world's natural resources, and when we throw them away, we are throwing away the world's natural resources, and that is violence against nature. The second lesson is that because in an affluent society we can afford to buy all these things in bulk, we over-consume the resources of the world, and because we over-consume them, we are depriving people elsewhere of these resources and they have to live in poverty, and that is violence against humanity."

That was the first time I realized that all these little things that we do every day, that every time we throw away something useful, we are committing an act of violence. So, you see the breadth of the philosophy of nonviolence. It's almost unlimited.

He was applying it to resources, to the environment, to personal consumption.

To everything.

During the last 10 years, we have seen an increase in the level of violence in schools. What do you think is the solution?

It's a reflection of society in general. Violence has increased and young children see that. But more than that, it is the breakdown of family structure. The people who are hurt the most are children. They get so frustrated because they're not able to look to their parents for guidance, and who else are they going to turn to? In that kind of frustration, they can resort to violence out of anger.

Have you been speaking more at schools since these shootings began? Have the requests increased?

Yes, we have been speaking a lot with children, and we've also had several conferences where young people have been leading the discussions, and a lot of good things have come out of it. It's a long road and I think it's what we need to focus on. We need to make the adults see that they shoulder some of the responsibility for this also.

Do you get frustrated looking at what happens all around the world, at the violence that continues?

I've never had the ambition of changing the whole world. . . . I take a lot of lessons from grandfather's life and from other great people who were revered and honored and did what they thought was right without thinking of the results of it--they just went ahead and did it.

As long as we pursue this materialistic kind of lifestyle where we make money, and possessions [are] the only ambition in life, we are going to go downhill and eventually destroy ourselves. But if we realize there's more to life than just making money and amassing possessions, things will change.

People talk about how we shouldn't forget history, or we'll be doomed to repeat it. Well, we repeat it even when we remember it.

The main problem is our nationalism, and this whole concept that countries must be nationalistic and think only about themselves and their particular nations.

We need to cultivate a world view and realize that what is happening in Africa or in Asia is eventually going to catch up with us and affect us, and that we cannot live in an isolated cocoon for very long. When we begin to understand and appreciate that, we'll find ways of helping the rest of the world.

The United States has now reached the point where in many ways it no longer has the luxury of just thinking about what's good for the U.S., and now has to begin to think about what's good for the whole world, and do what is good for the world.

It's hard to get an entire country to help.

The government will not do it as long as the people don't pressure them to do it.

[But] if the people become more vocal and they make the politicians realize that they don't like what is happening, then the politicians would have to wake up and think about the situation. If we think that democracy only means exercising our franchise once every four years, and then going to sleep, then the politicians are going to have the power to do whatever they want.

Even if people get the idea that life should be more balanced and not fueled solely by material ideas, will leaders ever think that way?

I read a bumper sticker somewhere: "When the people will lead, the leaders will follow." People need to realize that they need to take the initiative.

[It's] like what happened in the Soviet Union. For so many decades we were told that it was the Evil Empire and that the only thing that can destroy it was a nuclear weapon, so we devised all these weapons. Ultimately, none of them was used. What destroyed the Soviet Union was the people power. And it happened in many other places, also.

Don't you think the fall of communism in the last decade was more about economics? That the leaders allowed the people to change the system because they realized that communism was not economically viable?

It certainly was a combination of various factors, but you cannot rule out the people power.

The idea of people rising up in the streets in nonviolent protest helped the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s, and propelled it toward its success. But it did not happen without leaders who inspired, planned and coordinated everything. There are no leaders like that anymore, just grass-roots organizations, and the media barely cover them.

Remember that when Grandfather did his work in South Africa and India, he didn't count on the media to support him. In fact, the media were controlled by the British . . . and they were against him. But he was able to get to the people, and inspire them, and get people to move so that no one could ignore them--not the government, not the media.

A charismatic leader can also come about today, if someone is willing to take that kind of leadership and commitment. [Mostly] you see people who are involved in the environment and other issues and they all have their own agendas. They're not really interested in the [big picture]. They're not working with each other. And that's what the media and the government play on, and it divides them further.

I was invited to Washington a couple of months ago to analyze what went wrong in Seattle [during the December 1999 free-trade protests]. It was a group of organizations that wasn't happy with what happened there [during the protests], but they didn't know what went wrong.

It was so obvious. I said, "Look, when you organize a massive protest like this, you can't have a dozen or two dozen groups working independently doing their own thing. You've got to have one leader, you have to have them all under one banner. Someone has to give the leadership and be able to control the whole thing. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

What went wrong in Seattle was that there were [all these] independent groups. All of them call themselves nonviolent, but all of them had different concepts of nonviolence, and there was no leadership. Everybody was free to do whatever they wanted, so there was chaos. You can't have a movement where everybody comes and does whatever they want.

The next time these people gather together in protest, do you think they'll take your advice?

I hope so.

Have you purposely stayed away from large amounts of media attention?

No, it's not planned that way. I do give interviews when I'm asked to, but I don't seek it. We feel that we need to just do things and not talk so much about it.

Many places that I go to, the local newspapers have long interviews with me. We have more than a half a dozen box files filled with clippings from various newspapers and magazines. But usually the big cities don't care. The media there don't come, don't do interviews, even if we have several programs there.

I was in Salt Lake City the other day, and all the media--television, radio, newspaper--came and interviewed and did stories. But, when we had the Season of Non-Violence function in New York City with 2,500 people at the United Nations, we had sent the information to all the press there, but we got no media attention--no newspaper, no TV. Not one line appeared in any of the papers.

Do you think it's because you don't have a big PR firm working for you, so the media aren't paying attention to your press releases?


What would you like to see the institute do in the next 10 years?

I think I would like it to do more of the same, to expand its work and continue influencing and inspiring people to bring about change. We've been invited on a number of occasions to Italy, Brazil, Japan, Bermuda, Austria, many foreign countries, to conduct workshops and seminars. I do many of them myself, but there are others who are trained and getting trained to do these.

People talk about having a father, mother, or, in your case, a grandfather, who has been a great leader, and the burden on succeeding generations. Sometimes they are looked upon with great hope by people who want these descendants to carry on the work, to be, in your case, "another Gandhi." Have you felt that the world has been looking at your family, waiting for it to produce another Mahatma Gandhi?

I'm reminded of the wonderful advice that my mother gave me. She said that there are two ways of looking at this. If you feel that you're living in his shadow, then it'll be a burden and you'll never get out of it. But if you feel that his light is shining your path, illuminating your path, then it won't be a burden. I think I look at his legacy as a light that's shining my path.

It must be pretty exhausting trying to change the world, even if it is just one person at a time.

If you look at the whole world, and you think about that all the time, then it would be very difficult to keep up the spirits to do it. But when you are focused more on people around you and you are able to see the change that takes place in some people, that encourages you. And I think that while I do have that world vision in the back of my mind, my focus is more on my surroundings and the people around me and what effect I've been able to have on them. And that keeps my spirits up all the time.

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