with Arun Gandhi
Associate and Board member
Comments directly to
January 31, 2007
Arun Gandhi is Director
of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence, University of Rochester,
New York, USA. I interviewed him in Mumbai, India in January 2007.
The grandson of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, Arun Gandhi
was born in1934 in Durban, South Africa, where he experienced the
challenges of life under the Apartheid system.
From 1946 until
shortly before the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, Arun lived
in India with his grandfather, during which time he was greatly
influence by both the political events related to India’s
struggle for independence and the Mahatma’s teachings and
embodiment of nonviolence.
In 1956 Arun returned
once again from South Africa to India to work as a journalist for
the Times of India. Then in 1987, along with his wife Sunanda and
their 2 children, Arun Gandhi was invited to the United States by
the University of Mississippi to write a paper on the similarities
between the prejudice in India, the U.S. and South Africa.
Having decided to
stay on in the U.S., in 1991 Arun and Sunanda founded the M.K. Gandhi
Institute for Nonviolence, which works to promote the principles
of nonviolence both locally and globally through conflict prevention,
anger management, diversity training, and relationship- and community-building.
Arun Gandhi is a well known speaker both in the U.S. and internationally
with a commitment to spreading the message of the importance and
the power of nonviolence.
Vicky Rossi: Having just spent a wonderful 2 weeks in India with
you and an enlightened group of internationals on the Gandhi Legacy
Tour (1), I was wondering when you first decided to lead such a trip
and what your primary motivation was.
Arun Gandhi: I have been involved with people from Europe and other
parts of the world for quite some time now and I have always felt that
people need to know each other better. We tend to live in our own isolated
worlds without knowing much about one another. This means we form all
kinds of stereotypes and misunderstandings, which lead to conflicts
in the world. I have always thought that if we can somehow bring people
together and let them get to know each other, then we will be able to
break down the barriers that exist and build bridges instead. For a
long time I have been doing this, especially with Sweden where I have
been working on an adoption programme with Swedish families. As a result,
some Swedish families came to India - they saw the conditions here,
including the orphanage. We took them a little bit around the country
so that they could get to know the culture from where their adopted
child was coming.
When I went to the U.S., I saw a lot of
misunderstanding about India in the minds of the people there. This
kind of confirmed my idea and I felt that I should lead a tour to India
every year in order to expose people to the real India i.e. not just
the cities where it is very westernised, but also to the small towns
and villages. Sometime in 1992, when this idea of leading a tour to
India came into my mind, I couldn’t figure out how to organise
the whole thing because I didn’t have the manpower or the organizing
capacity. Then one day I picked up a paper and I saw a little advert
there about a Global Exchange tour to India. On a whim, I wrote to them
and said that I had an idea for a tour to India and asked if they were
interested in teaming up with me, which they were. We started the first
tour in 1998 and since then it’s been an annual trip. Over the
years the interest has been growing, partly because people who have
been on the tour have been speaking about it and partly because I myself
have been speaking about it when I go on lecture tours.
Vicky Rossi: In the course of the Legacy Tour, either through
discussions we had with you or through the lectures we were given
by representatives of the organizations we visited, four important
Gandhian concepts were repeatedly referred to, namely, Swaraj, Sarvodaya,
Swadeshi and Trusteeship. Could you briefly explain these concepts
and their importance both microcosmically – at the individual
level – and macrocosmically – at the national and/or international
Arun Gandhi: With regard to Swaraj, “swa” means
“self” and “raj” means “rule over”
so Swaraj is “rule over self”. This can be translated also
as “self rule” in the political sense i.e. freedom in the
country or a country that rules itself. However, it also means “self
rule” in the personal sense i.e. learning to rule your own emotions
and attitudes because unless we can rule over our own emotions, needs
and greed, we won’t be able to practise nonviolence. We need to
take control of ourselves. Most people have ignored this aspect of Swaraj,
focusing instead on independence in the political sense.
The Sarvodaya concept is “the
welfare of all”. Gandhi had studied the democracies in the world
and he came to the conclusion that these democracies are not really
fair because 51% of the people can lord it over 49% of the people. Gandhi
believed that that wasn’t right, that it had to be equal for everybody
and not just for the majority so he created the term “Sarvodaya”
i.e. it has to be for the good and welfare of all the people of the
country as far as that is possible. Gandhi believed that those who found
themselves in the 51% should make sacrifices so that the other 49% could
join the group and enjoy a reasonably good lifestyle as well.
As far as the Swadeshi concept is concerned, it arose as a
result of the fact that the British ruled over India for so many years
and before that the Moguls and all those who came and invaded India
and drained the country of all its resources. This is why they came
and conquered India – they wanted the spices and other raw materials
that they took away from here. The British did the worst damage because
they destroyed the handloom industry and impoverished India in the process.
They built the British textile industry on the backs of the Indian people.
Gandhi said that the only way that India could really be free was not
just if there was political freedom but if there was economic freedom
also. Gandhi said that India had to be able to stand on her own feet
and not be dependent on others. The way that India could be independent
economically was to rebuild her village industries, rebuild the capacity
to make things that the Indians needed.
Swadeshi fits in with the principle of
Sarvodaya. Gandhi saw that a large portion of the Indian people were
uneducated and could not fit into a technological world, so he wanted
to build a production capacity in which even the uneducated could participate
as is the case with the spinning wheel. India produced a lot of cotton
of its own, but all that cotton used to be taken away to England, produced
into clothe and then sold back to India. Gandhi said, “We produce
cotton, we can make our own clothe. Why send it to Britain?” so
he introduced the spinning wheel and deliberately made it so simple
that even a child, who had come back from school, could sit at home
and spin for an hour a day, contributing to the making of clothe for
the family. That’s how the Swadeshi movement came about. We must
not only produce our own goods, but also be proud of our production
and everybody must insist on buying things that are made locally.
Then there’s the concept of Trusteeship
– trusteeship means that those who are fortunate, who have education,
who come from a good family, etc., should not consider themselves to
be the owner of the power or strength that they have. If you have acquired
knowledge through your schooling, you should not feel that you are the
owner of that knowledge or that you are going to exploit that knowledge
for your own personal gains. You should be willing to share that knowledge
and that capacity to help others who are less fortunate than you, to
help them to raise their standard of living. That is what Trusteeship
is all about. In a way we do a bit of this sharing when we give to charity,
but Gandhi considered that kind of sharing to be very negative in most
cases because instead of helping the recipient of that charity to regain
their self-respect and self-confidence, we make them dependent on that
charity i.e. as long as that charity is flowing the recipients are OK
and they can live, but the moment that charity is cut off they are back
again where they started from. That is not constructive. Constructive
charity is when we help a person rebuild their self-respect and self-confidence
so that they can stand on their own feet and are not dependent on the
giver or on society.
Gandhi and Vicky Rossi at Mani
Bhavan in Mumbai 2007
Vicky Rossi: For you personally, what was the most important “legacy”
your grandfather left you? What made the deepest impression on you?
In which ways are you trying to impart that experience/knowledge either
individually or through the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence?
Arun Gandhi: I think the deepest influence he had on me was his
tremendous love for people and his compassion. He gave freely to everybody.
That was something that really struck me very deeply. I don’t
think that I am at his level of love, compassion and giving, but I am
trying to do my best.
When I was here in India I was more of
an activist - I was trying to put into practice everything I had learnt
from grandfather. When I first went to the U.S., I didn’t go there
to start an institute or anything like that, I just wanted to go there
to write a book and come back [to India] again, but one thing led to
another and I decided to establish the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence.
By then I realized that I was getting older, that I was in a new land
with a new people and a new culture. The people didn’t really
have any idea about nonviolence, so I didn’t want to get into
activism as they seemed to be totally unaware of the philosophy needed
to support active work there. I realized that I had to first teach the
people what nonviolence is, so my wife Sunanda and I made this a teaching
Institute. We originally thought that we would offer Nonviolence as
a credit course through a university, but I wasn’t allowed to
teach at university because I don’t have a doctorate. We decided
to teach informally through workshops, seminars, lectures, etc. That’s
what we’ve been doing since 1991.
Vicky Rossi: I am sure you have heard people saying to you many
times, “I am not Gandhi, so what can I do?” What would
you say to such people to enable them to understand that they have
the power to make a difference in the world?
Arun Gandhi: I think we all do have the power to make a difference.
Nobody is Jesus and yet so many millions of people follow Jesus and
worship Jesus. I think we need to take it a step further by not simply
worshipping Jesus but instead putting Jesus’ words into action.
If we really lived the way he wanted us to live, that would be much
more meaningful. That’s what I want people to understand also
about Gandhi, that he showed us a way – in a Christian world one
can say that Gandhi showed us a way to live as Jesus would have wanted
us to. We should not reject him and we should not worship him, but we
should learn from his life and try to imbibe the lessons that he tried
to teach us.
Vicky Rossi: Would I be too simplistic if I were to say that in
order to have right human-human and human-Earth relations, all we
need to do is to live the 3 Gandhian principles of simple living,
high thinking and hard work?
Arun Gandhi: I think that that would be a very good first step, but
along with that we need to be able to relate to people. We need to be
able to have compassion for people who are less fortunate than us. We
need to conduct our lives in a way that can help people attain a better
standard of living. This means being more active in that field –
just living simply and minding our own business is not right because
we are all interconnected. That’s something we are losing sight
of – the interconnectedness of human beings. We think we can just
live our own lives and forget about everybody else. We talk a lot about
building a community, but we make no efforts to do that. We think that
simply because we live in a neighbourhood that that constitutes a community,
but that’s not really a community because everybody in it is pulling
in different directions. They are only concerned about themselves, about
what they can get, what they can enjoy. That’s not a community.
A community is where everybody is thinking about everybody else and
is willing to share. The pain of one person becomes the pain of the
whole community; or the joy of one person becomes the joy of the whole
community. It’s that kind of relationship that is very important.
Vicky Rossi: Gandhi himself chose to live in a community, founding
2 ashrams in India: one in Ahmedabad – the Sabarmati Ashram,
which we visited on the Legacy Tour; and the other one near Wardha,
Maharashtra – the Sevagram Ashram. Why did he think it was important
to live in a community setting? Do you think that community life is
an ideal that more of us, who are working to embody and promote the
principles of nonviolence, should be aspiring to?
Arun Gandhi: The reason why Gandhi created the ashram communities was
because he was trying to educate the people – train them –
as community workers. These ashrams were basically kind of schools.
He invited people of all different religions, different castes and different
backgrounds to come and live as one big family. The kitchen was common,
where the food was cooked for the whole group of people. The work had
to be done by the whole group and everything was shared. There was no
such thing as, “This is women’s work and this is men’s
work.” Everybody did what needed to be done. That’s how
Gandhi was trying to create that kind of awareness among the activists,
who would then go out into the society and share their knowledge with
other people on how to create a community in the place where you are
It is not necessary for all of us to go
and join an ashram, but it is necessary for all of us to create a community
around us. People have come to live in neighbourhoods because that is
convenient – it’s a good neighbourhood so you go and live
there – but then that neighbourhood should become a community.
This can be done only when people make the effort to reach out to one
another, to build communication between each other as well as compassion
for one another.
Vicky Rossi: Gandhi emphasized the importance of the village as
a self-sufficient unit - in fact, on the Legacy Tour we visited numerous
initiatives aimed at empowering villagers, in particular the women,
in rural India. Why was the village such an important concept for
Gandhi? Is the idea of an empowered village community equally important
for less “impoverished” – for want of a better word
- countries like the U.S. and Europe?
Arun Gandhi: I think in terms of Gandhi’s philosophy that the
village is as relevant for the United States as it is for India. Gandhi
came to the conclusion that when we create these big cities we are breaking
down communities. In a village where small groups of people live, everybody
knows each other and they have a relationship between each other. This
is a real community. But when you start expanding, when a million people
come and live in a town or city, then people begin to care less about
each other. People seem to become greedier, just wanting to get the
most out of the resources that are available. These mega cities totally
break down communities; they break down relationships and humanity itself.
We become less human by living in big cities because we are always trying
to grab from each other to get what we “need”. If there’s
no water in my house I will go out and do anything to get it and I don’t
care who I might be depriving of water in the meantime. We may create
affluence in the big cities – big houses, all the luxuries - but
we destroy humanity. This is a very heavy price. For this reason Gandhi
was against the big conglomeration of people and said we should go back
to our small units like the village, where we can have communities and
regain our humanity.
Vicky Rossi: Gandhi has become something of an icon worldwide
and yet the concept of nonviolence appears to remain little understood.
How is it possible that a person can become so loved and respected
and yet his message can remain so unheard?
Arun Gandhi: Well, Gandhi is not unique in this respect; Buddha and
Jesus, for example, had a similar message. What we tend to do very conveniently
because we don’t want to follow what they say is we put them on
a pedestal and we worship them. We say that they were special people
and for that reason they could do all these things, but that we are
just ordinary people. This means we don’t even try to do what
they asked of us. That’s a kind of cop out that we choose to adopt
because we don’t want to make the sacrifices that they enjoined
us to make. Eventually that’s what’s going to happen with
Gandhi – like Jesus and others – they’ll put him on
a pedestal and start worshiping him. That will be the end of his legacy.
Vicky Rossi: Presently, as a world community we tend to respond
to conflict through violence - we have created a culture of violence.
Do you see any encouraging signs that in the 21st century this will
change and that nonviolence will become more understood and more mainstream
than it is now?
Arun Gandhi: I have a hope that it will, yes. The responsibility lies
with all of us who have an understanding of nonviolence to spread this
knowledge to as many people as possible so that they can eventually
grasp the concept. Unfortunately, to date, most people have not bothered
to really understand nonviolence. They have only looked at it from the
peripheral perspective so they reject nonviolence because they think
it is weak. They see it only as the opposite of violence. They think
the only solution in the world is violence – kill the person and
then that’s it.
What we continue to do over and over again, without learning from history,
is we kill the person but we don’t resolve the problem. We then
suffer the consequences. I use World War II as an example: when Hitler
spouted all that hate and prejudice, we went and killed him, but he
nevertheless left a legacy of hate and prejudice to the world. Now that
legacy is spreading all over the Earth. What did we really achieve by
killing 60 million people in the War and not resolving the problem?
I mean we sacrificed 60 million people in the Second World War not to
mention the economic distress that so many people had to go through
for so many years. The problem of hate and prejudice still remains,
so what was the whole thing for? If you analyse all these violent conflicts,
that’s what happens, we kill the people, we think that we have
resolved the issue but it’s only a temporary solution –
we have simply eliminated one person, but we have left the problem to
fester and so the problem grows and ultimately takes over.
Vicky Rossi: In what way then does nonviolence have the power
to transform the problem itself to ensure that there is a permanent
Arun Gandhi: What nonviolence does is that we don’t oppose the
person who is practising what we consider to be wrong, but we try to
transform and educate that person and make that person realise that
what he or she is doing is bad, that we both need to get together to
find out how we can stop that bad thing from spreading. We befriend
that person and work together to end the evil.
Vicky Rossi: In order to do this then, a main component of nonviolence
must be a deep compassion for the other person?
Arun Gandhi: Yes, the main components of nonviolence are love, compassion,
understanding and respect. When we ask ourselves whether nonviolence
is relevant today or not, we are basically asking ourselves whether
love, compassion and respect are relevant or not. If we can truly say
that love, compassion, understanding and respect are not relevant, then
God help humanity, then we are all like savages living for ourselves.
That’s not a human race. That’s not civilisation. Civilisation
has to be based on love, understanding and compassion and that’s
what nonviolence is.
Vicky Rossi: What, in your opinion, is the unique contribution
India could make to the world community in the 21st century?
Arun Gandhi: I think India is unique in the sense that it has a tremendous
legacy. It’s the birth place of the Buddha, the birth place of
Mahavir - who was the initiator of Jainism – and it’s the
birthplace of Gandhi. All of these people talked about nonviolence.
Now the first two have become religions. Gandhi is still not a religion,
but it may become a religion. But that’s not what Mahavir and
Buddha wanted. They didn’t want a religion to be created in their
name. They wanted people to experience what they had experienced, to
get the enlightenment that they have received. They wanted us to be
the Light for ourselves, but we don’t do that. Instead we put
people on a pedestal and worship them.
India has this tremendous legacy that we
ought to be able to share with the world. Gandhi’s vision of India
was that India would practise a legacy of materialism and morality,
showing the world that we can live with both materialism and morality
and thereby live a happier life. But India has chosen not to do that.
India has chosen to ignore its own legacy and follow the Western model
of materialism. We have sadly joined the band wagon and given up on
a tremendous legacy that we have.
transcript represents an accurate but non-verbatim representation of
the original interview.
I would like to thank those who made my trip to India possible through
their moral and financial support.
For further information, please
160 Wintergreen Way
Rochester, NY 14618
Exchange, Gandhi Legacy Tour
Gandhi Samadhi Memorial
non-violence message to Mid-East,
BBC News online, 25 August 2004
Satyagraha 100 Years Later: Gandhi Launches Modern Non-Violent Resistance
Movement on Sept. 11, 1906,
Democracy Now, 8 September 2006
Nonviolence Forum - Peace by Peaceful Means
Links to nonviolence
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