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Icon to the world, grandfather to Arun

Arun Gandhi carries the Mahatmas message of nonviolence to Pacific


by: COURTESY PHOTO - There is no yardstick to measure how many people are being influenced by my talk, says Arun Gandhi. My grandfather said, You are a peace farmer. You can go out in the land and plant seeds.In the hands of Mahatma Gandhi, a worn-down pencil stub could lead to a life-changing lesson — as it did for his grandson, Arun Gandhi, who will give a free lecture at Pacific University Thursday night on “Lessons From My Grandfather: Non-violence in a Violent World.”

Arun, now 79, lives in Rochester, New York, when he’s not traveling around the world explaining the surprisingly complicated concept of nonviolence. He is president of the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute and writes a blog for the Washington Post.

But when Arun was 12, his parents sent him to India to live with his grandfather, Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose spiritual leadership had routed the British empire through a shockingly nonviolent but effective political movement.

Nicknamed “Mahatma” (great soul) by a grateful nation back then, Gandhi is now known worldwide by that single last name.

But Gandhi is the last name for many other people, including Arun Gandhi.

In 1945, at the age of 11, Arun was living in South Africa and suffering prejudice much like his grandfather did years earlier as a young, London-trained lawyer. Their light-brown, Indian skin didn’t fit in either of the country’s two dominant racial groups.

“I was beaten up by whites and beaten up by blacks and I was full of rage and anger,” Arun told the News-Times Friday.

That searing sense of injustice was the first and most important lesson he learned on his path to understanding nonviolence, Arun said.

In India, Arun quickly learned another lesson from his grandfather.

"Anger is like electricity. It’s just as useful and just as powerful but only if we use it intelligently and constructively," he said. "It can be just as deadly if we abuse it.”

That was the core of his grandfather’s philosophy, Arun said. “If we look today in our personal lives as well as our national lives, much of the violence is generated by anger. We must learn not to deny our anger or suppress it, but learn the usefulness of anger and how to channel it constructively.”

It’s a philosophy Martin Luther King Jr. absorbed and spread years later, leading to the success of the civil rights movement in America.

One hour a day

Arun arrived at his grandfather’s home in 1946, two years before Gandhi’s assassination. “In spite of his busy schedule, he decided to devote one hour to me every day, to help me with my lessons and my homework,” Arun said. Or sometimes, “he just talked to me and told me stories. That one hour was a very precious hour.”

It could also be a challenging hour.

“One day I was coming back from school and I threw away a little pencil,” Arun said. The pencil was almost used up, only about three inches long, and awkward to hold. “I thought, ‘Why should I work with this small pencil?’”

But when Arun asked his grandfather for a better pencil that evening, he was met with a steady stream of uncomfortable questions. “He finally made me go out and find the pencil.”

When Arun returned, his grandfather was waiting with a lesson: “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, that is violence against nature. How many things we waste and destroy because we have so much of it. Food, for instance. We are a disposable society,” he told his grandson.

“When we overconsume the resources of the world and deprive other people of those resources and they have to live in poverty, then that is violence against humanity.”

Violence is not simply beatings and rapes and fighting wars, the Mahatma said.

Violence tree

“To help me understand this lesson properly, he made me draw a genealogical tree for violence,” Arun said. “Violence the grandparent, with physical violence and passive violence the two branches. Every day before I went to bed I had to examine and analyze everything I experienced or observed and put it in the appropriate place.”

Arun used a test question to spot passive violence: If someone were to do this to me, would I be hurt by it or helped by it?

Soon his tree filled a whole wall. “The physical violence didn’t grow very much, but the passive violence just kept growing and growing,” he said. “Things like discrimination, looking down on people, teasing — the hundreds and hundreds of things we do.

“We commit passive violence all the time, directly and indirectly. Every day. Consciously and unconsciously. That generates anger in the victim and then the victim uses physical violence to get justice. So it is passive violence that fuels physical violence. We have to cut off the fuel supply.”

It’s a difficult task, Arun said, given that violence has seeped so deeply into every part of our culture — from parenting to sports to speech. And it starts with recognizing that “we are not perfect and need to work on ourselves,” he said.

“There’s not one person I come across who doesn’t have prejudices,” he said. Arun himself still struggles with prejudice related to cleanliness or against people who want to dress or behave in strange or shocking ways. “I still have a little work to do with that,” he said.

{img:9814}Arun Gandhi commented on a variety of other topics during his interview with the News-Times.

On the stupid way to follow powerful teachings:

When visiting his grandfather at an ashram in India, a young Arun Gandhi and his family found the whole ashram community eating nothing but boiled pumpkin. “No salt, no pepper, just plain boiled pumpkin with dried bread,” Arun said.

He remembers his grandfather asking the kitchen manager to explain. “You told us we should eat simple food grown on the farm," the manager said. "And we made the mistake of planting only pumpkins.” Gandhi told the manager to go out and barter the pumpkins for other food.

That’s an example of how teachings can go wrong when people follow them too dogmatically and lose the original spirit, Arun said. “I think that is the greatest tragedy. People following him dogmatically instead of intelligently.”

During the fight for independence, when Gandhi spun cotton for his own cloth as a way to protest British control over India, “it was meant for that purpose at that time,” Arun said. “But now his followers insist that all the problems of India today will be solved if we go back to spinning the wheel. And I think that is stupid. It’s that kind of dogmatism that in some sense has made a mockery of his philosophy.”

On the prejudice he still sometimes experiences:

In the Dallas airport a while back, Arun went to catch his flight to Memphis and found the gate area empty. Seeing a flight attendant at the next gate, “I went to her and asked her very politely, ‘Do you know if the Memphis flight has departed?’ She looked up at me and pointed to the gate and said, ‘That is the Memphis gate. Go stand there.’ A few minutes later, two white men went up and asked her the same thing and she punched the keys and told them the flight was a little late. I went up to her and said, ‘I asked you the same question and you didn’t give me an answer. Why not?’ She just turned and walked away.”

All the way back to Memphis, Arun wondered if he should file a complaint against the woman, whose nametag he’d seen. He finally decided that would just make the woman angry and she wouldn’t learn anything from it. So he wrote a letter to Northwest Airlines and described what had happened. Instead of naming the airline attendant, he wrote, he wanted the airline to provide cultural training to its employees.

Arun doesn’t know if the airline followed up on the cultural training, but “I got a letter of apology and I got a free ticket.”

On his grandfather’s sense of humor:

“He used to play tricks on people all the time. Whenever we went out for walks, (if there were people on both sides of him), he would put his arms across the people’s shoulders, and suddenly he would pick up his feet and hang on their shoulders and if you were not alert, you would crumble.”

On the 1982 movie, “Gandhi,” which won eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.

When Director Richard Attenborough and his movie crew came to India to work on the film, the Indian government pledged to contribute $25 million, remembers Arun, who was a journalist at the time. “I was shocked by it because at that time India was very poor. I wrote an article criticizing the government for spending precious foreign exchange.” Arun said Attenborough pegged him as a troublemaker and tried to keep him away from the film crew.

But when the rough, unedited version of the movie was ready, Attenborough had Arun come and screen it before anyone else. “I saw the version that was about five hours long,” Arun remembers. “I was so moved by the movie that I went home and wrote another article and said ‘I take back my words. This movie is going to bring Gandhi to the world more than all the books ever written.’”

Historically, Arun said, the movie manipulates the facts, omitting or condensing certain events for storytelling purposes, as screenwriters often do. But “as far as his philosophy and his personality were concerned, they captured it very well.”

On his grandfather’s popularity in his home country:

“In the government of India, they abandoned him and his philosophy even before independence. They told my grandfather ‘This is as far as we’re going to go for you.’ Now they pay homage to him on the anniversary of his death, but other than that have no interest in him or his work. But the grassroots people, the younger generation, they still have interest in him and do wonderful work. I take people on a Gandhi Legacy Tour and we go see all these grassroots changes in India.”

At the common man’s level he’s still alive and kicking."



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