The grandson of Mahatma Gandhi talks about how the principles of nonviolence apply to the struggle for gay rights–and how all of us are a vital part of the pursuit for truth.
by Alan Davidson
One of the signs of Mahatma Gandhi’s profound influence was how many people have followed in his footsteps, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the Dali Lama. In a very direct hands-on way, Gandhi’s work has been continued by his own grandson, Arun Gandhi, who has opened a center in this country dedicated to teaching Gandhi’s principles.
Another of Gandhi’s followers has been the Rev. Mel White, who has used Gandhi’s teachings about civil disobedience to organize nonviolent protests of the “spiritual violence” against gays preached by the Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and many of this country’s mainstream denominations. To learn more about Gandhi, Rev. White sought out Arun Gandhi’s help, even traveling to India with him. In return, Arun Gandhi has joined Mel White for six of his civil disobediences.
Arun Gandhi was born in the Phoenix Ashram in South Africa, which Mahatma Gandhi founded in 1903 when he was first testing his ideas about nonviolence. Arun’s parents carried on the work of the ashram, and Arun felt the center’s efforts probably contributed to the fall of apartheid.
While a young boy, Arun went to live with his grandfather in India for 18 months, during which time the elder Gandhi set aside time every day to be with the boy, despite his demanding schedule. “He thought it was very important to give proper training and proper guidance to young people,” Arun says. “He just found the time for them. He was so disciplined in everything that he did that he was able to allot an hour for me and he did it.”
In working for gay rights and for that which is human in all of us, we felt we could learn a lot from the man continuing Gandhi’s work. Arun Gandhi was happy to talk to OutSmart, and share some of his vision about the ongoing and everchanging search for truth.
Alan Davidson: The M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis … how did it come to be in Tennessee? That’s a far cry from South Africa and India.
Arun Gandhi: I moved from South Africa to India in 1956. I lived there for 30 years with my wife and family. My wife and I were really involved with the “low-caste, untouchable people.” We did some work with them using Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. It was a very successful program. We were able to change the lives of many thousands of people.
During that work, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to do a comparative study of prejudices. Why do we as human beings have so many prejudices? I had experienced color prejudice in South Africa. Then I saw the caste prejudice in India. I had read about the race prejudice in the United States. So I wanted to do a comparative study of these three prejudices and write a book. I got a fellowship, to come here to Mississippi and study the race question in 1987.
In 1988 my mother suddenly became very ill in South Africa and she subsequently died. I had to go there for her funeral. That was the first time I saw the total destruction of the institute that grandfather had started in 1903, where my parents had worked their whole life to promote the institute and its philosophy. It pained me to see a life’s work gone down the drain. I felt I needed to do something about it. I spoke to a lot of people to start an institute there again and continue, but I didn’t get very much response. People at that time in 1988 in South Africa were not yet ready for change.
So I came back to the U.S. to finish my study and I spoke to a lot of people about this idea. Everybody felt that if I couldn’t do it in South Africa, why not do it here in the United States? And so we started the institute in Memphis. The reason why we chose Memphis was that the Christian Brothers University gave us hospitality on the campus and I
thought it was a very good deal. So I accepted it and, of course, it’s turned out to be appropriate, because Dr. King was assassinated in this city. So it’s the right place to do this work.
You mentioned your parents’ lifetime work in South Africa. I believe a piece of that was with the Phoenix Ashram that your grandfather had started. It was burned and destroyed at some point.
Phoenix was where I was born. It was a living institute. So it was very painful for me to see the whole thing totally destroyed and almost wiped off the face of the earth.
Do you feel the principles that your grandfather began in 1903 and that your parents worked toward contributed to the fall of apartheid?
Yes. I think all of this work that had been done for many years by various people ultimately contributed to the dismantling of apartheid.
Working for Gay & Lesbian Rights
Let’s talk about Reverend Mel White. How did you meet Reverend White?
I first received a letter from him when he was in Dallas. He said he had a small church there for the gay and lesbian community and he wanted to train them in nonviolent techniques. Would I come there and do some workshops? I had the opportunity to go to Dallas for another engagement and he came to my lectures. And we discussed the possibility again. He had to suddenly give up that place and move back to California, and we’ve maintained the friendship. Then I took a group to India to visit Gandhi’s India; Reverend Mel White joined that group and we spent three weeks together on that tour. We became very close friends. He was very interested in Gandhi and his techniques. Our friendship just grew from that.
In terms of what your grandfather started and then Martin Luther King Jr. coming and doing his work in the ’60s with the race prejudice, it seems Mel White is a new incarnation working again–with a different slant on prejudice, but using the very same principles.
Yes. I think he’s done a wonderful job. He has really studied the techniques and is doing a marvelous job of bringing about a change through love and understanding.
And you found yourself demonstrating in Cleveland at the annual United Methodist Church convention and were arrested on behalf of gay and lesbian rights.
Yes, in fact last night I was here in Memphis at a gay and lesbian function. Matthew Shepard’s mother came and spoke to the group.
She seems to be another person who has taken a tragedy in her life and turned it to compassion.
She did. I was just marveling as I was listening to her speak. Grandfather came out of hate. Martin Luther King came out of a hateful atmosphere. Hate has given rise to some very important people and important theories. Not that I am speaking for hate, but you know it’s just a coincidence that another hateful incident has given rise to another wonderful person like Judy Shepard, who has made it her life’s mission to go out and change the world.
The MTV awards were broadcasting live. Eminem is one of the rappers who is known for his antigay, antiwomen, and antirace remarks. Immediately after his performance, MTV ran a promotional spot with Judy Shepard about stopping the hate and stopping the violence. I thought that was a nice way that the broadcasting system could counter-balance that message from the rapper.
Are you involved in other things with Reverend White and gay and lesbian issues?
I did receive an invitation from Mel White asking me to come to Washington, D.C., in November. They are having a big demonstration there. [On November 14, 2004 Mel White’s Soulforce gathered 250 people at the National Shrine in D.C. to protest the exclusion of GLBT Catholics by the Catholic Church; 104 people were arrested.] We need to work together to get rid of all this hate and prejudice. It’s not right to hate people because of the color of their skin or their race or their religion or their habits.
Satyagraha & Ahisma: In Pursuit of Truth and Nonviolence
I would like to discuss some of the primary principles that you work with. One of the first problems of teaching these principles is the difficulty of translating them into English. Satyagraha comes from the Sanskrit, I believe.
It’s a combination of two words, truth and force. And it can be translated to mean various things. [Some translate satyagraha as "soulforce," from which Rev. Mel White got the name of his group, Soulforce.] I usually translate it to mean pursuit of truth. I feel this is closest to what grandfather was practicing when he said we are constantly in search of truth. If we have an open mind and we sincerely pursue that truth, then the likelihood of our finding it would be good.
But the western philosophy comes from the possession of truth. In the west, people feel they have the truth and there’s no pursuit of truth. You know there is a very big difference between the two. When you feel that you possess the truth, then you don’t change or you don’t search for anything, you just hold on to your antiquated ideas in the belief that that is the truth. Whereas, truth, nobody really has the truth, and so we have to search for it. And so I consider grandfather’s philosophy a pursuit of truth.
That’s one of the things that scares me about fundamentalism, whether it is Christian or Islam, or Hinduism, is that possession of the truth. The belief that I have been given the law. And anything outside of that is to be destroyed or disrespected or hated. They don’t look at the scriptures as a text that illuminates the truth.
That’s the tragedy today. Much of the violence and the hate and the prejudices in the world are by people who believe they possess the truth.
There is a quote that Ram Dass is fond of using that comes from your grandfather’s book, “Experiments in Truth.” It’s something like this, ” I am a human being and the truth is ever-changing and evolving, and as a human being I must commit to the truth and not to consistency.” I think it illuminates what you were saying. We as human beings are fallible and the truth is evolving and changing. And that we must commit to that evolutionary process as opposed to appearing to be right or appearing to be consistent.
As I remember it, it was during an interview with some correspondent that he mentioned it. The journalists were perturbed by what they called his inconsistency. He would say one thing today and then a week later he would change. They said, “How do we keep up with you if you are so inconsistent?” And that’s when he made this remark, that the truth is ever-changing. I see new versions of it every day. How can I be wedded to consistency when I am pursuing truth?
One of the things that I respect so much about your grandfather is how he used his life as a laboratory. Even in regards to diet and nutrition, he was tinkering and changing and evolving the effect of food on his spiritual practices and the quality of his life. It takes a lot of courage to experiment in that way all the time.
Let’s talk about ahimsa, which is a real difficult word to translate.
Yes, it is. Most people have translated ahimsa to mean nonviolence, but grandfather translated it to mean love. The reason behind that is, he says when you say nonviolence, then you become sort of dogmatic because there are certain times in life when some violence becomes inevitable. And if you are wedded to nonviolence, then you won’t do anything, you won’t do the right thing.
For instance, the controversy in 1916, when he set up his ashram. At that time the Jains controlled the city. There were many stray dogs and many of them became rabid. They threatened the human population. So the mayor of the city wanted to catch these dogs and put them to sleep because there was no other treatment that they could think of. The Jains felt this was violence and they objected to it. So the mayor came and asked grandfather, What should I do? and grandfather said, Of course you have to catch the dogs and put them to sleep, put them out of their misery. And so this whole thing between the Jains and grandfather went on for several months.
That is when grandfather said there is much violence in nonviolence and nonviolence in violence. If we are wedded to nonviolence, we can’t let the dogs suffer and we can’t let the people be threatened by these dogs. It’s more nonviolent to put them to sleep than to let them live and threaten the world.
That brings to mind a quote from the founder of Aikido, the Japanese martial arts. He says the ultimate goal of war is love. I know people who practice Aikido. They call it the Dance of the Tao, the expression of love in action. How it is really about conflict resolution as opposed to overthrowing or defeating your opponent. It sounds like they are saying the similar thing you described with the dogs.
One of the things I appreciate about ahimsa is that nonviolence, or love, must be in thought, word, and deed … how it has to infuse your whole being and personality.
This is not something that you can put on and off at will, it’s something that has to be a part of your nature. You have to live it. You have to live what you want others to learn. That is one of the reasons why grandfather became so successful in teaching people, because he lived it. He showed by his lifestyle, the importance of what he was talking about.
One of the books about your grandfather that I have found so inspirational is “Gandhi, The Man” by Eknath Eswarren. It’s a very simple book, but really brings out the qualities and the principles. And he talks fundamentally about the Bhagavad-Gita and how that was an influence on your grandfather and his thinking.
Actually, he was influenced by all the religions. One of the most important statements that he made was that a friendly study of all the scriptures is the sacred duty of every individual. He emphasized the word friendly. A lot of people have made critical studies, but not so many have made friendly studies. If we make a friendly study of all the scriptures, we will find the wisdom in all of them. We would then be able to take that wisdom and incorporate it in our lives. And thereby enhance our own beliefs and not diminish our beliefs. So that’s what he did, he studied all the scriptures and he took from every religion what he found important and incorporated it in his lifestyle. He was impressed with the Bhagavad-Gita. He said the Sermon on the Mount was also just as important as the Gita to him. He found tremendous similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and the Bhagavad-Gita.
Your grandfather also read Thoreau and his treatise on civil disobedience. And that was one of his inspirations in South Africa.
He had started his civil disobedience campaign in South Africa before he read Thoreau. It was in prison he came across this book and he started reading it. He was so happy and jubilant to know that a scholar like Thoreau was writing about the same thing he was already practicing. He just felt that it was an endorsement of what he was doing and he got more inspiration from that.
Ignorance Is the Enemy
Your grandfather said, “Evil and injustice and hatred exist only insofar as we support them.” This comes back to the definition of Satyagraha and Ahimsa being love. It’s this belief that love is all that there is and that evil is an illusion.
Yes, it’s an illusion. It’s a sort of mental state. You know, if we believe that some people are evil, or some people are born evil, then we will believe in that kind of thing. But there’s no truth behind it, and the truth is people are not born evil, people are made evil by circumstances. So yes, these illusions that we live with, they have no scientific basis.
So it’s the belief that no matter who you are dealing with, that you can call forth the love that’s at the very core of their being.
That’s exactly what it’s based on. That you appeal to the goodness in the person and every person has that goodness in him or her. And it’s just a question of appealing to that.
Your grandfather said that we have a moral obligation to not cooperate with evil just as we have an obligation to cooperate with all that is good. I heard that used by Germans who opposed the Nazis. One of the important distinctions that I repeatedly hear your grandfather made about the British is that they are not our enemy, it’s the untruth, it is the ignorance that is the enemy.
Right. The whole nonviolence concept is to attack the wrong–not the person, but the problem. Generally in violence we attack the person and we forget about the problem. And we think that by eliminating the person, we can do away with the problem. After killing each other, we realize we haven’t really achieved anything at all. One of the examples that I use is Nazism. We fought WWII and we lost 68 million human lives in order to get rid of Nazism. But what we succeeded in doing was getting rid of the Nazis, but Nazism still lives and thrives and threatens the whole world. The hate and the prejudice, that philosophy of Nazis is still there, so what did we achieve with the sacrifice of 68 million human lives if we were not able to get rid of that problem? That is the distinction. In nonviolence you focus on the problem and eliminate the problem instead of focusing on the individual and eliminating the individual.
We Are Violent Every Day
You have done a really good job of mapping out the different kinds of violence, physical versus passive. For all the physical violence that there is in our society, in our world, it seems that the passive is much more pervasive.
Yes, in fact I would say for every physical act, there is at least one hundred passive acts of violence that we commit today. Many of these we do without even knowing it, and that is what creates all this violence in the world. The thing that we need to do, each one of us, is to acknowledge our own violence–and we can acknowledge that only when we learn about it and do some introspection.
Mel White points out that in the gay and lesbian community it’s so easy to think about the hate that is generated by the fundamentalist Christians toward homosexuals. He also points out how many times we have responded with anger and resentment and hate toward fundamentalist Christians. Even though we are often oppressed, we can be just as oppressive in our own views and attitudes and behavior.
Right, it’s the whole question of an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. So if somebody hates something and we hate them back, it’s not going to solve the problem.
I think we’ve come back to the quote that you often use, “Be the change you wish to see.” How we begin to look within ourselves and make the changes within our own inner-self and personality so that we can make a change in the world.
I was very happy, Judy Shepard yesterday concluded a lecture with that quote, “We must be the change we wish to see.”
Satyagraha and Alcoholism
In modern psychological parlance, I hear a lot about the word “boundaries.” Particularly in situations like tragic alcoholism, drug abuse, or violent behavior–how you have to “exercise your boundaries” or use “tough love” to work with somebody who is suffering in that way. How would you suggest using the principles of ahimsa or satyagraha in working with people who are chemically dependent or abusive in different ways?
First of all, not cooperating with them in their evil, whatever evil they are doing. At the same time, teaching them better ways of taking them out of it and reforming them to love and understanding. By condemning them because of what they are doing, we won’t bring about any change. We will only reinforce their beliefs and push then lower down in whatever they are doing.
Judging them in a sense.
Yes. If we respond with understanding and love and yet be very clear that we are not going to support their bad habits.
Well, it’s a fine line of finding that place of noncooperation and yet patiently offering that love and support at the same time.
In grandfather’s case, he had to deal with his eldest son, who got into bad company and became alcoholic and all kinds of bad habits. Then he needed money to support those bad habits and he went around the country taking loans from people on the basis of his father’s reputation. His father then had to make a public statement and ask people not to give him any support in spite of the fact that he was his son. He said, “I disown him because of his bad habits. I would like him to come back and live with me and I would support him and take care of him, but not his bad habits.”
You talk about anger and how it is the initial source of so much of the other violence that we see. You make the analogy about electricity and anger being similar.
Our responses to people are conditioned by anger. We get angry because somebody said something or did something to us, and we respond or retaliate immediately. When we do that in anger, we are being violent; whether passively violent or physically violent. That aggravates the situation and it escalates from there.
So the thing that we need to learn is not to respond in anger. When we are in an angry mood, we are not in control of our minds. When we are not in control of our minds, we end up doing the wrong thing, making the wrong choices. We have got to learn to take time out and regain control of our minds and then make the proper response to that situation.
I don’t advocate walking away and forgetting about it. I do advocate walking away for a little while to be able to gain control of your mind. But we have to come back and face the situation, once we have control of our mind, and try to find an adequate solution to the problem. This is something that we need to work on throughout our lives. I think that it should be a part of our training all the time. We have to continuously develop techniques and control over our minds and not just do it at the moment of crisis.
You’re saying it’s a daily spiritual practice.
Yes, it’s a spiritual practice. It’s a way of being able to control our emotions. The analogy about electricity is that it is a very powerful source of energy. It’s very deadly if we abuse it, but yet we channel it and bring it into our life and we use it for all the good things that we use electricity for. And in the same way, we ought to be able to channel anger, because it’s the same kind of energy. It’s very deadly if we abuse it, but very useful and good if we can channel it properly and use it effectively.
Your grandfather suggested that you keep an anger journal.
He said it is the only way of getting anger out of your system and it becomes your textbook of your emotions. The journal then will give you a guide about what you need to do, what you have done, and how you have changed–then over the years you can study your emotions. So it serves two purposes. It helps you be able to get control of your mind and get the anger out onto paper, but he always advocated that we should the journal with the intention of finding a solution to the problem and not just pour the anger out. You know a lot of people have been writing anger journals and they just simply pour their anger out into the journal. So that when they went back and read the journal a few weeks later or a few days later, they just were reminded of the anger. It all came back to them. But if you write it with the intention of finding a solution, then you get into that mental attitude of trying to work out a solution to the problem.
In our psychologically hip society, we are so good at just dumping. This is a way of vacating and seeing the end of it.
Making Time for Children
You wrote once about living with your grandfather in India. You said for the 18 months that you lived with him that he allotted a certain amount of time for you each day. It is so amazing to me that with all the demands on his time and his attention, he would create for you, a young boy, that time with him.
He thought it was very important to give proper training and proper guidance to young people–you know, whoever was living with him at that time. He just found the time for them. He was so disciplined in everything that he did, that he was able to allot an hour for me and he did it.
I think in our society here in the United States, how many parents are so busy working and running and doing, and yet there is so little quality time with their children.
We are motivated by selfishness and self-centeredness. We are always thinking about what’s good for us and what do we need to do and so on. So we are selfishly motivated. But if we look at what’s good for our children and do what’s right for them, then it would be a very different kind of situation.
Daily Spiritual Practices
Would mind sharing which spiritual practices that you use in your life right now? Certainly selfless service is an important part of your spiritual practice, but what else do you do?
Well, I do meditation, and of course yoga and selfless service as you said.
What form of meditation do you practice?
I do active meditation. I don’t lock myself in a room or anything like that. Wherever I am, sometimes even on airplanes when I am travelling somewhere, I have developed the technique of being able to turn my gaze inward and be to myself even in the midst of all the people. I meditate on some important quotations, important things from scriptures that I’ve taken, important quotations from grandfather’s writings or writings from other important people. I reflect on them and see how they can be incorporated in my own life.
I practice vipassana or mindfulness meditation and I have found that to be very valuable. Mindfulness was the first tool that I had in working with my anger or with my grief that didn’t feel like running away from it. It allowed me to sit with it and be with it in a way that wasn’t destructive.
“We Must Be the Change We Wish to See”
Terrence McKenna paraphrases your grandfather as saying, “In the big picture of things, I’m not sure if what I do is important, but I do know that it is vitally important that I do it.” It impressed me. Somebody like your grandfather who has had such an incredible contribution to this last century and to the quality of life, to say it might be insignificant of what I do, but it’s vitally important that I do it.
A lot of us have this big picture before us and we want to change the whole world. Yet none of us have the capacity to do that. Because we don’t have that capacity, we get so disillusioned and we don’t do anything at all. We realize and bring about a change by doing little things. And those little things add up and we make the change happen.
You’re saying we are crippled by our own fears and inadequacies….
We get disillusioned because we want to change the whole world, and then we realize we don’t have the power to do that, so then we don’t do anything at all. But if we can change one person at a time or one thing at a time, that little change then adds up and contributes to the eventual change of the world.
The ripple effect, and I think we come back to changing ourselves.
Exactly, that is where the old quotation of, “We must be the change we wish to see” in the world.
Conflict resolution is getting a lot of attention these days and how do we constructively do that in a business situation or in our personal lives. And I was wondering if the institute offers programs around that?
What we really focus on more is not just conflict resolution but how do we avoid conflict. Being able to resolve a conflict after it occurs is one thing, but how do we avoid conflict all together. That is another thing that we need to focus on. We seem to ignore that aspect of it very much.
Sometimes I use the analogy of a smoker who goes on smoking. And then develops cancer and goes to the doctor and says, “Cure me of this cancer.” And the doctor says, “You have to give up smoking and change your lifestyle.” And he says, “Nope. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to continue the way I am, but you’ve got to cure me.” Conflict resolution is somewhat like that. If we continue to do all the things that generate conflicts and then we try to find ways of resolving that peacefully. And sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t because we are contributing to fueling the fire so we can’t put out the fire.
In closing, if there were anything you would like to offer to our gay and lesbian readers that we could do to continue to heal the prejudice and ignorance around us?
Well, I would just like to say, don’t feel that you are alone in the world. There are many millions of people who are being hated and discriminated against because of other reasons. We all need to come together to change the world and get rid of all the hate and the prejudice and hopefully create a world where we can all live in peace and harmony with each other. This we can do only through love and respect for each other. Not through violence and counter-hate.
One of the unfortunate things that I see in the gay and lesbian community, even though we are often subjected to great violence and oppression and suppression, we can be just as hateful to other members of our own community.
Last night I saw that. Some gays and lesbians had written some poems and they were reading them (at the benefit with Judy Shepard). Some of them had some very harsh things to say about the rest of the community. I thought that was sort of eye-for-an-eye kind of attitude. Which is not going to get anybody anywhere.