Sometimes the lessons learned in youth last a lifetime.
That’s especially true for Arun Gandhi, the 82-year-old grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, who famously won independence for India from the British Empire.
Growing up in South Africa, Arun says he was frequently beaten by white South Africans for being too black, and by black South Africans for being too white.
“I was young and not mature enough to understand grandfather’s philosophy,” he recalls. “So I became a victim of my own anger.”
His parents saw the negativity and decided it was time to go to India. Thus began a two-year stay with Mohandas Gandhi that transformed Arun’s life. During that period, soon after World War II in 1945, Mohandas Gandhi taught Arun about his principles of nonviolent resistance. One of the first lessons was about anger. Anger, the grandson explains, is like electricity.
“It’s just as useful and powerful, but only if we use it intelligently,” he says. “If you are especially angry, do not respond in the moment, but rather write out your response in a journal with the intention of finding a solution to the problem and then commit yourself to the solution.”
What’s needed is a kind of discipline, which Arun describes as a “strengthening of the mind.” He notes the modern Western educational system, which he says fills the mind with information and technical knowledge, but little wisdom.
“The result is we don’t have control over the mind,” he says. “We lash out when something provokes us. And very often that provocation destroys our life.”
His grandfather gave him a simple exercise that involved sitting quietly in a room and holding an object that was pleasant to observe, like a flower or photograph. He was to concentrate for one minute on the object then see how long he could keep it in his mind’s eye. “In the beginning I found the moment I closed my eyes, the image would vanish,” he recalls. “But when I began to do this exercise regularly, I could keep the image longer and longer.”
Controlling the mind is the first step in controlling our actions, he notes, adding that passive violence can occur as much from neglect or ignorance as seeking to actively injure someone. “We practice a lot more passive violence,” he says.
It takes many forms — wasting food while millions of people starve, destroying the environment needlessly, or, at a more personal level, lying for political power or position or nurturing prejudices against foreigners or immigrants that could lead to violence.
Arun Gandhi points to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.
“After the 9/11 terrorist attacks I wrote: ‘This is not the time for us to seek revenge, this is the time for introspection to find out why did these people do this? They didn’t wake up one morning and say we are going to crash the World Trade Center just for the fun of it. This was the cumulative effect of some anger and frustration they have felt for years. And if we don’t find out what that is, how are we going to resolve it?’”
The terrorists who committed the 9/11 attacks were all Saudis, he says, yet “we went and killed Iraqis. So our actions were senseless. If, rather than start a war, we had reached out to that part of the world and improved our relationship, I think we would be much better off than we are today.”
Before Yasser Arafat died, Arun had an opportunity to meet with him in 2004 and explain his ideas about nonviolence in one of the most toxically violent areas of the globe.
“Arafat asked me, ‘Hypothetically, if you were in my place, what we would you do?’”
Gandhi says he gave him a hypothetical answer:
“There are nearly a million Palestinian refugees living in Amman, Jordan, in miserable conditions. When I went to meet them, they were all just keen on getting back to their country and living peaceably and doing their work. … So I said to [Arafat], ‘Imagine if you and your leaders all went to Amman, Jordan, and mobilized these millions of refugees, all these men, women and children. You tell them that you are taking them back to their country — in peace. There would be no military, there would be no arms. It would be like Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930. … So I said if you quietly, peacefully march these millions from Jordan back to Palestine it could be a victory. First, the entire international media will be there because that will be an amazing sight to project: millions of people marching in peace.”
Arun is noticing that the opposite approach seems to be the order of the day in U.S. politics, where conservative primary candidates advocate blocking Muslim immigration and building walls.
“I’m really ashamed of what they have done in the last few months. It took the nation 15 years after 9/11 to bring about some understanding between Christians and Muslims in this country and bring about peace,” he says, “but within a few months Donald Trump and these conservative politicians have destroyed the whole thing. Once again, hate and prejudice have taken over.”
To offset this dismal state of affairs, Arun recommends engagement.
“If the people are going to accept this as a way of life, than this is what we get. But if the people realize that we don’t want this kind of garbage passing off as politics … then the people have to make themselves heard. Unfortunately what people think about democracy is just coming out once in four years and casting your vote and then going to sleep. And that is not really democracy. Democracy is where people are aware of what is happening and they make their politicians aware of it. We ignore what’s going on in Washington at our own peril. I think in Brazil they have compulsory voting. We should do that here.” S
Arun Gandhi will be speaking at Deep Run High School on April 2 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the event are available through Unity of Richmond, unityrichmond.org.