The Center for Interfaith Relations is revisiting Festival of Faiths catalogues in search of insight, wisdom and inspiration. Our hope is that these written words will spur meaningful reflection and serve as a beacon of hope amid challenging times.

“Nonviolence in the 21st Century” by Arun Gandhi

From the 2016 Festival of Faiths, “Sacred Wisdom: Pathways to Nonviolence”

The greatest challenge in promoting nonviolence is the English language and its limitations. The next is our perception, rooted for centuries, that violence is the only way we can resolve our problems. Going back to the first challenge when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi developed his philosophy of nonviolence in South Africa and wanted an appropriate word to describe it he could not find one. Passive Resistance and Civil Disobedience did not appeal because he said there was nothing passive or disobedient about the movement. He even offered a reward to anyone who could come up with a positive English word to describe what he had in mind but, alas, no one could. 

At this point Gandhi decided a Sanskrit word may be more appropriate since he was planning to move back to India and lead the Indian struggle for freedom. He found Satyagraha described his philosophy the best. It is a combination of two Sanskrit words, Satya, meaning truth, and Agraha, meaning pursuit of. Thus, Satyagraha means the Pursuit of Truth, which is important because it is the opposite of the Western concept of Possessing the Truth. 

Nonviolence, therefore, can be described as an honest and diligent pursuit of truth. It could also mean the search for the meaning of life or the purpose of life, questions that have tormented mankind for centuries. The fact that we have not been able to find satisfactory answers to these questions does not mean there is no answer. It only means we have not searched with any degree of honesty. The search has to be both external and internal. We seek to ignore this crucial search because the sacrifices it demands are evolutionary. It means moving away from greed, selfishness, possessiveness and dominance to love, compassion, understanding and respect. It means to be true to our Faith and religion – it is not enough that we pray ten times a day but that we make the scriptures the basis of our existence. 

Because of our materialistic and greedy lifestyle we have become very possessive. We seek to possess not only material goods but even our spiritual beliefs and even peace, if we find it. How many times have we heard people say: I am at peace with myself. Or, when Gurus say to their devotees: Find your peace and hold on to it. Can anyone find peace or spiritual awakening and greedily hold on to it for themselves? 

favorite story that Grandfather liked to tell us was the story of an ancient Indian king who was obsessed with the desire to find the meaning of peace. What is peace and how can we get it and when we find it what should we do with it were some of the issues that bothered him. Intellectuals in his kingdom were invited to answer the king’s questions for a handsome reward. Many tried but none could explain how to find peace and what to do with it. At last someone said the king ought to consult the sage who lived just outside the borders of his kingdom: He is an old man and very wise, the king was told. If anyone can answer your questions he can. The king went to the sage and posed the eternal question. Without a word the sage went into the kitchen and brought a grain of wheat to the king. In this you will find the answer to your question, the sage said as he placed the grain of wheat in the king’s outstretched palm. 

Puzzled but unwilling to admit his ignorance the king clutched the grain of wheat and returned to his palace. He locked the precious grain in a tiny gold box and placed the box in his safe. Each morning, upon waking, the king would open the box and look at the grain to seek an answer but could find nothing. Weeks later another sage, passing through, stopped to meet the king who eagerly invited him to resolve his dilemma. The king explained how he had asked the eternal question and this sage gave him a grain of wheat instead. I have been looking for an answer every morning but I find nothing. 

The sage said: It is quite simple, your honor. Just as this grain represents nourishment for the body, peace represents nourishment for the soul. Now, if you keep this grain locked up in a gold box it will eventually perish without providing nourishment or multiplying. However, if it is allowed to interact with the elements – light, water, air, soil – it will flourish, multiply and soon you would have a whole field of wheat which will nourish not only you but so many others. This is the meaning of peace. It must nourish your soul and the souls of others, it must multiply by interacting with the elements. 

This is the essence of Gandhi’s philosophy of “nonviolence” or the pursuit of truth. In the life-long pursuit of truth we must always be guided by love, compassion, understanding and respect, allow everything we have to interact positively with the elements and help create a society of peace and harmony. The more possessions we have the more we have to secure them from those who covet it generating feelings of jealousy and the desire to take by force what the needy cannot get through compassion. 

The four essential principles of Gandhi’s philosophy are quite simple to understand and implement. At the public level the four principles are: Truth, Ahimsa, Trusteeship and Constructive Action.  

While at the personal level the four principles are: Respect, Understanding, Acceptance and Appreciation. 

The success in attaining enlightenment or finding the truth depends on how honest we are and whether we can liberate ourselves from the attachments that tie us down. Gandhi said being liberated politically or socially is not enough. He did not mean that we become careless or adopt a “don’t care” attitude towards life and relationships. Freeing yourself of attachments means one must be willing to stand up for truth and justice and not be afraid of the consequences like losing your possessions, your job or even your life. It is only when we reach that level of spiritual power that nonviolence will become relevant. 

When white racists humiliated Grandfather in South Africa because they did not want a “black” man traveling in a first class compartment of a train he tried to enlist the support of the non-whites in South Africa to stand up for their rights. Instead, he found that fear dominated their response. “What will happen to my family? My job? My home and possessions?” The middle-class was content to submit to the white man’s injustices rather than stand up to them and risk losing everything. That was when grandfather discovered the corrupting influence of materialism. 

This attitude persists everywhere. We still accept injustice because we are afraid of suffering and losing our possessions or our security. True liberation comes when we can liberate ourselves from the FEAR that controls our lives. In the final analysis that is the key. In reality, this is not something impossible that nonviolence demands. When we are forced by law to sacrifice our lives to protect our country in war we don’t ask who is going to take care of the family or what will happen to my possessions. We just go with the knowledge that we may not come back again. This is a sacrifice that is forced upon an individual by a government. Then, why is it so difficult for the same individual to make the same sacrifice to stand up for justice, ethics and values?  

“I am prepared to die but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill”, Gandhi said. 

However, to come back to the core principles of nonviolence. The meaning of TRUTH is, of course, obvious. We must remember truth has many sides and it is ever changing. What appears true today may not be true tomorrow. Or what appears to be the Truth to us does not necessarily appear to be the Truth to others. We cannot therefore say that we possess the Truth and so our understanding or Truth is the right one. We must develop the ability to look at everything from different perspectives and have the humility to understand that we could be wrong. 

AHIMSA is the Sanskrit word for total nonviolence, that is, nonviolence in thought, word and deed. Grandfather recognized the limitations of ahimsa. Living the way we do being totally nonviolent may not be possible for everyone. It may even not be possible for anyone. Yet, it must be the objective of every individual in the same way as getting an A+ grade is the objective of every student who goes to school. If any student goes to school with the mindset that he/she will never get an A+ grade then that student is in big trouble. That person has already discounted himself and will, therefore, only slide down into oblivion. 

TRUSTEESHIP is a unique concept that needs to be properly understood. Each individual has the talent or the ability to achieve our goals. We exploit that talent or the ability for personal gains in the belief that we own the talent or ability. Gandhi said we don’t own the talent but we are appointed Trustees by God and so we must use the talent to help others, less fortunate or talented than us. But this giving or sharing or helping must not cripple the receiver. 

There is a very thin line that divides pity and compassion and we often mistake one for the other. Pity is degrading and oppressive while compassion is uplifting for both the giver and the receiver. Pity is when we give a hungry person money to buy food or when we feed the hungry through soup kitchens. When feeding becomes an end in itself then we are causing a problem. Feeding should be a means to constructive action. By feeding the hungry we make them dependent on handoutsOn the other hand, compassion requires that we get involved in finding ways in which the unfortunate can be helped to become self-sufficient citizens. The help they receive should be such as to help rebuild their self-confidence and self-respect which are crushed by poverty and oppression. 

CONSTRUCTIVE ACTION is the natural corollary to trusteeship. It means getting involved in finding constructive solutions to problems. We are usually so pre-occupied with the Self that we don’t have time for anyone or anything. We usually want to hang the responsibility on someone’s shoulders. Usually the Government’s shoulders yet they have severe limitations. Bureaucrats or paid social workers don’t always have the compassion needed for this kind of work. In 1970 six young people in Mumba City in India, each working for a livelihood and committed to raising their children, decided to find a solution to the overwhelming homelessness in the city that is growing rampantly. 

Using Gandhi’s philosophy of trusteeship and constructive action this group, led by Mahipat Rao Mohite, assembled more than 500 homeless people and challenged them to become a part of the solution by saving a coin everyday to build the necessary capital so that an economic project could be launched. Mohite could have sought donations or applied for grants but that would give the homeless the feeling they could ask for what they need and receive it on a platter. 

Mohite said the homeless would have to collectively save a coin every day. Most people would have considered this impossible or even heartless to ask someone to save a coin every day when they did not know where the next meal was going to come from. However, the homeless accepted the challenge and with Mohite’s encouragement saved the equivalent of 11,000 dollar in about 19 months. 

The money was used to start in 1971 a small textile factory with second hand power looms in a tin shed in Vita village near Sangli, 200 miles south of Mumbai. Some 70 of the homeless were sent to the village to work in the jointly owned factory under the guidance of Mohite and his friends until the homeless were trained to run the business for themselves. Today all those who contributed to the capital are back in their village living on the earnings of their four textile factories, enjoying a much better life-style and able to send their children to schools and higher education. 

The homeless continued saving money and in 1978 opened the Sangli Jilla Kranti Cooperative Bank in Mumbai City. Today the Bank has 7 branch offices and total assets worth 2 million dollar. This is an example of what Gandhi meant by trusteeship and constructive action. Mohite and his friends did not make major sacrifices other than their leisure and vacation time. 

The four principles of nonviolence to be practiced by individuals begin with RESPECT. We must respect ourselves, respect others and respect our relationship to all of creation. A myth persists, especially in the West, that we are independent individuals with no responsibilities towards others. A cohesive society cannot be built with each individual pulling in different direction. To achieve harmony and cohesiveness we must accept the fact that we are inter-dependent, inter-related and inter-woven working together to build a human society. 

It is not enough to respect individual human beings. We must also respect different cultures, different ways of life and different belief systems. Danger lies in our becoming competitive, in believing that ours is the only way and the best way and attempting to impose our way on others. To assume that our way is the best is to say that we possess the truth. When we accept that others could also be right then we join others in an honest search for truth. 

Religion, Grandfather explained, is the beginning of a spiritual journey. When we come to understand Religion properly we reach an understanding of spirituality, that is the acceptance and respect for different ways of worship. Salvation is when we reach the mountaintop. When we become one with creation and creation becomes one with us. 

UNDERSTANDING is reached when we learn who we are and what is our role in all of creation. In our arrogance we believe that humans are not a part of nature. We are here to conquer nature. In our attempt to conquer nature we are destroying our habitat and cannot expect to survive for very long. 

ACCEPTANCE is reached when we accept the differences – physical and philosophical – between human beings. When these differences begin to melt away then we accept each other as human beings and can dispense with the labels that keep people apart.  

APPRECIATION of our humanity is achieved at this stage. 

The best way, however, to understand Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence is to first understand the extent of violence that we practice, consciously or unconsciously, every day of our lives. Grandfather made me aware of the violence in society, including the violence within myself, by asking me to work on a family tree of violence on the same principles as a genealogical tree. 

He said: Violence has two children – physical and passive. Now, everyday before you go to bed I would like you to write under each heading everything that you experienced during the day and the relationship of the violence with each other. 

I had to be honest and write about my own acts of violence during the day. This meant that every night I had to analyse my actions and if I found them to be violent then the act had to be put down in its appropriate place. It was an excellent way of introspection and acknowledgement of one’s own violence. 

We generally deny our own violence because we are ignorant about it or because we are conditioned to look at violence only in its physical manifestation where we use physical force. However, we don’t consider oppression in all its forms as passive forms of violence. 

The relationship between passive violence and physical violence is the same as the relationship between gasoline and fire. Acts of passive violence generate anger in the victim, and since the victim has not learned how to use anger positively the victim abuses anger and generates physical violence. Thus, it is passive violence that fuels the fire of physical violence, which means if we wish to put out the fire of physical violence we have to cut off the fuel supply. 

The choice before humanity, to quote Gandhi’s words, is quite simple: We have to be the change we wish to see. Unless we change individually no one is going to change collectively. For generations we have been waiting for the other person to change first. A change of heart cannot be legislated, it must come out of conviction. 

Is nonviolence relevant for the 21st Century? Nonviolence is always relevant because it is the natural response of any civilized human being. Violence is unnatural, a learned  behavior. If violence is human nature then we would not need martial arts institutes and military academies to teach us how to kill. We should be born with the instinct and the ability to kill.  

The question that we need to ask is, therefore, not whether nonviolence is relevant but whether we are willing to move away from greed, selfishness and all the negative attributes that govern our lives to the more positive attributes of love, compassion, understanding and respect. 

The choice is ours to make.