Arun Gandhi’s lessons from his grandfather

By Danielle Batist, photos by =Oslo photographer Dimitri Koutsomytis

Indian-American socio-political activist Arun Gandhi is the fifth grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Aged 12, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in India, where the elder Gandhi introduced Arun to his theory and daily practice of peace and nonviolence. The pair had just 18 months together before Mahatma was assassinated but this was enough to transform Arun into a persuasive advocate of Gandhian ideals. In a wide-ranging interview with INSP, he argues that we need more positive news and gives his advice to young activists. At 81, he is in no mood to retire. Arun Ghandi also wrote an exclusive article for street papers in which he discusses why our ‘culture of violence’ must end for the good of all.

Photo: Dimitri Koutsomytis

Just before my Eurostar train pulls into Brussels Midi station, Arun Gandhi’s plane touches down at the international airport. He takes a few hours of rest following his overnight flight from Atlanta while I meet up with photographer Dimitri Koutsomytis of Norwegian street paper Erlik Oslo. Over coffee at the iconic Grand Place, we try to imagine what life must have been like for Arun, as the 5th grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

In ‘Legacy of Love’, one of his many books, Arun describes the daily injustices he faced in apartheid South Africa, where he grew up as ‘neither black nor white’. Aged 12, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in India. The elder Gandhi set aside an hour each day for his grandson, using storytelling and exercises to introduce Arun to his theory and daily practice of peace and nonviolence. The pair had just 18 months together before Mahatma was assassinated. But this time, it turned out, was enough to transform Arun into a persuasive advocate of Gandhian ideals.

Victor Spence, Arun’s international representative, had assured us beforehand: “Really, he has a mind-altering view on most things.” Spence also helped INSP secure the exclusive interview with the Dalai Lama three years ago, and was keen to put Arun in touch with the street paper network too.

When we meet Arun in the lobby of Hotel Amigo, the first thing we notice is the energy that surrounds him. He looks well for his 81 years, but it’s when he starts speaking that his full personality shines through.

We hand him a selection of street papers from around the world, which he studies with interest. Having worked as a journalist for the Times of India for thirty years, he has a keen interest in the role of the media in shaping perspectives. He asks about the way street papers are run and we briefly discuss the importance of independent media. He pours himself a cup of tea and nods towards the voice recorder. Arun Gandhi is ready to take our questions.

The great legacy your grandfather left you is the notion of nonviolence. Can you explain why you see this as more than peaceful conflict resolution alone?

Unfortunately, a lot of the scholars in Gandhian philosophy all over the world have looked at nonviolence as a weapon; a strategy to use in certain conflicts. But I think it really is about personal transformation. My grandfather was very concerned about the culture of violence that dominates human kind. It has taken roots so deeply in us that we don’t even recognise that many of the things we do are violent.

In the United States alone we throw away $120bn of food every year, when an estimated one million people are going to bed hungry. That is a form of violence too. It is that passive violence that accumulates and creates anger in the victim, who then resorts to physical violence to get justice. Logically, if we want to put out the fire of physical violence, if we want to stop wars and hate, then we have to cut off the fuel supply, which comes from each one of us. That is where we must become the change we wish to see in the world.

How do you think this relates to what we teach our children? The emphasis in schools is largely on literacy and numeracy, but increasingly we see a call for empathy and other ‘soft skills’ to be included in the curriculum.

I am very sad about the education system all over the world. It is based on giving young people a career to go out and make money. Schools are building a labour force for big industry to exploit and expand. That is not education. Education is where people learn about themselves, their character and their connection with each other. That part doesn’t happen at all, there is no emphasis on that.

I say this to students in the US where I teach: you come together from different races and nationalities. You are here for four or five years to study and live together in close confinements, so this is the opportunity for you to learn about each other and the differences that exist. But nobody pays any attention to that. You’ll find the Indian students association separate from the African American or the white students association. Everybody has their own association and there is no coming together. You have Black History Month, where only the black students learn about that history, and the same for Women’s History Month. Why not everybody? Education is really lacking in building the character of a person and building a more cohesive society.

Photo: Dimitri Koutsomytis

You were raised in a family dedicated to nonviolent social reform, first in South Africa with your parents and later with your grandfather in India. Do you think it is possible for every child to learn such lessons from a young age?

It has to begin from home. We need to realise that often our parenting is violent too. When we threaten children with punishment if they misbehave, we are teaching them that violence is right. When I was very young, we were living in South African on a farm. The children from the African farm labourers were the only ones I could play with. Their families had lived in extreme poverty for a very long time. My parents allowed me to play with them under the condition that I would learn from them how they lived and played without any toys or luxuries. In turn, I taught them how to read and write. Hundreds of children came from all around and we had a beautiful relationship. Compassion was built in us this way. When you see your parents do these things selflessly, you learn from it and make it your life.

That is where there is a problem in modern society. Right from birth, we bring them to nurseries where they are brought up by strangers. Children are tired after being in day care centres all day and parents are tired from working long hours. The children see that their parents work hard for material gains, so materialism becomes their way of life too. By planting those seeds of selfishness, we are telling them that it is right to trample over people to get to the top.

Do you see any ways to break that cycle?

We have to find the balance between materialism and morality. My grandfather used to say that the two have an inverse relationship and we see that every day. The US is the most materialistic society, but the least moral. We have to make a living and a career for ourselves, but that shouldn’t be the only obsession we have. If it is, then we shouldn’t have children. If you decide to have children, you have the responsibility to give them enough time to lay the foundations for their life.

Many parents would say that they are working to pay for child care and to be able to afford the best education for their children.

The best education that a child can get is from the parents at home. No private school with thousands of dollars of fees is ever going to teach the child what the parents can teach in the first five years. We think that we can buy everything: from top education to success in life. But you can’t buy compassion and love and respect.

There are different problems in each part of the world, but the fundamental problem of greed and exploitation is universal. I see this in India where it has recently become a trend to talk in the media about how the economy is booming, but half of the people is still living in poverty. That is half a billion people to whom the wealth does not trickle down.

You worked as a journalist for The Times of India for 30 years. How do you think the story of our world compares to what we see on the daily evening news?

The media project a lot of negativity. As a result, many people have switched off and don’t know what is going on in the world. I believe that news is not just about all the violence; it is another way of educating society. We could and should emphasize the positives and the differences that exist in society and try to make people understand them.

As a journalist I used to focus a lot on positive programmes run by individuals making a difference. Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes editors wouldn’t publish it. I think that the notion of free press is flawed: editors have their own prejudices and they look at revenue and advertisers’ needs. But audiences were interested in what I produced and even now people will tell me that they enjoyed those stories.

How do you encourage people to practice everyday activism without being overwhelmed?

Young people are very enthusiastic; they want to change the whole world. I keep telling them: we don’t have the capacity to change the world, but we do have the capacity to change ourselves, so let’s try to do that first. We can help others around us change so the ripple effect will grow and the world will ultimately change. They spend so much time trying to change the world that they burn out and give up everything. We all have to set ourselves goals that we can achieve. We know that we have the capacity to do that. Once you achieve one goal, you set yourself another one and keep going up.

Your grandfather said that ‘True India’ was found in the villages, but more than half the world’s population now lives in cities and the UN estimates it will be 66% by 2050. How can change be created in urban areas?

We can still do something within cities, by building smaller neighbourhood villages and connections. When we live in a big city we get so lost in our own world there. With new technology we have stopped making friends next door. We make friends who are thousands of miles away, some of whom we only know by their picture on Facebook. We come home, lock our front doors, watch TV and go to work the next day. Our scattered relationships don’t add up to a cohesive society.

Can the same technology also be used to connect, rather than distance people around the world?

It could and should be used like that, but I don’t think it is happening. I have been on Facebook for the last three or four years. I started off posting some thoughtful messages, seeking response from people. We could have a constructive debate, but what happens is that they just press ‘like’ and go on. So I have a thousand likes but I don’t think anyone has read what I have written. It is meaningless when people’s attention span is so short.

The narrative of the world is often told in terms of victims, heroes and perpetrators. Do we need to adapt this story in order to build equal relationships?

We are always looking at relationships by asking what we personally gain from them. If we don’t gain anything, we wonder why we should bother at all. We need relationships to be based on mutual respect, love and appreciation, so we can feel each other’s suffering and be able to help. We think we make the world better by killing the bad guys. What we don’t realise is that each one of us has the capacity to do good or bad. We can be bad guys if the wrong buttons are pressed, but that does not mean we are bad for life. We lock up our criminals but crime is still growing, because we never look at what motivated someone to commit a crime. We address the person but we don’t address the problem. That is the big mistake.

How can we take away the fear for the unknown ‘other’ that leads us down the road of punishment?

We allow ourselves to be controlled by fear. That is how we raise our children, and it is how our governments control us. They talk about terrorism and declare war. We are afraid of people who come to destroy our way of life. I need to go through more security checks at airports because I look different. That kind of thing just divides people. We only became aware of some parts of the world when they attacked us. Before that, we didn’t care, even though we exploited those parts of the world, arbitrarily divided countries and forcefully moved people around. All the things that we did during colonial years, we are now paying the price for. It didn’t just happen overnight: it is the accumulative effect of all the violence that has happened over the years. If we had the understanding and compassion to care, they would not be against us, but we just dropped them and walked away.

One of the things my grandfather said was that nationalism and patriotism are the most negative things that have happened to human society. We now think that as long as we are patriotic to our country, we don’t need to care about anyone else. But if the rest of the world is going down the tube, however strong we may be in our country, we are going down with them. We need to understand that the stability and security of any nation depends on the stability and security of the whole world.

Photo: Dimitri Koutsomytis

Your grandfather’s lessons are still widely quoted, even though he did not want his writings to become a dogma after his death. Have you felt the need to adapt his teachings?

Any philosophy has to keep evolving. What my grandfather said a hundred years ago will not be entirely true today. Philosophers don’t like it when I say this, but I believe that the moment you put a philosophy down in a book, it ceases to be a philosophy and becomes a dogma. Everyone will refer to that book and ask: ‘What did Gandhi say’ and then apply it literally. It is the same with religion which was written down in books and scriptures thousands of years ago. We need to have the intelligence to see what was meant and use it in today’s world.

Does it frustrate you to see people misinterpreting Gandhi’s lessons, or not applying them in their own day-to-day lives?

I don’t get frustrated because I don’t have big expectations. I consider myself to be a peace farmer. A farmer goes out into the field to plants seeds and hopes he will get a good crop. I go out wherever I can to plant seeds of peace. If I have the expectation that I can transform a few thousand people who come to listen to me, I would be disappointed because not everyone gets that message.

Some of the problems we face on our planet today, like climate change, are so big that they require massive scale change. How do you reconcile your small scale approach with the overwhelming needs of the world?

I take all the challenges today to be inspirational. It requires me to do more, because the problems are very urgent. It would be very easy to feel like we can’t do anything about it and give up. My children always complain that I am now 81 and still don’t retire. But as long as I have good health, I want to continue. I tell them: it is not the time to retire while the world is in flames.

Do you ever look back on your achievements to date?

I look more at what still needs to be done, but I do feel happy when I hear about transformations that have taken place. The other day I got a message from a woman in a school in Beijing, who wanted me to come and speak. It turned out that when she was a student herself at the University of Minnesota, I had spoken there and she had remembered it all these years. She felt that the message she heard back then needed to reach her students in China too. It inspires me to hear how one person can make a difference.

You lead Gandhi legacy tours in India and South Africa. Do you believe witnessing changemaking firsthand is a more powerful way to create understanding?

I thought it would be a good idea to show how many individuals or small groups of people help others overcome their problems. There are some amazing ideas that others can use in their own community. Take the Barefoot College: they educate local people without formal education. One woman who can’t read or write trained in dentistry and runs a clinic like a qualified dentist. I see all of these projects and I feel hopeful that change will happen. It could happen much faster if all of us look beyond ourselves.