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True Believer

In an Era of Hyper-Violence, Arun Gandhi Quietly Tends to His Grandfather's Legacy. 'Futility' Is Not in His Vocabulary.

July 29, 2001|Nina L. Diamond | Nina L. Diamond is a Miami-based journalist and the author of "Voices of Truth: Conversations With Scientists, Thinkers and Healers."

In an era of Columbine, Lara Croft and a Madonna video too violent to be aired on MTV, the study of nonviolence sounds almost quaint. But one man in Memphis, Tenn., has carried the torch for Mahatma Gandhi for the last 10 years, promoting his teachings on human rights to high school students, international assemblies, the National Security Agency--anyone willing to listen.

He is the founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and his affinity for one of the 20th century's most revered men comes naturally: Arun Gandhi is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

At 12, Arun was sent from South Africa to live with his grandfather for 18 months--during the critical time that led up to India's independence in 1947 and its immediate aftermath. In 1957, Arun returned to India, where he worked as a journalist and a keeper of the Gandhi flame. Three decades later, he moved to the United States, thanks to a research grant from the University of Mississippi, to study the parallels among Indian caste systems, South African apartheid and U.S. race problems. Arun, now 67, opened the Gandhi Institute on the grounds of Christian Brothers University in the fall of 1991.

Funded by grants, program fees and private donations, the institute sponsors seminars, workshops, lectures, conferences and special programs worldwide, focusing on areas of nonviolence such as conflict prevention, anger management and relationship and community building.

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When you look back at the Gandhi Institute's first 10 years, which programs have had the most impact?

[People] have been interested in learning more about nonviolence. They have a very limited understanding of the philosophy. [They] think nonviolence is a political strategy to be used in big political conflicts, but we've been able to show them that it's much more than that; it's a personal philosophy that empowers the individual.

To take a nonviolent approach in everyday life? That it's not just about refraining from physical violence, but also psychological and emotional violence?

All of that. And also by learning to think nonviolently, we reduce the level of violence in our personal lives, too.

Did your grandfather have any tips about what people should do when they feel angry?

One of the things he asked me to do was every time I felt a surge of anger, if I could walk away from the situation and take time out, and go and write. He asked me to write an anger diary, to pour out my feelings and all the anger into the diary. And then, in a moment of calm and peace, go back and read what I'd written and see how I could have used that energy in a more positive manner.

He also taught me there may be some occasions when you can't walk away. Then you have to face it at that moment. But in those circumstances, don't react in anger. Count to 10 or say under your breath, "Calm down, calm down." Just repeat it like a mantra until you feel in control of your senses. And then do whatever is necessary.

He said that we are not governed by logic, so we can't eliminate all violence. There may be violence necessary in our lives, but as we become more and more civilized, we should be able to reduce the level of violence as much as possible.

Tell me a story about your grandfather, one in particular that you think people need to hear in these times.

Well, I think the one thing everyone needs to remember or learn regarding his philosophy is that nonviolence is not as narrow as the term sounds. People seem to look at nonviolence as, "As long as there is no war, there is peace," or "As long as we aren't going around beating up people, we are not violent." Grandfather made me aware of this at a young age through little pencils.

When I was coming back from school one day, I had this little pencil in my hand, about three inches long. I thought to myself that I deserve a better pencil, that this is too small for anybody to use, and so I threw it away. And that evening when I asked him for a new pencil, he subjected me to a lot of questions.

He wanted to know how the pencil became small, and where I threw it away, and why did I throw it away. And then he finally told me to go and look for it. And I thought he was crazy. I asked him, "How do you expect me to look for this pencil in the dark?" And he said, "Well, here's a flashlight. Take this and go out and look for it." And I went and looked for it, and spent about two or three hours.

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