"Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Many of us know that quote; some know the source: Mohandas Gandhi, called Mahatma (“Great Soul”), the founder of the modern nonviolence movement.
But for Dr. Arun Gandhi, who will spend four days in Chattanooga beginning Monday, Sept. 17, there is a much more intimate connection. Mahatma Gandhi was his grandfather and the inspiration for a life spent continuing the iconic peacemaker’s mission.
“During the two years I lived with my grandfather, he asked me each day to draw a ‘family tree of violence,’ tracing my own actions,” Gandhi said in a phone interview. “Physical, and what he called ‘passive violence,’ are the two branches of the tree. We may not be using physical violence, yet we continue to hurt people by our actions or our lack of actions.”
Arun Gandhi spent most of his childhood in South Africa under apartheid, and as an Indian, was physically attacked by both white and black South Africans. “I became very hateful and angry,” he said. “That’s when my parents sent me to live with my grandfather, saying, ‘You can’t change people when you become what they are.’”
Though still too young to know how influential Mahatma Gandhi was outside of India, the experience of seeing hundreds of people lining up each day to catch a glimpse of his grandfather changed him. “After those two years, I was no longer the same hateful, fearful person.”
He went on to a 30-year career as a journalist for the Times of India, where he concentrated on stories about India’s poorest people, the “untouchables.” Quoting his grandfather, “Poverty is the worst form of violence,” he said.
In 1987, he moved to the U.S. and founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, now housed at the University of Rochester. In 1996, he created the yearly celebration “Season for Nonviolence,” honoring both Mahatma Gandhi and the man he inspired, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2008, he founded the Gandhi Worldwide Educational Institute, dedicated to eradicating poverty.
When asked how he sees the American role in moving to peace and nonviolence, he said, “The United States must demonstrate as much moral strength as political and military strength. We must understand that the stability and security of any country depends on the stability and security of the whole world.”
Yet, he said, politicians can only do so much. “Change has to come from the bottom and grow upwards. As long as we keep teaching our children that success means getting there by any means possible, we are feeding ourselves with the seeds of violence.”
The way to counter violence sparked by the “our way is the only way” mindset of fundamentalist religions is to see that “each has a part of the ultimate truth. But today, the religions are like the blind men and the elephant, each believing that the part of the elephant he touched is the whole truth. All parts are needed to see the truth.”
In visiting Chattanooga, Gandhi acknowledged, he cannot change the whole city, “but if one person is changed, it’s worth it.” His hope for his own legacy is humble. “I am content to be a peace farmer, planting the seeds that may germinate in peace,” he said.
Bringing Dr. Gandhi to Chattanooga
• It was on a visit to India, in which she followed the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi with Dr. Arun Gandhi, that inspired Missy Crutchfield, head of the City of Chattanooga’s Department of Education, Arts and Culture, to create a plan to bring Gandhi here. “I thought of it as a social justice and cultural tour,” Crutchfield said, pointing particularly to the speaking engagement at Howard School. “We are asking students to investigate the work of Gandhi and Dr. King,” she said. “Gandhi’s message of ‘be the change’ is still everywhere, from T-shirts to the movie ‘Bully,’” she said. A mayoral proclamation will be presented at City Council on the Tuesday of Dr. Gandhi’s visit, marking the City of Chattanooga’s commitment to becoming a “Season for Nonviolence” city in January 2013. The season launches on Jan. 30, commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, and culminates on April 4, commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. —J.H.
Schedule of Dr. Arun Gandhi’s Public Appearances
Monday, September 17
• 5:30 p.m. Renaissance Community Garden
Tuesday, September 18
• 10:30 a.m. Recreate Café at Salvation Army
• 11:30 a.m. Chattanooga Community Kitchen
• 2 p.m. Howard School
• 6 p.m. City Council presentation
Wednesday, September 19
• 5 p.m. “A Season for Nonviolence” Mural Unveiling (Brainerd Recreation Center)
• 6 p.m. Chattanooga Hindu Temple for celebration and festivities (Bonny Oaks Drive)
Thursday, September 20
• 8 a.m. Annual Connecting the Dots Summit 2012 “Exploring Arts and Social Issues” with keynote speaker Dr. Arun Gandhi. (Bessie Smith Hall).
• 3:15 p.m. Walking Tour of Brainerd Mission
• 4:15 p.m. Sitar Music by Joe Ridolfo at Eastgate Senior Activity Center
• 5 p.m. Eastgate Library Blessing and Keynote Address: “A Season for Nonviolence” at Eastgate Town Center