Arun Gandhi guides students on non-violence

March 31, 2017

In Bombay, India, the boat from South Africa docked, and Arun Gandhi and his wife boarded the boat to meet their friend. Instead, the first person they were greeted by was a white man, whom they had never met before. The man introduced himself to Gandhi — turns out, this man was a member of the South African Parliament. He was from the nationalist party and a supporter of apartheid. Gandhi had grown up under apartheid, and it was the reason he and his wife were forced to live in India at the time.

“I held him responsible for my plight, and I wanted to in that moment insult him back again, but I realized if I did that my parents and grandparents would never forgive me,” Gandhi said. “So, I responded by telling them ‘I’m South African, but am forced to live here because your government won’t let me bring my wife back, but I’m not going to hold that against you. You are a guest here and I am going to try to make your short visit as pleasant as possible.”

Gandhi and his wife took the Parliament member and his wife around, showing them the sights, shopping, dining and talking to them, often about politics, but if things got too heated they would switch topics. At the end of the trip the man told Gandhi that engaging with him had changed his mind about apartheid and he would go back to South Africa to fight it. Gandhi told his wife not to hold her breath, this is always what politicians said when they left, but they would go back to uphold the status quo. However, after following this politician’s story for years Gandhi saw that he had actually changed.

While at Saint Michael’s during a talk in McCarthy Arts Center Thursday evening, Gandhi used this story to show the powerful effect of non-violence. His advice was to keep calm when talking things out — it’s about hearing the other person more than being the loudest person. It’s about not seeing the others as enemies you have to destroy or be angry at, but instead seeing them as friends you had to educate, Gandhi said. He used stories of his childhood to convey how he learned this from his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi. Born in 1934 in Durban, South Africa, Arun is the fifth grandson of India’s legendary leader, and he has devoted much of his life to spreading his grandfather’s message.

He told the story of how his grandfather made him search for two hours for a pencil he had thrown out. It was a lesson on how throwing out that pencil was wasting resources, which was an act of violence against nature and an act of violence against people. Respect for the world and the people in the world are two of the biggest parts of practicing non-violence because they are all interconnected, Mahatma Gandhi preached.

“Unless we change, we are not going to be able to change the world,” Arun Gandhi said.

One person with a non-violent approach has the ability to change the world, Gandhi emphasized in his talk, illustrating the point with a story about a man who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, after graduating college with a degree in engineering, to move to a village to help uneducated women learn to build solar panels — and that initiative became Barefoot College. The college is now a worldwide organization with backing from the United Nations on multiple continents, helping thousands of women get jobs and millions of people have light.

Practicing non-violence is not limited to physical violence, but also to the passive violence that is as harmful. Passive violence includes the remarks that hurt others,and  it is overlooking someone when they commit that violence, he said.

Gandhi brought it back closer to home when talking about how to go about confronting racial injustice in the U.S. He said many problems in this area came out of labeling others and not seeing others as people. He noted that integration happened by law in the U.S., but it never really happened at the person-to-person level.

“The law can only enable people to be together, but no law on earth can make one person respect the other if they do not want to,” Gandhi said. Engaging with others and listening are the keys to solving issues with non-violence, he said.

Gandhi’s “A Legacy of Love” talk was rescheduled from last semester when his flight was canceled; the different atmosphere on campus and in the world since then made this message particularly timely powerful, allowing students and community members to continue pondering what this message means, agreed many students and community members after the event.

In his opening statement, Moise St. Louis, associate dean of students, reminded students, “At Saint Michael’s College, intellectual engagement is not just a value we have — it is who we are.”

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