Arun Gandhi became his own man despite and thanks to shouldering his grandfather’s legacy.
I dialed Arun’s cell from Skype on my laptop. The first ring reinforced how different the times of today must be compared to 67 years ago when he was living in India with his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi. The second ring reinforced the similarities: the wars, the conflicts and the ongoing need for peace. He answered on the third; his voice a bridge.
Arun Gandhi was born in 1934 and is the fifth grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. For over thirty years he worked as a journalist for the Times of India and in recent years he’s had a regular blog for The Washington Post. He is the co-founder of The M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence and in recent years has become one of the world’s most sought-after speakers on practical peacebuilding and the original teachings of his grandfather. In 2008 he founded the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute. As noble as his work has been, it hasn’t been without controversy. In 2008 he came under harsh scrutiny and later apologized for a Washington Post article in which he was accused of insinuating that the Jews and Israel are “the biggest players” in a global culture of violence.
Still, Arun is a man who has managed to become his own man, who has experienced his own traumas in childhood and as an adult, who continues to use his grandfather’s teachings and the time they spent together as a personal compass. He now works daily to combat the multifaceted scourge of poverty in India.
“Mr. Arun Gandhi, this is Cameron Conaway. How are you my friend?”
His voice sounded familiar and after some chit-chat we dove into the interview:
The children and grandchildren of legends may struggle to both live with and without the shadow. Your last name immediately conjures up a modern-day hero, a movement, a way of living. How have you been influenced by your grandfather and how have you been able to strike out on your own path as a man?
Yes it is sometimes difficult to live with a name that is universally recognizable and revered. As a teenager I found it more difficult and one day I confessed to my mother that I do not know how I am going to go through life with this legacy because people expect so much from me. She said the choice was for me to make. If I consider the legacy to be a burden it will just get heavier and heavier as the years go by. But if I consider the legacy to be a light that is illuminating the way ahead it will be easier. Since then I see this legacy as a light that is constantly showing me the right way. My father and grandfather had said that we must always see ourselves as “Peace Farmers.” Just as farmers go out into the field and plant seeds and hope and pray they get a good crop, I should go out and plant seeds in the minds of people and hope and pray the seeds will be nurtured. Eventually, I may be able to reap a good crop of peacemakers. Modest expectations lead to greater encouragement.
As a boy growing up in South Africa you were at once rejected because your skin wasn’t dark enough and because your skin wasn’t light enough. What lessons did this teach you? More broadly, how did living under both South Africa’s apartheid and India’s final years to free itself from British rule shape the beliefs you hold today?
My experiences with prejudices in South Africa initially left me very angry and eager to seek revenge. Grandfather taught me that anger is like electricity – just as useful and just as powerful if used intelligently and constructively. But it can also be just as deadly and destructive if abused. So, it is important that we learn how to channel the energy of anger so that the power can be used intelligently. It taught me that hate cannot conquer hate, just as violence cannot combat violence. It only multiplies what we dislike. Instead of seeking revenge I learned to forgive the perpetrators and to dedicate my life to changing my own and other people’s hate to love and prejudice to respect. This has become the mission of my life since then.
In many ways those working for global peace are regarded as impractical dreamers. You’ve spent your life doing just that. What does peace mean to you, Arun? What are some changes that need to happen in order for us to create a more peaceful world?
Historically, everyone with a unique idea was considered to be a dreamer and impractical. If someone had told me 20 years ago that cellphones are possible I would have laughed at the person but today they are not only possible but have revolutionized life itself. This happened because someone had a dream and the courage and commitment to follow it. Peace is also a dream today but if the seeds are planted eventually people will realize the dream is not impractical but eminently attainable.
What does Peace look like? Well, it is not the absence of war or violence alone but an awareness among people and nations that exploitation of people, resources and nature is evil. When we realize that, we will instead live in harmony with compassion, love, respect and understanding for each other and our diversities. We need to realize that the security and stability of individuals impacts and depends upon the security and stability of nations and of the whole world. When that realization dawns on people the world will become a more peaceful place. This is the foundation of civilization. We call ourselves civilized today but material possessions alone do not make a civilization. We will be civilized only when we recognize the need to respect others as we would like to be respected, when we live with love.
Follow Arun Gandhi on Twitter: @ArunMGandhi